john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    On Ordination - and connecting with the Body

    Christ Church Norris Green, 21/6/2009

    1 Corinthians 12.12-26

    Eight years ago this month, in the massive central space of Liverpool Cathedral, surrounded by tens of hundreds of people, at the heart of the annual Service of Ordination of Priests, a lone, unaccompanied voice sang out in supplication:
    "Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire..."
    It was the voice of Bishop James; but it might have been the voice of the tiniest child for its smallness, its vulnerability, its tiny cry to a great God. [1]

    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:
    "... And lighten our celestial fire;
    Thou the anointing Spirit art,
    Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart."
    We all sang out those words, meaningful in their mystery, calling on the Holy Spirit to bring light and fire and the gifts of God to enable us to serve our creator in clearer, purer, better ways. For me, these moments summed up the ordination to the priesthood. The tiny voice stirring and then being wrapped up in the great voice of the whole of God's people, together summoning the Holy Spirit for help and inspiration. That's what it's about, I felt then, and think now. Because I feel strongly connected to the Body of Christ.

    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. Members of The Body.

    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 previous at Waterloo Baptist Church, with Holy Trinity folk who were greatly supportive and friendly to me since my arrival there a year before. I greeted people I've campaigned with in anti-poverty work in Liverpool; young people who I'd been a youth worker with, who were there because they felt I'd played a special role in their lives.

    I shared the peace with friends who'd stayed friends with me in the years that I'd left the church, my years in the wilderness when a combination of long periods of unemployment and seeing friendships and marriages break up made me lose faith in the church, thinking it had no message for us, had no way of dealing with life's big problems. The friends who stayed by me in those years helped me through, helped me to see that even when the church struggles to make its message clear, the Body of Christ can hold together.

    So at that moment in the cathedral I 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, and 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. It's about finding that strength, together, in the Body of Christ.

    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. That we 'get' what St Paul means when he writes about the church being The Body of Christ.

    St Paul says that we can't do without each other, in the church. Just as the knee bone is connected to the leg bone, so we are connected to each other in Christ. And just as the eye needs the hand and the head needs the feet, so we need other to grow and strengthen our relationship with Christ.

    I wonder how connected you feel to the Body of Christ?

    You've heard my story of ordination day when I realised very strongly just how connected I was.

    I might have told other stories. Like the connection I felt to the Body of Christ from a very early age, when my grandmother took me along to church and in my heart I knew that this was as important to her - and to me - as family was.

    I might have told you about the connection I felt when at one of those services - as a four-year-old I got very excited when we started saying the Lord's Prayer and I embarrassed my grandma by telling her in a very loud voice: 'We say this at nursery school too!'.

    I wonder how connected you feel to the Body of Christ? And which people or what things about the church help you feel connected?

    For some people it is being involved in the work of the Church which helps make that connection. I came back into the church from my wilderness years when a friend said to me, 'we need leaders for our youth club, what are you doing Sunday night?' and that was me, hooked back in. Involved in a regular piece of work, an activity which fulfilled me and - joy of joys - helped others too.

    For some people it is being healed in the fellowship of the Church which helps make that connection. So many of us have known that we are part of the body when our own particular body - or soul - is not functioning properly, and people in the Church have helped us to find healing. Maybe after a bereavement where we realise that although we have been severed from one we were so close to, we still have connections with others - connections which help us recover our hope, help us through. 'If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it,' writes Paul.

    I wonder how connected you feel to the Body of Christ? And which people or what things about the church help you feel connected?

    For some people it is coming to worship, sharing in the singing and the praying and the learning together which helps make that connection. I described that happening to me in a great cathedral event some years ago; but in smaller but equally significant ways it happens every week sharing with our congregation - today, this congregation - the joy of worshipping together. Maybe worship is like the lifeblood which pumps through our corporate Body, or the energy source, the adrenaline, which keeps the Body functioning together.

    Richard Foster says,
    In contrast to the religions of the East, the Christian faith has strongly emphasised corporate worship. Even under highly dangerous circumstances the early community was urged not to forsake the assembling of themselves together (Hebrews 10:25). The Epistles speak frequently of the believing community as the 'body of Christ.' As human life is unthinkable without head, arms, and legs, so it was unthinkable for those Christians to live in isolation from one another. In addition, when the people of God meet together, there often comes a sense of being 'gathered' into one mind, becoming of one accord (Phil 3:15).' [2]
    So today we gather, together, some of us feeling strongly connected to each other in the unity of the body of Christ, some of us not so much. Some of us knowing what it takes to help us know we belong, others of us still searching for that sense of belonging. Some of us loving the worship which unites us, some of us wondering what it's really all about, what it's for, whether it's any help to us at all. Some of us feeling very connected, some feeling weak and dispensable. St Paul reminds us that,
    The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you', nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.
    Let us celebrate and give thanks today for the Body of Christ, and our own particular part in it.

    [1] First part of this talk based on my reflection On Ordination, June 2001
    [2] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline