Sermon at Matins on Sunday 19 July

19 July 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

“Go and show yourselves to the priests”; words spoken by Jesus to the Lepers who had come to him seeking a cure.

During these weeks in July in my sermons at Matins I’m looking at the three fold order of ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, retained by the Church of England when it spilt from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.

Last week we saw how retaining Episcopal ordination kept the Anglican Church within the Catholic tradition, distinguishing it from Protestant churches which moved away from this practice.

We then went on to think about the ministry of Deacons in particular, and at how they live out the calling of Christ to be servants to others and at how this inspires the whole church to a ministry of service.

Today we move on to think about the ministry of the Priesthood. We shall think in particular about how priests in today’s church relate to those priests to whom Jesus referred; we shall look at the calling of priests as it is described in the Ordination service and how that is lived out in practice; and finally we shall reflect on what we mean by the priesthood of all believers.

First then, is there any direct relationship between the priesthood as established in Old Testament times, and therefore that with which Jesus was familiar, and priests in the Church of England today?

The priests of the Old Testament were associated in particular with the Temple and its sacrifices and over time there came to be a growing insistence that the priest alone could offer sacrifice and burn incense. The priests would also be concerned with making sure that people were ritually clean and hence the sending of the Lepers by Jesus to the Priests.

When we turn to the early church as described in the New Testament there is very little talk of priests. In the book of Hebrews Jesus is described as the great High Priest who, on the cross made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, so for Christians there was no further call for the traditional priestly ministry exercised under the old covenant. The main reference to priesthood in the New Testament is to the Priesthood of all believers to which we will return later.

However, as the Church rapidly grew and spread, inevitably structures of leadership evolved and certainly by the early part of the third century there were priests in place, ordained by bishops and whose primary function was to lead Christian communities on behalf of the bishop and in particular to consecrate the elements of bread and wine at the Eucharist.

During the next few hundred years the Eucharist came to be understood far more in terms of a sacrifice; and the wearing of Eucharistic vestments, the offering of incense, together with the use of the word altar, made a close link between the priests of the Church and those of the Old Testament.
This understanding of priesthood was very much challenged at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, when the continental reformers in particular rejected the use of the word priest in order to repudiate the idea that there was any re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ when the Eucharist was celebrated.

However in the Book of Common Prayer also formulated in the 16th century by Thomas Cranmer, the term priest was retained and so the Church of England continued to ordain priests. But how is our priesthood understood today?

There is no better place to discover this than from the ordination service itself.

As the Bishop introduces the service he reminds the congregation of the calling of priests saying:

“Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being.

They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God”.

Then later in the service, just before he lays hands on each of the candidates the Bishop spells out in more detail what the work of a priest entails.

He reminds everyone present that the priest is called to preach God’s word, to teach and tell the story of God’s love, to call people to repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to minister to the sick and dying, to baptize, to preside at the Eucharist, to bless the people in God’s name, and to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people so that the whole Church may be built up.

When we study that list we discover that there are a number of things there which overlap with the ministry of deacons ~ serving, preaching, proclaiming the gospel, and caring for the sick and needy.
There are also things which all Christians are able to do ~ in particular living out the gospel in their daily lives. What is distinctive about priestly ministry is the authority given to preside at the Eucharist, to pronounce forgiveness of sins, and to bless in God’s name

The priest at ordination though is not endowed with some sort of magical power which enables him or her to do these things; the priest is called out from the church to a position of leadership and given the grace and the responsibility to be the focus of the ministry of the whole church, encouraging all God’s people to use their gifts to the full.

So when a priest presides at the Eucharist they are not doing so in the place of others or even on their behalf; this is the offering of the whole worshipping community ~ everyone present is celebrating the Eucharist, the priest is presiding over that celebration.

And this brings us to this term; the priesthood of all believers.

In the first letter of St Peter and in the book of Revelation where the people of the seven churches of Asia are being addressed, the whole Christian body is referred to as a “Royal Priesthood”.

Once again, there are very close links here with the Old Testament. In his Covenant with the people of Israel God called the whole nation to a holy lifestyle and to be a blessing to all other nations.

In his New Covenant made through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, his Church is likewise called to live in response to the grace and mercy received through Christ and to share the good news of Christ’s love with the whole world.

Priestly ministry then is essentially about embracing the whole of life, being a channel of God’s love, celebrating God’s goodness, offering the world to God in prayer and receiving from God through the sacraments.

Some of us are called by the Church to focus that ministry in a particular way as parish priests, as hospital chaplains, as priests working in the education sector, industry or in a Cathedral or Abbey like this, but it is also a ministry in which every Christian shares.

The words in the first letter of Peter are an inspiration to all of us:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

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