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

Monday, 3 July 2017

At the Ordination of Priests in Lincoln Cathedral

They say you should be careful what you wish for.  When the Lord appeared to Solomon and asked what he should give him as a new king, Solomon replied, wisdom.  It was a clever answer, indeed a wise one, because he was able to hear the question for what it was, not ‘what do you want most?’ but ‘what do you need most?’  You no doubt want what most people crave: wealth, success, a long life.  And if you were a king in the ancient world, those things counted, for they were signs that the gods had bestowed their favour.  But Solomon knew that they were not enough.  What he needed if he was to be a good king was altogether more precious and more rare, a quality of character marked by insight, understanding, discernment, reverence for life, love of God.  All this the Bible calls wisdom.   

If you adopted a suspicious reading of this text, you might think that Solomon was simply saying what God wanted to hear, and that if he played the game and gave the right answer he might get the other things he wanted as well, as indeed he did.  Someone as complex as Solomon would certainly be capable of acting out of motives unknown even to himself.  In his later life he fell in love with the lifestyle of an ancient near eastern potentate. The seductions of riches, power, ostentation, slavery and sex show how capable he was of being corrupted. Don’t think any of us is immune. ‘Let those who think they stand take care lest they fall’.  And yet…. How appealing is this story of the young winsome king at the dawn of his reign, so eager to please God, so willing to do the right thing, so humble in accepting that he knew nothing and had everything to learn.  It was the best moment of his life.  Despite his fame and fortune in later years, he was never richer than he was that night when he had a dream, and God called to him, and he knew what he must ask for. 

We are privileged today to be with these ten good people as they are ordained priest. They start out like Solomon did, both excited and daunted by what lies ahead. This story says so much that is important about office-holding, standing for God in public, making sure that our motives are pure and our vision bright and that at the heart of it all is a sense that we are accountable to God whose work this ultimately is.  It’s more than forty years since I was ordained priest. I shall never forget the holiness of that summer, the expectancy and privilege I felt as I offered my life surrounded by those who loved me and were praying for me.  The memories have sustained me all these years, reminded me what I must live up to, encouraged me to persevere when times have been hard. Like Solomon, I knew I was not ready for this awesome task, never would be unless God gave what only God can give: wisdom, understanding, strength and the capacity to love.  

In the past few days I’ve been immensely glad to spend time in retreat with the ordinands. We've been reflecting on the beautiful hymn to the Holy Spirit we shall shortly sing together as the ordination prayer begins, Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. It was written by a seventeenth century Bishop of Durham, John Cosin and has been sung at ordinations ever since his time. We’ve explores some of the themes in these verses: vocation and illumination, protection and resilience in public ministry, and how we do love’s work in our witness to the gospel, leading the church’s praise, caring for those in pain, and reaching out to the world. All this they do in God’s name. So it's right that the hymn ends with the prayer Teach us to know. The focus is God himself, because to know God and love him is what we were made for. It’s the basis of all life, all faith, all ministry. So our prayer that these new priests may have Solomon’s wise and understanding mind comes down to this: that they may know and love and glorify and find joy in God whom we worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

Like Solomon, our ordinands have dreams, and why shouldn’t they on this great day in their lives? What will they ask for in their dreams? Will it be success, being popular and admired, well spoken of, having a life free of conflict and hostility? They wouldn’t be human if they did not recognise that ministry would be a lot easier and trouble-free if only it were like that.  

But the story of Solomon speaks of desires that are more grown-up than the wish list we put to fairy godmothers.  “Give me a wise and understanding mind.” Which means being aware of what God wants for the world and for human beings, all that will make for our reconciliation and flourishing, our healing and our happiness. One way of seeing ordained ministry is that it lives out this quest to be wise, to be a seeker after truth, in a public way. Solomon’s wisdom was not given to him for his private use.  It was so that his whole people could become wise too, and God’s wisdom be known to the ends of the earth.  Teach us to know will be the prayer we sing for our new priests as they kneel at this most solemn moment of their lives.  

But we ask it for ourselves too, and on behalf of many others in our world. So pray that our priests may always want to know God so that they can prompt us in turn to feel after God and find him. Pray that they may touch human need so that we stand together in Christ’s name close to those who are poor or helpless or in pain. Pray that they may bear witness to God’s goodness in a way that brings good news to people far and wide. Pray that they may lead us in word and sacrament to praise God "for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for his inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ". 

And pray that they may imitate Christ himself. Because in the New Testament, it is Christ is the wisdom of God, embodied in our midst, the one who came to bring to the world his light and life. So our dream is simply to be as he was and do as he did, anointed by the Spirit who came upon him: glorifying his Father, speaking words of grace, praying for his people, healing the sick, serving the poor, announcing the kingdom of heaven, laying down his life for his friends.
Yes, it is so easy to say and so hard to do.  Yet he comes to us, as God came to Solomon, and asks us what we most need if we are to be obedient to his call.  And he longs to hear us say, as we long to hear ourselves say in our best moments, ‘Lord, I am only a child. I do not know how to go out or to come in. Give your servant therefore a wise and understanding mind’.  And with it, the gifts to lead and serve, and a heart to love.

 Lincoln Cathedral, at the ordination of priests, 1 July 2017
1 Kings 3.3-15

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