Nicholas Chamberlain preaches at the ordination of Fr Ross Copley to the diaconate
St John’s Gospel, Chapter 1, verse 50 ‘Jesus answered, Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these’. Well, I guess it’s quite reassuring that we will see greater things than what we might see when sat under a fig tree…I happened to buy a fig tree last year, and I’ve enjoyed watching it fruit – it’s been quite productive – but it lives in a pot and I would have difficulty, as yet, sitting underneath it. And, renowned as it is for so much wonderful local food, Lincolnshire’s fig plantations are still works in progress, so we do need to look elsewhere for our ‘greater things’.
Perhaps to the angels? We are continuing to bask, after all, in the glow of Tuesday’s festival (Michaelmass): should we not look to the presence of angels as part of the ‘greater things’ that Jesus promises? I think we surely should. But as we look towards the angels, might we please do all that we can to avoid domesticating them? Shops and other emporia are full of golden, winged cherubs. We can buy them on cards, they come as decorations, they look cheeky and cheerful, and I am sure that they lift hearts and provide comfort, some of them even appear in churches, but to me at least these plaster figures are imitations, domesticated versions of the real thing, and we should beware attempting to domesticate angels, just as we should beware of attempting to domesticate deacons, but I’ll come to that subject in a moment.
For angels are not pets. Angels are awesome. They are uncreated beings, key parts of the divine economy that exists, but that we so often deny or forget, until we encounter them in real life. Consider the young woman, Mary, whose whole being was overturned by her encounter with Gabriel, as was ours in consequence. Gabriel, the messenger, Gabriel to whom was entrusted the breaking of the news that Mary would conceive and bear a son who would be the Son of God. While in art, Gabriel is frequently a graceful, winged figure, and indeed may be so, surely the paint struggles to capture the angel’s awesome presence. This is an encounter between created and uncreated, between one realm and another. This is the beginning of the next phase of the tearing back and reconfiguring of our existence that Jacob glimpsed when he saw the angelic ladder. Wherever that encounter between Mary and Gabriel took place – so often pictured as being in her chamber – this is not a purely domestic scene, but the interface between different realities that has cosmic and eternal consequences.
Or consider Michael, about whom we hear in Revelation, as the one who leads the angels in the battle against the dragon. Whatever we make of this scene literally, its underlying message seems to me to be that God’s purposes are served in different realms by different beings, and that sometimes we are able to see these different beings from our own place and time. Michael proclaims the sovereignty of God, and contends for him, a scene that is vividly illustrated by the poet Milton: ‘Author of evil, unknown till thy revolt, unnamed in heaven. … how hast thou disturbed heaven’s blessed peace, and into Nature brought Misery … But think not here to trouble holy rest; heaven casts thee out.’ (VI 260)
This is powerful stuff, as is the description of Raphael’s healing intervention in the story of Tobit in the apocrypha to the Hebrew Bible, as is the description of Uriel, who holds the sword and the flame, and who is seen as a sign of ‘God my light’. – II Esdras 4 Do not attempt to domesticate angels. Rather, rejoice to know that they exist, and remember that you, also, may encounter them, or may entertain them, unknown. Angels are very much part of the ‘greater things’ of which I hope we are aware today, as we both continue to celebrate the festival of Michael and all the Angels, and as we ordain Fr Ross to the sacred service of the Lord and his people as a deacon. For not only is this a festival day, this is a day of personal and corporate celebration in which hopes long expressed are answered, and in which a vocational step is publicly enacted.
Father, it is a privilege to share in this occasion, and it is an even greater privilege to have been invited to preach. I’ve talked about angels, and the bigger vision and perspective to which they call us, which is so sorely needed in our reduced and domesticated world. What about deacons? Well, if I can put it this way, I think that deacons and angels have some things in common; not, of course, that you are an angel, even though I hope that you might have been called one by some kind souls on occasion: ‘so kind – such an angel!’ No, I really do think that the ministry of a deacon should have about it something of the courage and the determination and the selfless service, that I see intrinsic to the angelic order. All Christian ministry should have these qualities, but the ministry of a deacon should have them in particular. The ministry of the deacon is not easy. You have a voice in the liturgy, a really important one, but it is heard only from time to time. Yours is, as it were, a voice from the edge, a liminal voice. You proclaim the gospel, and it is done surrounded with smoke and garlanded with fanfares, but once we carry these words in our hearts out in the world as you dismiss us, that gospel voice can so easily be drowned out. But to me at least, the fact that liturgically you and only you if you are present proclaim the gospel gives me something to hang on to: you embody the vulnerable, subversive, hidden power that is the gospel latent in our lives and world. It is like light shining on steel or like the flash of the kingfisher. ‘Out there’ many people don’t listen. ‘In here’ we listen and then have to consider how we respond, and we must try to remember. The limited, liminal, but powerful voice of the deacon, angelic in its messenger role, matters. Similarly, to minister as Christ bids us minister, as servants, is something that you embody as you wear your stole of authority across your shoulder as a towel, and in which you have to have the persistence of Raphael with Tobias and Tobit and his creativity. Deacons have, repeatedly, been entrusted with important and difficult tasks, such as the pastoral care of the week and the vulnerable, and, as in the case of Lawrence or Stephen, have borne the cost of their service by giving their own lives as martyrs. To stand up for the poor, to argue for a right use of wealth, to minister healing in this persistent way, which is all part of your ministry as a deacon, is not without risk, but is vital to the health of the body as a whole.
Deacons are not called to be domesticated any more than angels are they are called to have a particular and brave role in the life of church and world; they are called to remind us of eternal perspectives, and of earthly responsibilities, and to do so by using their hands and their voices, and this call is both joyful and costly. So while we often think of the ministry of deacons as being one that is essentially practical, I would like to suggest that the ministry of a deacon is actually distinctive because it combines the practical and the, as it were, theological. Deacons announce God, contend for God, work for God’s healing, and they do so in word and in action. It is the foundational ordained ministry of the Church, and those of us who bear other orders forget that we are deacons at our peril.
So a lot is going on in today’s worship! And there’s a lot going on for you, Ross. We all have many things to celebrate today, we all have many things to remember today, and the focus really does fall on you, now – and you are ready – this is what you have been preparing for. In just a few moments, therefore, we will open our hearts to God, pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and seek the Lord’s grace of orders for Father Ross. But one final thought. It goes without saying that this ordination has been delayed in consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it is taking place in a different way from the way in which it would have taken place had there been no pandemic.
It is far too early to make definitive sense of all that God is calling us to be in consequence of this disease as His Church. However, I think we can conclude that while the outward aspects of what is going on in our lives as disciples might have changed or be changing, the inward essence remains. On occasions such as this, those of us who have been ordained probably always have the tendency to look backwards, and those of us who have attended ordinations might also do the same: ‘do you remember when?’ And I do. I remember my ordination as deacon. I remember that very soon after that ordination I was invited to be the deacon of the mass in a local parish with three hundred people present, a street procession of the statue and the banner and then benediction. I remember being terrified and awestruck. Perhaps such times will come again. Perhaps the times have changed and the Lord is calling us to something different. I am content to try to leave these things in the Lord’s hands and I don’t want to be constantly looking back. What is asked of us, whatever is happening in the world, is faithful, courageous, determined and loving service, with attentiveness to God, attentiveness to God’s people, and with an eye open for the angels that are surely there if only we don’t crowd them out. We are called to look forwards, not backwards, to seek the greater things that we have been promised, and not to be seduced by what we perceive to be the glories of the past. The Lord who loves us sets us free, the Eternal Father presides over this world, the next world and many worlds as yet unknown to us, the Holy Spirit strengthens us and equips us, enables us and entrances us. We will indeed see greater things, and we will see them in the company of the angels, and in the company, soon, of a new deacon. Good News indeed!
The Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain is The Bishop of Grantham. He delivered the attached sermon at Fr Ross Copley’s diaconal ordination by the Bishop of Richborourgh at All Saints, Lincoln on 1 October.