Easter 5, 15 May 22
Years ago, when I was young and newly ordained - so I must have been about 25 - I remember attending a party after a funeral. I was at the bar getting a drink and an older gentleman came up to me and said, “Lovely service,” for which I thanked him. He then asked, “What do I call you?” to which I responded, “People normally call me Father Morris,” and he laughed, exclaiming, “I can’t possibly call you Father when you’re so much younger than me!” To which I responded with a cheeky smile, “Well, you could always call me ‘Daddy’ if you preferred!” He laughed but it clearly caught him off guard a bit.
I want to talk about Holy Order which is the term the Church uses to describe the fact that she is ordered with Bishops, Priests and Deacons within the community of God’s people. And just that sentence has two important reminders for us. First, the Church is often referred to using the female pronoun: she/her. She is to be the bride of Christ, His faithful one, for whom our Lord revealed the extent of His love by laying down His life for her. This understanding of ourselves comes in no small part from our second reading where St John describes the revelation he received: “I saw the holy city … coming down out of Heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband.” Just as folk marvel at the brides who walk down the aisle of the church, so folk are to note our holiness of life, through which we give glory to God. And secondly, there is to be an order in these matters. At the beginning of time, God’s Spirit brings order where there once was chaos (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 104:30). This order reveals things are not a human creation and nor are they left to chance: God’s wisdom orders all things (Wisdom 11:20).
We see in the Bible this Holy Order emerging: bishops sometimes referred to as overseers, deacons sometimes called ministers and, as in our first reading, priests sometimes referred to as presbyters or elders. In Acts 14, as we heard, Paul and Barnabas are setting off on Paul’s first missionary journey, taking the Good News of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, or at least beyond the region of Samaria to the North. The Gospel is to be proclaimed but being a Christian isn’t just about hearing a message and putting it in to effect or God could have just sent individualised fortune cookies or Christmas Crackers with a message in for each one of us and we could have got on with it. No, the Gospel calls us into a set of relationships within a body, the Body of Christ, the Church. And so St Luke notes that “in each of these churches they appointed elders, and with prayer and fasting they commended them to the Lord.” The Gospel having been preached, there then needed to be a connecting of these souls won for Christ to the family of the redeemed.
Many people over the centuries have asked themselves, “Well, do we really need all these priests and bishops?” Well, we might not have needed all of them all of the time, to be honest, but it is certainly how God has ordered His Church and the Anglican Communion has always attested to the centrality of this ordering. That can be frustrating at times. Sometimes we will see priests and bishops who make colossal mistakes and sometimes we wonder whether they were ever really any good with people. My own sense of calling to be a priest was definitely in part a response to seeing priests not doing a very good job. There was one in my childhood who would put party political posters up in the Vicarage windows, which I always thought inappropriate and then there was another who told me when I was a teenager that I couldn’t read in Church because they didn’t need any more volunteers. God within me fired me up to realise this wasn’t the way and so I thought I wanted to do better to the glory of God. The answer wasn’t for me to say, “Well, stuff the Church!” but to realise this way was the divinely ordained way and I cared about it so much I wanted to try and do it better.
I’ve been very careful to avoid using the word “hierarchy” in all this because I don’t think this is how the Church understands things to be. Bishops, yes, are commissioned with oversight of the flock of Christ, made stewards and shepherds. They have the fulness of the Sacrament of Holy Order, but they never cease to be deacons, the office particularly given for service and practicalities. After all, we follow Jesus Christ, who is head of the Church, and who “came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (St Matthew 20:28). There is always a hint of this when a Bishop comes to celebrate Mass. When he does so, he will wear a chasuble, such as I am wearing now, indicating he is the Celebrant of Mass. But he will underneath it also wear a deacon’s dalmatic: you normally see the sleeves sticking out from underneath the chasuble. The Bishop is the fullness of order and still a deacon. No one gets off the hook with this task of service.
We mustn’t be naive or deceived, however, in thinking the clergy (the collective noun given to bishops, priests and deacons) have no power at all. In these days of Eastertide we are being constantly reminded that the risen Jesus gives authority to the Apostles to forgive sins (St John 20:23), to preach, baptise and teach (St Matthew 28:19). And this is imparted to bishops and priests and this authority must be used for the building up of the Christian community. This authority allows the Church to function today and invites her indeed to flourish while we wait for the Lord’s return when He shall judge the living and the dead.
This relationship is why it continues to be customary to refer to bishops and priests as “Father.” People often wrote our Lord’s words in St Matthew 23:9, “Do not all anyone your Father.” It’s one of those commandments we have to be careful in interpreting for we can’t congratulate ourselves for keeping if we simply refuse to call priests, “Father,” for two reasons: First, we see the understanding of the relationship between priest and another is often one of spiritual fatherhood. So, St Peter refers to St Mark, the author of one of the Gospels, as his “son” (I Peter 5:13) and similarly does St Paul refer to St Timothy (I Timothy 1:2). Secondly, our Lord’s words don’t mean it’s alright to call your biological mum “Mum” but not your spiritual dad, “Father.” Our parents, biological and spiritual, are to be seen in the way they show us the love the Father has for us. They must not detract from that divine Fatherhood. Note our Lord calls His disciples in our Gospel today “little children.”
One issue relating to this gift of Holy Order is that the majority of Christians throughout the world have only men as deacons, priests and bishops. This is not because men are better than women: they’re quite manifestly not. Men and women are created equal by God but they are given different roles. Christ called twelve men to be the Apostles and gave other roles to women, some definitely more important than those roles given to men, indeed you can’t really get more important than Mary, the Mother of God, and St Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection. These issues around who can be ordained should be made such that they are taken by the whole Church acting as one, not everyone going off and doing their own thing. It is only when the Church is one and acts as one that others will believe (St John 17:21).
I said earlier how the Church being the Bride of Christ is to remind us of the supreme love God has for each of one of us. I love the story of the priest Trevor Huddleston going to minister in South Africa during World War II. One day as he walked along dressed properly as a priest he, a white man, saw a mum and her son, who were people of colour. He saw them and he doffed his hat, saying good morning to them. That boy who was about 10 years old at the time was greatly moved by this courageous and bold act of kindness in a society where there was racial divisions and where people of colour were treated appallingly and this was legitimised by the Government. That ten year old boy was Desmond Tutu, who, of course, later became Archbishop of Cape Town. The priest, Trevor Huddleston, in that simple act of kindness used his authority and power as a priest to tear down hatred and to witness to a better kindgom.
We, brothers and sisters, are to know what bishops, priests and deacons are for, because their ministry reminds us of what the whole of God’s people are to be in our day-to-day lives as members of the Church. We are to be a priestly people (I Peter 2:9) because we are to lay down our life after the example of our Saviour, of our Good Shepherd. We are to count as lives as nothing compared to the joy and freedom of serving God. We are to be people of prayer and intercession, bringing the needs of others to the altar of grace and peace, and with confidence that God hears our prayers. Priests and bishops are to be stewards of God’s mysteries, as Paul reminds the Corinthians (I Corinthians 4:1). You only appoint someone to be a steward of something that is precious. The faith we have in Jesus is precious. The grace we receive in assembly of God’s people worshipping Him is precious. We are precious for we have been bought with the Blood of Lamb, who is risen from the dead, alleluia.