June sees the Feast of St Peter & St Paul. This feast has been in the last few decades at least, the time for the ordination of deacons and priests.
This Petertide sees the 30th anniversary of my Ordination as a Priest. Naturally this has led me to ponder about what I did, what I vowed myself to, all those years ago.
On May 10th I along with Dot, Helen and our two Ians went to the Guildhall in Preston for a combined launch of Vision 2026 in our diocese and the Admission of Churchwardens. Well, the worship was at the other end of the liturgical scale from us – to say the least. I didn’t enjoy it one little bit. But that doesn’t matter at all really. Worship is not about what I ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’
But I was deeply troubled by the whole thing. A trouble much much deeper than ‘I didn’t like it.’
There was a great deal about ‘Ministry’ A lot about Lay Ministry. There was a lot about ‘Accessible Worship.’ We need much more of both. No arguing with that. But there was not one single thing about the Priesthood or the Sacramental life of the Church. There was no mention of people searching their hearts to see if God might be calling them to Priesthood.
There was talk about ‘more earnest prayer.’ There was not a word about devotional attendance at Mass. Nothing about the wonder of receiving Holy Communion.
I thought about it more and more on the way home. Then I began to hear other priests saying that they felt as I did. In our Church, certainly in our diocese, Ordained Priesthood and the Sacramental life of the Church seems to be being wiped out of any desire or planning for the future.
Are we priests needed anymore? What are we for? Are we just paid managers of the local church – and only then if there isn’t a suitable lay person to do the job?
In the Ordination of Priests, (Common Worship) the Bishop stands before those to be ordained and says the following:
Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ's name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord's table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.
I sometimes wonder as I study the ‘goings on’ of the Church of England, whether people still make the link between Ministerial Priesthood and the celebration of the Eucharist and other Sacraments of the Church. There is so much around about the Parish Clergy as counsellors, fund-raisers, administrators and managers. But there often seems to be precious little about the primary ministerial & sacramental duties of the Priest.
From the above it is clear that the Priest’s duties as servants and shepherds fall into three broad areas:
There is of course some overlap.
To proclaim the word of the Lord
They are to tell the story of God’s love
To teach and to admonish
They are to call their hearers to repentance
They are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith
Search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions
They are to baptize new disciples
They are to preside at the Lord's Table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving
To declare in Christ's name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins
To feed and provide for his [God’s] family
They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death.
Defend the poor, and intercede for all in need
To walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith
This is a pretty tall job-description! If your vision of the church is of the Parson with a flock of a few hundred people served by one church, if ever such a situation existed, then this is manageable. But this is certainly not the reality now. Most clergy either have more than one church, or many thousands of people in the parish or substantial other responsibilities – or all three.
Of course the parish priest is not called to do all of this alone. Another important phrase from the wording above is; Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.
In the parish magazine and on this website you will see lists of those who have been appointed or elected to specific duties in the life of the parish. The Directory page shows others in particular roles. There are many others, unmentioned who do specific jobs week in and week out.
To my mind however, the above wording is what I have described it as, a job-description. It is a list of things the priest is called to do. But is this all there is to it? Surely not. For a start the list is surely not complete. There are other things priests are surely called to do – to pray for example! Not mentioned at all above.
Another part of the ordination rite is clearer.
After the text above, amongst other questions, those to be ordained are admonished / asked:
We trust that long ago you began to weigh and ponder all this, and that you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to devote yourself wholly to his service, so that as you daily follow the rule and teaching of our Lord and grow into his likeness, God may sanctify the lives of all with whom you have to do
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
Will you, knowing yourself to be reconciled to God in Christ, strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?
Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you
Well – another tough set of expectations! Then, as if to make it worse, the Bishop says:
In the name of our Lord we bid you remember the greatness of the trust that is now to be committed to your charge. Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. It is to him that you will render account for your stewardship of his people
Well that’s alright then!
Thank goodness the Bishop also turns to the people and asks:
Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that these ordinands are ready to undertake, and you have heard their declarations.
Is it now your will that they should be ordained?
All It is.
Will you continually pray for them?
All We will.
Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry?
All We will.
This same set of questions in a slightly different form is put to the people at an Induction / Licensing.
I recently read a section from a questionnaire used in the appointment of a new Rector to a parish. It has some very direct questions. I paraphrase them here:
What do you want and need in the person who lives in the Rectory?
Do you want a Priest – or do you really want a manager?
How important is the Eucharist and the Sacramental life to you?
Do you know (or care) about the pattern of prayer in your priest’s life?
How will you support your priest in his or her ministry?
Will you think about being there just once in a while for the Priest to share in the Mass or prayer times?
When you make a decision about whether you will go to church or not that day, do you ever think about the fact that the other people, including the priest might need you – or is it just about what would be good for you?
The same might be asked about those you have recently elected to office in our parish. Is what you expect of them purely practical – or are you asking them to be spiritual leaders too?
How about you? How would you answer those questions?
I, like every Catholic priest, need your prayers and I need your encouragement this Petertide and even more this year and into the future in a Church of England very different than the church I was ordained into 30 years ago.
With love and prayers