Friday 2 July 2010

Cat and Mouse

We have been played with for too long. Many of us are heartily sick of Synod and its tricks. The latest (the Archbishops' ruse for trying to keep catholics within the C of E) deserves to be given very short shrift, for if it is passed it will simply extend the agony.

If we feel like this, we should recognise there are many on 'the other side' who also despair of the Synod's tricks. The Revd Lindsay Southern has written an open letter to the Archbishops (you can find it on the WATCH website which will help us feel their pain. The truth is, none of us wants to be mucked about any longer.

The difficulty is that the Anglican Communion is divided. Some have gone along with women's ordination, and very quickly have taken on board much of the rest of the liberal agenda; so there are bishops in the USA several times divorced, bishops who have been known to frequent the seediest of sex-parlors, bishops in open same-sex relationships. Not only are such things permitted, they are glorified as being divinely instituted.

Others have been appalled at all this, yet because of corruption and bribery have often been incapable of casting stones.

Here in the C of E we are sliding down the slope, but not everyone is yet persuaded. So to keep us within inside the tent (for we know the danger of having critics outside it) we are offered sops to conscience. To enable women's consecration to proceed, the Archbishops have proposed a cunning plan; I have written about it previously, and most recently on the Anglo-Catholic blog

It would be better for us all if there were simply a once-clause measure. I fear that will not happen - because of money. First, it would drive out many who are at present hoodwinked by the Archbishops' proposals into thinking they can still have a safe catholic place within the Church of England. More than that, though, it might well stir up the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. After the vote in November '92 it was this Committee which made it clear that the Measure for ordaining women as priests would not be approved by Parliament unless and until there was proper financial provision for those being drive out of the church. A one-clause measure would leave Parliament with no option but to ask for at least similar provision now; and the CofE plc is all but bankrupt already.

Of course, even a measure with the Archbishops' safeguards might still be perceived by parliamentarians as driving catholics out of the Church of England - for that is exactly what it will do. My, what interesting times we live in. Meanwhile, the Holy Father visits us this autumn, and soon after that the chocks will be away on the Ordinariate. Oh, may it be soon!

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.

Monday 28 June 2010

Blessing the Mayor: pt 2

Here the Mayor is being blessed: music stands in the background indicate the Orchestra - this was a very high-class event.

Mrs Aquilina, Claudia, has kindly forwarded more of their photographs from yesterday's Mayor-blessing and Patronal Festival, so here are a few of them. Fr Ivan is a whizz with schoolkids; and had them rolling in the aisles with "How do you make a Maltese Cross?" ... if you don't know the answer, email me, and I will send you the answer in a plain envelope...

Jim Cheeseman held the mike for the boys who led the prayers

Directly beneath the Maltese Cross the keen sighted will discern the Flying Buttress, ancient prop to the erstwhile flying bishop, aka Jane.

Mayor, Bishop, and Parish Priest all smiling at the wrong camera... but it was a great day.

Blessing the Mayor

Blessing the Mayor - from Fr Aquilina's blog

There is always something new, even after retirement. I have met many Mayors and corporations, but it was a first for me to be able to bless the new Town Mayor of Sevenoaks as he begins his year of Office. Simon Raikes (related to that great Hull citizen Robert Raikes, pioneer of the Sunday School movement when Sunday Schools, for such as the children of Chimney Sweeps, began the great move towards universal education) is not only Mayor; he is a pillar of St John the Baptist, Sevenoaks, and sings in the choir there.

Fr Ivor Aquilina, who, many will know, comes originally from Malta, has a wonderful minsitry of outreach through town and parish - 'Fresh Expressions' might have been coined to describe his multgi-facetted approach - except that he would prefer to be thought of as simply a traditional parish priest. Perhaps the C of E has had so many re-inventions of itself that only traditional parish ministry is genuinely a novelty.

There are pictures galore on Fr Ivan's website, so I shall content myself with just posting some words. They are the sermon from yesterday's Mass; but friends from Chelmsford who were at Fr Ivor Morris' Anniversary of Priesting will recognise something of what I said there - for both events were in honour of S John Baptist. By curious coincidence, Fr Ivor's celebration was at his church in Maltese Road: and Fr Ivan is the genuine Maltese article. I suppose yesterday's sermon was a fresh expression of what I'd said the day before; or maybe it was just a little recycling. At all events, here it is - and do go to for the full story. Oh, and I could not resist one little picture which relates to the sermon....

The Lord called me before I was born: from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name. Isaiah 49.1

Did you see the crowds on televisions as they greeted the midsummer sun at Stonehenge? It’s no coincidence that St John the Baptist and the summer Solstice occur in the same week. It was a deliberate act on the part of the Christian Church to fix St John’s birth here. We are told, of course, that he was Jesus’ cousin, and a few months older than Jesus; so late June for his birthday matches well with late December for the birth of Our Lord. It is not just that, though. Midsummer has always been a great time for pagan celebrations; rather than try to stamp such celebrations out, the Church in her wisdom decided she would bring them into the faith.

So it is too that midwinter was chosen for St Thomas’ day; doubting Thomas. Equally, the equinox is marked; the spring equinox with the Annunciation to Mary, the autumn equinox with Michaelmass. These became the quarter days, time for settling debts, buying and selling property, the feast days that marked out the year.

Back to Stonehenge. GK Chesterton said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t suddenly believe nothing; they'll believe anything. Looking at those crowds at Stonehenge on the TV screen, you could see the truth in that. They did not seem to know why thery were there. It was something to do with midsumer sunrise. There were people with beards dressed as they imagined Druids might have dressed - though all we know about Druids is pretty unflattering, and comes to us from the Romans. Twenty four, I think, were arrested. (I expect it is different in Wales). Yet the Christian faith has been mocked and downgraded, so that some foolish councillors in Leicester decide to abandon prayers at their meetings, and companies refuse to let their staff wear a Crucifix. A Burkah, of course, but not a Crucifix. But if you shut out Christianity, the faith of our nation, the gap will be filled.

Those who complained about the Church will find the alternative much worse. A week ago was the Glastonbury pilgrimage – not the Festival, that is on now, but a Christian pilgrimage to that ancient religious site. Twenty years ago, crowds would line the streets on that Pilgrimage day, singing hymns with the procession of pilgrims making their way to the Abbey ruins. Today, there are mostly just a few un-interested bystanders. What they have really come to see in Glastonbury are the shops, the places that will offer you magic crystals, or the latest gear to wear when you attend your coven, or will give you tattoos of mysterious meaning.

But the Christian pilgrimage continues, reclaiming in its small way this place as a place of deep religious meaning. Its history claims to go back to Joseph of Arimathaea; certainly Arthur and Avalon are local to this place, as are Alfred the Great and St Dunstan. Here too the last Abbot, with two of his monks, was dragged up the hill outside the abbey and there hacked to pieces on the order of the king. It is very reminiscent of the Saint we commemorate today, your saint, John the Baptist. Like the Abbot of Glastonbury, John refused to support the king in his amorous desires, and paid for it with his head.

Christianity always has to be ready to be unpopular, to stand out against the spirit of the age. Woe to you, says Jesus, when all men speak well of you. The hippies told us this was the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and it was all about flower power and an end to sexual repression. It ended with AIDS, and the me generation, and the claim that there was no such thing as society. Selfishness was the name of the game.

So it is brave, maybe even a bit foolhardy, for the Mayor and Council members to attend a paternal festival here. But wonderful that he is here, together with colleagues from numerous neighbouring towns and boroughs. St John the Baptist did not say easy things, which his hearers would find palatable. He challenged them. But good for you, Mayors and Deputy Mayors and all, for perhaps that is what you want in Sevenoaks and these parts of Kent; not an easy ride, but a church which welcomes you, and also demands a great deal of you.

It was very fortunate, or perhaps clever, of your forefathers in this place to dedicate this church in honour of St John the Baptist. Apart from our Blessed Lord himself, and Our Lady, St John the Baptist of all the Sints has his borthday remembered, and not just his death. A Saint's death, his engtry into paradise, is what the church usually remembers, but today we thank God for his marvellous birth. So you get two festivals where most churches only have one. But more important than that, your Patron Saint reminds us that all of us will have our deepest beliefs challenged at times. Our political beliefs will be stretched; I think some Liberal Democrats are discovering that in the new Government. But that is as it should be; a coalition means deciding where our bottom line is, the place where we will no longer compromise. Human beings are at our best when we are tested – not to breaking point, but very near it.

Pray God our faith will never have to stand the test of a John Baptist, or an Abbot Whiting; that is why we say daily, “Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil”. Yet St Paul reassures us, and says we will not be tested beyond our endurance.

Yes, we are put to the test, priest and lay person alike. As it becomes daily less cool, less fashionable, to be a Christian, it is harder for the boy or girl at school to stand out among their friends, to say, ‘no, I won’t do that, it is wrong’. But the devil is very subtle, and in each generation the temptation is different. It may start with Ouija boards or Tarot cards. Or it may begin with “Just try this, it’ll give you such a high!” But the horoscopes can lead to believing the whole farrago of witchcraft, and the party drug can start the spiral of degradation which ends in the gutter. And the temptation for the business-man, or the politician, is to cut corners, take the easy option, not face up to honest decisions. But that way disaster lies; one little compromise leads to another, and before we know it no one will trust us, we are morally bankrupt.

So John the Baptist is a great patron to have in this present day. He constantly calls us to repentance. It is always a danger for the Christian to look at those outside the church and suppose their sins are worse than ours. Not so, says Our Lord. He is always most severe with those who ought to know better, the religious people of his day, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The word of God teaches us that all have sinned, all have fallen short. The only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that we know we are sinners, and ask to be forgiven, and are, not just once, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Among those born of women, says Jesus, none is greater than John the Baptist. How good to celebrate his day, and to remind ourselves once more that God is not religious – he is concerned with every aspect of life, not simply with what goes on in church. Here, and in our political life, and in our life at home and at work, John the Baptist challenges us all; repent, and prepare the way of the Lord.