A Sermon on Priesthood at Fr Chris Yates’ First Mass

One of the questions that has regularly challenged me since my arrival in the Diocese is the question that goes something like, “is there a place for God, for Christ and for the Church in Australian society at all anymore?”   In various ways I suspect that many of us who have made a commitment to the life of the Church, in response to God’s overwhelming love for us,  have been faced by that question at some time or another,  whether we are willing to admit it or not.  Speaking as an Anglican in the Diocese of Newcastle I find myself asking that question specifically of the life of our Diocese.

In the light of what we see around us, it might be easy sometimes for us to lose our nerve and to simply begin to believe that all that has nurtured us during our lifetimes will not be here as a way of living for our grandchildren and great grandchildren in the future.

As we ponder these questions, in the midst of all of that uncertainty, the good news is that God time and time again brings us a word of hope.  A reminder that this is God’s Church not ours; that we are the Body of Christ, not a human institution; that our calling is to be faithful and steadfast, not necessarily popular and always successful.

If I wanted, for myself, to pinpoint one moment in the yearly cycle of our life together as a Diocese, when the potential for me to despair is turned into the renewed hope of the Kingdom of God, it is when we gather as a Diocese together for the ordination of priests.

It is remarkable that in the Twenty First Century priests should exist at all, and should still be welcomed and wanted in a society such as ours.  But the good news is that by and large that is exactly what the people who live around us think about priests when they encounter them.  Even when people seem disinterested in the life of the Church, they are by and large still interested and open to the priests who serve them.

The ordination of new priests within the life of the Church is a cause of great celebration for us all.  Fr Chris’ willingness to respond to God’s call, and the call of the Church to travel around the globe in order to serve here, is a momentous cause for our jubilation – not just for us here in this parish, but the for the whole Church of which we are a part.  Because every new priest in the life of the Church reminds us that God has not given up on us yet, which should be a great relief to us all!

So what is this priesthood, into which Fr Chris has been ordained – joining a long procession of others who have gone before him through the centuries?  What is this priesthood all about?

The first thing for us to remember is that the priesthood of the ordained is not altogether different from the priesthood of the Whole People of God – all of the rest of us.  Christ is the High Priest who has opened up for everyone the way to God.  His priestly body, the Church, stands before God on behalf of humanity to celebrate his goodness in creation and redemption, and to enter into the pain of the world.

Everyone of us who has been baptised into the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ has been called to be a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, to make Christ known in the world.

The ordained priesthood, into which Fr Chris entered last night, represents this priesthood of all of the baptised in a special way.  It is not a superior way of living out the promises of our baptism, although at times it can be more costly.  It is not a more important way of living for Christ, although God’s expectations of priests – according to our Ordinal at least – are considerably higher.   It is not necessarily a way of living a holier life, although it brings with it the opportunities to have more time than most people can afford, to strive to be conscious of God’s presence at work in our world.

The ordained priesthood focuses and represents the priesthood of all of us, of all of the baptised.

Which means that an ordained person can never speak about “my priesthood” or “my vocation” as if it were a private possession, somehow different from the priesthood and the vocation of the whole Church.

This is the life into which Fr Chris, supported by Rachel and their family has entered. This priesthood is for others and for God.

A priest is a public representative of God’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  And so whilst all priests bring with them special God-given gifts for use in ministry,  Fr Chris will be what he will be not because of what he brings to priesthood, but because of what the Church itself is called to be, and more importantly what Christ is – now and forever.

Priests reflect for all of us the life of Christ.  They represent the life of the Church to those within it and those beyond it.  That is why a priest is never simply a congregational chaplain, or a carer or co-ordinator for members of a club.  Priests are at one and the same time called to be within the life of the Church, and to be set apart from the localness of the Church in which they serve.

They are paradoxical people, like clowns and jesters, people who live an alternative life style, a prophetic life style, who don’t quite fit into the normal way of doing things.  That is why priests continue to fascinate people, and to make them nervous!

As all of us who live the ordained life as priests continue to find out: you are ordained to the priesthood in about five minutes. You then spend a lifetime working out what that really means.

One way of expressing this is to talk of the priest as alter Christus, standing as Christ towards others and to the world in word, in sacrament, in intercession, in absolution, in blessing.   Priests represent God to us, and us to God in a special way.

Another way of looking at it is to think of a priest as a ‘walking sacrament’ of the grace of God, an embodied reminder that there is a God to be reckoned with who calls all people (and not just those of us in the Church) to love and to serve him as Fr Austin Farrer would wish to remind us.

All of this is expressed in the vows that we heard Fr Chris make last night in the Cathedral.  Sometimes vows can seem very heavy indeed.  Some of you may have felt the weight of what was being promised in the ordination service last night.  But the important thing about vows is that there are always two parties involved in them.  People rarely make vows to themselves, which means that they almost always not only make vows but receive vows in return.

When a couple comes to this Church to be married, it would be a very strange thing indeed if only one of them planned to make vows to the other.  The good news for Fr Chris, and for all who are ordained to the priesthood, is that the vows that are made at ordination are not vows chiefly made to a Bishop or to the congregation that watches on (although both the Bishop and the congregation have an important part to play in it all, and it could not happen without them), they are vows which are made to God.  And the thing about making vows to God is that God always makes vows in return.

Fr Richard Mieux Benson, the Founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist (an Anglican monastic community in England) which built the Church in which Fr Chris was made a Deacon last year put it like this:

“A vow is a promise made to Almighty God, and as such it is an [agreement] with him.  We cannot promise anything to God without receiving a corresponding promise from God.  Whatever we give to God, God always gives us something more in return…  For the vow is made for the purpose of pleasing God, not because such a line of life might be pleasing to our religious tastes.”

Last night Fr Chris’ priesthood was given and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  Priesthood is not a right that people can claim because they have completed degrees or other training courses.  It is a gift given by God for the life of the Church, to express the life of the Church and the Lord of the Church.  It is a gift that is determined by vows that a priest makes to God and that God makes to a priest.

This evening we gather to see all of this powerfully illustrated for us in this first Eucharist at which our new priest presides.  We call this a Votive Eucharist because it has a special intention, in the same way that some of us may have lit a votive candle in the past to symbolise the intention of a prayer or a thanksgiving that we offer to God.  And the votive – the intention – of this first Eucharist presided over by Fr Chris is that the Holy Spirit may be powerfully at work in all that he will do in the future.

Right at the start of his priestly ministry, after the wonderful liturgy last night, after the new robes and vestments have been put on… after all the things that could make his head swell so large that it would not fit through the door… Fr Chris comes to the altar for the first time as a priest to ask for the power of the Holy Spirit, because he knows that despite all of the grandeur and importance of yesterday, without the Holy Spirit, he can do nothing today or tomorrow.

There is a prayer that he will say quietly this evening before he receives the sacrament for the first time at a Eucharist at which he has presided.   The prayer will be said very quietly immediately before he receives the body and blood of Christ.  It is said quietly because it is not for the rest of us, it is between him and God. It is the continuation of the vows that he made to God last night, and which God has made to him in response.  Priests continue to say that prayer quietly, every time that they preside at the Eucharist, throughout their ministries, as a reminder to them, and to God that those vows are still in place.  Our new priest will pray:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit your death brought life to the world.  By your holy body and blood free me from all my sins and from every evil.  Keep me faithful to your teaching, and never let me be parted from you.”

It is a great privilege for us to be able to be here with him this evening to share in this First Eucharist.  Priests remind us that we have all – through our baptism – taken on the priestly nature of Christ.  The work of ministry is not just for those who are ordained, it is for us all, the Whole People of God.

Fr Chris, your ordination brings us hope for the future of the Church.  We celebrate with you this evening, what God has done in you.  We are conscious that for good or for bad we need to be your adopted family this evening because distance prevents many of the people who you would like to be here from being present with you, even though they are thinking of you and praying for you in other lands.

We pray with you for this special intention, (for the Holy Spirit to be present in your ministry), and we pray that that may be true for each of us and for our Church as well; that through your ministry amongst us we too may keep faithful to the teaching of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit never be parted from him.