Friday, 26 March 2010

Scottish Chrism

Lady Day would not be the first choice for a Mass of the Chrism. Still, needs must, so the Monastery of Kinnoull in Perth was the setting for this Scots event. Forward in Faith Scotland have tried for years, ever since the ordination of women to the priesthood began north of the border, to gain some sort of extended episcopal care. It has been consistently denied by the bishops who have insisted that they provide all the care that is needed. This time, though, I informed the Primus that FiF Scotland had invited me to celebrate the Chrism for them in a Catholic Monastery. I did not ask his permission, since a visiting minister in good standing in the Church of England can always be invited to celebrate Holy Communion. Moreover the Scots Church is not a territorial one, and neither the Bishop of Brechin nor the Primus has any authority over chapels of the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the good Primus gave his 'permission', which was neither sought nor required, which was good of him. He added that he was "unhappy about what is being proposed and will wish to review the situation further". I trust he and his fellow bishops will do so, for if they look at the Lambeth decisions of 98, and the report of the Eames Commission, he will know that in the Anglican Communion those opposed to women's ordination have an honoured place, and that proper provision has been made for them in many parts of the Communion.

The Cardinal and the local Catholic Bishop (of Dunkeld) gave us their blessing.

But that is quite enough of how we came to be there. It was something of a challenge to preach at the Chrism on one of the great Feasts of the Christian Year. I attach my efforts, so that you can see how I tried to fulfil the brief.


For mourning robe the oil of gladness: God has anointed you with the oil of gladness above other kings (from Isaiah 6.8 and Ps 45.8)

What an extraordinary conjunction we celebrate today; the Mass of the Chrism – Lady Day. In normal circumstances it would not happen; but things are not normal for us in our church either here in Scotland or in England. For all that, the good Lord provides; and what he has provided for us today is this wonderful phrase, the Oil of Gladness. It is there in the reading from Isaiah – to give those who mourn for ashes, a garland, for mourning robe the Oil of Gladness; that same phrase was in the psalm for the Office of Readings for today, the Annunciation of Our Lord. The Holy Spirit of God anointed Jesus at his Baptism; he also comes to anoint Mary at the Annunciation: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow”.

The oil of gladness: looking back over these last years as a bishop, celebrating the Chrism has been a time of great blessing, a time when we priests have grown more aware of the joy of being servants of Christ, sharers of the oil of gladness. That gladness spreads out like a great oil slick of blessing, beyond this celebration and into our parishes.

Confirmations for instance: once such solemn affairs, even dull; a bishop back in those days could preach in all seriousness about how he remembered only that the bishop who had confirmed him had dirty boots. Well, so he might, but that is hardly a topic to raise the hearts of the candidates, and we want them to have more significant memories. Today, the laying on of hands and the anointing become a more special moment. No longer just the hands on the heads of two people at a time, get up, don’t forget to bow, don’t let the veil slip, back to your places. Now, those being confirmed are reminded whose they are: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. John, Christ has called you by name. Maria, Christ has called you by name … and made you his own. Confirm, Lord your servant John …. and peace be with you’.

This is the Lord’s doing, the Lord who knows his own by name: and his spirit is poured on them. As their name is spoken they look up, no longer just waiting heads bowed for those heavy hands. “Look up, for your salvation draws near”. The oil of gladness is for them. We are still learning, and still a bit timid about it all, feeling our way into the sacraments. But just as some are finding a renewal of baptism through discretely and warily dipping each infant as the prayer book tells us to do, immersing them instead of dribbling a little water on their heads, so maybe we shall get around to pouring Chrism on the heads until it runs down to the hem of their clothing. When Anointing happens in Scripture, it is a thorough-going event, a celebration, a time of gladness.

So it is very good when lay-people can join their bishop and their clergy on this day. Chrism is not a priest’s preserve, but it is a priestly preservative. That is to say, when we are anointed with the oil of Chrism in our baptism and our confirmation, we are admitted into the priesthood of all believers, much as the priest or bishop is set apart into their holy order through the laying on of hands and anointing. Only when we value the ordained priesthood properly can we properly value the priesthood of all believers. Yet too often when people speak of the priesthood all believers they are really asserting the priesthood of no believers. We must reclaim that phrase for the Catholic Church. The priest’s task is to do God’s work among God’s people, so that we can all of us do his work in the world. Forgiveness, for instance. We are forgiven, and know we are forgiven through God’s words which the priest declares … by his authority committed to me I absolve you from all your sins: then, forgiven, we are able to forgive others. And this is a joyful ministry, an out-working of the oil of gladness.

Unless we knew what it was to be forgiven we would forget that a mark of a Christian is to be a forgiver. The skills of a priest, his priest-craft, are not to make him more important; they are used to help us all become more proficient in the craft of the carpenter of Nazareth. He alone shows us how to live; and how to suffer, and how to die. The priest is set apart with the oil of Chrism to become more proficient at passing on that knowledge, not just by word but by example; and to do it gladly.

When Moses took his seventy chosen companions up the mountain to meet God face to face, and receive the gift of prophecy, there were two left behind in the camp. There they started prophesying, and some were scandalised and asked Moses to stop them. “Are you jealous for my sake?” Moses asked. “Would that all God’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” [Num 11.27]. That prayer was answered by Jesus in the Church. The Spirit of God is not reserved to a clerical caste. He is for all God’s people, and his gift is lived out in a thousand different ways. The priest as minister of baptism, and the bishop as minister of confirmation, are simply assisting as God pours out his Spirit on the whole Body of Christ, the Church.

One last word of anointing, which is for us all: Saint John writes in his first letter, ‘Little children’, ‘Little children you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things’. What us? Yes indeed, we do. But not as individuals; he doesn’t write, ‘My child’, but ‘Little children’ - us, all, led as Jesus promised into all the truth. That is the result of the outpouring of the Spirit. That is what today’s ceremony is about; that through us all, the Spirit of God may have free flow in the Church, assisted but never restricted by the sacraments of grace. The oil of gladness is for us all, for his entire people, the Body of Christ: for we have an anointing from the Holy One - with this wonderful oil of gladness.

Incidentally, Kinnoull would be a wonderful place for a Retreat. They are most welcoming (the Sister who provided refreshments was as pressing as Mrs Doyle in 'Father Ted' - Oh, go on now, Father, have just a little more cake': you can see more about them at

You can read more about the event at The Anglo Catholic blog (listed on the right)

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