Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 29 May

29 May 2011 at 10:00 am

The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

In about one months time hundreds of men and women in Cathedrals across the country will be ordained deacon or priest at Petertide. This is the period around the feast day of St Peter on 29th June, and it is one of the traditional times for ordinations to take place.

Also, this year during the month of June, there will be several ordinations of new bishops, including that of two bishops here in Westminster Abbey on Ascension Day this coming Thursday.

Over this past month in my sermons at Matins I have been looking at five of the seven sacraments: special ceremonies using a variety of outward symbols which help communicate to us God’s action, often at key moments in our lives. 

As we’ve looked at these we have been reminded that the fundamental feature of all the sacraments is that they symbolise God’s grace ~ his unconditional love for us. 

So far we have looked at Marriage, Confession, Anointing and Confirmation and today I would like us to turn our thoughts to Ordination. As we do that I would like us to examine three questions. First of all, why do we ordain at all? Second, does this sacrament make ordained people special and perhaps different from other Christians? And third, does every Christian have a vocation?

Most of the sacraments are accessible to everyone: so anybody can request to be Baptised, and once baptised can receive Communion; anyone can be prepared for Confirmation, can make their Confession and likewise receive Anointing if they are sick; and in the appropriate circumstances people can come for the sacrament of Marriage.

Ordination in some ways is rather different from the other sacraments as it is not universally available. Those men and women being ordained next month will have gone through a lengthy discernment process in their diocese, involving several interviews with examining chaplains; attending a residential selection conference, and then training at a theological college or on a regional course, during which time they will have taken exams, completed assignments and participated in practical placements.

For many people approaching their ordination, several years will have passed by since they began the process of selection and training. 

So why does the Church do this? 

One answer is that any organisation needs leaders and the Church is no different. But perhaps a more profound answer is to be found in the Gospels and other New Testament literature.

From the outset of his ministry Jesus called particular people to be his disciples. There are variations in the list of names given in the gospels but all four, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John refer to 12 of them being especially close to Jesus. Then within the 12 there are some who are prominent characters, with Peter in particular standing out from the rest.

Jesus names him the rock and says that on this rock he will build his church. He speaks of him as having the keys to the kingdom. And even though Peter betrays him before the crucifixion, after his resurrection Jesus entrusts him with the leadership of the early church with the words recorded in St Johns gospel: “feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep”. 

Then in the Acts of the Apostles we see Peter taking up the challenge Jesus has given him. After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost he proclaims in a public setting the news of Christ’s resurrection and is prepared to face humiliation, imprisonment and eventually death for his beliefs.

The book of Acts goes on to describe how deacons were appointed in the early church to serve in practical ways in order to release the apostles for the work of evangelism. Then later, in St Paul’s Pastoral Epistles we see the ministry of Bishops emerging, people who had oversight of larger geographical areas as the Church grew and spread; and then Presbyters or Priests who would lead local churches on behalf of their Bishop. 

So from the very beginning, the Church has set people apart for particular ministries and over the centuries these have become more formalised into the pattern now shared by the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, of ordaining Deacons, Priests and Bishops. 

People ordained to these ministries are referred to as being in Holy Orders. But what do we believe happens at ordination?  Do people somehow become different or special in some way?

I think the answer to that question is yes & no! 

For any of you who have friends who are clergy you will know that they are just the same as other people in terms of their humanity ~ they have their weaknesses and they have their strengths.

However, at ordination we do believe that deacons, priests and bishops receive the grace of orders. In other words, that having responded to the call of God through his Church to take on this ministry, they are given the means to fulfil it.

So in the ordination service the candidates first of all state their belief that God is calling them to this ministry and in response to questions such as:

Will you, knowing yourself to be reconciled to God in Christ, strive to be an instrument of God's peace in the Church and in the world?

Reply: By the help of God, I will.

The bishop then lays hands on them with these powerful words: 

Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant for the office and work of a priest in your Church.

Other symbols are also used in order to proclaim the authority given by the church to those who have been ordained. This always includes a bible with these words:

Receive this book as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.

For Priests a chalice & paten are often given as a sign of their authority to preside at the Eucharist and for a Bishop, a staff indicating his pastoral responsibility and oversight of the church in his diocese. 

If you attend any ordination service you can’t come away without feeling that a heavy responsibility has been laid upon the shoulders of those ordained. But what about the rest of the Church, does every Christian in some way share that responsibility? 

The answer to that is a definite “yes”?

All the baptized are called to shine as lights in the world; all of us have been given gifts to use for the building up of Christ’s body; we are all called to love our neighbour as ourselves.

So although the sacrament of ordination is a special gift; the fundamental gift given to all Christians is the grace God pours upon us in Baptism and the nourishment he gives us through the Eucharist. As we receive those gifts we are all transformed into what St Peter refers to in his first letter:

“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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