William Davage preaches at the 25th anniversary of Bishop Jonathan Baker’s ordination
In his note inviting me to preach on this occasion, Bishop Jonathan wrote that there were three reasons for asking me. One is that of the concelebrants at his first Mass, I am one of the few remaining who is not dead, deposed or a Roman Catholic (yet). Secondly, in a neat literary allusion, he trusted that I could be relied upon not to praise him (that is true) and not to bury him—that remains to be seen.
Given his glory years as Principal of Pusey House, before his decline into episcopal office, Bishop Jonathan will well remember the altar in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, one of Ninian Comper’s many triumphs. There, day by day, at the Offices and the Mass, he saw on the front of the altar a depiction of the Annunciation of Christ to his Blessed Mother. On the altar, the tabernacle of the Most Holy Sacrament: our Bethlehem, our house of bread. Behind the tabernacle, a silver crucifix upon which hangs our Lord in the agony of his death. Above the gold ciborium stands Christ rising from the tomb, triumphant over death. His eye would travel upward to the east window and see Christ the King enthroned in glory after his ascension. And, finally, in the ceiling of the ciborium, garlanded and surrounded by disporting angels and cherubim, sounding their trumpets, is the dove of the Holy Spirit set in a golden sun irradiating to all corners of the world. There it all is—all the essential matter of our salvation. In those mysteries set out in silver and gold, in stained glass and plaster, lie our hope and our promise.
But there they are, locked in gold and silver, locked in glass and stone and plaster. There is something missing, something that will unlock the mysteries. What is missing is a priest standing at the altar. Without a priest the means and the instruments of our salvation would be locked in the past, 21 centuries distant. The priest unlocks the past and makes it present for us here and now. He celebrates Mass and makes present on the altar in Pusey House Chapel, on this altar in Holborn, as on countless numbers of altars throughout the world that one ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice; for us and for our salvation.’ The priest stands at the altar as a channel through which Christ’s sacraments can be celebrated and divine grace can flow into the world and into the lives of numberless individual souls. The priest stands at the altar to represent all of the people to God, so that our common priesthood can be expressed and articulated. The priest is God’s instrument and our servant. He is called by the Church from among us, from among the community of the faithful, to offer prayers and praise to God; and he is called from among us by God to be his own, to be the icon of his son in the world.
It is a vocation that Bishop Jonathan has faithfully served for 25 years. He does it now in episcopal office, in the line of apostolic succession that lies at the heart of the catholic understanding of the Holy Church, that principle reinvigorated, reasserted and burnished by the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival. Bishops have their sacramental uses and functions and they are at their best when they fulfil their high priestly calling: when they are priests and pastors, prophetic and passionate for the truth of Christ’s religion, not when they are bureaucrats enmeshed in endless committees, cabals, reports and systems. But it is up to us to give them apostolic work to do: to produce vocations to the many and varied lay ministries, to produce ordinands and confirmation candidates, to involve them in missionary initiatives and activities, to visit schools and institutions and people within our communities. Otherwise they will whittle their time away shuffling paper or doing Thought for the Day.
We meet on the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, one of the first in the line of apostolic succession that leads to Bishop Jonathan, known to history as Doubting Thomas. It would be a cheap shot to say how appropriate an example for bishops of our own day, but I have never knowingly missed an opportunity for a cheap shot.
That rather pejorative soubriquet is not entirely fair and grievously misjudges him. Remember that Jesus had warned his disciples to beware of false prophets, false Christs. He said, ‘False Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Lo, I have told you beforehand.’ (Matt. 24.24–25). He specifically warned them, ‘if they say, “Lo, he is in the inner rooms,” do not believe it.’ (Matt. 24.26). Thomas was not present when Christ first appeared and, when he was told by his fellows about that manifestation, he may well have had Christ’s words of warning in his mind. He may well have thought that in their febrile state his fellow disciples had suffered some kind of collective hallucination. Eight days later when Jesus again appeared among them, as if from nowhere, with the doors shut, perhaps then Thomas thought that he was seeing a ghost or a false Christ, now himself part of a second collective hysteria. Having said earlier that he would not believe his brethren unless he was able to see for himself the imprint of the nails on Christ’s hands, put his finger in the wounds, put his hand in Christ’s side where the spear had entered, now Jesus invited him to do just that but, and significantly, Thomas did not. He said simply straightforwardly, ‘My Lord, and my God.’ (John 20.28). There was no hesitation. There was no doubt. The words were spoken with assurance and conviction. No longer doubting, Thomas had seen and believed.
‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ asked Jesus. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe.’ (John 20.29). We have not seen but believe. We did not see the empty tomb, but we said ‘Christ is risen, alleluia.’ But we do still meet him in the breaking of the bread and in the wine that are his body and his blood. He is with us in our tabernacles and on our altars.
St Thomas’s scepticism is understandable and is human. It is not detrimental to faith. Rather, his is a beneficial witness. His reservations and hesitation remind us that discernment and good judgement are essential, vital elements in the exercise of our faith. Our Lord’s conception, birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension can all withstand such scrutiny. Faith is a matter of heart and mind, of feeling and intellectual conviction. Thomas helps us to respond in the wholeness of our human personality, body and soul, mind and heart. Doubting Thomas has a better and more helpful soubriquet from our brethren in the Orthodox Church. There, he is ‘Believing Thomas.’ It is in that tradition that Bishop Jonathan stands.
The third reason for Bishop Jonathan’s invitation to preach this evening was our happy years as colleagues and our many years of friendship. He as Principal, our dear friend Fr Barry Orford and I formed what I like to think of as a trinitarian partnership of mutual respect and liking. They were ten gloriously happy years. For his part in that I am immensely grateful and hope that this sermon, in some small measure, my dear Jonathan, repays for those years. But, as he well understands and knows, it is not to him that the glory and our thanksgiving belong.
‘Yet is the Highest farre beyond all telling
Fairer than all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties joynd together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse
The image of such endlesse perfectness?’
(Edmund Spenser, ‘Faire is the heav’n’)
Our thanksgiving belongs to God in Trinity, God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God in Christ Jesus, our hope and salvation, the great and eternal high priest to whom be all thanks and glory, now and until the ages of ages.
St Andrew’s, Holborn 2019, on the 25th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham