You are called
Philip North explains why accepting the call to priesthood is the greatest risk of all – but God never abandons those whom he calls
We have a new archdeacon in my parish in London. And sad to say, he is exceptionally good at his job. Now that’s bad news for us parish priests. When you’re a priest, the one thing you don’t want is a top-notch archdeacon who plays it by the book. We’re first up for the new-style archidiaconal visitation, and I have to say the preparations are not going well. We’ve been sent a questionnaire with about seventeen million questions which I had to go through the other night with my churchwardens. It was not a happy evening. Have your fire extinguishers been serviced? No. Have you got a health and safety policy? No. Have you got an investment policy? Is your terrier and inventory up to date? No. No. No. No. I don’t think we could tick a single box. It’s official. I run the worst parish in the whole wide world. I am the worst priest ever.
But one question in particular intrigued me. It said, ‘Do you carry out risk assessments for all church-based activities as prescribed in your insurance policy?’ I’ll let you guess the answer. This got me thinking about ordination. What if we were to stop and carry out a risk assessment for an Ordination to the priesthood? Just imagine the template. Description of activity – calling down of Holy Spirit through laying on of hands. Level of risk – catastrophic. In ordination the priest does that which defies all risk assessment. It is simply off the scale. It is quite impossible to do anything as wilfully foolish, placing one’s whole life in the hands of the Holy Spirit. From that moment on, there is simply no saying where God might send a priest and how he might use his life.
An act of trust
In ordination we witness an act of total and unconditional self-offering, an act of the purest trust. Try risk-assessing that. Look what happened to Peter. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus gave to St Peter exactly the same gift as is given to the new priest. ‘I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven.’ Those words were spoken to Peter and his life was turned upside down. This ordinary fisherman, living a quiet life by the gentle shores of the Galilee, found himself suddenly catapulted across the known world, preaching good news, healing the sick, founding churches, changing lives with the Good News of salvation. He was abused and imprisoned, captured and humiliated and ended his life hanging upside down on a cross. If you want a quiet, safe predictable life, do not even think about involving the Holy Spirit. Yet that is the risk that a priest takes.
A tough mission field
Of course I probably shouldn’t be telling you all this. In the Church of England we go to very considerable lengths to try and make priesthood a bit more safe and harmless and domestic. We have contracts and role descriptions, ministerial review and terms and conditions. Mostly we don’t even call it priesthood, a rather dangerous term, and talk instead of ministry or leadership. We try very hard to make priesthood respectable, as if we were the spiritual apparatchiks of a state-run organization or leaders of a purely human institution. Well, it won’t work. The days of priestly respectability are long gone. And that is very good news indeed.
God is sending priests out into the toughest imaginable mission field. The priest is called to share Good News in a nation where 93% of people never go near a church and where negative perceptions of faith are so deep that it is commonplace for priests to be insulted in the street. He is called to speak up for Jesus Christ to a culture where truth is reduced to a matter of mere opinion and where he will have to find answers to the searching questions posed by a virulent and revitalized atheism. He is to preach a message of self-sacrificial love to a culture that worships material acquisition, that thinks that well-being is purchasable and which seems to lack the space, the time and the imagination for the language of God.
To rise to that unprecedented challenge, what we need is a renewed priesthood, filled with the Holy Spirit and addicted to risk. We need priests who live for danger, who are filled with a zeal for salvation, a love of the poor and a passion for the Kingdom. We need entrepreneurs, church-planters, evangelists. And to do that we need above all a priesthood that has a deep-seated confidence in itself, that is not afraid of the divine and sacramental nature of its calling. We need priests who know what they are.
Why do we have priests? For one reason only, which is to preside at the Eucharist. Priests are not enablers or caretakers or teachers or social workers or church leaders. They are ministers of the Sacraments. Without that there is no need for any of us. We exist to make Jesus present in bread and wine. The priest’s whole life, his ministry, his being will be formed by what he does at the altar. Day by day he goes to the altar to break bread. And then the whole of the rest of his life will be a living out of that transaction. The priest is to exemplify Eucharistic living. At the altar, the priest celebrates the power of God to forgive sin as he releases into the world the saving power of the cross.
And then, day by day, he has a ministry of reconciliation. One of the titles of the Pope is Pontifex which means bridge-builder. This is the priest’s task – to build bridges between God and sinful humanity, to build bridges between lost souls and the Church which is the source of salvation, to build bridges between families who are at war with each other and individuals whose lives are being damaged by conflict. Jesus pours his healing love into a broken world, and the priest is sent out now as a minister of that healing, a reconciler, a bridge-builder.
At the altar, the priest presides over a miraculous act of transformation as ordinary bread and ordinary wine are charged with the life of the divine and become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And as he transforms bread and wine, so day by day he has a ministry of transformation. His task is to work for a society which reflects the values of God’s kingdom. He works to uphold the dignity of human life from cradle to grave, he needs to give voice to the poor and the neglected and the sidelined, he needs to find a prophet’s voice to engage with the structures of power in the communities he serves to strive for justice and fairness. Jesus longs to transform an unjust world, and the priest is sent out now as an agent of that transformation. At the altar the priest holds up the body and blood of Jesus Christ and shows him to the world.
And then, day by day, he has the ministry of evangelist. His task is to speak the Good News, clearly, boldly and without fear. He is called to challenge, to shake up, to bring people to the point of decision. He needs to seek new ways to communicate the timeless message of the Gospel, to use every gift he has at his disposal to capture imaginations with the person of Jesus. Jesus longs that everyone should know him and love him, and the priest is sent out as his witness.
This is a life of risk. But at the same time it is a life of joy. God never abandons those whom he calls. Peter knew Christ most fully when he dared to step out of the boat and join him on the water. While the challenges of contemporary priesthood are intense, the more risks the priest takes, the more deeply he will know God’s love and support and the more he will know the perfect intimacy of relationship in him. Never mind those daft TV shows where people do absurdly risky things like somersaulting over cars and eating scorpions. It is impossible to take any greater risk than to accept the call to priesthood. This is the most beautiful and profound act of self-offering.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.
A version of this sermon was preached
on the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul
for the ordination of Fr Ian McCormack
at the Church of St Peter and St Leonard,
Horbury in the Diocese of Wakefield ND