Sermons from St Faith's

The Ordained Ministry
Fr Mark Waters, October 2008

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 women. 

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 of leadership.

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 God
For those who follow the path of the Buddha
For our sisters and brothers in Islam
For the devotees of Hindu holiness
And for the Jewish people from whom we come
That one day, together, we may celebrate our common humanity.

We break this bread for the great green earth
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 no bread
The starving, the homeless, the prisoners, the refugees
That one day, when justice and peace embrace,
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 here.

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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