Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Coronavirus Pastoral Letter 7 9th April 2020


9th April 2020
Maundy Thursday
Pastoral Letter No. 7


Fr Andrew writes:

In any ordinary Holy Week the Bishop invites all the deacons, priests and bishops in the diocese to the cathedral to reaffirm the promises made at ordination and to be reminded of how their ministry serves the whole people of God, and are not simply an end in themselves. This most often happens on Maundy Thursday. This year, of course, that gathering with the Bishop – known as the Chrism Mass - cannot take place (although there is a virtual replacement!).

Each Holy Week it is my practice to reread the Ordinal and ponder afresh its meaning in my own ministry. It is worth a read by everyone, clergy or not. (https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/ministry/common-worship-ordination-services#mm014). It sets out in clear and beautiful ways what your bishops, priests and deacons are all about (or meant to be). It is a means of reconnecting with Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd and our great High Priest.

The ministry of a deacon and a priest are distinct. It is worth remembering, not least by priests and bishops, that they were first ordained as deacons and that that ministry of service still holds good for them. Likewise, all clergy were first baptised, and that is the fundamental building block of Christian service which every last one of us shares. In my book you can have as high a doctrine of ordination as you like, as long as your doctrine of baptism is higher! As St Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) said, ‘I am a bishop for you and a Christian with you’ (Sermon 340: ‘On the Anniversary of His Ordination’). That is our first calling, to be disciples. For some who are called that way their discipleship is exercised in public ministry.

It is also worth remembering that, as the Chrism Mass is the place where clergy reaffirm the promises of their ordination, every member of the church reaffirms the promises of baptism at Easter, during the Easter Vigil.

The introduction to an ordination service at which deacons and priests are ordained together sets out the roots of ordained ministry:

“God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given a variety of ministries. Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.

Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.”

That is a good general overview of the place of ordained ministry within the Church. There is a fuller account in the Ordinal of both the role of a deacon and a priest which comes later in the service.

I would like now to share some of my reflections on my priesthood this year, in the era of coronavirus. As in so many areas of life the lockdown has been a game changer in how priestly ministry can be carried out: it has thrown so much into sharp relief. The daily norms and patterns have changed for us as a church and me as the one entrusted with leading the church, preaching the word and celebrating the sacraments (done, of course, in partnership with fellow priests and deacons, lay ministers and lay officers and staff of the church).

I explored the question ‘can a closed church be alive and active?!’ in Pastoral Letter 3 (https://canonandrewb.blogspot.com/2020/03/coronavirus-pastoral-letter-3-23rd.html). A similar question is true for a priest: ‘can a socially distanced priest be alive and active?!’ In the absence of a building and congregation perhaps the role of a priest diminishes. Actually, I believe, and have found this to be the case over the last three weeks or so, that the answer is the opposite: a priest who is socially distanced in the era of modern technology can and should be alive and active as a priest. Indeed in some ways this crisis has brought out more of what it means to be a priest, and a church, than in normal times.

The early Christian experience was living life as a hidden church for it was a church that knew the prospect of martyrdom very readily. Prayer and the breaking of bread was offered in homes and Christians gathered in hidden places, crypts and catacombs. The Church after Constantine (315AD) took on a new public life and the role of bishops changed too: from being characters in the shadows praying for and with their people and being shepherds, they became leaders in the public square – the shepherd’s crook became less prominent and the monarchical mitre became the dominant image of the bishop.

So where are we today? Bishops, who represent the fullness of ordained ministry, are both of the above - shepherds and public figures - but the latter role is decreasing. At the same time the church is learning a new way of relating to society, not being the dominant force we once were, not being able to take for granted that everyone is really a lapsed Anglican unless they are consciously of another denomination or faith. We can lament that, or embrace the reality.

I have come to the conclusion, highlighted in the coronavirus era, that the role of the priest can be distilled down into two key things: offering the sacrifice of the liturgy for, and with, the Church and shepherding the Church. This is captured in the Ordinal: ‘Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent…they are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.’

As with so many people I am looking at the fundamentals of who I am when the accretions of what is deemed ‘how we always do things’ are stripped away.

In the Gospel Jesus looked at the crowds and had compassion on them because ‘they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9.36). I have tried not to feel harassed and helpless like a shepherd without sheep! (Remember that the root of the word ‘congregation’ literally means ‘the coming together of a flock’).

The Ordinal says that as a shepherd and priest I am also to ‘feed and provide for [Christ’s] family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions’. Lockdown tells me I have to be a shepherd in new ways.

In virtual ways, I have to ensure a number of things: a. that the people entrusted to my care is fed spiritually (in the offering of worship), and physically (in ensuring they have access to shopping and provisions); b. that I have search people out who may have fallen through the cracks of care and provision; and c. I have to interpret what we are going through in the light of the hope of the Gospel and encourage people in that hope. That’s why the streaming of worship, pastoral letters and phone calls.

Really importantly I reflect that, whilst I have responsibility for all this, I am also to remember that I do not do this in my strength alone – otherwise it wouldn’t happen! – but the Ordinal reminds me that ‘Guided by the Spirit, [priests] are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.’ I give thanks to God for his grace and for the gifts of my colleagues and congregation(s) that are so evident at the moment.

That is the final pointer to who and what will be as a church and God’s ministers after this crisis has passed. My task is to discern with you how we can come through this stronger and more authentically the Church than when it started: what needs purging away so that we grow deeper in our faith? What are the ‘norms’ of our custom and practice that we take for granted that we really can do without? What are the truly precious aspects of our life as a church that we cannot do without, or that we need more of?

These are key questions for a priest and a church. In the light of all I have said above, I cannot wait until the day when we can congregate (as God’s flock) again: on that day - singing and praying - we will lament the pain and sorrow suffered by so many; we will celebrate our deliverance from the virus; and we will commit ourselves afresh to the enduring love of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, the pattern of every priest’s calling.

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