The sermon preached by Fr Barry Orford at the consecration of Bishop Paul Thomas
We come joyfully to Fr Paul’s Consecration as a Bishop in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And what better than to present him here as we celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, a Feast of the light of Christ shed on all people. But Candlemass is a good day for consecration because it has an ambiguity which is important when we consider the office and work of a Bishop.
St Luke’s Gospel (2.22-40) offers us two symbols which we mustn’t separate – light, but also a sword. This cathedral church is familiar with applying swords to a bishop, indeed to an Archbishop, but I don’t think St Luke is encouraging that. He shows us Simeon rejoicing in the light in Christ. Then immediately he shows us Our Lord’s mother being given a message about her future suffering.
Before Jesus has even grown up and begun his ministry, St Luke warns us of what is coming; the light and the darkness, the joy and the sorrow, the Cross and the Resurrection. Even though darkness cannot extinguish the Light, and though death is trampled down by the Resurrection, Christian living must include the glory and the piercing sword.
This is true for all Christians, and it certainly speaks to the episcopal ministry. We frequently impose on our bishops quite impossible expectations, which ought to make us ask whether we pray for our bishops anything like as much as we should, because those standing in the succession to the Apostles can’t, if they’re being faithful, avoid the joys and pains of the Apostles, and indeed of the Good Shepherd. Unless they feel them, they can’t help us.
The whole people of God must rejoice in the Good News which has been entrusted to us, and in the riches of our doctrinal and liturgical inheritance, and in belonging to a company of the faithful. There’s the glory for us.
But there’s also the sword to pierce us as we hear the Christian faith subjected to mockery and lies on public media, and as we encounter the relentless (and usually ignorant) assaults of secularism, and (worst of all) whenever we watch the Church tearing itself apart. We feel all these things, and therefore we need to know that our bishops feel them, and that they will stand firm for the faith entrusted to us.
The consecration service contains a list of the duties of bishops in caring for the flock entrusted to them, but inevitably, that list is a formal matter. The real ministry of bishops needs to be expressed in the context of the life we all know.
Father Paul’s experience as a parish priest gives awareness of what the people of God, and those seeking Christian faith, are crying out for. Not more committees and discussions, not more plans for remaking the Church in our own image, not more bandwagons to chase after. We want strong encouragement to hold firm to the Catholic Faith. So to that end, I make a plea to you and to all bishops, BE WITH US where we are.
Be with us as a teacher, and encourage your clergy in that task of teaching. It’s a reflection on how much we’ve lost sight of the real nature of the episcopal role that it might sound astonishing today to be told that a primary task of a bishop is to teach the orthodox faith of the Church and to defend it against error.
Be with us in worship, and in particular remind us of the necessity for reverent worship, with the disciplines involved in it. Show us again the wonder of the Eucharist and the other Sacraments. Teach us to pray, and teach us how to be silent.
Be with us in the way of penitence. Not just in the recognition of personal sins and failure, but in the call to corporate purification. The Spirit is now summoning the Church to chastening, to a humbling realization of the ways in which we squander time, energy and money on secondary matters. By your apostolic witness, remind us of our first call, and of God’s infinite ways of forgiveness and renewal.
Be with us as the one who visits, and who encourages even the smallest congregation with the knowledge that it’s part of the Church universal, and of absolute value in the sight of God.
Be with us when the sword of discouragement strikes us. One of the most insidious techniques of our spiritual enemy is to lead us onto the path of despondency. Nothing else so effectively saps our strength, our initiative and our faith. Lead us again into the Eastertide light of Christ.
And be with us in joy. Not just in cheerfulness, but a joy rooted in the absolute conviction that God in Christ has conquered death. We need this not just for ourselves, but so that we can offer to the world one thing which secularism can never give – ultimate hope.
And so, Father Paul, we hand you over to the vocation to which God has summoned you. You have, of course, all our prayers, especially those of your episcopal colleagues in the Society and in Lichfield.
That great Anglican, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, refers to an ancient tradition that besides the guardian angel appointed to every person, there is a second angel appointed to bishops at their consecration. This shows, he says, ‘what a precious thing that order and those persons are in the eyes of God.’ That being so, dear Father, be of good courage, and go forward, firm in faith.