Rector's Letter for August
DEAR SISTERS AND BROTHERS,
The Revd Dr Sheila Beattie was ordained priest on 22nd June and presided at the Eucharist for the first time on 23rd June. If we have been going to church for a bit, we can forget what this means (other than someone else will take the service) and if we are new to church, the nuance of what a priest is (as opposed to the generality of someone in a clerical collar). So, I thought I would share with you an edited version of the sermon preached on the occasion of Sheila’s first Eucharist.
Yesterday, Sheila was ordained Priest. Sometime priestly ministry is described as ABC Ministry. Sheila is to call us to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. That’s the A bit. Absolve. She is to bless the people in God’s name; that’s the B bit. Bless. And she is to preside at the Lord’s table; that’s the C bit. Consecrate.
When we read the New Testament, what we begin to see, once we get over its strangeness, is how those early followers of Jesus tried to organise their lives together. We read about what they decided they could eat, how to deal with arguments, debated issues of money, health, behaviour, sex, gender, failure, hope, the future and a whole bunch of topics.
And one of those topics was; who could make those decisions in the first place? So, we read about various sorts of ministries (preachers, teachers, prophets), hear about various specifically named people (Peter, James, John, Mark, Titus, Timothy, Barnabas), listen in to major regional meetings, learn about key people, often women, with houses big enough to host the church. And then the New Testament stops.
And, as the New Testament stops, so the history of Church, the ekklesia, the gathering, continues. Christian history is full of writing; writing about Jesus, about God, about Church, prayer, ethics, pastoral care. The question of how church should organise itself, a question going all the way back to Paul’s letters, was also hammered out.
Bishops (‘people with oversight’ is what the word means) appear to take charge of Christians firstly in cities, then across a bigger area. With growth comes the need for order; bishops can’t do everything, so they hand out responsibility to others. The writings of the early Church Fathers talk about priests, deacons, sub-deacons, and so on. Over time, the writers clarified their specific function in the life of the Church.
What we are left with, in the Western church, in our heritage within the Anglican Communion, are the threefold structures of Bishop, Priest and Deacon. Sheila, as a Deacon (she’s still a deacon) and as a Priest, is here to make Christ known through the ministry of ABC.
Absolve. I know it’s old school, in these days when people are relaxed about sin, economical with the truth, careless with facts, unprincipled with integrity, but the ministry of absolution, of handling the sacrament of reconciliation, goes hand in glove with a vocation to call us to humility, transparency and goodness. The Church is honest about human frailty and this ministry is part of that.
Sheila, you will notice that this ministry requires you to announce that, in Christ, God has set us free. This is your place in the ecology of the Church; to announce the power of the Cross. It is Good News.
Be bold. This is not about you. It is about God.
Bless. Which means, among other things, to set aside for God; to declare holy; to transmit something of the holiness of God onto other people or things.
Sheila, when you bless us, hear this; that people need to hear that the world is richer, more intoxicating, more resonant with the things of God than we give credit.
To announce God’s presence, his abiding love, joy and delight in creation, is a great ministry. It speaks of a faith that is confident that God is, and that he is desiring to channel his grace into the world. You, for all your humanity, are one of those gateways through which the Lord will come.
Be bold. Announce this. This is not about you. It is about God.
Consecrate. Sheila, you are about to set apart these tokens of our daily life, the bread and wine, ordinary stuff, and present them to us as divine presents, holy food, real presence.
You will have spotted that Christians have become over-excited about what precisely consecrate means, what happens, who can do it and so on.
You will have spotted that in our parishes, St Mary’s and St Paul’s, we frame this consecration with particular things; vestments, robes, music, gesture, candles, movement, body language, in an attempt to convey meaning beyond the limitation of words.
You will have spotted that we do this, not because there are not enough words or too many words but that words, in the end, fail.
You have spotted that God spotted that he chose to circumvent words and come in person, in a form we can understand, to present himself to us in the Christ child and on the Cross.
Sheila, it is a great ministry to which you have been called, this ministry of consecration. You will be a channel of transforming grace.
Help us. Help us hear the words that the Church has given us. Speak them with passion, and faith and a constant level of utter surprise.
Help those of us who find listening to words much more difficult than watching gestures by boldly enriching our worship with extravagant actions that speak of an extravagant God.
ABC. It makes it sound easy. It’s not. But, like laying the foundations of language with those letters, may you, as you begin your priestly ministry among us, find your route to convey something of the transformative grace of God that comes to us through the Church, through the priestly channels in the life of the Church, through the sacraments of the New Covenant, through you in person, as our priest in these parishes.
Have a conversation with Sheila. Ask her about the day. Ask her about presiding at the Eucharist, about exercising this ABC ministry. And then ask her about her ministry more generally. And, as you do, expect her to ask you about your ministry. As a priest, she has this particular ABC element. She shares with us all the vocation to live the life of the baptised people of God.
With love and prayers,