May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
On Tuesday, we celebrate the feast of St Michael and All Angels, often know as Michaelmas – St Michael’s Mass. In a more secular setting, this is one of the traditional quarter days, and, as in my professional capacity I am a landlord, I look forward to it as a rent day.
In the Church, it is one of the traditional times for the ordination of priests and deacons and David and I are going to a friend’s ordination on that day. As you may not be very familiar with the Ordering of Priests in the Book of Common Prayer, here is an extract.
The bishop says:
Will you give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the commandments of God, so that you may teach the people committed to your cure and charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?
And the candidate says:
I will so do, by the help of the Lord.
And then, after several more questions and answers, and prayers, the Bishop and all the priests present place their hands on the candidate’s head and the Bishop says:
Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
And so, with the laying on of hands, the candidate – who will already be a deacon – becomes a priest and his or her life will be changed for good. And in the vast majority of cases, it really will be for good in every sense, because a life spent in the service of God and in that of his or her fellow men and women brings many blessings. But the priesthood also presents an enormous challenge and there are very few priests who do not encounter a dark night of the soul at some time or other. No wonder that John Henry Newman, writing on the day of his ordination to the priesthood in 1824, said
‘My heart shuddered within me; the words for ever are so terrible.’
It has to be said that, in the New Testament, Christian ministers are not called priests, apart from Jesus Christ himself, who, by sacrificing himself, replaces the Old Testament priests whose main job it was to offer sacrifices. There is, consequently, a view of the Church itself as a priesthood, because its members share in the body and blood of Christ. Christian presbyters, bishops and deacons are in the New Testament, mentioned, for example, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. We find a discussion of the High Priesthood of Christ in chapters 6 and 7 of the letter to the Hebrews, where the writer says, ‘the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec.’ Again, we note those formidable words, ‘for ever’. But who on earth was Melchisedec? To find him, you need to go back to the 14th chapter of Genesis and Abraham’s victory over Chedorlaomer and his brother kings. When Abraham returned home, bringing back with him his nephew Lot, Melchisedec, the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) ‘ brought forth bread and wine’. And, we are told, ‘he blessed him and said, blessed be Abram of the most high God’. It is easy to see how this image of the priest bringing forth bread and wine became a powerful symbol in the early Church.
In the Christian era, the priesthood as we know it developed gradually. And here I hope you will not mind a little bit of etymology. The word presbyter is derived from the Greek for ‘elder’ and our English word ‘priest’ (in French, ‘prêtre) is from a contraction of ‘presbyter’. In the synagogues and early Church, these presbyters or elders were leaders and officials who had no sacramental function. But, by the third century, presbyters, as they were still known, were able to perform the sacramental functions of bishops and celebrate the Eucharist. In English, two strands of the word developed – priests, who were actually in a sacerdotal role, to do with sacrifice and sacred or holy things, and presbyters, elders, as in the Presbyterian Church. At the Reformation, the word ‘priest’ was retained in the Prayer Book to make it clear that deacons could not celebrate Holy Communion. In early times, as Christianity spread around the Middle East, Europe and beyond, priests took over the bishops’ functions on an everyday basis, although they remained subordinate to their bishops. Even today, only a priest or a bishop can consecrate the elements of the Eucharist.
If we think about the priesthood as a career, it is the only one which begins with a sacrament. And, if you would like a definition of a sacrament, we may say that it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. In the Church of England, it is accepted that two sacraments were ordained by Christ himself – baptism and Holy Communion. The other five named sacraments are confirmation, penance, ordination, matrimony and extreme unction, although in some other Christian Churches, the term is used more generally to signify a sign of grace or holiness. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive the body and blood of Christ ‘after an heavenly and spiritual manner’, as the 39 Articles of Religion say. And, in the sacrament of ordination, there is also a real change, albeit an invisible one.
There are indeed other careers which we regard as vocations or callings, and teaching and medicine come to mind, but none of these could be said to begin with a sacrament. I am very committed to my own work in charity administration but, if my employers decided to sack me tomorrow and I then found it impossible to find another post in the same field, I would have to reinvent myself as something else. I suspect that many of us have had to reinvent ourselves a number of times in our careers. For most priests, there is no reinventing.
And then, with this idea of a career still in our minds, we might ask, what does a priest actually do? The simple answer is that he or she does what Jesus Christ did and does – care for people, spiritually, mentally, physically, bringing the love of God and the example of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. I sat next to a clergy friend in a committee meeting a couple of weeks ago and asked him to describe what a priest is in a few words. After a second’s pause, he said, ‘A pastor, a shepherd of the flock’. Perhaps that was not very original – although that particular priest is a country vicar – but, there we were, back immediately into the imagery of the Gospels.
But, (and we are still thinking of careers) how would he or she get paid for doing that and how would they care for their families financially? The truth is that priests do not get paid for being priests and many exercise their ministries voluntarily while pursuing a paid career elsewhere or drawing a pension. So our idea of a career needs to be looked at a bit more carefully. Even so, the traditional idea of a stipendiary priest looking after a parish is still with us and it ought to be said that the financial side of that has always been a practical problem. Back in the early Middle Ages, the landowner – the lord of the manor – would have retained a priest and housed him, so that the tenants could receive spiritual care. And then all sorts of other ways were found to provide priests – by monasteries, universities and wealthy patrons – so that, by the middle Middle Ages, this country had a complete system of parishes and churches which, in theory at least, served everybody in the country. In this way, endowments were built up and I fear that, by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there were some abuses, with certain clergy receiving the income from parishes which they rarely or even never visited and which poverty-stricken curates cared for. And not only parish clergy. Thomas De Quincey, writing about the very early part of the 19th century, says this about Dr Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff in Wales, who lived on the shores of Windermere in the Lake District:
‘He was a Bishop, and he scarcely knew any part of his diocese by sight, living three hundred miles away from it.’
The Victorians, with their characteristic reforming zeal, thoroughly overhauled the system and had a parish priest resident in almost every parish. They also probably built far too many churches and ones that were too big.
And now the Church of England is struggling to make ends meet, with the endowments mostly paying for clergy pensions and with parishes needing to raise the cash to pay for stipendiary clergy and indeed, to maintain a lot of churches. In some country districts, in places like Suffolk and Norfolk, there are instances of one incumbent being responsible for six or more medieval churches. Here in the capital, there are often other problems besides lack of clergy and money. Consequently, more and more clergy are working in a non-stipendiary capacity. In 2007, for example, 52% of newly-ordained priests were ordained to a non-stipendiary ministry.
So, what does the modern shepherd of the flock do, whether paid or unpaid? One of my roles is to chair the Diocesan Board of Patronage, which plays an active part in presenting clergy to certain parishes. The process usually begins with a discussion with the parish, and then the Board and representatives of the parish advertise, short-list and interview candidates. The needs and wishes of the parish are usually paramount – for instance, what is the tradition (High, Low, Middle of the Road)? Is there work with children and families? Does the parish run an Alpha Course, and so on. The last time I helped to conduct interviews, these were some of the questions-
Do you enjoy pastoral work? Give an example of how you have coped with a difficult pastoral problem? What do you dislike most about the work of a parish priest? How do you relate to staff colleagues and volunteers? How do you cope with criticism from articulate laity? How do you prepare your sermons? And many more. To be honest, I should not like to be a candidate facing some of the members of my Board across an interview table.
But, in this age of regulation and individual rights, clergy are becoming more and more like employees rather than office-holders and servants of God. They can be represented by a trade union and issues like days off, annual leave, working hours and sick leave are all considered. Under new legislation, clergy will eventually be employed under something called Common Tenure, rather than have the so-called parson’s freehold. (For those who are interested, this is under the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure.) Under these arrangements, there will be appraisals, discipline and grievance procedures and the right to apply to an employment tribunal. We are told that these standard employment practices will be better for everyone, but I am not sure. I have a good deal of sympathy with what Matthew Arnold wrote in 1869 :
‘Now does anyone, if he simply and naturally reads his consciousness, discover that he has any rights at all? For my part, the deeper I go in my own consciousness, and the more simply I abandon myself to it, the more it seems to tell me that I have no rights at all, only duties.’
Over the past couple of years, we have been thinking a great deal about priests at St Mary le Strand. First of all, our last rector, Fr William, found, when his third child was born with disabilities, that he did not have enough hours in his day to do all the work that he had undertaken. Sadly, we had to say goodbye to him. Then Peter and I, as churchwardens, with the parochial church council, had to set about keeping the parish running and finding priests for the services. It has not been easy, because we have had our other jobs to do as well, but we have been truly blessed in the clergy who have come to help the parish. Some of them have become very dear friends. And then, also, we have had to think about what sort of priest ought to be licensed to this parish and the means to pay him or her. Serious questions.
But, throughout all that time, and for eleven years previously, one very special priest has gone on doing his duty, not claiming his rights, never complaining and giving true service to God and the community. This week sees the fifty-fifth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood and I believe that, in the whole of that time, he has been true to his ordination promises, often in very difficult circumstances – in Scotland, Papua New Guinea, Madeira and here in London.
Father John, we can never thank you enough for all that you have done for St Mary le Strand. This is a sad week for us, as you cease to be our honorary assistant priest. But this is also a celebration – of your exemplary service and of the institution of the priesthood. The priesthood is far more than a career, far more than voluntary work, far more than a way of life, although it is all of these. It is a lifetime of being a shepherd of the flock. Truly, it is for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.