Monday, 3 July 2017


ORDINATION  RETREAT AT LINCOLN
SUMMER 2017



          ADDRESS 1:  MINISTRY AND THE ANOINTING OF GOD

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

The most important thing we can do before, during and after an ordination is to say our prayers. For all of you, these few days before you are ordained a deacon or a priest are an opportunity to give yourself to prayer at a time when you know better than anyone else how much you need to do this. For us who are accompanying you, and have perhaps accompanied you for years, prayer is the best that we can do for you now.

The ordination service is itself centered on the prayer of the church. It is introduced by the Bishop: “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Then follows the Litany, the prayer that is wide as life itself embracing the world, the nation, the church, the sick, victims, the departed. And without any pause, not even to say Amen, the great intercession moves straight on into the ordination prayer. We pray the prayer of the church at every eucharist. But at this eucharist, we pray for these men and women in this place at this time, kneeling before God at his summons to be ordained. We must never forget that when the Bishop laid hands on us, it was during prayer that was addressed to God: “Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant for the office and work of a deacon or priest in your church”.
In the ordination of priests and bishops, the prayer of the church has been introduced for a thousand years by the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus. We know it best in the English version Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. That translation of a medieval hymn was written by John Cosin in 1625 for (it is said) the coronation of Charles I. At the time he was a canon of Durham; after the Restoration he became one its legendary bishops. It is the only hymn ever to have been given official status in the Church of England by being included in The Book of Common Prayer in 1662. In the modern rites, it is kept in its classic position as the gateway to the litany and ordination prayer. It’s now allowed to use it in the same position at the ordination of deacons too, and this is what we shall be doing on Sunday in the Cathedral.
You couldn’t find a better way of introducing the ordination prayer than to sing the Veni Creator on your knees. It never fails to move me because it reminds me how Christian life is not a matter of strenuous effort but of knowing our own creatureliness, our dependence on God who is our Creator and sustainer, our need for mercy and grace to take hold of us and shape us into the human beings he made us to be, the disciples he has called us to be, the deacons and priests he wants us to be.
So I want in this retreat to offer some reflections on this old and beautiful prayer: five meditations for each of the five stanzas. Each verse of the hymn seems to me to focus on a word, a theme, an idea that can help us as we walk the path of prayer towards ordination. I hope that when we find ourselves singing it in the Cathedral on Saturday and Sunday, it will help us gather up our longings, thoughts, hopes, and above all, our prayers as we call upon the Holy Spirit and lay our lives before God with the words of the prophet on our hearts, “here am I: send me”.

*******


So to the opening stanza. Come Holy Ghost! What do we look for when the Spirit comes? The entire hymn is the answer to that question. But in this first verse where the Spirit is invoked, we ask for two life-changing events to happen: Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire. Inspiration and enlightenment: I am going to come to those gifts of Pentecost in the next address. But the poet goes on to ground this summons of the Spirit in an affirmation: Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart. Here is where I want to begin, because it’s the focus of the entire prayer: Anointing Spirit in verse 1, Blessed unction in verse 2 and Anoint and cheer in verse 3.
Anointing” can seem like a dramatic kind of word, a touch heroic perhaps, sometimes linked with a gifted leader on a public stage who attracts messianic expectations. But here’s a paradox. You often hear it said, that of course we mustn’t have messianic expectations of our leaders. And yet that is precisely what the word “anointing” is linked to in the scriptures. The word messiah literally means “anointed” one, in particular the kings of ancient Israel and Judah whose coronation was sealed by the solemn act of anointing. So when people of faith began to look forward to the One who was to come, they called him by the remembered name that had described Israel’s rulers of old, the “Anointed One”, Messiah, or in Greek, Christ.
So when the hymn speaks of the anointing Spirit, it is consciously referring us back to Christ the anointed one. Simply put, when the Spirit comes to anoint us, we pray, we hope, we expect that there is present among us a power greater than ourselves who can transform our lives into the image of Christ. I am sure you treasure that great Christian classic The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. To imitate him, to become more like him is the goal of all our discipleship. It is the life we were baptised into. And whatever else we find ourselves anointed to do, including serving as ordained ministers, it springs out of this fundamental truth of our baptism, that we are pledged to walk with Jesus in the way of crucifixion and resurrection. The messianic way is the Christ-like way. Anointing with the oil of chrism at baptism is a beautiful symbol of how as St Paul puts it, “our lives are hidden with Christ in God”.
Let’s consider this anointing in relation to ordination (for priests and bishops are anointed at their ordination too). In the Cathedral, we shall invoke the anointing Spirit at this momentous threshold in our lives. Our first instinct might be to look forward, to ask that the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit may equip us for the tasks of ministry. But we need to look back first. Anointing suggests vocation and the decision to be obedient. And that may need you to reach deep into your personal history. How has it come about that God has brought you to this point? In the twists and turns of providence, you have arrived here to be consecrated to the lifelong work of God. By that I mean being no longer simply a Christian in a personal sense, but as a public representative of God and his church. Before the world, as the ordinal emphasises, you are to be an exemplary Christian, a walking sacrament as Austin Farrer put it, of God’s grace and truth alive and embodied among us. Despite the changes and chances of life, or more likely because of them, here you are, with a unique story to tell about your path to this point and the formation you have undergone so that you poised and ready. At the points in life when we “cross over” into a new life, we should ponder the past, be alive to God’s mysterious ways, and give thanks.
When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, God told him: “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1.5). We can imagine Jeremiah, whose vocation caused him endless trouble and which he would have thrown off if he could, looking back and thinking: “I was meant for this. Despite these trials and ordeals, I find within me this irrefutable sense that I am doing what I was intended for all along. It is my destiny to speak and to bear witness as God’s prophet”. There have been times in my forty plus years of priesthood that I have understood those sentiments. And what has saved me has been the instinct, the belief, that I am where I am because this vocation was God’s intent. It is no accident. It is his meaning. I can’t tell you how reassuring that knowledge has been. At times of intense anxiety, I have begun to grasp how Jeremiah could understand his vocation as something ancient and lifelong, even if he didn’t know it. God is closer to us than we are to our own selves, said Mother Julian, perhaps thinking of Psalm 139: “O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me”. Anointing suggests a profound and wonderful sense of being known, led and loved. You need to know this on your ordination day as you sing Veni Creator Spiritus.

*******
But then, of course, ordination looks forward. To be anointed by the Spirit means receiving the charisms we need to do the work of God. The verbs of the Spirit are both active: thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart. Like every gift that means anything, the Spirit’s anointing and imparting are specific to both God as the giver and you as the recipient. And your decision to say yes to this anointing and receive the gifts it brings commits you to an active verb too. That’s why we invoke the Spirit with that opening word of the entire hymn, Come! And I want to urge you to make this not simply an ordination prayer but a lifelong one. The pastoral epistles speak intriguingly about paying attention to and nurturing the gifts of ministry. “Do not neglect the gift that is in you”; “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands”.
What are the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit? They are based on the famous prophecy in Isaiah about the coming king, the shoot from the stem of Jesse who will usher in the reign of peace. “The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, drawing on Thomas Aquinas, the definitive list is set out as: wisdom (loving spiritual things and knowing God);  understanding (how we need to live as followers of Jesus); counsel (right judgment that enables us to discern good and evil, right and wrong); fortitude (courage to overcome our fear and bear witness to Christ); knowledge (discerning and understanding God’s ways in the world and among humanity); piety (reverencing and worshipping God, learning dependence on his grace); the fear of the Lord (abiding in God’s love so as to glorify and please him).
We could have spent the entire retreat exploring these seven gifts in turn. But since Cosin’s version of the Veni Creator doesn’t linger on the detail, perhaps we don’t need to either. The point to emphasise is that these are gifts. In classical thought they are different from virtues. Virtues are our natural human capacities for us to exercise under God. They need shaping and educating if they are to be put to God’s service. But they belong to our characters, to what we are as men and women created in God’s image. Gifts on the other hand are imparted, as the hymn says, given to equip and fortify us so that we can do in the strength of God what we can’t do on our own.
When Jesus began his ministry, St Luke tells us that he announced “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4.18). He was reading from the Isaiah scroll he had been handed in the synagogue. He went on: “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. So it is when every God-anointed ministry is launched. So it will be for all of you, God willing. The gift of anointing is your best protection against do-it-yourself ministry. (We’ll come back to the idea of protection in the third address.)
Late in life, I am realising how important this is, resisting this tendency to heroic self-sufficiency. In the increasingly managerial culture of the church, there can be an assumption that our problems, particularly the decline in church attendance, will be solved if only we can raise our sights, plan strategically, be clear about process, upskill our leaders, generate the resources we need and allocate them efficiently. I am not against any of these things; indeed they can be virtuous and even holy. But only if we don’t make the mistake of thinking that salvation can ever come that way. It’s the old heresy of Pelagianism, the belief that we can do it all by our own efforts. Theoretically, you all believe that God’s grace is the prime mover in all that we do in his name. But it takes time to realise how susceptible we are to the corroding influence of the gospel of frenetic effort, self-help. We mean well, and want to do our very best for God and the church. But believe me (and I had to learn it the hard way), it’s the certain route to burnout, despondency and loss of hope. That’s why looking after ourselves well is one of the duties we owe ourselves if we are to flourish in ministry. But healthy attitudes in ministry always flow, I think, from living awareness of God and his grace, and developing good habits so that we draw on it.
Looking ahead to the next verse of Veni Creator for a moment, we find it begins with a lovely phrase to describe what this anointing Spirit give us: Thy blessed unction from above / Is comfort, life, and fire of love. We’ll come to the life and fire tomorrow. But this beautiful word comfort, as we know, is one of the English words linked to the translation of the Greek word Paraclete. The Comforter is not primarily the visitant who makes us feel better, but the Strengthener who gives us back our lives and equips us to do what God asks of us. That is the best antidote to Pelagianism. Our best protection against thinking we can save ourselves, and destroying ourselves in the process, is to invoke the Spirit-Comforter who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart, to “pray earnestly” for them, as the Bishop says in the ordination liturgy.
But not only then. Why not pray Veni Creator every day as we offer ourselves once more for God’s work in and through us as his ministers? Our opening stanza makes it clear what ministry is at its heart. It is a gift of God to his church and to each of us, whatever ministry we are called to. The ordinal could not make this plainer. “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God” the Bishop will tell you. “Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged.” Enlarged so that you can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, enlarged so that you embrace all of ministry, all of life, as gift. Enlarged so that you too can give out of the abundant generosity with which God gives to you.
Enlarged, too, so that you can truly give yourselves to this vocation. Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Jesus calls a man (or a woman), he bids them come and die.” This is what he called the cost of discipleship. It's the cost of ministry too. We cannot bear the weight of this cross on our own. But with the anointing Spirit in our hearts, with the abundance of God’s grace, we can contemplate it, open our hearts to it with all the generosity and comfort God gives, and begin to walk it. I'm not promising it will be easy or straightforward: public ministry in the twenty-first century calls us to immerse ourselves and to serve in a world of often bewildering complexity, and face challenges that I did not imagine in the 1970s. There is plenty of “dying” we need to do as the ordained, at least to ourselves. “Who is sufficient for these things?” asks St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. But if Cosin’s hymn offers us anything as we prepare to be ordained, it is surely the promise that God’s grace will be sufficient for us. We willingly offer ourselves, like the Son seeing the pain of the world in R S Thomas’ poem that the Bishop quoted in his charge. “Let me go there” he said.
Those are the words and promises of Saturday evening and Sunday morning. On Monday morning it will be time to live them out, and on all the days of your ministry that follow.
Which is why we must “pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Veni Creator Spiritus!


 

ADDRESS 2:  MINISTRY AND THE ILLUMINATION OF GOD

Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.

The themes of the Veni Creator are beautifully intertwined throughout its five verses. We’ve seen how anointing lies at the heart of this prayer to the Holy Spirit. Our second verse picks it up at the outset with Thy blessed unction from above. And here John Cosin begins to elaborate on what this anointing will mean for us. When the Spirit comes, he says, there is comfort, life and fire of love. As I’ll suggest next time, comfort and life look forward to the theme of the third verse which is how the Spirit protects us against all that makes us afraid. Today, let’s focus on where, the weight seems to fall in this trio of unction-gifts, the fire of love. 
There’s a long spiritual tradition that draws on the metaphor of fire. In Jewish and Christian spirituality, God’s revelation of himself to Moses at the burning bush is a key source, as is the pillar of cloud and fire that led the Hebrews on their wilderness journey, and the making of the covenant and the giving of the law on the mountain of Sinai. If you’ve been there you’ll understand how the divine name was forever associated with those fierce desert landscapes, and why prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah looked fondly back to those desert traditions and lamented what Israel had lost when it succumbed to the temptations of a settled and fertile life in Canaan.
The New Testament fires of Pentecost continue this tradition as if to say, this God of the desert still speaks today on this Feast of Weeks that commemorates the giving of the law at Sinai. In the era of the new covenant, he is still the originator of the fire that brings warmth and energy and above all the light that transforms life. Light is the universal symbol of philosophical and religious understanding and awareness. “Let there be light” is God’s first word to the cosmos in the creation story. The decisive awakening in the life of the Buddha he called his enlightenment. In Plato, humanity is depicted as crawling helplessly around in a dark cave until a window is glimpsed and light penetrates both the cave human minds. In St John’s marvellous prologue, “in him”, that is, in the incarnate Word, “was light, and the light was the light of humanity. The light shone in the darkness. And the darkness could not overcome it”.
Seeing, or not seeing, are metaphors of our human condition. In the gospels, being healed of your blindness and having your eyes opened is a fundamental image of becoming a follower of Jesus. Words like sight, vision, enlightenment, illumination are everywhere in the religious language of both east and west. And this, I think, is what the hymn is praying for. Lighten with celestial fire we prayed in verse one. Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight. Cosin’s thought is: let the fire of love teach me how to see in a new way, how to see in God’s way. Let it illumine my path, shine a light on the world I am living in, penetrate what is dark and obscure so that I perceive more clearly, know myself in a new way and above all, know and love the God who is my life and light and love.
Knowing God is of course the goal of all human living, and it is where the hymn takes us towards the end. I’ll come back to that in a later address. For now, let’s explore what illumination might mean for us as ordained women and men in the more immediate context of public ministry today. I’ve said that the metaphor of light is related to our learning to see. The two words I want to link to it are insight and discernment, and how we learn to see clearly in the often difficult and confusing life of the ordained minister. For if ever there was a prayer I needed to pray in my years of public ministry, and still need to pray daily, it is Cosin’s: enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.

********
Let me begin with insight. What’s the difference between sight and insight? I think it’s the difference between merely “seeing” and “seeing into” in a more profound way. “Seeing into” means glimpsing meanings, not just what’s on the surface. The poet William Wordsworth spoke about how we need to “see into the life of things”. Another nineteenth century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, coined the word inscape to describe this way of engaging with the deep structures of reality, like a landscape that you don’t merely view from afar but immerse yourself in so that you inhabit it and feel it becoming part of your own being. Another word for this could be awareness.
I want to say that of all the faculties you need in ordained ministry, the gift of insight is one of the most fundamental. That’s because you are there as deacons and priests because you are people who are learning how to see and you want to help others to see what you see. All of Christian witness, all our preaching and proclamation comes down to seeing. Seeing the truth and love of God in the person of Jesus. Seeing how he is alive and present in our world. Seeing how human lives and communities are transformed by his tender mercy. And our invitation to those we are ministers to is this: “Here is what I see. Perhaps you can see it that way yourself?”
It may seem quaint to describe a Church of England deacon or priest as a “seer” but that is literally what we are. Like the Hebrew prophets and the wise, like the apostles and evangelists of New Testament times, your vocation has given you the capacity for insight into the words and works of God. I don’t mean special revelations that are personal to you so much as the kind of understanding that is formed through years of spiritual discipline and practice and is now ready to be put to good use in the community of faith. The ordinal doesn’t use this language but it makes it clear that you are called to be theologians in the places where you serve. Don’t be alarmed. For what is “theology” but the art and the craft of studying God and his ways, reflecting on our experience in the light of faith, and learning what language to borrow so that we can speak about them. That is your professional expertise (and I use that contested word advisedly: it is what you have been formed and trained in for just this threshold of ordination that you are about to cross). Maybe we should call it religious or spiritual intelligence, the capacity to make sense of faith in the sceptical environment we minister in.
So the Veni Creator is asking the Spirit for the gift of illumination. As Cosin says, its primary object is to dispel the dullness of our blinded sight. But the gift of seeing more clearly is to throw a light on the bewildering complexity of human life – ourselves, others, our society’s, the world’s. To do this wisely and well means keeping the clarity of our own sight in good repair, maintaining what Aldous Huxley called our “doors of perception”. I’m thinking about keeping alive our spiritual discipline as clergy, not simply the formal structures of the daily office that provide the scaffolding of the well-ordered ministerial life, but the more personal practices of Bible reading, lectio, spiritual and theological study, meditation, sacramental devotion. And let me also offer a plea that we don’t forget to cultivate and treasure a well-stocked hinterland of novels, poetry, music, art, film and whatever else nourishes mind and soul and helps us to see more clearly.
Do you think that all this is a little rarified? Well, believe me, there will many you minister to who will think of you as the parish “seer”. This is perhaps especially true of those whom you may not often see in church. You will not have been ordained many days before someone comes up to you and asks why God has allowed their beloved partner to be terminally ill, or their child die in the Manchester Arena or Grenfell Tower, or people in Syria to kill one another, or allow the Great Barrier Reef to wither and perish. Why is there suffering in a good God’s world is the perennial question. And you will be expected, if not to have the answer (God forbid that you fall into that temptation!), at least to say something intelligent about it. You will be assumed to have insights that will help make the pain more comprehensible, even bearable, that will at least enable people to frame their questions so that they make sense. When you are designated as a public minister – public before the world as well as public within the church – you become a prophet or wise person to your community. So what we see, and how we see it, become not just theologically but pastorally important, hugely so. Our mission and our apologetics will depend on how we ourselves are holding to faith in a baffling and unjust world.
Which leads me to a final comment about insight. I believe that the kind of spiritual awareness I’ve been speaking about is at heart about a contemplative way of living. My wife who is an analytic psychotherapist often tells me how important it is to notice things: to pay attention to the world around us, to other people and how they are responding to us, and not least, to ourselves, particularly when we experience strong or unexpected feelings of some kind. And what is significant about “paying attention” in this way is, I I think, that it all comes down to love. We want to learn to see, to notice, to become aware, to live contemplatively for God’s sake, the God who is in all things and all people, and whom we look to find and see in all our human experience. And it is this capacity to see with the eye of love that makes all the difference in ministry. It helps us interpret what we see and what others see, this comfort, life and fire of love that Cosin links with perpetual light and prays so passionately for. If it is “love that moves the sun and the other stars” as Dante says, then to train ourselves to see with the eye of love must be the most basic kind of spiritual formation there is.
********
Let’s go back to Moses and the burning bush. Here is another poem by R. S. Thomas that captures these ideas of illumination and seeing.
I have seen the sun break through 
to illuminate a small field 
for a while, and gone my way 
and forgotten it. But that was the 
pearl of great price, the one field that had 
treasure in it. I realise now 
that I must give all that I have  
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning 
aside like Moses to the miracle 
of the lit bush, to a brightness 
that seemed as transitory as your youth 
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Or as another poet of priestly life puts it, David Scott, Eyes take in the light for hearts to see by.
And that leads me to the other “seeing-word” I associated with this second verse of the hymn, discernment. I see it as the daughter of insight. If insight is our way of being, and is becoming part of our character, then discernment is one way in which we express it. To say someone is a “person of discernment” draws attention to their decisions, their choices, their ability to see a situation for what it is, and act accordingly.
The word has a long history in Christian thought and before that, in classical philosophy. Diakrisis means making a judgment. We mustn’t forget that even in English, a crisis is not just a challenging situation but the decision we make about it and how we face up to it. To be able to think critically means using your judgment by detaching yourself from what distracts your attention and giving your God-given rationality to the work of coming to a view. In the Book of Common Prayer, the collect for Whit Sunday prays that the Holy Spirit may give us “a right judgment in all things”. Discernment is the spiritual task of acquiring and using the good judgment that the wisdom of God imparts.
You could say that being an adult means having the capacity for discernment. We tend to think of it as a big word that belongs to the life-choices we make: our choice of partners, our careers, where we are going to live, how we shall invest our savings and so on. In particular, we use it in the church in relation to vocation. You have all gone through a discernment process which has involved the church coming to recognise and affirm your vocation to be ordained, or as I’d prefer to put it, how you and the church have together made this journey of recognition. And believe me, ordination is not the end of that journey. It stands a lot nearer the starting line than the finish, for we continue to be faced by vocational choices throughout our ministry: how God is calling us out of one place and into another, how he is determining with us the shape our ministry is going to have, how our God-given charisms will find expression in this setting or that. Like a marriage, our relationship with our vocation changes over time. It takes discernment to renegotiate it as we mature in ministry and come to understand it in ways that were hidden from us earlier on.
So discernment is a way of seeing well, seeing accurately, seeing with insight. In terms of decisions we make, it’s an answer to the prayer Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight. But let me focus it specifically on the daily work of ordained ministry that will be beginning for you as a new deacon or priest this coming Monday morning.
A great deal of your time will be spent with people: parishioners, members of your worshipping community, those who come to celebrate their rites of passage, civic leaders, those who ask for help in their need, the sick and the suffering, and people who are curious about your faith and want to know more. The ordinal expects that in your public ministry, you will have a special care for all of them. But your time is limited, and not all of a minister’s time is, so to speak, people time or public time. One of the biggest tasks of discernment is to make choices about who most needs our time, and how to invest good time in other people in ways that really make a difference.
Here’s an example. When I was in cathedral ministry, we took great care about how we responded to wayfarers, the homeless and the poor. Cathedrals are magnets for people who are helpless. And we believed we should always honour them and do everything we could to support them. But you will know how hard it is to distinguish different kinds of need; how hard to assess the urgency of particular needs, and how hard to judge who is best placed to respond. Our instinct was always to drop whatever we were doing when someone came into the cathedral and asked to speak to a priest. And yet I also had to remind colleagues that what is urgent and what is important are not always the same thing. All need is important, but not all need is urgent, and even if it is, a cathedral minister may not be the best person to address it. And it could even be that what you were doing when the need arose was more urgent at the time. These decisions, and a thousand like them, call for a deep and prayerful discernment, not by any of us alone but by all who share leadership in the Christian community. 
I’m saying that diakrisis, having a right judgment in all things as the Whitsunday collect puts it, is one of the best gifts we can ever covet in ministry, especially in our dealings with people. We are in the business of “soul-making”, to borrow John Keats’ wonderful phrase. That means helping them recognise their place in God’s world and how to live gracefully before him. And when we are engaged in it, we must always remind ourselves that it is God’s work before it is ours. What judgments will we come to about our choices, our words and actions as we do his work in the world? In the ordinal, the bishop’s charge to priests speaks about supporting the weak, defending the poor, interceding for all in need, ministering to the sick and preparing the dying for their death. It goes on to use our word. “Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people.” That is the privilege of all of us who are called to Christian leadership. It all comes down to illumination: how we “see” – with what insight, and with what discernment.
“Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Veni Creator Spiritus!

 

 

ADDRESS 3:  MINISTRY AND THE PROTECTION OF GOD

Anoint and cheer our soilèd face with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far our foes, give peace at home: where thou art guide, no ill can come.

Verse two ended with a plea that we might see well, with insight and discernment: Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight. I think this links to the opening of the third verse: Anoint and cheer our soilèd face with the abundance of thy grace. The thought seems to be, what is it that stops us seeing properly? Answer: the dirt on our faces that has got into our eyes. To disfigure is literally to spoil the figure or face. To be defaced means that the whole object, the entire person, is sullied. For John Cosin, it’s this disfigurement that gets into the eyes and leads to this dullness of our blinded sight. It stops us seeing.

In the Hebrew Bible, a bribe is likened to having dust thrown into your eyes. You can’t see clearly any more. You are compromised, incapable of making good judgments. So the poet prays to be cleansed. He goes back to the theme of anointing again, but this time the unction of the Spirit is to wash our faces, make them and by implication the whole of us clean so that nothing gets in the way of clear-sightedness, seeing as God sees and acting on what we see with motives that are purified of all that would compromise them.
He knows that this can only happen as grace works within us. As Jesus tells Peter in the upper room, if we are not washed, we have no part in him. And it is he alone, Christ the Servant, who must do this for us. Like Peter, we are inclined to protest that it’s not proper for the Son of Man to stoop so low before us. But he insists that it must be with the abundance of thy grace – there is no other way than this.
That word grace occurs at the very centre of this hymn, and it’s the clue to understanding all that comes before and all that follows. Grace is not a kind of elixir or tonic that we drink to turn us into better people or make us feel more cheerful. Grace means that God looks favourably upon us, shows us what the Hebrew Bible calls hesed, his tender covenant love, so beautifully translated in the King James Version as lovingkindness. Another way the Hebrew scriptures put it is that God “turns his face to us: in mercy, not in anger”. His face, not soilèd like ours that need anointing and cheering, but filled with goodness and truth, with justice and lovingkindness. And always, as the hymn says, in abundance: generous without limit, “pure universal love thou art” as Charles Wesley says.
So to be in “a state of grace” is simply to know where your anointing and cheering come from. It’s to acknowledge the source of all that makes us Christian: redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. It’s to recognise our proper dependence on God without whom we are nothing and can do nothing. I believe this is central to good discipleship and good ministry. My experience in both the parish and cathedral world is that we can rapidly decay into behaving like convinced Pelagians for whom our own efforts to attain salvation are everything. I don’t mean theologically, but as a matter of praxis. The relentless business of ordained life can mask the fact that if we don’t draw regularly and often on the grace of God, we shall soon find not only that our faces rapidly get soiled and our spiritual capacity for sight are compromised, but that our innermost beings become corroded by the need for success, the drive to achieve. We could coin a tag: lex operandi, lex credendi. If you want to know what I believe, don’t look at the creeds I recite but at how I set about my work. We can be Augustinians in theory but Pelagians in practice. That is the route to burnout. And believe me, it is not a good place to be.
How do we draw on the abundance of thy grace? This is surely one of the things of which the Bishop will say at your ordination that he trusts that “long ago you began to weigh and ponder all this”. But maybe it’s not too late to draw attention to the importance of a good habitus as the tradition calls it, having a rule of life that inculcates and protects healthy spiritual habits. You know what they are: attention to scripture and sacrament, silence and meditation, daily office and contemplative prayer. I’d especially commend finding a mentor or soul friend or director if you don’t already have one, who can accompany you on this journey of grace and help you to be spiritually accountable to someone else who can stand in the place of Christ towards you. I owe to a line of such people more than I can say. In dark or troubling times (and I promise you they will come), they have saved me from myself and drawn me back into the abundance of thy grace.  

********
And this brings us to the second half of this stanza. Keep far our foes, give peace at home: where thou art guide, no ill can come. Here the hymn turns to the idea of grace as protection, guarding us from all that could damage and hurt us. Doubtless we can hear an echo of the troubled times in which John Cosin lived. He wrote it in 1627 at the time Charles the First came to the throne. Did Cosin already intuit how his reign would end, plunging England into a terrible civil war that would mean exile for himself and his family? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s safe to say that in the seventeenth century, everyone recognised that life was precarious, whether through the threat of natural disaster, mortal illness, civil conflict or war. Indeed, it’s only our generation that is tempted to think of these hazards as in any way unusual rather than a normal part of being alive. Perhaps we are there as clergy to remind our fellow human beings that mortality is a natural part of life, and that we can’t live well unless we are learning to die well.
But if we are public signs of mortality, we are even more meant to be public signs of grace. The tradition speaks of the ordained as Alter Christus, the idea expressed in the beautiful hymn “Brother, Sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you”. And this means being a “walking sacrament” of the abundant grace the poet speaks of. Perhaps he is especially thinking at this point of Christ the high priest who bears us on our hearts as he intercedes for us before the throne of grace. So the petition Keep far our foes, give peace at home is not only a central part of the prayer of the church but is Christ’s own prayer for the peoples and nations of the earth. To sing these words at our ordination reminds us of the privilege and duty of the ordained publicly to align ourselves with the prayer of Jesus by keeping our people on our hearts as he is doing constantly.
Cosin links his prayer for protection with our need of God’s grace to anoint and cheer our soilèd face. So it has a profoundly inward and personal dimension too. And maybe this is especially what we shall be thinking of in the Cathedral on Saturday or Sunday, our need as ministers to know God’s protection from our foes and to nurture his peace in the deepest places of our being. If you are like me, you will be acutely conscious at this high point of your life, of your own unworthiness, the falsehood and ambivalence, the guilt and shame and hypocrisy that accumulate over a lifetime and soil our faces. How can everyone else not see us for what we really are, we wonder? Clive James puts it like this:
The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me.
Think of those late self-portraits of Rembrandt where a face tells the story of a life without flinching from the wrinkles and the shadows. It is important to own up like this before God as we prepare to cross the threshold of ordination, throw off the fake news about ourselves, seek the grace that alone can forgive and anoint and heal, recommit ourselves to cultivate what Jesus calls “purity of heart”.
But what about the foes that are specific to ministry, from which we need to be protected from in our service of God? To ask the question in a more contemporary language, where do we as clergy need to develop resilience against the threats that our role will expose us to?
It will be different for each of us, and usually unpredictable. If only we could know at the outset of our public ministry where we would be most vulnerable, so that we could develop our resilience and call on God’s grace for protection! But I think the hymn gives us a clue in the way it connects anoint and cheer our soiled face with keep far our foes, give peace at home. It seems to be asking us to look hard into our own selves to recognise our personal points of frailty, those aspects of our persona where we know we are vulnerable.
Looking back over more than forty years as a priest, I now see in a way I couldn’t at the time how some of the toughest times in my ministry were due to the flaws in my own approach to it. For example, when I took up my first incumbency, I had impossibly high expectations of everybody involved in the leadership of the parish, my ordained colleagues, my churchwardens and my PCC. Most of all, I had punishingly high expectations of myself. I was young, I had huge hopes, there was nothing I could not achieve given sufficient time and resources.
I don’t regret the brightness of the vision that delighted. But I fell into one of the most damaging traits of ministry, that of perfectionism. My fierce inner critic drove me on and on and on. And when I found, as we all do, that the world is not set always alight by our ministry, and so much of parish life is about incredibly small things, the consequence was a pervasive misery. I doubt if it showed to many people – part of the dysfunction was to carry on come what may, hiding behind a cladding that seemed bright and safe. A humbler, wiser person would have faced the truth more honestly. But looking back thirty-five years or so, I can see that I was in a dark spiritual place. I wondered what the point of it all was, what difference I could possible make to anyone’s life, still less the life of the parish as a whole. Keep far our foes, give peace at home. If I didn’t pray in precisely those words, it was something like them.
Why am I telling you all this? Because if I had known myself better, I don’t think I would have succumbed in this way. I said that Pelagian save-yourself-religion is the enemy of the gospel. I needed to understand better how God accepts us as we are, how he turns his face to us in mercy, not in judgment, how religion, and therefore ministry, flows not from fear but out of love. It would have helped me to be more resilient in difficult times. That, indeed, is precisely how I was rescued from that place that could have led to despair. I mentioned before the importance of having good mentors and spiritual guides. I was exceedingly fortunate in mine. They (and I include among them the authors of some of the books they encouraged me to read) turned my ministry round. I shall always be profoundly thankful to them all.

********
In the dramas of ancient Greece, a tragedy wasn’t simply a calamity or misfortune. Its meaning was specific. In tragic theatre, the playwright wanted to involve the audience in exploring some aspect of a human being that brought about his or her downfall. Such traits as pride, envy, greed, lust, the craving for power, the inability to see clearly what is actually going on (including in those who are dear to us), indeed all seven of what Christian moral theology calls the deadly sins, can, in Cosin’s language, soil our faces, disfigure us, and ultimately bring us down. In my book Wisdom and Ministry, I tried to draw attention to the danger of splitting our public and our personal lives from each other. Often you will find that resilience fails because this aspect of ministry, of leadership, of public life is not understood well enough. I didn’t get” it at the time I felt most fragile in ministry. I’m not saying that we can “keep far” all our foes by growing in self-awareness and in knowing and loving God. But I do know that they will help us deal intelligently with all that ministry and life throws at us. To pray for illumination, to understand our own tragedy, our own brokenness, and to long to be put back together again, as the Veni Creator does is, I believe, vital for our own protection as God’s ministers. 
Where thou art guide, no ill can come concludes this third stanza. It’s the answer to the prayer for the abundance of thy grace. So I want to end this address, not on the brokenness or tragedy of our own selves, but on God’s protecting grace and what we need to ask for from our Guardian and our Guide, the Spirit whom Jesus calls the Comforter.
In these precious, protected days leading up to your ordination, our prayers are focused on the leading and guiding of God. We explored in the first address the themes of vocation and the anointing of the Spirit. But as I’ve said, this retreat, and the service in the Cathedral that will celebrate your vocation are a wholly exceptional time. It’s what happens after Monday that counts, when you face the reality of being ordained as opposed to getting ordained. When we get into the rhythms and routines of ordinary time as deacons or priests, what will our prayer be then? 
The image of the guide is of the person who knows the path that must be walked, and shows someone else the way. So we are back to seeing, discerning, recognising, understanding, knowing. Ordained ministry is becoming, for all of you, that path, that way. So I want to encourage you to think now about the first day of your working life as a deacon or a priest – let’s call it Monday for the sake of argument. That day ought to be as significant as your ordination day and the days leading up to it.
The Mondays of our lives matter, because daily work, what I’m calling ordinary time, is part of our vocation. In Durham I used to chair an organisation called “After Sunday”. Its aim was to help church worshippers make connections between Sunday’s worship and Monday’s work. Alan Ecclestone, who exercised a long and distinguished ministry in the deprived east end of Sheffield was one of the writers I had in mind when I told you about my learning and growing in the parish. He said: “what matters for prayer is what we do next”. I want to say: “what matters for ordination is what we do next”.
This symbolic Monday is about how we are going to live the ordained life. Where thou art guide, no ill can come. What this means for us as new deacons and priests is again something we need to discern. It will only become clear with time, but Monday can suggest clues. The day will obviously have prayer at its heart, whenever and however you undertake it. For whatever else daily prayer represents, it is the offering of life to God, your ordained life in particular. And God’s guidance begins as we enter into the abiding presence of Jesus with us through his Spirit. It’s not that prayer is some prophylactic, some ritual whose magic effect is to ward off evil. I’ve spoken of the priest’s intercessory role, bearing the world, the church, the needy on our hearts before God. But more than that, to pray is consciously to align ourselves, our ministry, our energies to the vector of God’s love. We ask for the discernment to understand where that love is going to take us in the course of the day that is both God’s and ours. In the sense that we ask to be directed by love, it has the capacity to make us wise, help us to see, and to guard us from ill, at least that which is the consequence of my own incapacity or self-will.
But we also need to develop a Monday spirituality by putting into effect what we’ve learned about seeing. Ministry is so much about discerning where God is already at work, learning how to recognise the signs of his activity in the world. And this means seeing purposefully, paying attention, looking into, being present to “the sacrament of the present moment” as Jean-Pierre de Caussade put it. He recognises that not all life is lived in places that are benign and wholesome. Yet even  where God seems distant and unengaged, it’s as much a matter of recognising the work of divine Providence as it is about introducing God into what we take to be godforsaken. To the eye that is trained by love, “the earth is the Lord’s”. There is nowhere that is abandoned by him. The spirituality of the ordained life takes this as its working assumption, however hard it can be to understand at times.
And perhaps we push back the encroachments of evil and chaos when we bravely claim even the shadow of human life to be God’s. To pray Veni Creator even in the most desperate of situations is to invoke God’s protecting guardianship over every member of the human family that he loves to the end.  The work of Monday is to point the way that opens up the new possibilities of the Comforter’s strengthening, life-giving presence: where thou art guide, no ill can come. We tremble as we do this, but we do not lose heart because we trust our lived experience that whenever we feel after God, we find him. And however dark the waters and however hard the struggle, like Jacob wrestling with the angel at Penuel, we do not let him go.
“Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Veni Creator Spiritus!


 

ADDRESS 4:  MINISTRY AND THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee of both, to be but One,
That through the ages all along, this may be our endless song.


Our hymn is a beautiful sequence of petitions to the Holy Spirit. All the verbs so far have the Spirit as their subject: come, inspire, impart, lighten, enable (strikingly modern, that portmanteau word), anoint, cheer, protect (I’m paraphrasing for keep far our foes), and give. All this is the Paraclete’s work in us, among us, through us. There’s only one verb of the Spirit left and it’s in this fourth verse: teach. When it comes to the final verb of all, it’s down to us as our response to God: praise. That’s tomorrow’s address.
Here, John Cosin is drawing together two strands of Jesus’ teaching in the Fourth Gospel. In the farewell discourses, Jesus looks forward to the coming of the Paraclete who will be the disciples’ strength and inspiration (literally) as they bear witness to him in the world. First, he says that when the Father sends the Advocate, “the Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14.26). Later he reaffirms this promise and strengthens it: “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will you guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16.13-14). Where thou art guide the third verse affirms. Teach us prays the hymn in this fourth verse. Here in the upper room is where these words come from.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit is closely associated with Holy Wisdom. And Wisdoms role in turn is to instruct us how to make wise choices about how to live well: to resist the seductions of evil and pursue all that is life-giving and wholesome and that ultimately leads us to God. Good religion is the path of wisdom. It is God’s redemptive gift to us. And by returning to the wisdom that was lost at the fall, the tradition says, we not only bear witness to the reality that life can be healed and transformed, but we also live the invitation to others to walk with us on the way that leads to paradise. Perhaps by alluding to this way of speaking, Jesus is aligning himself with the wisdom teachers of Israel and promising that the Holy Spirit will continue the work of instructing humanity that he has begun in coming among us as the incarnate Word who brings the light, life and love of God into the world.

********
What is it that the Spirit will teach us? It’s to know God. Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee of both to be but One. Holy Wisdom says: there is nothing more fundamental than to know God. Our whole humanity depends on it, all that we are as men and women. It is our life, our welfare, our destiny. It’s what makes us truly human, fulfils the purpose for which we exist. Again, Cosin seems to have the Fourth Gospel’s upper room in his mind, this time the so-called high priestly prayer of Jesus: “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3).
I am sure you have placed knowing God at the centre of your ambitions for yourselves as deacons and priests. A public minister who was not much troubled by the business of knowing God is unthinkable. Well, it’s unthinkable at the outset of your journeys as deacons and priests. But look ahead ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. It’s not impossible that you may be bruised, corroded, tired out by the daily demands of ministry: so many of them competing for our attention, all of them exacting, some of them bringing risks you sometimes wonder if you can carry any more. You may have fallen out of love with the Church or with your own vocation. You may find yourself settling for survival while the fire slowly dies within you and the light fades so imperceptibly you don’t notice; you just get on with the job and get through the ever-circling years until the day you retire or die.
I don’t want to dishearten you on the eve of your ordination, God forbid! But I want you to be honest with yourselves and look squarely at the spiritual hazards we face when we live out a Christian vocation under the unforgiving eye of the world. Let me be candid with you again. As I speak to you today, I can truly say that there is nothing in the world I would rather have done than be God’s minister in the places I have served. It has been a huge privilege. But I did not always feel that way, especially when I had to learn how to handle conflict or criticism, how to manage disappointment, how not to be defeated by the frustrations and disappointments of ministry. The afterglow of your ordination service will see you through for the first few years and thank God for that. But like a marriage, there comes a time when we have to renegotiate our vocation because neither we nor it are the same as they were when we first began.
In retirement, I am finding it more and more true that life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards, as Kierkegaard said. And what I am coming to see as I look back is that what has kept me alive and nourished and energised in ministry, especially at dark times, is precisely making the focus of it knowing God. I don’t simply mean the rule we live by, practising the discipline of scripture, sacrament and prayer (though there are times when this is truly life-saving, believe me). I mean keeping alive and nurturing in ourselves a lifelong desire to learn, to grow, to develop, to change, to know myself and to know God.
Teach us to know reminds me of the seventeenth century Scottish Covenanter Samuel Rutherford who famously said, “there is always more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word”. One of the many things I learned from my training incumbent whom I've mentioned a few times already was what I call spiritual curiosity. He was constantly on the search, asking questions, pushing boundaries, wanting to know about God, wanting to know God in new and deeper ways. He was never afraid of complexity or the tough intellectual challenges of theology. He believed in the power of imagination as well as thought. He was a wonderful mentor. His children told me that when he was dying, he was intensely curious about what was happening to him and where God was in it all. He refused pain-killers because he wanted to be as present as possible to his own death. That is of a piece with the way he had lived and how he had taught me in my first years in public ministry.
So I hear the petition Teach us to know as a prayer for lifelong enlightenment. And that reflects our life as pilgrims on a journey towards knowing God as we are already known by him. What I’ve learned is that it has been at the times I’ve been most curious, most open spiritually, emotionally and intellectually that I’ve also felt most alive, and at my best as a priest in God’s church. That comes down to the question of our orientation, how we are “turned” as Christians and as ministers, attuned to the Spirit who is always taking us by surprise, showing us new insights about the world, ourselves and God, constantly led into the truth that is forever fresh and young.

********
Why is this such an important prayer to make our own on the threshold of ordination, teach us to know? Because as ministers, among many other things, we are the wise men or women, the seers, the spiritual guides, the theologians, the teachers, the soul-makers in our localities. I want to know that my priest is as much on a journey as I am, so that I can reliably trust him or her to take my hand as a fellow traveller. I don’t want a priest who is not thirsty for discovery, not curious about the mystery of God, no further on in their spiritual development as the day they left college. Ministerial formation is about making sure that we who are practitioners of ministry never stop learning and growing in our craft, never lose our hunger to be taught by the Spirit, Holy Wisdom, who has promised to be our teacher and our guide to orientate us like sunflowers towards the light by which we live.
And that sun whose fire and light we live by is God the Holy Trinity. Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee of both to be but One. This verse and the couplet with which the hymn ends draw our thoughts from being primarily focused on the Holy Spirit to God as he is in himself, the Three in One. John Cosin makes clear that is how he understands Jesus’ words in St John. To be led “into all truth” is to be drawn ever more deeply into the life of the Trinity, the very centre of our existence and the ground of our being. So I want to end this address by thinking with you why Trinitarian faith matters in our ministry as deacons and priests.
I am sure you won’t be among the clergy I know who will do anything to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday as if the Trinity were some dry arcane theological puzzle originating in all that Aristotelian stuff about persons and substances. Cosin’s prayer is anything but academic. As we’ve seen, for him the heart of his prayer to the Holy Spirit is that we should know God. When he said in the third verse, Where thou art guide, no ill can come, maybe he was looking forward to this Trinitarian climax to his prayer. That is to say, we are guarded from the ultimate destruction of evil by professing and living our faith in the Holy Trinity. “I bind unto myself the strong name of the Trinity” as St Patrick’s Breastplate puts it, a great hymn we should sing more often than once a year on Trinity Sunday.
To know God, says Cosin, to be guided and taught by the Spirit is to know him as he has revealed himself to us. And the core of this profound mystery is that God is relational: as the Godhead who expresses the perfection of love among the three persons; and because of that, who is the perfection of love in first making space for us as creatures to come into being, and then reaches out to us to embrace us and welcome us into the divine movement of love that is the best way I know of speaking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As presidents at the liturgy, one of your tasks will be to lead your people in reciting the creeds. Which comes down to declaring publicly, Sunday by Sunday, the Trinitarian faith of the church, for both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds have the same Trinitarian shape. At your baptism, confirmation and ordination you are asked if you willingly and gladly affirm this faith. Led by the Veni Creator, I’m inviting us not to take this question too casually. But let me explain what I mean by that. Subscribing to the “historical formularies of the Church of England” embracing, as they do, both scripture and creeds, is not so much about assenting to texts as it is about orientation, to go back to the word I used earlier. Orientation implies relationship and this is precisely what Trinitarian faith is.
The trouble with reciting creeds is that they get fixed in our minds as verbal formulae against which we have to place our tick of assent. But if we were to sing them rather than say them, we would see them for what they are: a celebration of God as he is in himself and as he is towards us. And to lead the church’s celebration of God is precisely what we are called to do as his ministers. So while I doubt that many of you will lead the public singing of the creeds, I do urge you to sing them in your hearts. St Augustine advised that we should affirm the Apostles’ Creed at the start of each day. I’ve found that linking this with my baptismal morning shower can be a good way of getting the day off to a celebratory start. Cosin as good as instructs us that singing should be the basic mode of our faith: That through the ages all along, this may be our endless song.

********
I am going to come back to that in my final address when we shall talk about the doxology. For now, I’m asking you to have in your minds what it means for us as ministers to place Trinitarian faith at the heart of the church’s liturgy and proclamation. Put it this way. I spoke earlier about how each of you is called to be a theologian in the parish or community you both lead and serve. which becomes. I’ve always found that an awesome task, to be among people as a trusted interpreter of the ways of God. I’m clear that when the Veni Creator prays that we may learn to know God as Trinity, it is inviting us into the role of theologian, for what is theology but the knowledge and study of God?
But the kind of theology he has in mind is the prayed theology that comes out of God’s relational life in himself and towards his creation. It’s a theology of the heart as well as the mind, which is why he longs to sing it in celebration of the God who is perfect love. So when we lead the Christian community in singing or saying the creeds, we are doing what the liturgy always does: proclaiming the praise of God and anticipating the song of the new creation when, in God’s time, all things will be brought back into unity and acclaim God’s everlasting mercy with the angels and archangels.
But the Trinitarian creeds also require us to bear witness to the faith of the church in a way that is turned outwards in mission. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of a faith proclaimed with confidence and heartfelt love to invite others to become curious about how they too might begin to explore the mystery of God and know him for themselves. But so much depends on the love we invest in this proclamation of God as Trinity, how we ourselves come to see the creeds not as academic texts to argue about but as the church’s response of reverence and love for the God who has so loved us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and whose praise we have the privilege publicly to celebrate as ministers of his grace.
One of our best modern poets, Malcolm Guite, has written a sequence of sonnets to mark the liturgical year. Here's his poem for Trinity Sunday. It encapsulates beautifully what I've been trying to say about how the nature of God as the purest expression of love and relationship must inform our own living and praying as Christian people and ministers of God.

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within. 

Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee of both to be but One. Can there be a more searching prayer for us to offer on the eve of our ordination? All of our life as ministers rests on this: our willingness to pray in this way, not just today and tomorrow, but every day. Can our ministry carry any real authority or conviction unless we do?
“Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Veni Creator Spiritus!


 

ADDRESS 5:  MINISTRY AND THE PRAISE OF GOD
Praise to thy eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

We have travelled together through the Veni Creator by reflecting on the anointing of God, the illumination of God, the protection of God and the knowledge of God. In this last address we come to the praise of God.
Last time we spoke about Trinitarian faith and its place in public ministry. I suggested that when it comes to the creeds and being theologians in our communities, we should take our cue from John Cosin and link the knowledge of God with singing the praises of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this the where Cosin brings his great hymn to its conclusion. That through the ages all along, this may be our endless song: Praise to thy eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This final couplet in honour of the Trinity is the hymn’s doxology, a more compact version of the Gloria Patri doxology in our prayer books with which the psalms and canticles end: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and shall be for ever. Amen.” I want to explore the idea of doxology in this final address, and ask what it means for us in ordained ministry: deacons, priests, bishops.
The word doxology comes from the Greek doxa which means “glory”. It also means “reputation”, opinion, estimation”. In the New Testament, it is always used in the good sense, holding someone in a good light because they are worthy of our praise and honour. Supremely, this means the Eternal One himself. “Glory” is what we give to God as he reveals himself, and as we learn to know and worship him in Jesus Christ. At Bethlehem the angels sang “glory to God in highest heaven”. In the incarnation John says that “we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). As he draws near to his passion and his hour comes, Jesus prays that the Father may glorify his Son so that the Son may glorify him (John 17.1). In Ephesians the author speaks about the seal of the promised Holy Spirit as “the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1.14).
Doxa is one of the richest words in the Bible. A key to understand it is the important passage in Exodus where Moses prays to Yahweh, “show me your glory I pray” (Exodus 33.18). You remember how Moses would go out to the tent of meeting to speak with God in the pillar of cloud and fire, “face to face” says the text, “as you would speak to your friend”. He is summoned back up mount Sinai where the covenant is renewed and the ten words of the law, what we call the commandments, are given once more. And Yahweh answers Moses’ request by passing before him, “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (34.6).
I want to link Moses’ prayer with John Cosin’s Teach us to know. We’ve thought about how central it is to know God as Holy Trinity: to our living faith as disciples, to our vocation as priests. But what is it that we find as we are drawn into the heart of God? Exodus, elaborated scores of times in the New Testament but especially in St John, tells us that it is the glory of God. And that glory expresses itself, not as a splendour that is so brilliant that it blinds us, but as mercy and grace and tenderness, what we’ve seen in the Hebrew Bible as hesed, lovingkindness, covenant love, the love that is given and received in a deep and intimate relationship. 

********
There are two aspects of this that I want to explore with you. The first is how we understand glory as love, and love as glory.
I’ve said that fundamental to ordained life is the prayer to know God not only so that we can speak about God with integrity, but also because the search for God is a fundamental aspect of being alive, and priesthood is partly about modelling a good human life publicly. In his doxology, Cosin in effect tells us that to know God as Trinity is to glimpse his glory. This may be our endless song: Praise to thy eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If glory and covenant love belong together, it’s because the glory of the Trinity is precisely the perfect love that moves constantly among the three Persons and flows out from Father, Son and Spirit to all created things.
So our prayer as clergy that we may know the Holy Trinity and be shown God’s glory is central to how we set about our ministry. We are all called to be ministers of Trinitarian love in the thousand different ways we lead and serve the people entrusted to us. To see ministry as an act of love may seem blindingly obvious to us; after all, doesn’t St John say in his first letter that “God is love”, and “we love because he first loved us”? But we need to think about what love is if we are going to practise ministry in an intentional way. It’s obviously more than being nice to everyone. I’m not saying that it isn’t good to be warm and amicable with as many people as we can. I’m simply asking us to beware of the tendency to sentimentalise love and confuse feel-good pleasantness with the toughness and vigour of true Trinitarian love.
Trinitarian love, ordained love, is not a feeling but a decision and a way of being. When I was in Coventry I met a professor of philosophy at Warwick University called Gillian Rose. She was a brilliant interpreter of Kant and Hegel. Although a non-practising Jewish woman, she was fascinated by God, suffering and the meaning of human existence. (She said, of the Oxford philosophy I studied as an undergraduate, “it teaches them to be clever, destructive, supercilious and ignorant. It doesn’t teach you what is important. It doesn’t feed the soul.” I couldn’t possibly comment.) In her late forties she contracted ovarian cancer. Thanks to long conversations with the then Bishop, himself a Hegel expert, she became a Christian and was baptised by him on her deathbed aged 48. Knowing she was dying, she wrote a memoir called Love’s Work: a Reckoning with Life. In it she reflects on the significance of Auschwitz (she was a member of a Polish commission that was looking into its future) and spoke out of both her professional and personal experience about how God, suffering and love were linked together in any grown-up, truthful vision of human life.
So when Cosin speaks about the endless song of doxology, of praise to the Holy Trinity, we need to embed these reflections in how we understand the act of praise. To know God, to see his glory, to enter into the movement of his grace is to be gathered up in “love’s work”. And because glory belongs with the passion of Christ, the “work” Jesus says he has come to do and which is finished on the cross, love is always cruciform, cross-shaped, always involved with suffering as much as with joy because it is self-giving, pouring-out, divine-emptying, kenosis. You could perhaps say that the passion tells us that even the love of the three Persons of the Trinity is self-emptying in the way we see Jesus in Gethsemane submitting himself to the will of his Father out of obedience to love.
You are being ordained because you too have submitted to God in obedience to Trinitarian love. You are embarking on a lifetime of doing “love’s work” and “reckoning with life”. This is the love you are being called upon to live out as best you can – not perfectly, because that’s an impossible aspiration, but well enough to be able in your words and actions to shine a light on the God whose love renews and sustains all people. Put it this way. If the glory of the Trinity is made visible in Jesus and acted out in the humility of the incarnation and the self-giving of the cross, then that is how we must be too, and especially visibly and publicly as the church’s ministers. It is love’s work that we are called to do. It is God’s work.
When people ask, in this situation or that, “what would Jesus do?” they are identifying a very key question. It's at the heart of what it means to practise “the Imitation of Christ”. In ministry, if we take love’s work to mean loving purposefully and in God’s name, it becomes a way of laying a theological template across the complexities of life. It doesn’t usually provide easy answers when things are baffling and choices are hard. But it does help us to check that we are acting not out of expediency, or the sake of a quiet life, or out of fear or favour (all of which are self-interested) but out of the belief that we must always act out of love. It may be in the life and worship of the church. It may be in our working relationships as colleagues in ministry. It may be in pastoral care. It may be in politics or civic life or the pursuit of social justice. I say it “may be”. I really mean, “from time to time it will be”. And even when we make mistakes, it’s a comfort to our conscience to be able to say, at least to ourselves, that we acted because the welfare of others was on our hearts, that we failed out of love, and not because we sought what was pragmatically best for the institution or easiest for ourselves.

********
But there’s another side to love’s work. For if doxology - knowing and praising God in the glory of the Trinity - immerses us in the pain of the world, then of course it also immerses us in the joy of the world. And this is the last reflection I’d like to invite you to ponder on this retreat.
My prayer for all of you is that you are filled with joy as you look forward to your ordination. But I hope it’s an accurately focused joy. I mean that if our joy has any other ultimate source than our joy in God, then sooner or later it will turn out to be an illusion. The end of John Cosin’s hymn answers that in a way that’s profoundly connected with what we’ve already seen about glory as love and suffering. Because when love’s work is displayed to us, even at times of unhappiness or darkness or pain, we can become aware – even if momentarily or as we look back on it maybe years later - of a deep gratitude and joy within us. We have been touched by glory.
I suggested last time that if we were to sing the creeds, we might rise to a way of celebrating faith rather than simply rehearsing it. In the Veni Creator, singing the praise of God is everything. This may be our endless song says Cosin, not just in this world but the next. Because as we know God as Trinity and begin to learn how to sing God’s praises, doxology, glory, becomes a habit of life; not simply in the liturgy or our personal prayers, but in how we live and are as men and women, as ministers.
When I was a dean at Durham and used to take groups round the Cathedral, we would always stop in the quire. This is the heart of our daily prayer, I would say, morning and evening, day in, day out, summer or winter, sung or said. Like the Benedictines who built the quire, the daily office, what they called the opus dei or “work of God”, was central to everything else. And I would go on: “if you ask me what is the most important thing I do as head of this foundation, my answer is clear: to turn up for matins and evensong, sit in my stall and celebrate the praises of God”.
That phrase, “the praises of God” is a conscious allusion to the Book of Psalms whose Hebrew title is tehillim or Praises”. I find it highly significant that in a book that contains more laments than any other kind of psalm, the title is nevertheless Praises. I think this says that whatever else is happening to us, whether we find ourselves travelling in light or shadow, agony or ecstasy, our duty is to praise God or as the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it in the seventeenth century, “to glorify God and enjoy him for ever”. “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” As ministers, we stand publicly as the celebrants of God’s praise, leading our communities as we join in the endless song the hymn is urging us towards, symbolised by the Sanctus of the eucharistic prayer, the song of angels and archangels. That makes us visible signs of God’s glory in the sense that glory is our business.
But I want to take this to a deeper level. Perhaps I can best do this by telling a story. I was appointed to my first incumbency in Northumberland because my predecessor, a good man who had himself only been inducted six months earlier, had died suddenly of a brain tumour. He was in his mid 50s. We went to visit his widow in the vicarage to talk about the house. Her grief was palpable; we felt we ought not to be intruding on her at this terrible time. But she told us something I’ve never forgotten. She said: I would never get through this, were it not for something John always lived by, and that I’m now trying to live by too. He said: the foundation of everything is thankfulness. If we can be thankful for God’s goodness, if we can praise him at all times, then we experience pain in a new way. It doesn’t go away. But there is a transfiguration of it, the possibility of redemption. Life can begin again.
I’ve never forgotten that conversation round the kitchen table in Alnwick. She didn’t use the word of course, but what she was talking about was living doxologically, seeing things in the perspective of glory, especially of self-giving love, and responding with thankfulness. You could just as well call it living eucharistically, as thank-you people who find (to quote the Rosary) that both the sorrowful mysteries of life and its joyful mysteries are transcended by its glorious mysteries. To the heart that habitually responds in wonder, love and praise, glory is all about us, even in the darkest of times.
I believe that this is how we as priests need to learn how to live. To preside at the altar as eucharistic presidents is the greatest possible privilege. But liturgical presidency can’t (I mean mustn’t) be divorced from the eucharistic life we are called to live and model. The ordinal asks us whether we will “endeavour to fashion our own life and that of our household according to the way of Christ, that we may be a pattern and an example to Christ’s people”. I take this to mean, will we live doxologically, placing the praises of God, Cosin’s endless song, at the heart of our life and ministry.
I don’t at all limit it, as the ordinal does, to “Christ’s people”. If we are priests in and to the world, then being emblematic people of praise is about our ministry in the widest possible context. Who knows what the life-changing consequences of our gratitude and praise have been when people have glimpsed the counter-cultural joy of blessing the Lord at all times as the psalm says? We don’t always do justice to the evangelistic potential of worship to re-frame and transform the experience of life. When St Paul speaks about the eucharist, he uses a striking missionary word. He says that we “show forth the Lord’s death until he comes”; katangello, we announce, proclaim, we tell out for all to hear. Good doxology is also good mission.

********
It takes a lifetime to learn what it means to live doxologically like this, to respond to God’s glory. We are most aware of our failure and brokenness precisely when we are exposed to glory, as Isaiah’s temple vision tells. Only the saints come close to living the life of doxology.
But if these days of your ordination are filling you with joy and gratitude for this God-given calling that is yours, if you are touching even the outskirts of glory, then they are offering you a glimpse of what it might mean to live and minister in this way. On that symbolic Monday we spoke about, it will be your task for the rest of your life to inhabit this glimpse of glory, learn how to make it fully your song of praise that only you can sing to the glory of the eternal God. As I used to say to cathedral choristers when it came to farewells at the end of their year in the choir, never stop singing, whatever the difficulties, whatever the cost. Let your hearts always be led by praise and thanksgiving. “From the beginning you have created all things, and all your works echo the silent music of your praise” says our own eucharistic prayer G, drawing on an image beloved by some of the Christian fathers.
For this is to look forward to the consummation of Love’s Work. Your ministry is part of Love’s work that is always inviting the world to sing God’s praise. You make songlines in the world wherever you trace God’s presence, wherever you glimpse the signs of the kingdom, whenever you draw others into singing and celebrating its coming.
So may everything we do together in these ordination days help us to sing that endless song with confidence and joy; and may the song of our ministries that lie beyond be their own offering of praise to God’s eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Veni Creator Spiritus! You have the promise of the church’s prayers for you, and my own. 

No comments:

Post a Comment