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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ordination of Priests

‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’ says Jesus in that gospel reading. In the last few days I have spent on retreat with the good people being ordained today, we have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the best known of all prayers, universal in its appeal. Even in an age as secular as ours, most of us still learn it early in life: it’s the one religious text we can reliably assume the majority of us know and can join in. Every church service includes it, often introduced as it will be today, with words like ‘let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us’. Our new priests will lead this prayer at every eucharist they preside at.

When my wife and I started worshipping regularly in France, we found that in our local church, they sing the Lord’s Prayer, something we now do here on normal Sundays. The value of singing is that it slows you down, stops you from rushing through profound words we should be reflecting on as we pray them. ‘Whoever sings to the Lord prays twice’ said Augustine. As I have meditated on the Lord’s Prayer, I have found extraordinary depths in these simple, well-loved lines. The other thing we came across in France, indeed across catholic Europe, is that most of the congregation extend their hands as they sing it. It’s a beautiful gesture. Some have their palms upward, as if to be open to the gifts God wants to give. Some stretch their hands towards the sky, as if longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, for that is the central theme of the Lord’s Prayer, thy kingdom come! And for some it’s a symbol of visible unity for this is the prayer all Christians have in common as God’s people in every part of the world
When a priest leads the people in worship, he or she is engaging in a very public act. Ordination gives a priest authority in a public role. When we talk about clergy, we should speak about public ministry, not just ministry: every baptised Christian has their own gifts and calling, and that is ministry as well. But priests have conferred on them the public role of representing God and his church before the world. A priest is a visible embodiment of the church. Religion in general, and the church in particular, is often judged by how well or badly clergy live up to their calling. We are, in Austin Farrer’s phrase, ‘walking sacraments’. Like the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the eucharist, we point beyond ourselves to the spiritual realities the church bears witness to and proclaims. I can’t emphasise this enough.

So why, in the Sermon on the Mount, does Jesus make so much about what is personal and intimate to us, that inner secret room no-one but God knows about? Why does he send public people like priests into a private place? For it’s here that he directs us to go if we want to ‘pray in this way’. Of course, he isn’t thinking primarily – or at all – about clergy. If anything, it is we professional religious types who are most prone to be ‘hypocrites’, play actors who ‘love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others’. It’s an awful warning to all of us whose daily work is public religion, not least in cathedrals: the temptation to be admired for our piety, praised for our devotion whether it is the frequency of our prayers, or the length of them, or the fine phrases we heap up to impress. I am sure our new priests know a little about this fatal tendency. Jesus says that if we give in to it, it will destroy us; we have our reward already. ‘Do not be like them.’ By contrast, he shows us a more excellent way. And that is the Lord’s Prayer: direct, plain, unassuming, all embracing, and as Benedict says about the best kind of prayer, ‘brief and pure’.

The Sermon on the Mount is not a moral code for English gentlemen, though some read it that way. It is Jesus’ programme for how to live in the light of the kingdom of heaven that is promised. On the retreat I spoke about this as standing at the end of time and praying forwards into our own times. If you are serious about looking forward to that great day of salvation when heaven and earth are renewed and the human race is healed of everything that damages and spoils it, here is how to live now, here is how to be now, here is how to pray now. These incomparable chapters in St Matthew make us examine our attitudes, our goals, our values in every line of this great address Jesus gives. And the message throughout is: be consistent; be transparent; be on the inside what you claim to be on the outside where everybody sees, and from your actions and behaviour thinks they know who you are. In this way, you will bear good witness to the hope God wants all of us to embrace.
Jesus has so much to say about prayer because it is one of the principal plumb lines by which every man or woman of faith is judged.

This is especially true of those in public ministry. Like patriotism in Edith Cavell’s famous saying, in ministry public activity is not enough, however essential it is, however noble, however committed. It only has integrity and carries meaning when it is the embodiment of our inward motives and aspirations. That’s the meaning of ‘walking sacrament’: an outward and visible mobile sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a way, the priest is living out the character of the public Christian, exemplary in every aspect of life. Prayer is at the root of it for all people of faith, not least those of us who are under daily scrutiny as everyone in public life is. Our message can only ever be, as we hear Jesus teach it to us: will you do as I do? Will you try this way of being a Christian for yourself? Will you discover how life-changing it is to pray ‘Our Father’ and so be drawn into God’s everlasting movement of love towards his world and ours towards him?

So I don’t apologise for choosing this gospel reading at an ordination. It’s not that Jesus disparages public faith and those like clergy who have the responsibility of leading it. The important thing in leadership is to lead from within. This is especially true of our personal spirituality. Jesus is our model here. His frequent need for privacy and prayer in remote places, those days or weeks among the mountains or in the wilderness finding what one author calls ‘the solace of fierce landscape’ was a well-remembered feature of his life. It perplexed people who couldn’t always find him when they wanted to. If this was necessary for the Son of God, how much more do his followers need it too! The hidden place Jesus speaks about where he teaches us to pray ‘like this’ is not a luxury, a pleasant distraction from the busy-ness of work. It is at the very centre of our public life and ministry.  The more demanding our vocation, the more essential it is to safeguard it. It is a matter of spiritual life or death.

The great Swiss psychoanalyst and thinker Carl Gustav Jung said he thanked God for priests. Where would the world be, he asked, without people whose vocation is to stand for the deep and divine realities of life? Where would it be without people who could symbolise and model how life-changing it is when we look upwards and inwards as well as outwards, and encounter the mystery God and of ourselves? In the first lesson, Moses begs God to show him his glory. Priests are there to reveal glory – the glory of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. It’s risky to quote Napoleon in this two hundredth anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo. But I love his saying that I shared with the ordinands on retreat: ‘a leader is a dealer in hope’. This is what priests are. We stand at the end of time and help us to see life with the bigger perspective of God’s kingdom and his wise and loving purposes for the world.
This is precisely what the Lord’s Prayer does: there is no bigger vision we can have than to pray and make our own the words hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of hope. If you as priests are going to 'give a reason for the hope that is within you', as St Peter puts it, help others glimpse God’s glory, then your inner room, and the heart of what you are that it stands for, is an essential place in your life. Give it constant attention. Nurture it every day. It will be the secret not only of a lifetime of authentic priesthood but also of your own happiness and contentment in ministry. It is your daily bread for today. It will nourish all your tomorrows.

Durham Cathedral, 4 July 2015
Exodus 33.12-23, Matthew 6.5-15

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