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Sermon for
an Ordination of Priests
by the Rev’d Canon Tony Harwood-Jones

St.John’s Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba
November 7, 1996

(Memorial of St.Willibrod)
Ordinands: the Rev’d Brad Elliott
the Rev’d Aubrey Hemminger
the Rev’d Joan Lawrence

I  invite you to use your imagination...

As vividly as you can, imagine what it means to be called by God.

The call comes – not necessarily by an audible voice speaking your name, though it can happen – more probably it comes through an inner conviction which grows inside you, a conviction – which you can’t shake – that you are to put the service of God above everything else.

Imagine setting out on a lifetime of faithful obedience to God.  From here on, no excuses, you have to be in church every Sunday, whether you like it or not.  You have to speak the words of the service with sincerity and conviction, not only meaning it in your heart, but looking like you mean it, month after month, year after year, for the rest of your life.

And each week, after Sunday service is over, imagine greeting as many of the people as you can, warmly and affectionately, taking a real interest in all the little details of their joys and sorrows.

If you should find out that one of them is sick, imagine rushing to the hospital – to find them – as soon as possible, then sitting or standing by the bedside, sharing pain and hope and fear, and drawing those around you into the presence of God through a gentle and heartfelt prayer.

Imagine yourself making it your business to know as much as possible about the social ills of our present age, and actively working – indeed crying out – to correct injustice and to help the poor.

Imagine taking upon yourself a life in which you must be constantly loving, constantly understanding, and constantly forgiving; a life, moreover, where lying, fraud, materialism, and adultery are not only out of the question, your involvement in them would rock heaven and earth!

Imagine a life of daily prayer, and regular and careful study of the Bible, so that all might count on you for peace and serenity, and for an in-depth knowledge of the Scriptures.

Imagine being known and recognized, wherever you go, as one whose life is devoted to God, and consider never being afraid to encourage others to come to church, and to live lives of faith and commitment.

And finally, imagine all of this being commissioned and acknowledged and inaugurated at a solemn church gathering, where everyone present prays for you, and where the hands of the presider bring upon you the sign that the Holy Spirit of God is filling you, and enabling you, and strengthening you, and is never ever going to leave you!

How do you feel?

How do you feel particularly when I say that I am not talking about ordination at all, but about Baptism -- about the life and obligation of every single Christian on the planet?

In this ordination today, Brad and Aubrey and Joan are not about to begin a life of “church every Sunday, daily prayer, Bible study, caring for people, and mission.” That is was they have been called to do since their baptism, and is what all of us, lay and Clergy alike, are always called by God to do.

I certainly want to tell you what they are about to begin through this ordination, but I can’t do that without first trying to make it absolutely clear what ordination is not.

We have to come at it in this negative way because, over the years, the church – both lay and clergy alike – has developed some bad habits about ordination in general and about priesthood in particular.

We have fallen into the habit of treating ordained people as if they were the aristocrats of the church, while the non-ordained were, by comparison, some kind of riff-raff.

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“Mommy, it’s a Parade!”

I have never forgotten a tale which some people used to enjoy telling about me, from the days when I was young and people thought that I was some kind of ‘hippie’ priest.  In 1968 I had grown my hair in a semi-“Beatle” cut, and in those days it was blonde and shiny and naturally wavy.

I was the assistant priest at All Saints’ church, which, as you probably know, favours beautiful worship, and on occasion very grand processions full of choristers and clergy in stately robes.  I was bringing up the rear of just such a procession one Sunday, with my flowing blonde hair tumbling over the collar of a beautiful gold floor-length cape – or cope, as it is called – with the organ playing gloriously and everyone singing their hearts out, when – in the lull between verses – a child’s voice piped up...

“Mommy, it’s a parade!! ...and here comes the princess!”

Well, since this was about eight years before women were ordained, you might want to treat this is the first blow struck for inclusivity – or maybe I could have turned it into a statement about orientation and the clergy.

But the fact is – humour about my gender notwithstanding – the child sensed intuitively that in that context the clergy were royalty.  Clergy – in fine robes of gold brocade – were the princes – and the princesses – of the church.

And many of us have acted the part with enthusiasm.  We can be bossy, and opinionated, and can terrify others with our royal disdain when they say something that is not theologically – or, God forgive us, “politically” – correct.

And I am not saying this without recognizing that I do it as much as anyone.  Again, if you can forgive a second personal anecdote, some years ago my parish honoured me for the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination, by throwing a banquet and spending “speech time” roasting me until I was well done, if not burnt to a crisp. A feature of the roast was a moment when one of my grown children led all two hundred people present in a chorus of “O Tony, you are soooo right!”

So I know that it is very easy and natural for clergy to act like royalty.

But the non-ordained get in on the game, too.  Many people find it hard to imagine that clergy put their jeans on one leg at a time.  Some find it hard to imagine that clergy might wear jeans at all! There are those who feel that a sick visit from the clergy is a visit from the church, while a visit from a lay person is not; or that a parish organization attended by the Rector is important, while one which the Rector misses is not.

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Many of us find that lay people put us up on a pedestal – expecting us to be the church single-handedly – being entertaining to the young, sympathetic to the sick, wonderful speakers, excellent listeners, always available, yet always out on rounds visiting the flock.  Without a doubt this pressure, felt by so many clergy, reflects a common view among the laity that ordained people are somehow special, and somehow supremely good at everything.

What troubles me most, however, is how frequently I have seen someone who begins to be a person of prayer, or to give leadership in the church, who finds that other laypeople, on noticing this, begin to say, “O you’re so religious, you should be ordained!” Or candidates for ordination themselves – when asked why they want to become clergy – explain it by saying that they want to serve God.

What??  Can we not serve God by being good neighbours, good parents, good choir members, good Sunday School teachers?

And so over the years the church developed a very bad habit of treating the ordained as if they were the real Christians, the committed Christians, the life-time Christians, and everyone else as a kind of little helper or cheering section for the clergy.

Please, don’t let yourself get sucked into the idea that – by ordaining Brad and Aubrey and Joan today – they will somehow be better or holier than others.

I can think of several people in the congregations I have served who are far nicer and far holier than I am.

Please don’t start thinking that these three are now somehow going to be more prayerful than anybody else.

I can think of many who are far better at prayer and at kneeling in the presence of the Lord than I am.

Nor should we start thinking that these three are the only kind of people who are called by God.

God calls all of us to take our place in the family of disciples.  Some of us God calls to be teachers, some to be evangelists, some to be generous givers, and some to be caregivers.  God calls some to be prophets in this society of ours, and some to be administrators of the organization of disciples.  What everyone of us must do is to find out the specific things that God has called us to do, and then willingly and gladly to do them.

A handful God has called to be bishops, priests and deacons.  This handful of people is neither better or worse than anyone else through being so called.  These offices are merely what God has assigned to certain people, among dozens of gifts and tasks which God distributes to every member of the Christian church.

Brad and Aubrey and Joan are about to receive the laying-on of hands to become priests.

What is it that they have been called to do, and what must they now begin?

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To the Table of the Lord for the very first time

There is one simple change which will occur as a result of this evening’s work.  For the first time in their lives, they will be entitled to preside at the form of worship called the Eucharist, or the Holy Communion.

This is both simple, and extremely complex.

It’s simple because it doesn’t look like much of a change.  They are used to being in front of a group of people.  They are used to leading worship.  All have preached on many occasions.

Now, they will merely stand at the table of the Lord with a plate of bread and a cup of wine before them, and once more lead in public prayer.

But what a difference this small thing makes!

The Sacrament of the Eucharist is so central to what the Christian family is all about.  Jesus, at the crisis point in his earthly ministry took these simple earthly symbols and told his disciples to always do this.  He gave them to believe that when they take the bread and cup to the centre of their times together, he himself will be powerfully present.

Thus, to be the presider at the Eucharist is to be the hands and voice of Jesus.  Not a trivial thing.  A matter of awe and mystery and wonder and the deepest humility.

And there is more.

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The Gift and Responsibility of Presiding

The Eucharist is a device which God, in Jesus Christ, invented to bind his people together.  In it we are made one with God and joined to one another in a mysterious bond.

To preside at the moment when the people of God become one is to be in some way the instrument of pulling them together.  The presider is both a sign of unity and the means of unity.

It is simply thick skinned and short sighted to say that to preside at the Eucharist is just a matter of being able to read and to speak clearly.  If this were so, the church could save itself a lot of time and trouble by buying some of those animated robots which are featured in Winnipeg’s gambling casinos, or in a certain child-oriented pizza restaurant.  If presiding at a Eucharist was nothing more than reading off the form of service, these robots could be dressed up the in the robes of a priest, and be programmed to rattle off the the Eucharist any time we need one.

No the presider must be a real person, a person to whom the rest of us – as brothers and sisters in Christ – can relate;  a person who draws us together, whether we are in the midst of our worship, or chatting over coffee, or engaged in some aspect of the church’s business.

When I was preparing this sermon, I happened to be involved in a memorial service for several people who had died in a nursing home where I do some pastoral care.  As part of the service, brief biographies of the departed individuals were read out, and in one such biography, the word “preside” leaped out at me.  Let me read it to you now...

“Gladys, or ‘Nanny’ as she was often referred to, was our Matriarch, who presided over family gatherings and [was] given the place of honour.  This honour was more to satisfy us, than her.”

“...more to satisfy us, than her...”  Clearly this family chose this mother and grandmother to be the focal point of their unity.  She connected them, simply by being who she was, and simply by taking her place there among them.  She made her comments, she issued approval and disapproval.  Family members referred to her and deferred to her.  Above all, they achieved their unity in her.

So too with the priest.  We choose a person, and invite him or her to become the focal point of our unity.  At the altar and away from the altar, through the person of the priest, the rest of us, each with our own discipleship and ministry, want to find ourselves connected to God and to one another.  When the gifts of God work through the priest properly, we should be able to find ourselves able to co-operate better, to accomplish more, and to care more for one another.

Well!  It almost looks as if I have taken something away with one hand, and given it back with the other!

I began by insisting that ordination sets up just a few of the many ministries which God calls all of us to do; and that it is wrong to distinguish the ordained as if they are somehow more Christian or more faithful than anyone else.  Then, in talking about presiding I suggest that it is somehow a place of mystery and honour, and of pivotal importance in the life of the church.  Isn’t that once more setting up the priest to be a princess or a prince?

The priestly calling is pivotal to the life of the church, and it is loaded with mystery and responsibility (if not honour).  What we must avoid is suggesting that priesthood is the only way for a sincere Christian to exercise a calling.  We do well – not by diminishing the significance of ordination, but by increasing our understanding of the ways we are all called to lives of ministry and discipleship.  We don’t need to do away with grand processions with vestments; we should just have more people in them besides the clergy: we could have the treasurer, the missioner, the food distributor, and dozens of others in places of honour and ministry in procession!

In fact, since the job of a priest, as a presider, is to connect the ministers of God to God and to one another, if we do not have an enhanced view of the calling of every Christian there will be no one left to connect.

I pray for a church full of active and valued ministers – and I look forward to seeing how that church will look when its gatherings are presided over by Aubrey, or Joan or Brad.

Joan brings a rich background in music and creativity and pastoral care – and, although I am anticipating your answer when you are asked the question later in the service, in my opinion she is well suited to being a presider among the ministers of Christ.  During his days as a letter carrier Aubrey connected the people on his walk with their friends and relatives around the world – but he also brings a deep prayer life and a natural ability to pastorally connect people to one another; so I think he too will be excellent in the life of a presider.  Brad comes to this vocation out of social work.  I can personally attest that he has a deeply felt passion for including people, especially the marginalized, which in my opinion ideally suits him for the work of one who symbolizes unity.

I know all three of you will not rule with an iron rod over the people of God.  But I pray that you will preside over the gatherings of the people of God with wisdom, strength, sincerity, and humility.  And, I pray that through your ministry from this solemn moment onward, we all will become closer to God and to one another, and be reaffirmed in the ministry to which God has called us in our baptism.

© 1997 & 2010, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.

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