In this concluding section of his 2017 Chrism Mass sermon, the Bishop of Chichester recalls us to diligence in prayer and the reading of Scripture
At ordination we said we would be diligent in prayer and reading Holy Scripture, and our recommitment to being faithful ministers of the mysteries of God is a renewal of that original undertaking. For myself, these words from one of the great reforming texts of the Christian Church are important as an expression of the seriousness of that responsibility: ‘The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scripture. Thus, “all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3.16-17).’
‘Training in righteousness’ brilliantly captures the astonishing venture to which we are committed. One of the reasons why I think that the story of the call of Samuel is so powerful is that it indicates that even though the clergy might have grown old, there is space for a child to minister in the temple, not making the life of the temple childish, but the temple being a place in which the child’s exploration of faith can recall the elderly to a first love, in vocation. We might grow old in years of ministerial experience, but we must never grow away from the capacity to say with stark and humble simplicity, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3.10).
And more than this, the story of Samuel tells me that training ourselves and training others in righteousness cannot be completed in a module even in the Common Awards scheme of the Church of England or in any such training programme; it is the action of God’s grace in human life and experience that shapes in us the contours of holiness by the rehearsal and re-rehearsal of prayer and Scripture. This is the core business of our life as ministers of the sacraments of the new covenant. And though this work might be referred to mundanely and misleadingly as ‘taking services’, it must nonetheless always be experienced, by the people of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit beyond our fathoming, as the transformative drama in which the word of God is known, alive and active and received.
This Lent and Holy Week it has been my privilege to be with a friend who has terminal cancer. She is younger than I am and her death is now quite close. She was brought up in a working class Christian family, in which the sacraments and liturgy of the Church of England were their training in righteousness, through prayer and the reading of the holy Scriptures. She remembers being one of three generations of women who watched and prayed with her beloved grandad as he died ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection’, with the curate coming to anoint him with holy oil, and send him forth to the God who had created and redeemed him.
My friend expects to live just long enough to celebrate this Easter. It will be one last rehearsal of the paschal mystery, once more hearing the Easter gospel, renewing her baptismal union with Christ, when she was marked with the sign of the cross and anointed with the sacred oil of chrism. And she will affirm definitively, for the last time, ‘I turn to Christ’, knowing that he is closer to her in time than when she has done this before, because soon, when she turns to him at the end of her life on earth, she will, like Mary Magdalene, hear him speak her name
This is what training in righteousness is like and what it’s for. We commit to saying the prayers and reading the Scriptures for and with the people of God, because it’s what God has given us as the means of grace and the hope of glory. It prompts me to see our own time as a context similar to that of the call of Samuel. Then, as now, the word of the Lord is ‘precious’ in the sense that many people simply don’t see the point of it. But God’s presence is not diminished because (like Eli’s) our eyesight is poor.
That’s how I read the beautiful detail, in the story of the call of Samuel, of the lamp that burns during the long hours of the night – as a testimony to the abiding presence of God with us, pointing us irrevocably to new life in the coming of Christ the morning star, who, says St Bede, when ‘the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day’. So, when the Lord comes, may he say to us, as stewards of the mysteries, attentive to the Scriptures, ‘Today, all this has been fulfilled in your hearing.’