You will be unsurprised to learn that I have been thinking about my ordination to the priesthood quite a bit recently. All being well, and Covid restrictions permitting, this will take place on Saturday 3rd July.
I must admit that perhaps in common with many life events, such as a wedding, civil union, retirement or graduation) which are long planned for and worked for (I began the discernment or selection process for the priesthood six years ago in May 2015, so we are talking about a considerable period of time) there is a sense of unreality about the actual occasion itself (which the strictures of the pandemic has done nothing to elevate).
However, I hope and pray that the years of preparation – all the assignments and theological reflections written, the attendance at lectures, residentials and study days, the earnest conversations with incumbents, tutors and representatives from the Diocese, the sermons written and the acts of worship attended – both public and private, not to mention my own prayers and those of the many people who know and care for and love me – will help equip me for this most momentous of occasions.
After all the Declaration which forms a central part of the ordination service for the priesthood reminds candidates:
Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, brought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. It is to him that you will render account for your stewardship of his people.
As Stephen Cotterell, the Archbishop of York, notes in his book ‘On Priesthood’:
What sane person, on hearing these words, would not run screaming from the cathedral saying that there had been a terrible mistake and they are not fit for this ministry at all?
Fortunately the Declaration continues:
‘You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength. Pray therefore that your heart may be daily enlarged.’
This emphasises a very important feature of all ministry, whether it is conducted by a layperson or an ordained one – that the act of service that each of us is asked to do in God’s name may well be beyond our own powers and abilities – but we are strengthen and upheld on a daily basis by the Holy Spirit. If we do not rely on God as the foundation of our endeavours, we are sure to be limited, constrained and ultimately fail in what we are able to do. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit equips us with super-human strength or brilliantly insightful wisdom (although there can be glimpses of that sometimes), but rather it does help us discern God’s will in both the momentous and seemingly insignificant thoughts, actions and words that make up our daily lives.
The Declaration in the Ordination service begins with these words:
Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, sentinels and stewards of the Lord.
How interesting that a priest is called to be a servant and a shepherd among the people to whom they are sent – as at first glance these two callings may not seem to be mutually compatible. Some people will undoubtedly see servanthood as the most important feature of ordained ministry – after all Christ himself says:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Servanthood is the rock that ministry is built on. It is one of the reasons why there two stages to ordination – the first, the ordination to the deaconate – emphasises that all ordained ministry is based on servanthood and that service, pastoral care and support lie at the heart of a Christian community. Priests and bishops never stop being deacons – and when Jesus speaks about a life of discipleship, about ministry, about the apostolic life, he always speaks about servanthood first, and his own life embodies this servant ministry.
However, others may feel that ordained ministry is more of a call to leadership – to be one that guides and leads the people of God – as a shepherd does their flock of sheep. Priests are obviously leaders of a Christian community – theirs is a very public role demanding a high degree of visibility and integrity.
Describing a priest as a shepherd has a marvellous biblical pedigree. Jerimiah and Ezekiel and many others refer to those who lead the people of God as shepherds. Jesus as we have heard today in our Gospel reading refers to himself as the Good Shepherd and in Acts of the Apostles those who are called to the ministry of oversight are reminded to:
Keep watch over yourselves and over the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God that he has obtained with the blood of his own Son.
But the metaphor of a shepherd is problematic for us today. Most of us know very little about shepherds and shepherding. I’m a great admirer of the Yorkshire Shepherdess via Twitter; confess to adore the film Babe; and used to enjoy watching One Man and his Dog – but am aware that these representations bare very little resemblance to what a shepherd would have done in New Testament times.
Then the shepherd would have lived alongside their sheep; sometimes their own body was the gate to the fold, lying down in the entrance to keep predators at bay. When they directed the sheep to new pastures, they led from the front, striding out ahead of the sheep; and when a lion or bear threatened the flock, the shepherd was ready and equipped to fight them off.
The stories of David in the Old Testament tells us that a shepherd boy could fell a giant, and then live to be a king – a tale which demonstrates that humble origins need be no barrier to the great responsibilities of leadership and power if accompanied with an authentic call.
This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. In today’s gospel, Jesus develops the image of shepherd, and declares, in one of the seven great ‘I Am’ sayings in John, ‘I Am the good shepherd, the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep’.
I can’t help but contrast Jesus’ picture of The Good Shepherd and my experience of the self-giving love and service demonstrated by most of the clergy of my acquaintance with the dreadful knowledge of bad shepherding – the abuses of clerical power for sexual and other purposes of which we have become aware over the last few years. These have done so much not only to hurt all the individual victims but to cast a shadow for many people over the church as an institution. The church’s moral authority as an institution is hard won and easily lost – it can only be regained by each one of us, ordained and lay, living the gospel in our lives and demonstrating it in our actions and deeds, as well as our words.
The gospel in all its love and freedom is just the opposite of all that clerical abuse is. The servant heart of leadership that Christ exemplifies in good pastoring holds the wellbeing of people as paramount, and seeks to lead in a way that nurtures and develop this – always safeguarding and protecting the most vulnerable. Good shepherds of the flock do not need to choose between being leaders or servants – they are both.
There are so many ways at St Matthew’s that our shared Christian life together seeks to do make servant leadership a tangible reality – and I would urge each and every one of you, when you feel ready to take a risk or stretch a little beyond your comfort zone – to think about how you could be actively involved in the service and leadership of our church. Some ways may seem insignificant but their impact personally and on others can be huge – and hopefully as the restrictions of the pandemic life over the coming weeks, there will be more of these opportunities to get involved in. So whether it is volunteering with the food bank, visiting others in our church community for support and fellowship, offering reflections on social media, praying for our church community, serving or singing the choir, leading intercessions, helping with messy church or junior church or the new youth club we are planning, increasing your church giving or playing a role in the deanery or diocese – there is something that every single one of us can do.
And of course, if you are thinking about a more formal role in the church – and feels you have a calling to ministry as a SPA, reader or priest – do speak to Fr Andrew or any of the staff team.
Each one of us has a vocation – finding out what that calling is, is part of our lifelong journey of faith so that every shepherd, servant, messenger, sentinel and steward of the Lord amongst us may play our own unique part in making Christ’s love known to all people in all places, this day and every day.
Please pray for me at this time, as I move towards an important step in my vocational journey – as I will surely pray for you in yours.