Jonathan Baker reflects on the mysterious collegiality between a bishop and his priests

This is the fifth Chrism Mass at which I have presided as Bishop of Fulham. We get bigger every year! What a joy to see so many of you here! Thank you, my brother bishop, brother priests, and holy deacons for your attendance today. Thank you, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, for your presence and support. It’s a delight to welcome every one of you. This Mass is structured around two separate elements—you might call it a game of two halves—which have been brought together in comparatively recent times to form one liturgical action. They are, or course, the renewal of ordination promises, and the blessing and consecration of the holy oils. It is not difficult to see the connection between them, for the oils are among the fundamental tools of the trade at the disposal of all those called to the ordained ministry. If priests are called and ordained, supremely, to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, then through the priestly ministry of anointing, the Holy Spirit’s presence is imprinted and comes to dwell afresh in the souls of the faithful. St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his ‘Lectures on the Christian Sacraments’ brings together explicitly the parallel between the ministry of celebrating the Eucharist and that of being the minister of anointing: ‘Beware,’ he writes, ‘of supposing this [that is, the holy chrism] to be plain ointment. For, as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after the invocation, but the gift of Christ; and by the presence of His Godhead, it causes in us the Holy Spirit.’

At the Chrism Mass, we naturally think of all the many ministries—and all the gifts of the spirit—which flow (literally!) from the sacrament of holy anointing; the strengthening of catechumens to live the baptised life and to resist evil; the assistance given to the sick to bear their suffering with fortitude, to be made hospitable to divine healing in body and soul, to be prepared for death and eternal life; and that orientation to mature discipleship which comes through confirmation and for particular ministries. We think most naturally of ordination, but should not exclude from our horizons those uses of the chrism which we might call ‘sacramental’ with a lower-case ‘s’, such as the anointing of wedding rings in the service of Christian marriage.

This year, rather than going more deeply into the mystery, say, of anointing in the context of the church’s ministry to the sick and dying, vitally important as that is, I want to use just one facet of the rite of the consecration of the chrism as a point of departure for some further reflection on the first of the two ‘lungs’ of this celebration, the renewal of ordination promises. Specifically, I want to reflect on the ‘sign’ of the presbyterium, the college of priests, gathered around your bishop. (I’m sure the laity gathered here today will forgive a sermon which addresses the clergy in particular, as sermons tend to do on this occasion.)

In the rites associated with this Mass, the bishop alone blesses the oil of baptism and the oil for the anointing of the sick. But, as you all know very well, for the consecration of the chrism, priests too extend their hands over or towards the oil, to show that they share with the bishop in the work of building up, teaching, sanctifying and governing the churches: of which work, the holy chrism is an effectual sign.

This small, and indeed wordless, ritual action is thus a powerful symbol of an authentic theology and ecclesiology of the collegiality of priests one with another and one with their bishop, an ecclesiology primitively and thoroughly expounded of course by the second century bishop and martyr St Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote to the Christians at Ephesus, ‘your presbytery, which is a credit to its name, is a credit to God: for it harmonises with the bishop as completely as the strings with a harp.’ It is not only the rich vision of St Ignatius, but that of others among the Fathers—Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, the list goes on—and the witness of the New Testament texts themselves when read through the lens of organic development – which leads us to agree with Fr David Coulter that that the ‘ancient church never thought in terms of a solitary priest but only of a presbyterium, united with the local bishop… a college that surrounded the bishop, helping him to do the work of the church.’

So much is familiar. But I want to encourage all of us to use this Chrism Mass as a means of grasping afresh this sense of identity of a priestly college, united in communion with itself in and through the bishop’s ministry, and of treasuring it for the gift which it is. It is a life-giving gift. It is certainly not about throwing up high fences to separate us from brothers and sisters in mission with whom we share not only the same territory but the same history, the same pattern of ministry, the same pastoral charge, the same canonical structure, where our partnerships—as all the bishops of the Society have stressed—carry real ecclesial weight. But it is about drawing on a deep source of strength which is the deeper still for being held in common. It is a spiritual unity, but one which assists us with reconciling the dignity and privilege of the calling God has laid upon us with the knowledge we must all have of our own failings. Cardinal Müller, writing then as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says this in his introduction to a recent collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s sermons and addresses on priesthood, speaking of the ministry of all priests: ‘We heard our call without any merits of our own and seek to do justice to it every day despite our weaknesses.’ Let me read those words again as I think they are so powerful: ‘We heard our call without any merits of our own and seek to do justice to it every day despite our weaknesses.’ But Müller in the same essay quotes with approval words of Pope Francis from a sermon preached at an ordination early in his reign: ‘Carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love.’ Putting those words with Müller’s own, we have a fine summation of the priestly character: a fundamental awareness that God’s calling upon our lives is his gift, not our deserving; knowledge of our weaknesses; constant joy and genuine love. Each of those marks of the priestly heart, the priestly character, is, it seems to me, fostered by a strong sense of shared bonds of collegiality and communion.

If the collegiality we share is not, as I said a moment ago, about throwing up high fences to divide us from those with whom we share one ecclesiastical household, still less of course is it about creating an inwardly-looking clerical caste indifferent to the needs of the world and disengaged from God’s mission in this age and place. The apostles and their successors—in episcopal and priestly and indeed diaconal ministry—receive the commission to build up the church, and building up must be what we are about. Indeed we can go further and say that insofar as the words and actions of the ordained replicate sacramentally, as efficacious signs, the words and actions of God in Jesus Christ, they must be fruitful, they must be life-giving, they must consecrate the body of the faithful not for its own sake, but for the sake of the world.

The most life-giving, the most missional, the most effectual fruit of priestly ministry is of course the very thing we are engaged in together now: the celebration of the Eucharist, the offering of the Mass. St Ignatius and those others among the Fathers teach us that when the bishop with his presbyters and deacons are joined by the people of God around the altar, the entire ekklesia, the whole Church is present. Thus the Eucharist is the sacrament of the mystical body as well as the sign of the real presence, and while we might naturally think of the ministry of the individual priest at his altar in connection with the latter, that sense of the sacrament of the mystical body – the unity of the mystical body—is well served by our understanding of priestly collegiality, united with the mystery of the bishop, which I have been focussing on in this homily. ‘The two great signs of the present decadence of mankind,’ wrote the French Jesuit theologian and later Cardinal Jean Daniélou, in 1958, ‘are the corruption of death and the rupture of unity—the restoration of incorruptibility and of unity will mark the return of mankind to its true condition. Of this, the Eucharist is at once the sign and the instrument.’

Our unity—our unity as priests and bishops, the unity of all gathered here around this altar—is not then simply a matter of local, trivial or domestic significance. It is an effective symbol of unity of a profound extent, in the service of nothing less than the salvation of all humanity.

Last year, as I recall, the sermon I preached at the Chrism Mass had quite a lot to say about the challenge of affordable housing in London. This year I have been drawn to roam across a rather larger canvas. I hope that is not, once in a while at least, a Bad Thing. We can all become so absorbed in the detail, the daily challenges, trials, and opportunities, of ministry, that we can forget that we are engaged in work which is bound up with nothing less than the unfolding of God’s redeeming work. Our ministry in our parishes, our schools, our hospitals and care homes, across this great city, is part of a supernatural drama of which we glimpse only fragments. One writer in The Guardian (not a publication you will often hear me quote) said recently, reflecting on that sobering research recently published on religious adherence among the under 30s across Europe, that perhaps Christianity needs to embrace ‘its difference, its strangeness, its weirdness, its mystery.’ As long as we do not confuse mystery with obscurantism for its own sake, Amen to that.

Thank you then, my brothers in the priesthood, for your ministry in those parishes, schools, hospitals and all the many other arenas and contexts for your work. Please pray for, support and encourage one another—and your bishop—so that the outward sign of collegiality of which I have been speaking becomes a true spiritual reality. With constant joy and genuine love, make visible the victory which God has already accomplished in the passion, death and glorious resurrection of his son. Amen.


The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker is the Bishop of Fulham. This homily was preached at the Bishop of Fulham’s Chrism Mass.