Sermon, Tavistock 26th June 2022
Well, we are twelve weeks away from receiving our new incumbent, Matt. And it may be timely to be rehearse this question:
What do you want a priest for?
The answer would be different to that given by our predecessors 50 years or 100 years ago, not least because the reduction of clergy in the Church of England over 50 years by a half – from 16,000 to 8,000 – has forced us to ask “What is the quintessential role of a parish priest”. Is it as a manager, to run the parishes from top to bottom? To manage the arrangements of rotas, services, churchyards, fabric, finance, choirs, choirs, organists, flowers and bells; and personally to undertake all visiting, house communions and hospital visits, baptism and wedding preparation; to handle committee agendas, magazine editorial and production work?!
No, not nowadays – though that was generally the work of the parson 50 years ago, when there was one for nearly every parish in the diocese; and, of course, I caricature what they did – though not by much. Most of this was expected of me only 36 years ago in my first incumbency – even including flower arranging! (The rector’s wife had always arranged the flowers behind the altar. My darling wife was not gifted in that field of expertise, so it was suggested that I might do it. I didn’t.) I have always been blessed with wonderful Churchwardens, treasurers, secretaries and Readers and they always played their part, along with PCC members – helping the clergy to do their job, as many viewed it.
Recent times have seen a massive shift in the workings of a parish – and you have witnessed this. Clergy have been forced (by God himself?) to delegate many things in the management and running of a parish – and in the mission and ministry of the church. Thank God. Clergy are learning, as all should, that “a failure to delegate is a denial of the Holy Spirit to do things in others”.
We have been forced (by God?) to re-examine what is the quintessential offering of service which the priest brings to the church. And this quote by Hans Weber may help us: “The laity are not the helpers of the clergy so that the clergy can do their job…. but the clergy are the helpers of the whole people of God, so that the laity can be the church”.
We may see, looking back, that for far too long the church was male, clergy dominated – clericalized – whereby the professional ministry and mission of the church was confined to the man in the dog collar. But a professional is one who professes. Of course, today it means a person who is paid for doing something (and isn’t it sad how the whole feel of a passion and talent changes when a sportsperson turns from amateur to professional?) But, in essence it means one who declares publicly, who “professes”, a skill in, and passion for, something. In this sense the clergy exist to enable you and me to become professional, professing Christians – declaring publicly in action and word what we have come to believe in, understand and live out. (And of course, I would never want to lose sight of the beauty of the word “amateur”, meaning one who does something for love of it: we are at the same time professionals and amateurs).
So, what do we want a priest for here?
1. A priest is ordained into holy orders to live a life happily under the authority of the church and the discipline of those orders. This requires a rhythm of daily prayer and devotions, of study and reflection in order to equip others by their preaching, teaching and example.
2. The representational roll: in public ministry the priest represents the church in a recognised way both to the congregation and the wider world; and is to be a visible sign of the church in the community. (I am mystified by fellow clergy who think they are more accessible and ‘ordinary’ in an open neck shirt and keep their dog collars only for special churchy occasions. I recall the number of times I have been approached in the street and asked for help, simply because I was identified).
3. A priest is a focus for ministry in the church: and she or he gathers people in worship and this is especially visible in the Holy Communion where the priest presides and voices the words of Our Lord as bread and wine are blessed. The priest is a channel for the other sacraments of pronouncing absolution, blessing, healing, baptism and holy matrimony.
4. A priest is an intercessor, both in prayer and in the sense of speaking for others and for God – heaven help him or her – a bridge builder and reconciler, bringing people to God and reconciling people to each other.
5. Spiritual leadership. A priest is called always to be a prophetic voice, interpreting theologically in the life of church and society, holding a vision for both with gospel values. Priestly leadership is to be modelled on that of Our Lord Jesus and is therefore crucially one of servant leadership.
6. Pastor. The pastoral work of a church is a shared ministry of the ordained and lay members, as in most things, But the priest is called to undertake quality pastoring him and herself, not least when the sacraments are part of that ministry.
There are other aspects of priestly ministry, of course, let alone the necessary duties of an incumbent of a benefice.
But whatever the functions of a parish priest, the importance of this person in church and community is as much about being as doing. And in order for a parish priest to be a person of prayer and study, of reflection and preparation for quality leadership and unhurried pastoring, then the running of the church has to be a shared affair.
We are looking for ministering congregations – as the church was always meant to be, if I read St Paul correctly in Ephesians chapter 4 – and not congregations centred around a minister.
Here at St Eustachius and around this benefice with those at Gulworthy and Brentor we thank Our Lord for so many people who bring their worship, their love, time, talents and giving to His church. The pastoral care networks are exemplary, if I may say, shared by laity and clergy.
Only you know if and how you may serve in the ministry of this church. For many, the days of much physical or mental output is limited by virtue of age. But your prayers are an essential part of this corporate ministry – in fact, the lifeblood of its health.
Above all, the church is to be an offering of love – for God, for Tavistock, for the world. If it is not, it is not the church of Christ.
I end with the superb words of St Paul in Ephesians chapter 4 – they give us a blueprint for how we are to be as God’s church here.
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love”.
God bless you as you prepare for the next chapter in the life of this church and benefice with the ministry of your new incumbent, Matt, in twelve weeks’ time. Pray to know your part in our corporate offering of love.
The Venerable John Reed.
26th June 2022