notes from a small curate
written for friends, family, parishioners, June 2001
In the massive central space of Liverpool Cathedral, surrounded by tens of hundreds of people, at the heart of this year's Service of Ordination of Priests, a lone, unaccompanied voice sang out in supplication:
It sang for me, and for the other sixteen folk kneeling at the altar rail awaiting the laying-on of hands to mark our mysterious transformation into priests, a substantial moment in our faith journey. It sang for us because we were feeling quite awed by the occasion; by a sense of our smallness in that vast place; feeling exposed with all those eyes on our backs; feeling alone in the crowd, separated out from the rest of the congregation for a particular sort of ministry; dazzled by the awesome responsibility and glory of it all.
The next moment moved me deeply; because following that lonely plaintive voice the great organ struck up and the whole assembly, from the far end of the cathedral to the pews beyond the choir, all full to bursting, followed through with the next lines:
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart."
We were on our knees for about forty minutes, us seventeen. It hurt. We each had the Bishop lay hands on our head, surrounded by supportive clergy in a kind of 'holy huddle'. When Bishop James prayed "Send down the Holy Spirit upon your servant John for the office and work of a priest in your Church," he was using words that bishops have repeated at Ordination services throughout the centuries way back to the early church. These words give priests the authority to preach and minister the sacraments, authority from God through the power and influence of the Holy Spirit, with the blessing of God's people. They show how the priest has to depend constantly on God to do their work well; they're words which humble and affirm them.
When we got up from the rail, knees creaking, backs aching, it was to turn and go back into the congregation, sharing the peace just as we all do at each communion service. And this was meaningful too. Because our congregations are where we belong; it's through their Christian leaders and teachers and friends that priests hear the call to ordained ministry. Their calling is to be "set among" the people of God, "to offer with them spiritual sacrifices acceptable in God's sight". Priests are part of the people; called through the people to a key role in the life and work of the people.
I shared the peace with members of my family who have encouraged me in my emerging ministry for many years; with friends from the Iona Community which has been a source of energy and deep fellowship for me over the past decade. I shook hands with folk I've worked alongside running kids' clubs in Toxteth and prayer courses in Crosby, with my Sunday School teacher from 25 years ago at Waterloo Baptist Church, with Holy Trinity folk who have been greatly supportive and friendly to me since my arrival here last year.
I greeted people I've campaigned with in anti-poverty work in Liverpool, and exchanged hugs with friends who've put up with my foibles and stuck with me through my struggles while I came to terms with the calling to ordained ministry. I thought as I walked the length of the Cathedral looking for them, all these people share in the priestly ministry I've just accepted, because I came to it through them, and will carry on working it out with them as I go on from here.
When I was a community worker at St Gabriel's I wrote a poem called 'Weak'. It was about the enormity of the task of serving God in a place which had so many obvious needs. It asked: "How can the Spirit help us, Weak as we are?"
Being a priest feels no different to being a community worker in that respect. It's all about being part of the people of God, struggling in the face of the vast forces of the world to maintain our hope and celebrate God's resurrection life. It's about calling out weakly, in dependent faith, to our God, for help and strength.
Priests are asked to be the ones who start off the singing, to prompt God's people in praying. But priests are not called to be separate or alone in their tasks. It's when the great voice of the whole of God's people join in, summoning the Holy Spirit for help and inspiration, that the meaning of 'Church' becomes whole.