Ben Rabjohns takes an anniversary to explore humanity, priestly gifts, and what they mean for the Church
I’m afraid that I’m not going to spend the next ten minutes or so telling you how extraordinary Fr Harri Williams is. If I was feeling really brave, I might dare to tease you, Father, and say that you’re quite capable of doing this yourself. But, as I feel myself plummeting rapidly down the list of your favourite brothers-in-law, I’d better beat a quick retreat and say that if Father Harri were, perhaps, not exactly shy about his gifts and abilities, then he would be, just like any of us who are ordained: totally ordinary. A totally ordinary human mixture of gifts, talents and abilities – along with faults, flaws and failings.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit – whose presence and power we invoke in this Mass – to fill our human ordinariness with the very presence and power of God Himself. As Saint Paul says in our reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, ‘working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them’. And today we give thanks that, 10 years ago today, the Holy Spirit was invoked upon Harri for the office and work of a priest – to work in a particular way, in this particular person.
The gift of the priesthood is an extraordinary gift – not because it is above or beyond other gifts given to people by God – but because, by the work of the Holy Spirit, in this gift our ordinariness is added to, filled, transformed, used by God for, as St Paul goes on to say, ‘a good purpose’. The gift of the priesthood is one of the ways in which God blesses the Church and the world with His ‘goodness’.
We give thanks to God for the ways in which He has already used Fr Harri’s gifts and made up for his failings to bless His church and to work His ‘good purpose’. Even more so, we give thanks to God for the extraordinary gift of the priesthood to His Church as the way in which, working in ordinary human beings, the Holy Spirit continues the ministry of Jesus to reconcile and bless, to teach and nourish His people.
It is an astonishing, a wonderful thing, that our humanity can be used in this way – with all its ordinariness and frailty. Astonishing, wonderful, almost unbelievable – and because it’s almost unbelievable we can sometimes shy away from believing it. The Church in our day (or, at least, the Church of England or the Church in Wales) often seems to be frightened by this astonishing claim and to retreat from any idea that there might be some sort of special gift in the priesthood.
Priests can be tempted to retreat into ordinariness – pretending to be just like everyone else: perhaps a paid worker in a charitable organisation, or a particularly enthusiastic community volunteer; we sometimes prefer to measure our life and ministry in terms of emails answered or meetings attended because that is so much more ordinary, understandable, acceptable than our true purpose. And, added to this, we so often hear the priesthood spoken about as though it were something obsolete or outdated – or, even worse, which actively harms the church by stifling or overshadowing the gifts of others.
How often do we hear talk of the need to move away from a reliance on priestly ministry in order to ‘release’ the gifts of the laity? And all of this is sold to us as though it is something obvious and undeniable – that thinking highly, or too highly, of the priesthood – relying on priestly ministry too much, valuing it too much – has stifled and suppressed the ministries and gifts of others. Speaking of the priesthood as something extraordinary has, we’re told, led to other gifts and ministries being regarded as ordinary, unimportant, unvalued. And, so often, this seems to lead to the priesthood being reduced from a gift of the divine into a function within an organisation.
However well-intentioned some of this might be – and however necessary it might be to discover and to encourage gifts other than the priesthood – we start from completely the wrong place if we seek to do this by making any of the gifts of God, given through the Holy Spirit, more ordinary. Because the Holy Spirit always gives extraordinary gifts: gifts which, by God’s grace, make us more than we can be by ourselves, in our human nature. The crisis of the church is not that we have made too much of one particular gift – making too many astonishing claims for the priesthood – but that we have lost sight of the astonishing gift which the Church is in herself, what an extraordinary thing the life of the Church is, how wonderfully, beautifully gifted each one of us is – simply by being a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, even before we consider what other gifts we might have.
Listen to these, almost outrageously bold, words from Blessed Isaac of Stella:
‘The faithful and spiritual members of Christ can truly say that they are what he is, even the Son of God, even God. But he is so by nature, they by sharing; he of his fullness, they by participation. In short, what the Son of God is by birth, his members are by adoption, according to the words of scripture: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, enabling us to cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”’
The Church is what Christ is; and the individual members of the Church – each one of us, whatever our calling – can make this outrageous, astonishing and yet life-giving claim: we are what he is, ‘even the Son of God, even God’. Whatever other gifts we may be given, all of them find their foundation in this. Whether we’re called to be a priest or deacon, given gifts to evangelise or teach the faith to the young, to serve the poor or even simply to pray, none of this is done in our own strength or by our own power but ‘in Christ’ because we are what he is.
We speak so often of the Church being the Body of Christ – and yet, perhaps, we let these words trip too easily off our tongue and lose their true meaning: as though the Church were simply a collection of individuals brought together for a particular purpose; like the governing body of a school. We need to learn to be astonished afresh that the Church is not a collection of individuals with a shared interest or a shared aim but nothing less than Christ’s true body: living with His life, filled with His power, offered for the life of the world.
In our reading from St John’s Gospel we encounter a Church – the Church of the first disciples – which is trembling in fear. Locked behind closed doors the disciples tremble because, just as they have had to accept that Jesus’ great claims had failed and that he had turned out to be nothing extraordinary after all, and as they have perhaps begun to face the sadness – but also the safety – of their lives returning to humdrum normality, they encounter something which is beyond their imagining: the news that He is risen. Their lives tremble on the edge of what that might mean for them.
The Church in our day also trembles: fearful of being anything other than ordinary; fearful of decline, irrelevance or even death; fearful of standing out; fearful of ridicule; fearful, ultimately, of being what those first disciples discovered they must be: the risen body of Christ Himself.
What does this fearful Church need from her priests? Well, we’ve heard an astonishingly bold claim from Blessed Isaac of Stella about what the Church is; let’s hear an equally astonishing claim about the priesthood from St John Vianney – a man, humble in his ordinariness and yet confident in the extraordinary nature of his vocation – who said that: ‘The Priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus’.
The love of the heart of Jesus – what a claim. Because that love can surely be no less than the bond of love which unites our Blessed Lord to His heavenly Father, and which flows from them both into the life of the Church and the world. Surely that love can be no less than the presence of the risen Jesus who stepped into that fear-filled room, spoke words of peace and breathed the Holy Spirit which gave each of those fearful disciples the courage to become what He is and to be sent with His continued ministry of reconciliation.
A fearful Church needs priests who are unafraid to be extraordinary. Who believe, in all humility that, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, their priesthood is given to the Church as the love of the heart of Jesus – a heart which burns with love for the world and for those who are His Body; a heart which calls to them and which makes them no less than what He is: ‘even the Son of God, even God’.
We thank God, Fr Harri, for your priestly ministry and for all that it has thus far been. May it continue to be, and may the ministry of all of us called to share in Christ’s priesthood be, a ministry which overflows with love from the heart of Jesus – love which casts out fear, love which empowers and sustains, love which brings courage from His heart for the Church to know, and to live, the astonishing truth that ‘we are what he is’.
The Reverend Ben Rabjohns is Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of Penrhiwceiber, Matthewstown and Ynysboeth, in the Church in Wales, and Team Rector designate of Heavitree in the Diocese of Exeter. This sermon was preached at the 10th anniversary mass of the ordination of Fr Harri Williams.