First Eucharist of Revd Liz Stuart, on the Feast of St Francis

Peter Seal, 4 October 2020

Micah 6: 6–8; Galatians 6: 14–18; Luke 12: 22–34

Today is a truly wonderful day, as Liz presides for the first time as an Anglican priest. And it’s my great privilege to preach; she asked if I would.

To be personal for a moment: on this exact date, 4 October, in 1984 in Lady St Mary Church in Wareham, where I was a curate, I presided at the Eucharist for the first time. It was a Thursday evening and there was a visiting choir. My rector asked if there was any particular music that I’d like them to sing, and I said, Handel’s Alleluia Chorus. I remember him commenting that this might feel a bit OTT. They did sing, and it was glorious. And it was a good choice, because ordination isn’t really about a particular human being; it’s about God, and that’s where our alleluias go.

One of the very tough things about these Covid days is that we can’t sing. I feel Ian’s frustration, sitting at the organ itching to launch into a great hymn, and all of us just wanting to let rip and raise the roof.

I woke the other night with the line of a hymn running in my mind: ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,/ who like me his praise should sing?’ Sometimes people come and talk about the possibility perhaps of being ordained. Invariably they say something like, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy’, and I reply quickly, ‘Of course you’re not’. And then I try and explain in some way that God loves each of us just as we are. God takes our weaknesses and he turns them into his opportunities. God gives, to everyone who is open to receiving, the reassurance that each of us is indeed ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.

God takes our weaknesses and he turns them into his opportunities. God gives, to everyone who is open to receiving, the reassurance that each of us is indeed ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.

Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, we begin with the confession. Together, joined together, we acknowledge our weakness; what we call our sins. Do you know, this is a gloriously liberating experience? After the words of absolution pronounced by Liz today we should really have danced gleefully and extravagantly, and sung, ‘I’m free again, I’m forgiven. God loves me as I am, alleluia.’

God, in God’s great mercy and goodness, has sought Liz out. Over many years he has courted her, waiting at the corner, wanting to catch her eye. And wondrously, Liz has responded to this loving. It’s been a long journey and today really is the first day of the rest of her life.

I want now to make you all feel just a little bit uncomfortable: please, please pray for vocations to the ordained ministry. I pray for new vocations every Tuesday morning, and some names keep leaping out and coming to mind. Do you know, God just might be calling you?

There are three things that only a priest can do, and they each have their place in the Eucharist, also known as the Great Thanksgiving. The first, which I’ve already mentioned, is to pronounce the absolution after the general confession.

The second is to lead us all in praying the Eucharistic Prayer. Liz leads; we all pray, we all celebrate. That’s why our attentiveness is so important. Together we will get caught up again, and today in a new way, into something very, very big. Actually the barrier between this life and the heavenly life is completely broken down in that Eucharistic Prayer, and we acknowledge this by singing/saying together, ‘Holy … holy … holy’.

And thirdly, at the end of the Eucharist, a priest can give a blessing in a particular way. I’ve hesitated to mention this, but I will. In some traditions, at the end of the Eucharist (let’s hope it’s not raining and it might work) people go to the new priest and say, ‘Please give me a special blessing’. I’ll be there.

You might ask: apart from those three particular things, what should a priest be doing? That’s a big question. Let me make a few suggestions from my experience, and from what others have said to me down the years.

First, a wise priest said, ‘Peter, all you really need to do is just be there and say your prayers’. This is very profound. And actually it applies to each and every one of us. Our calling as Christians is simply to be in the situation that we find ourselves in, and somehow make the very best of it. This feels especially true in these testing Covid days. All our plans, small and great, are necessarily on hold. Somehow we’re all being called to be contemplatives, by which I mean, to behold the beauty of where we are, in a deep way. Last week Liz reminded us that each falling leaf is, as it were, surrounded by angels. One of the keys to combatting climate change is to glory in God’s creation – to really glory in the eternal mystery of a single autumn leaf and treasure it.

Our calling as Christians is simply to be in the situation that we find ourselves in, and somehow make the very best of it.

Secondly, many years ago I had a very thoughtful, a very bright, curate. We had long discussions – he was very eager – long discussions about what it meant to be a priest. In his intelligent way he was looking for an answer to equip him for the decades ahead. And one day he came to me and he said, ‘Peter, I‘ve worked it out, I’ve got the answer’ (and I was really pleased, for me!). And he said, ‘Being a priest means simply doing whatever I find myself doing’. Again, profound, and closely linked to just being and saying our prayers.

You may know that Liz has a very busy and hugely responsible day job as First Deputy Vice-Chancellor of our university. Liz is very highly respected. She’s a tireless worker and immensely able. In the time I’ve known Liz I’ve marvelled at the way she simply gets on with whatever she needs to be doing next.

Covid has been, and continues to be, very demanding. Since her ordination as a deacon 16 months ago, Liz has worn her clerical collar at work, and often at play too. She can tell you many stories of the conversations and of the beneficial effect.

So, Liz primarily lives out her ordination in her work at the university. Many of you will, I know, testify to ways in which you are true to your faith: at home, at work, at play. That’s where the active life of a Christian is located. Our celebrating of the Holy Eucharist each week energises and feeds everything else that we do. I remember early on during lockdown Liz saying to me, ‘I’ll find a way of managing without toilet paper, but I’m not sure I can survive without the Eucharist’.

Spending time with Liz, chatting with her, and especially hearing her preach, is an enriching experience. Liz is an outstanding preacher, one of the very best I have ever heard – an immense gift for her, and for us, and for many others.

The other day I was thinking about Liz and saying a prayer, and thought: it’s as though her work as an academic theologian over many years, and her rich life experience, and the depth of her praying, takes us to new places. At this stage in my ministry, I am personally profoundly grateful for this, and I know that many of you are too. It’s as though Liz is full, full to overflowing, with sermons and with so much more. We are fortunate, Mary and I and all of us, to have her as part of our team.

Lastly, something about Francis. Pope Francis is of course a gift for the world. But today we give thank for Francis of Assisi. To stand in Assisi, looking out over the plains of Umbria, is to feel close to heaven. Today we remember with love all who now live in heaven. And among them Bishop John and Dorothy. They sought to model their lives on St Francis in particular. They are now together with him in heaven, dancing, I’m sure. In today’s Eucharistic prayer Liz will pray:

And now we give you thanks
because you raised up our holy father Francis
to burn as a shining light in your Church;
that, inflamed with love for you and all creation
and bearing in his body the marks of your Son’s passion,
he might bring to glory many sons and daughters.

If those words don’t make you weep with joy and with gratitude, I don’t know what will.