from St Faith's
Fr Mark Waters, October
I had a chance a few years ago to spend some time on study leave in the
US, and found myself in Los Angeles for a while. A Roman Catholic
priest there gave me some time to talk about his ministry. He said
things were very busy – one parish between him and a curate. This
didn’t seem too bad to me. Until he told me that on Sundays he had
eleven thousand people to mass! One thousand on the hour for eleven
hours throughout the day! But the most startling thing he said was to
follow – there wasn’t one priest in
training for the whole of the diocese!
I guess the question of celibacy is one issue in the Roman Catholic
Church, and in America the sexual abuse scandals which have rocked the
church and faith in it. But the notion of priesthood in western society
has for many years been in crisis. In this country there has been a big
fall in the numbers of those presenting themselves for ordination in
recent years. This has been moderated in recent years by the numbers of
women now offering themselves for priesthood in the Church of England.
This is not very evident from the visiting priests at our church, but
well over 50% of vocations to the priesthood are now from women, and
around a third of stipendiary priests in the C of E are now
But many a truth is spoken in jest, and vicars, ministers, priests –
whatever you choose to call them – are the butt of an endless list of
jokes. We all recognise immediately the TV stereotype of the eccentric,
bucktoothed, inept, dithering, lost for words, Church of England ninny!
– a character part in many a comedy show.
Why is this the case? Why such an emphasis on the role of priest in
terms of the laughable and absurd. Well I think the church itself has
been responsible for much of it. Too often, and for far too long,
church life – and particularly Anglican church life - has allowed
itself to be designated as something completely irrelevant to large
sections of our society. The Tory Party at prayer. Something for the
sick, for the old, for the inadequate. A club for those who make
scones, and get up to funny things in a funny building on a Sunday
morning. Or for the wacky. The people with a strident message. The God
squad. The God botherers. The people who want to save you.
But there is another reason for the derision, for the drive to reduce
the idea of priesthood to something laughable. And that is that, at its
best, the church holds up a model of leadership in priesthood which
vigorously challenges so many of the driving ideas in our society. And
in the end that’s what priesthood is about –its about a particular sort
In the ordinal, the service of ordination, we read that
A priest is called
by God to work with the bishop and with fellow-priests, as servant and
shepherd among God’s people. A servant and shepherd among God’s
people. Now there’s a challenge to many contemporary forms of
leadership. John McCain, pretending to be the man for Joe the plumber,
but with a hidden agenda of further feathering the nests of his friends
in the high earning business community. The hedge fund managers and
chairmen of banks determined to pay themselves and their staff their
obscene bonuses even as the world of finance that they commanded falls
in ruins around their feet. Peter Mandelson and George Osborne wining
and dining with Russian billionaires on £18m pound yachts and
both being oily and economical with the truth. The devastating failure
of leadership in Zimbabwe and its human cost as Robert Mugabe has moved
from saviour of his people to vicious bully and controller.
So perhaps there could be nothing more important for our world than
that the true notion of priestly leadership be rediscovered.
The roots of that leadership can be found in the pages of the
scriptures. Not only Peter, Paul and Jesus in the NT, but in the old
testament too. Just think of the stories David and Solomon. Not churchy
stories of what goes on in a set apart religious community, but gutsy
stories of what leadership means in all the demands and complexities of
the real world of politics and the fate of nations. How we human beings
can shape or be shaped by the things that happen to us in this world.
Compare King David, the psychologically flawed and sinful man, who
nevertheless never let go of the notion of servanthood and shepherding
which was central to his calling, and to which he was faithful despite
his failings. While his son King Solomon, despite his prayer at his
ordination for the gift of wisdom, nevertheless became corrupted by
power and ended up lavishing several times on his house – his vicarage
– than he did for his famous temple.
So from the beginning we must understand that the exercise of
priesthood is fraught with difficulties, full of tensions and
paradoxes.This is part of what it is to understand priesthood. To
recognise that at some points leadership will inevitably meet with
failure and call for reflection and repentance and room for amendment
of life. And throughout the pages of the bible this awareness of the
scope for human frailty in leadership comes across as perhaps
leaderships first task – to unmask and attend to the human propensity
for pride and self-deception. Who am I to take on this burden? says
Moses, says David, says Solomon, says Isaiah, says Paul.
What else does the ordinal tells us about the work of a priest?
A priest is called
to proclaim the word of the Lord
What does that mean? It sounds as if the word of the Lord is something
obvious. And many church leaders seem to think it is. That the priestly
role is simply to declare – loudly and firmly and literally – what is
said in the bible. But a minimal study of what is actually in the
bible, and a recognition of the struggles of the early Christian
communities – shows that proclaiming the word of the Lord is nothing so
simple at all.
Priests are called to be interpreters. They stand, uncomfortably – but
sometimes playfully, between the tradition of the church and its
scriptures, and the realities of the world in which we live now. There
is never any easy truce between these two, so the priests job is to
engage the congregation – to engage you! - in a constant deliberation
between them. To lead the people of God in a conversation, a struggle,
a wrestling match between the stories of yesterday and the stories of
today. This requires curiosity – to be interested enough to read around
the tradition, and also to know as much as possible about the world in
which we live through exploring its politics, its economics, its
theatre, music and art. It requires imagination, to see the
possibilities that this bringing together could mean. And it requires
courage to speak to truth as you see it, risking that you might be
wrong, but also that if you are right you are likely to discomfort at
least some people.
The ordinal also says:
A priest is to
call hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve, and to
declare the forgiveness of sins.
What a responsibility! Too often this part of priestly ministry
(particularly in the catholic tradition) has been, and is seen, as some
sort of tick box mechanism for keeping your nose clean. Lists of
naughty things to avoid. Certain penances to exactly fit the crime if
you commit one.
But this is to trivialize and demean the love of God which makes
forgiveness possible, and the sort of relationship which God wants to
have with us. Our model is the forgiving Father in the story of the
prodigal son. And the figure of Jesus drawing in the sand as the
accusers of the woman caught in the act of adultery one by one walk
away at his challenge about their own propensity for sin. It is Jesus
weeping over his city of Jerusalem deeply aware of both the
institutional and individual sin which brings the city and his ministry
to its awful climax.
Repentance – the word in the NT is metanoia – which really means –
getting a new perspective on things. And absolution and forgiveness are
about a priest declaring not just in words in formal confession – but
in how he or she deals with people in all sorts of situations - what
many of us are simply too self-hateful to allow, that we can start
again, that getting it wrong does not prevent us from growing and
changing. And that we should never allow things in the past, and
messages from other people, to leave us a permanent inheritance of
guilt and shame to blight our own lives and the lives of others.
The gospel, the good news, is that these things can be transformed –
that we can be redeemed – freed from slavery to our past. It also means
that getting it wrong and growing and changing are the only ways in
which most of us get to learn things. How we get to discover some more
joy in living. And this perhaps more than anything else is what a
priest is called to proclaim by how he or she leads a congregation, and
by how they lead their own lives.
I’m going to put the remaining things from the ordinal together,
because for me their central meaning is the same. We are told that a
priest is called
To baptize, and
prepare the baptized for confirmation
To preside at the
celebration of holy communion
To lead the people
in prayer and worship, to intercede for them, to bless them in the name
of the Lord, and to teach and encourage by word and example.
To minister to the
sick, and prepare the dying for their death.
Once again these things are often trivialized, or at least stereotyped
into something that does no justice to the real depth of their meaning.
Part of that TV picture of the vicar is that all of these things are
something that is the responsibility of the professional parson.
Stuffed into a cassock, with a billowing surplice, head full of the
niceties of the catholic tradition, these are the things that vicars
do. We see them in the street with their little sick communion box, or
from afar at a funeral service intoning all the words, and we think
this is how the church works!
But these things are not what the vicar does. This baptizing, this
celebrating, this blessing and teaching, and ministering to the sick
and dying is what the priest leads the people of God to do - the whole
congregation. It is our ministry, not just mine, or Fr Neil’s or Fr
Dennis’ or Fr Peters’. The central part of a priest’s job is to develop
the priesthood of all believers.
It is sad that for many baptism has for many become about getting the
baby done. And that too often confirmation has become the passing out
parade for young people to leave the church. Holy communion can become
something that I go to get – for myself – on Sunday mornings, or when I
feel in need of a bit of a lift.
The trouble is that our culture has encouraged us to individualise
spirituality. So that things spiritual are about me, instead of about
my part in an interconnected body of human beings.
It is the priests job to remind us of these things – most especially
the notion that every single human being in our community has a
vocation, is called by God to particular things. And the priests job is
not essentially to do lots of churchy things up the front end, or to be
the expert on which propers you have on which Sundays, it is not about
any special powers or being a religious expert, it is about leading a
congregation to take itself seriously before God and to recognise that
each one of us is called to the most amazing things.
Some final words in the ordinal say:
You are to be
messengers, watchmen and women, and stewards of the Lord; you are to
teach and admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to
search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations,
and to guide them through its confusions, so that they may be saved
through Christ for ever.
A more contemporary way of saying that was published in the Church
Times this week. It is a prayer by Donald Reeves, former Rector of St
James, Piccadilly in London. A prayer to be used at the breaking of
bread in the eucharist. For me they say, in a different way, what the
ordinal says about the extent of priesthood. That in the end it is not
about my vocation, and it is not about this congregation, or this part
of the Church of England. Priesthood calls us to a ministry to the
whole world, to the whole of creation, to dare to think like God about
how our human affairs should be conducted, and the stewardship and care
that we should exercise towards this world in which we find ourselves.
Donald Reeves’ prayer says:
We break this bread for those who love
For those who follow the path of the
For our sisters and brothers in Islam
For the devotees of Hindu holiness
And for the Jewish people from whom we
That one day, together, we may
celebrate our common humanity.
We break this bread for the great
We call to mind the rivers, the
forests, the fields and the flowers
Which we are destroying
That one day the original blessing of
God’s creation will be restored.
We break this bread for those who have
The starving, the homeless, the
prisoners, the refugees
That one day, when justice and peace
This planet may be a home for all.
We break this bread for the broken
parts of ourselves
The wounded child in all of us
For our broken relationships
That one day all will be healed in the
heart of God.
There are people in this congregation – men and women - who would make
good priests. And if this vision of what being a priest means has
sparked anything in you then you should think about it, and maybe act
on it by having a conversation with me, or one of the other priests
The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the
Harvest then to send out workers into his harvest field.
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