Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 4th May 2014
4 May 2014 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Yesterday a remarkable series of events took place in London to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. Women had exercised the ministry of Deaconess in the Church of England since 1861, but this was considered to be a lay ministry. After many years of serious deliberation about the ministry of women, the first ordination of women as Deacons in the Church of England was in 1987; most of them had exercised the ministry of a Deaconess, sometimes for many years. Five years later in November 1992 the legislation was approved in the Church to ordain women to the sacred order of Priesthood. The first ordination of women as priests was in Bristol Cathedral on 12th March 1994. Within the next four months about a thousand women were ordained priest in the Church of England, among them our own Canon Jane Hedges.
Yesterday’s celebration of the 20th anniversary began in Dean’s Yard here at the Abbey with a gathering of many hundreds of women priests and their families and friends. They walked behind a marching band through the West End and the City of London to St Paul’s for a Eucharist at which 700 of the first cohort, wearing albs and white stoles, processed to sit under the great dome. The president for the Eucharist was Canon Philippa Boardman of St Paul’s Chapter, with the Archbishop of Canterbury fulfilling the role of Deacon and giving the address. It was an extraordinarily happy service, perhaps particularly as the prospect is realistic of a decisive vote in July in the General Synod to approve the ordination of women to the episcopate. We can confidently predict that the first woman in the Church of England will be ordained and consecrated as a bishop next year. No rivalry, but I would be delighted if that were to take place here.
The distribution of Holy Communion yesterday allowed some time for contemplation. I fell to observing the streams of women priests coming up for Communion, some of them very old and frail but with a great sense of determination, though many of them much younger. I reflected on the journey they had endured. Some of them had been necessarily strong protagonists of the cause, and been thought by critics to be self-promoting. The truth was far different. These women had great dignity, and had brought rich gifts to the ministry of the Church. There was much for which to thank God. Why could we not have seen it much earlier? Why had so much giftedness in women been prevented from its full expression?
The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem called Last Post to commemorate in 2009 the passing of the World War One generation. The last lines are like this: ‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards, then it would.’ But in truth we can only tell things backwards. We can only see things backwards. We can have hopes, fears, wishes and aspirations for the future. But we cannot see forward. All we can do is grope forward in the dark. We need a guide, a companion on the way.
The story we heard read for the Gospel this morning is one of the most beautiful and detailed of the accounts of our Lord’s resurrection appearances, those moments when, after he had left the tomb empty and risen from the dead on the first Easter Day, Jesus appeared mysteriously and as it were out of nowhere to his disciples, the apostles and some of the women closest to him.
The events described this morning take place on the first Easter Day itself. Particularly poignant is the despair of the two disciples. These are not very close to Jesus; indeed we only know the name of one of them, Cleopas, which only once occurs in the Bible; the other disciple is unnamed. But they are leaving Jerusalem, sad and mystified by the death of their Teacher and Master and by the end of all their dreams. It should not surprise us that they are unaware that this person who joins them is Jesus himself. They are terribly wrapped up in their own troubles. And the risen Lord is often at first not recognised in the Gospel accounts.
Even so, they invite him to stay with them. ‘Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’ The risen Lord has been opening the scriptures to them, explaining how his death and resurrection fitted comfortably with the expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures, and was not unreasonable. But still they do not know him. Finally, they recognise him at the supper table. ‘And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him.’
Thirty years ago, when I was a parish priest in Streatham, in south London, a neighbouring parish priest dreamt up the idea of a walking pilgrimage for young people from our parishes to Walsingham in Norfolk. I was willingly, almost happily, drawn in and year after year, during the days after Easter when most clergy like to take a break, we would take several dozen young people from our churches and walk with them 60 or 70 miles in four days, sleeping on church hall floors and shaving in church hall washrooms intended only for the washing of hands. Showers were not an option. Blisters became a familiar reality.
The rewards for all this madness were amazing. Suffering together with the young people to whom you are hoping to minister produces surprising results in mutual loyalty and regard. And arriving in Walsingham with the prospect of beds, showers and food cooked in real kitchens seemed like arriving in heaven. Another for me happy result has been that I cannot read today’s Gospel without thinking of those pilgrim days. On the Wednesday of Easter week, once we had arrived at our fated church hall and had some refreshment, we would together celebrate the Eucharist. And the Gospel that day is the Gospel we heard this morning.
Those two disciples found Jesus walking with them on their journey. He broke open the scriptures to them and then he broke bread with them. Although they heard him speak through the scriptures, they only recognised him in the breaking of the bread. We hear him in the scriptures this morning but we only recognise him for sure when we break bread as he broke bread that Easter Day recalling his breaking of bread at the Last Supper, saying ‘Do this.’
The Church has done this ever since, and in doing this we are able to recognise the risen Jesus Christ our Lord in our midst. He accompanies us on our pilgrim journey, as he accompanies his Body the Church on her pilgrim journey. Often we fail to recognise him. Sadly often we half see him and ignore him through our own weakness and wilfulness. But he is always there, keen to be for us the Word that makes sense of the scriptures, and always willing to feed us with his Body and his Blood in the Holy Eucharist, the breaking of bread. In a few minutes’ time, we shall again recognise his continuing presence with us in the heat and burden of the day, and in the cool of contemplation, never absent, often unseen, always reliably there.
The more we come to recognise his presence with us and rely on him as guide on our pilgrim way here on earth, the more we can rely on joy in heaven when we come to see him face to face.