Wednesday 30 June 2010

Of Bishops, Priests and Deacons

Fr Beaken's Church, Little Bardfield

Fr Robert Beaken preached yesterday at a first Mass. What he said deserves wide readership; indeed, reproduced in parish magazines and Sunday notices it could do a great deal to counter the ignorance of Holy Order so prevalent in our church today. I commend it to you. Thanks to Fr Robert for his permission to reproduce it.


When I was aged about fifteen, the church magazine announced that there would be a coach going from the parish to the cathedral for the ordination of the curate to the priesthood. Now, my grasp of churchy things at that age was rather slim, and I remember being mystified. ‘But if the curate isn’t a Priest,’ I asked older members of the congregation, ‘what is he?’ I only knew that we had a vicar, and that he was assisted by the curate. All this talk of Priests went rather over my head.
The parishioners tried to explain that the curate was something called a Deacon, and that he would be ordained Priest, because there were certain things that only a Priest could do, and that was how it was done in the Church of England. Well, it was hardly a textbook explanation, but it sufficed.
So, off we all went to the cathedral, got lousy seats, couldn’t see a thing, and at the end our curate, who had been a Deacon, emerged smiling, now a Priest of the Church of God.
One of the things I remembered from that first ordination service I ever attended was a rather strange incident towards the end, when we were all returning to our seats after receiving Holy Communion. A rather mousy-looking woman in a beige raincoat tried to slink out of the cathedral. As she approached the door, the dean of the cathedral appeared running down the side aisle to stop her, his robes billowing out behind him. As he drew near, he shouted out ‘Consume that, consume that!’ My vicar later explained, with a degree of embarrassment, that the lady was a rather unlikely looking Satanist, and that she had received Holy Communion in her hand, and, instead of consuming the host, the Body of Christ, she was trying to smuggle it out of the cathedral for their own dreadful satanic rites. This was the first inkling I had as a teenager that being a Priest was not all shaking hands smilingly in the church porch and eating cucumber sandwiches on the vicarage lawn, and that Priests sometimes had to deal with some very difficult and fraught situations indeed.
Other Christian denominations, such as the Church of Scotland, English and Welsh Nonconformists, and continental protestant bodies, have Pastors and Ministers. The Church of England has Bishops, Priests and Deacons, the same as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches. During the events known as the English Reformation, which really lasted from about 1533 until the Restoration in 1660, the Church of England wobbled about a bit – some people would say that wobbling about a bit is one of its endearing hallmarks – and ended up by being not a Protestant body (which, of course, some people, like the Puritans, would have liked it to have become), but as a reformed Catholic Church, a subtle but significant difference. The Church of England claims to be the historic Catholic Church of this land, cleansed of unscriptural accretions and medieval legends, but in all things in perfect continuity, not just with the Church established by St Augustine, but with the very first Christians, who, in the words of one scholar, had probably conveyed stories of Jesus Christ to these foggy islands by the Autumn of the year of the Crucifixion.
I am rather proud to belong to a Church which has its historic origins, not in the turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in the very first days of Christianity. One of the ways in which we may observe this continuity is in the Church of England’s three-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. This has its origins in the late first century AD, and emerged from much the same melting pot that gave us the New Testament documents: some things, we might say, were passed on by word of mouth, thought about, and then written down. Other things were passed on, thought about, and repeated.
Bishops are the successors of the twelve apostles. We may see the apostles adding new members to the apostolic college, through prayer and the laying on of hands, in such documents as the Acts of the Apostles and some of the Epistles. All modern bishops can trace their origins back, through the laying-on of hands, to one of the original twelve.
We can also see in the Acts of the Apostles the appearance of the first Deacons. In order to free the Apostles, so they could concentrate on their work of preaching the Gospel and celebrating the Sacraments, Deacons were chosen and ordained to help with practical, pastoral work.
During the late first century AD, we may observe the beginning of a further development in the early Church. As Christianity spread rapidly around the Mediterranean and beyond, there were simply too many new Christians for the Bishops by themselves to cope with. And so, little by little, we see the gradual appearance of a new sort of clergyman, the Priest. The Bishops began to select some of the Deacons, and ordain them with prayer and the laying-on of hands, to be Priests; and unto these Priests they would entrust a little of their apostolic authority, to preach the Word and celebrate the Sacraments. Thus emerged the three-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, which by the end of the first century and start of the second century AD, was spreading throughout the whole Christian Church. As I say, it had its origins in the same melting pot from which emerged our New Testament, and is held to be the will of Christ for his Church.
And so, today, we greet our new Priest, Giles, who is about to do what is at the heart of the Priestly ministry and celebrate the Eucharist, which will tie us in to the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary and make present the Lord’s sacramental Body and Blood upon the altar, to feed and nourish us with the very life of the Saviour himself.
I am very glad that the day on which our new Priest is to do all this is the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The liturgical colour is red, for this is the day when, according to tradition, in 67 AD, the two men were taken out to be martyred, Peter by crucifixion upside down, and Paul by beheading.
They were a pretty unlikely pair: Peter, the fisherman, weak and wobbly, who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed; Saul, later Paul, the highly intelligent persecutor of Christians, who ultimately came to share their faith in the risen Christ, and used his formidable gifts to teach and spread the Good News. Neither, at first glance, were really very suitable to be apostles; and yet, they went on to be pillars of the Church. The point is that they were called by God to their work and ministry, and, through their opening of themselves to the Holy Spirit, were enabled to do great things for God.
People sometimes say to me, ‘Why did you choose to be a Priest?’ The honest answer is that I didn’t. God chose me. Tonight, we see before us Giles, fresh from his priestly ordination. We might think that Sunday 27th June 2010 was the defining moment in his life. In fact, the day of Giles’ ordination was but a stage on the journey. Long before he was born, long before he was conceived, Almighty God had always planned that Giles would be a Priest in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of His Son Jesus Christ. Little by little, as Giles grew up, the Holy Spirit was at work inside him, whether he knew it or not, preparing him for the moment when he came to acknowledge and accept his vocation from God. It is absolutely vital that all Priests know that they have been called to this ministry by God Most High. The Church deliberately makes the process of selection and training long and arduous. There are occasional mistakes, and a few people without vocations sometimes get ordained, whilst some with them get turned away; but for the most part the Church gets it right.
Once you recognize that God has called you, and your calling is also confirmed by the Church, there is no turning back. You have to be ordained, and you have to keep on throughout the rest of your life on earth, doing your level best for the Lord. You couldn’t live with yourself if you shirked it.
The currency with which the Priest has to deal on a daily basis is comprised of things such as faith, kindness, goodness, forbearance, forgiveness, cheerfulness, hope, and all these sometimes in the face of great suffering and adversity. These are not things which rate highly in the lives and decisions of high-powered City businessmen, figures in the mass-media, or indeed many people in the street. Yet, they will expect to find them all in their Priest. At times we Priests must be fools for Christ, be taken, knowingly, for a ride, whilst quietly hoping that, even if some people think we are mugs, Christ may somehow still shine through. And of course, the Priest may never be aware of some of the most important things he does or says in his ministry. For instance, Giles, by faithfully getting on with his work over the next three decades, will surely be used by God to help others to realise their vocations.
In the ordination service, the congregation are asked if they will support their new Priest, and they answer in the affirmative. Although that question and answer are part of a ceremony, they are not merely a ceremonial action. The people of God make a solemn promise to God to support His priests. He will want to know on the Day of Judgement how they have fared. No priest is perfect, just as no parish is perfect. We are a group of people called by God to journey together through life on earth at a particular moment time. We are to support one another, and bear each other’s burdens. You will be surprised how little support your clergy get from the institutional Church of England. They deal quietly with some very tragic and complicated circumstances, of which many people in a parish probably know little. Please pray for them, and surround them with your active love.
And to Giles and my fellow priests, I say: let us remember our calling. We did not choose Him; no, He choose us, and appointed that we should bear fruit, fruit that will last. The temptation for any Priest is to be so busy with the things of God, that we neglect God Himself. Let us pledge this night to persevere at the life of prayer.
And above all, priests and people together in this holy place, let us renew our devotion to Jesus Christ in his Blessed Sacrament. We see our brother Giles do tonight that which defines the Priest: celebrate the Holy Eucharist. He stands at the altar, sacerdos alter Christus, the priest as another Christ: it will be Giles’ hands that take the bread and wine, Giles’ lips that say the sacred words, but in very truth, it will be Christ’s hands and Christ’s voice which consecrate the holy Sacrament and offer the holy Sacrifice. We pray for Giles, as he does for the first time tonight what God has always wanted him to do, and what he will do thousands of times again, and in many different circumstances, in the years ahead.
And we pray for ourselves, priests and people all, that we may listen out for the voice of God, the God who called Peter, Paul, Giles, you and me. May we open our hearts ever wider to the Holy Spirit, that we may trust and obey, going wherever He would have us go, doing whatever He would have us do.

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