Living the life of love

Rt Revd John Dennis, 25 June 2017

Romans 6: 1b–11; Matthew 10: 24–39

Some of you will know that I had my birthday this week. But there was also a more important anniversary – 60 years since my ordination as a priest. (I do apologise to Mary Copping – I said to her in the vestry beforehand, if I talk about priests as ‘he’, it’s not because I don’t think priests are ‘she’ as well, and I mean to do my best, but I shall probably trip up, so forgive me.)

Yes, there’s a great long thing about what we’re to do, in season and out of season: to preach and to declare the mighty acts of God, to preside at the Lord’s table, lead his people in worship, offering with them spiritual sacrifice, bless the people in God’s name, resist evil … But before the service really gets under way, there’s a much shorter summary, which I want to focus on with you: the three different things here which are all part of a priest’s life-calling and vocation, and which in a sense we all share with them, whether we are ordained or not.

The first one is, they are to set the example of the good shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. Well, I’ve never been all that comfortable about the image of the good shepherd. It’s fine for Christ, but to think of us … I haven’t got it with me this morning, but I’ve got a shepherd’s crook as a bishop. Alright, but he’s the good shepherd; I am actually one of the sheepdogs. And if you think what the priests are, they’re also the sheepdogs, of course.

But the image is really – what I think all that is about – is what are the priests called to do? He’s actually called to get to know people, to look after them, to love them. And the longer – and I did 20 years as a parish priest before they put me in a purple shirt, and since then 23 – but then, the amount of knowledge that I had of my people – his people – whom I was then rector of grew year by year, of course. And the more they began to trust me, the more they shared with me. And I think that’s partly the priest’s role, to be alongside, to be one with, to listen; well, as it says in scripture, to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and to mourn with those who mourn, to sit alongside people when they are dying or alongside others when they are bereaved, to love them. And not just in his, the priest’s name (her name), but in Christ’s name. To be a representative of Christ; in some sense to be Christ, because Christ is speaking through him in that relationship.

[It’s] partly the priest’s role to be alongside, to be one with, to listen … to sit alongside people when they are dying or alongside others when they are bereaved, to love them … To be a representative of Christ; in some sense to be Christ.

And I think we all experience that, actually, you know, because – in his absence I can say this – Peter Seal’s one of the best priests I’ve ever met. And I guess he knows more about you (certainly much more about you than I do), but more about you than practically anybody else does. I used to find it really rather fun. Sometimes people came up to me, ‘Do you realise that so-and-so is marrying so-and-so, or so-and-so has walked off with so-and-so’, whatever it was. ‘Really? Good gracious!’ And I’d known that for 18 months. Because there’s a confidentiality about it, isn’t there – of course it wouldn’t work without that – strict confidentiality. So that’s one thing the priest Harry, who was ordained last night, is being called to do. I mean, I could go on forever, but I’m not going to.

The other two things that are here are ‘to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of sacrament and of the word’. Now ministry of sacrament – it doesn’t really matter what your theology is of the Eucharist, what you think actually happens – because Christ said, ‘Do this’, and that’s really all that matters, and so you do it. But the church’s tradition for 2,000 years now has been that the role of the President – the one who stands and says the words of Christ, ‘This is my body’, ‘This is my blood’, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ – is the priest. Yes, I think celebrations do happen when there is no priest, and no, I don’t think that they are invalid. They’re not regular (perhaps I mean they are invalid), but it’s not that they don’t work. If people believe they’re doing God’s will then God honours that anyway. But in fact it is the priest’s role, and that lies in the fact that Christ said those words to the apostles at the Last Supper and laid hands on them, and they laid hands on others, and they laid hands on others, and they laid hands on others, and they laid hands on others, and they laid hands on me. And I laid hands on others, and so on and so forth. And somebody laid hands on Mary. And last night the Bishop of Edmonton laid hands on Harry, and he was therefore authorised, empowered by the Spirit, to preside at the Eucharist.

And that’s always been so. I think the change, talking about the difference – and we go back to the first point –the difference is in questions of leadership, isn’t it? What is leadership about? What is the priest to his community? And I suppose when I was ordained it was still a bit, ‘Oh, the vicar knows best’. It was sort of expected; he would make the decisions, or she would make the decisions. Some churches called him father in those respects. Well, not nowadays. He knows more possibly, because he’s got a lot of experience of the issues, but it’s a community. Leadership is about encouragement, enabling, isn’t it? And politically that’s a great big issue at the moment, and we pray for those who have to make decisions about it. That’s leadership, that’s fellowship, that’s with people.

The sacrament – the big change is that the Eucharist is nowadays central to practically every parish in the country. When I was first ordained it wasn’t; it was Morning Prayer, 11 o’clock. And we still have it at St Matthew’s mostly, and that’s very good, as that’s part of the community. But here, and for most other parishes, the Parish Eucharist is right at the centre. Why? Because Morning Prayer was never designed as a main service. It just happened to become so. It was really part of the Office of monks, amalgamating three Offices so that the church didn’t have to spend quite so much time, or the clergy didn’t have to spend quite so much time, at prayer as the monks and nuns. The Eucharist is back in the centre – that’s one thing – and the other thing is that it’s back in the way that it is now.

I mean, do you remember (still some churches do this), it’s all this-way facing [east], and the altar is as far away as you can get from everybody? It’s something about the holiness of God – I’m not knocking it – the imagery is that we’re all facing God and the priest is there in the front facing God on our behalf. But it’s not congregational, really, it’s not community in the way that this is when we gather round our Lord’s table and share his supper together.

And that’s a great privilege, actually, for the priest to be in that role and in that position, and I’m hoping Mary will bear this out. We may do it many times, we may do it almost too often, but it never feels the same. It’s a bit like that other sacrament priests celebrate, and that’s marriage. It’s a bit like taking a wedding. Surely you must get tired of saying a wedding every Saturday, or when I was young you used to get about seven weddings on Saturday? Yes, you feel tired, but then no two are the same, because you’re dealing with different people, different time and different stage on their journeys, and so on and so forth. So that’s the second one.

And then the third thing that falls to clergy, and also to other people – and we have Stephen Adam here as a glorious example of that, and Mark Byford the other day as another glorious example of that – one thing that falls to clergy more than to anybody else is ‘the word’, what I’m trying to do now. I mean, what a privilege to stand up here and give what Cat Mason over there described earlier to me as, ‘One of our family called it “the vicar’s speech”’.

Well, how can the vicar or anybody else stand here and proclaim the word of God? The word of God is living. ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’. It’s the same as Christ. It’s another way of talking of Christ. And yet I, for 60 years, have been standing in various pulpits and on various steps, trying to proclaim Christ. Believe you me, it’s actually an enormous responsibility, and if you don’t look at it the right way, an enormous burden as well. Unpacking the words of scripture, which I’ve neatly avoided this morning, unpacking events of the day out in the wide world that we’re all worried about, unpacking our own experience, and pointing to what? To the presence of God in them. To the presence of the Spirit in us, in our lives.

How can the vicar or anybody else stand here and proclaim the word of God? The word of God is living … It’s another way of talking of Christ.

People have said to me recently, ‘When are you going to preach again?’ and I’ve actually given my standard reply, ‘Never, I hope’ – not because I don’t enjoy it, but perhaps because I enjoy it too much. And also perhaps because I feel, actually, burnt out – been there, done that, got the T-shirt, after 60 years. There has to be some really rather splendid occasion to get me on my feet in front of you, like Peter and Julia being away on a family weekend of some sort.

So those three things: there are three key things that a priest is expected, asked, demanded to be involved in, and it’s very elastic and it involves all sorts of other things as well. But at every point, of course – and this is where I must move away from really rather self-centred, out to be with God, to the reality of what I’ve been talking about – is in its own degree appropriate to all of us in all aspects of our lives.

What are our lives about? Our lives are about proclaiming the word, are about being Christians and knowing that we are fully part of the body of Christ; we are as much part of the church as any ordained man or woman is. And our job is to proclaim the word not just by, not even primarily by, speaking words, but by living the life of Christ, the life of love. Which is why, having got this far, I’ve actually decided that Mary’s address to the children was far better than mine was to you. So may God bless us all.