A homily by Jeffrey Gainer on the ministerial priesthood
This homily was preached at the mass of thanksgiving for Fr Martin Williams’s Golden Jubilee of priesthood at Petertide 2015. We apologise for the delay in publication.
A few miles to the north of the county town of Carmarthen lies the village of Cynwyl Elfed. A short distance from the same village is a humble white-washed cottage, the birthplace of Howell Elvet Lewis. It is now a small museum to his memory. Elfed, as he is known, was a Nonconformist minister, a poet, and hymn-writer. Many of his hymns are translations from the English, others are original compositions and, as we gather here today for this Mass of Christ the Eternal High Priest, there is one such hymn that concerns us particularly. It has these words: Nid oes i ni offeiriad ond Iesu Grist ei hun – ‘we have but one priest, Jesus Christ Himself’.
Elfed’s words bear witness to a great truth, namely that in the Christian religion there is indeed but one priest: Jesus Christ Himself. This is also the clear emphasis of the epistle of priesthood, the letter to the Hebrews (or Christians of Jewish origin). There is much that is difficult and demanding in this letter. Its background appears very remote, with its talk of ceremonial and sacrifices which have long since vanished. Yet one thing is clear again – there is but one priest, Jesus, and of Him and Him alone is the Greek word for a sacrificing priest used. It is not applied in the New Testament to any Christian leader.
Now all of this may strike you as somewhat strange and disconcerting on an occasion such as this when we are gathered to give thanks to God for the ordination to the priesthood of Fr Martin Williams half a century ago. ‘If you say that there is one priest in our faith; well, what are we doing here?’ You may reply, quite correctly, that you are ‘church’ and not ‘chapel’, and that we are used to calling our ministers priests. You may retort that the preface to the ordinal attached to the Prayer Book of 1662 refers to the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon and that the service itself requires the preacher to underline the necessity of such orders. Necessity is a strong word, after all – it is not the same as ‘preferable’, or ‘desirable’. Moreover, if you are the type of person to delve into the finer details of church history you might even add that the Latin Prayer Book of Elizabeth I uses the word sacerdos, a sacrificing priest, of the Christian clergy. But perhaps we do better than that when we note how the reading at the Eucharist today stresses the uniqueness of Christ the Eternal High Priest.
The letter to the Hebrews points out the contrast between the many Jewish priests under the old dispensation who had to offer sacrifices year after year, and Christ who offered a sacrifice just once. What the Jewish High Priest offered on the Day of Atonement each year with the blood of animals has been offered once for all by the Lord by the shedding of His blood on Calvary. Such all-sufficient sacrifice expresses the truth about the One who delights to do the Father’s will perfectly.
Yet there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of Our Lord which does less than justice to the reality of the Incarnation, the truth that Jesus Christ is indeed True God and True Man. That belief is at the heart of all authentic Christianity. It is maintained in the Christian soul by two things, let us recall: first, by a deep love and reverence for the Mother of God; and, secondly, by an unwavering and definite belief in the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. Yet since Jesus is perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity, we need to recognise afresh the truth that to be truly human implies entering into relationship, reflecting the loving communion that exists in the Godhead between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are made in the image of that same God. So Jesus enters into relationship, yes, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and His foster-father St Joseph, with His relatives, His neighbours at Nazareth, His disciples – and with us. We, by baptism and faith, are members of that living Body of Christ which the New Testament writers clearly describe as being a royal and holy priesthood. This is the witness of St Peter in his first letter, and likewise of the seer of Revelation. It is then our privilege and our joy to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving at each and every Eucharist; and thereby we are renewed in the relationship of faith, hope, and love with God and one another.
No doubt our old friend Elfed would agree with all this but he would, in conscience, feel constrained to draw back as we go on to speak of the distinctive priesthood of the ordained. Yet here we find that the Church of God, from earliest times, has been led to apply the language of priesthood to her ministers as we still do. We find it in a letter from Rome to Corinth attributed to St Clement, that is before the end of the first century of the Christian era and even before all the writings of our New Testament were gathered together to be read alongside the Old Testament. At first such language was applied to the bishops who presided over the worship and life of the local Christian communities. Indeed in England this was the general usage until the time of the Venerable Bede. Yet it came to be extended to presbyters as well, to whom was designated the awesome responsibility of presiding at the Eucharistic sacrifice.
That Eucharistic mystery was initiated by the Lord himself when he gathered with His apostles in the Upper Room. He called twelve men to be his apostles, and they are the witnesses to the Risen Lord who manifests his presence here. It was, we may note, a singular mistake of Calvin – excellent logician though he was – that he failed to note the abiding significance of the apostolate when he tried to recreate from scratch what he believed to be a New Testament form of ministry in the sixteenth century. No doubt we all have our own blind spots, but we do well to avoid repeating Calvin’s mistake. We are called to realise anew that the apostolate unifies and embodies the whole people of God. Likewise a portion of the church, the ministerial priesthood, acts in company with the whole priestly people of God and not apart from them. Just as we Christians keep one day, Sunday, as the Lord’s Day whilst at the same time acknowledging that God is the Lord of every day of our lives, so we rightly adhere to the ministerial priesthood as the sacramental sign of continuity with the Lord and His apostles – a sign that exists not apart from the Church but within the Church, the priestly people of God.
But what can we say of this ministerial priesthood? A recent writer has likened the priesthood of the ordained to a pebble dropped into a pool which sends out circles from the centre. Those circles are meant to be the blessings of God conveyed to us in particular ways – in intercessory prayer, in sacramental ministrations, in pastoral care, in preaching and teaching the faith. Those of us who were ordained many years ago have seen many changes in the meantime, and many questionings of received beliefs and arrangements. Yet the blessings of God remain the same, and so do the need and call to give ourselves daily to the slog of pastoral duty wherever God may call us to serve Him and His people: in leafy suburbs or in the post-industrial valleys. Wherever we are sent, we can be sure that the priest’s example, counsel, and prayers are required, and are a source of blessing indeed when holiness of life inspires and encourages others. Sometimes the work may seem hard and the response minimal, a veritable hewing of wood and drawing of water! Nonetheless, we labour on in the Lord’s service and by His grace.
Over the last half century there have, of course, been many changes in the life of the Ecclesia Anglicana, some of which have taxed us in conscience. We are called to hold fast to the ideals of the Catholic movement in Anglicanism: not a narrowness of vision bordering on the sectarian, but a growing understanding that truth, Christian truth, is for the whole person. Indeed it is for all people at all times, and such truth is – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – expressed in the conciliar and consensual grasp of the Truth expressed in the Creeds and in the received structures of the Church Universal, including, we may add, the Holy Orders of those who conform in life and doctrine to what has always characterised the Church Universal.
Inevitably, on a day like this we are drawn to look back … to that summer day fifty years ago when a young man was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral. High above that great church was hung even further back – in 1881, in fact – a great bell weighing over sixteen tons. It is known as Great Paul. But more significant than its size, or even the booming sound it emits over the great metropolis, is the inscription carved into its metal: ‘Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel’ [1 Cor. 9.16].
St Paul’s words are a challenge to each of us who owns the faith of Jesus, and assuredly to all of us who are ordained. Over the years the bells of St Paul’s have rung out to mark great occasions of Church and State, just as they do when summoning the
Christian faithful to witness the laying of apostolic hands on those men to be ordained priest in the Church of God. Such men were called to be – in Austin Farrer’s famous phrase – a walking sacrament, a living sign in the here and now of the unseen great high priest Himself, even Jesus Christ. So let us now in thankfulness and joy look forward and as we celebrate this Golden Jubilee conclude by renewing our resolve to draw close, one and all, to the Eternal High Priest Himself in these awe-inspiring holy mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. ND
Canon Jeffrey Gainer is Vicar of Meidrim, in the diocese of St Davids. He was elected as Chairman of Credo Cymru (Forward in Faith Wales) in November 2015. The Venerable Martin Williams was for many years Archdeacon of Margam, and then of Morgannwg, in the diocese of Llandaff.