Maundy Thursday

13 apr 2015

Chrism Eucharist & Renewal of Ordination Vows

Preacher: The Bishop of Southwark


The Chrism Eucharist: Southwark Cathedral Maundy Thursday 2017

My brothers and sisters, it is good to be here together for the Blessing of the Oils and renewal of Vows.  The oils attest to our desire to reach out with God’s love to all people.  They will be used to minister to the sick and dying, to those coming to faith at baptism, with the oil of gladness for the newly confirmed as well as newly ordained priests at Petertide, a sign of sharing in the royal priesthood of the New Covenant.  I give thanks that all of us who are ordained, whether as deacon, priest or bishop, will be invited to renew our vows and will I pray be renewed, by God’s grace, in Godly service and zeal for the Gospel.  This year, your bishops stand before you as a newly replenished Episcopal Team and it is a special joy to welcome Bishop Karowei, joining us at this Chrism Eucharist for the first time and renewing promises he made less than a month ago.  Four weeks is a long time in the life of a new bishop!  I invite you all to express your delight and appreciation that he is now serving among us and fully immersed in the Episcopal Area of Woolwich.

Those of us who will be renewing our vows, like Bishop Karowei, are charged and entrusted with the joyful privilege of taking God’s love out into the community, searching out even the dark places of life where those that are lost may be found and brought safely home rejoicing.  In the Church of England, where our parish communities of faith are our chief glory and bedrock, where we are listening attentively to the Holy Spirit for new ways of proclaiming the Gospel afresh, so that we might give encouragement and reach out to those  searching for a closer relationship with our Lord, it is essential for clergy and laity to work together, fostering lively partnerships in  Mission.  I am therefore glad that new focus will be given to developing Lay Ministry and Lay Leadership as the next stage of our Strategy for Ministry which is already bearing much fruit in our life together.

If you go out of the Cathedral and through the market you will come to the Neal’s Yard Dairy.  It sells cheese: very good cheese.  And the people who work there all eat a lot of cheese at least it is reasonable to imagine they do – why wouldn’t they?  They certainly appear to relish good cheese, and they are encouraged to know about it and enjoy it and talk about it with zeal and enthusiasm.  Similarly, the staff of good bicycle shops all tend to be cyclists and can talk for England about their passion.  And so on.  I think you get my drift.

Now, the Church of God is no mere shop.  It is not to be reduced to any kind of business, enterprise or corporation which can also occur when leadership development courses neglect ongoing priestly formation.   Yet there is placed in our midst, by God’s grace, that which we are charged with commending to the whole world as being precious and of infinite value.  We do not sell it.  We give it away.  Yet at the same time, just like people flocking from Borough Market into the cheese shop, it is reasonable to hope that we ourselves will also be keenly interested in that which we commend to others.  My hope is that our hearts will be on fire with love for the One who has entrusted this task and sacred calling to us. It is also essential that we give ourselves permission to receive, to grow, to be blessed and loved, that we ‘let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts’ [Col. 3.15]

I do not wish to be too prescriptive about that which it is our mission as Church to give away.  Each of us will have hold of part of it, though the whole is much bigger even than the sum of the parts.  But I do have an Easter gift this year for each of you.  As you collect the Holy Oils you will find a pack of Easter cards which I encourage you to distribute indiscriminately and to ask others to share in this task with you, creatively, in one to one encounters and conversations in the highways and byways of our parishes.  I was inspired and encouraged to make this gift to you by taking part in ashing on the streets of Walworth on Ash Wednesday, when an afternoon of such encounters revealed the depths of spiritual hunger and thirst on our streets.

This is a long way round to our wonderful Gospel reading.  It is such a rich reading particularly because, as one of only a handful that appears in all four Gospels, it receives a different emphasis at the hand of each of the four Evangelists.  In St Luke’s version which we have just heard read, the emphasis is on the motivation of the woman who anoints Jesus: the welling up of gratitude and the release from the burden of sin.  May we all know that great release, that loosing of bonds, that lifting of the weight purchased by Christ on our behalf at such a terrible price on the Cross.  We are free.  We are redeemed.  Our guilt and shame are no more.   Not because of our merits and certainly not in our own strength, but because God became one of us, and gave himself up for our sake. 

This is one aspect of the anointing story which we do well to hear, and not only at this time of year when it is at the front of our minds.   What all the different retellings have in common is this: the Son of Man who ‘came not to be served but to serve’ [Mt 20. 28] submits to be served, indeed blessed, in this extraordinarily costly and intimate way. He gives and he receives as do all in ministry.  

And we must also hear clearly the voice of Judas in St John’s account ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?’  I want to draw attention to this voice, in this situation; but I want us all to remember that as John goes on to say, ‘He [that is Judas Iscariot] did not say this because he cared about the poor’.  The care of the poor is of course our proper concern, just as in the role entrusted to me as Chief Pastor, I am concerned for your wellbeing and pastoral care as my clergy and for the flourishing of the whole people of God in this Diocese.  But as we pursue this calling, we will again and again hear a voice which says ‘do not relax, do not enjoy, do not breathe deeply, get on with the job of ministry’.   I want you to know that I do expect all of us who are blessed to exercise ministry whether as deacon, as priest, as bishop, in the Church of God to be responsive and accessible, to be compassionate, full of zeal for the Gospel.  But I take seriously the duty imposed on the Chief Pastor, which binds me by Canon Law ‘to set forward and maintain quietness, love, and peace’.   We are none of us here called to riches, luxury, or great worldly power.  But neither are we called to grinding, disheartening busy-ness.   Of course we accept trouble cheerfully when it comes our way.  Of course we work.  But our well-being as clergy, yours and mine, is central to our diaconal, priestly and episcopal calling.  After all, if people want examples of frenetic anxiety they do not need to seek them in their parish clergy! 

The late Monica Furlong, journalist, activist and Christian writer, said this:1 

‘I am clear what I want of the clergy. I want them to be people who can by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, about success, about money…  people who can dare… to refuse to work flat out…to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness… I want them to be people who can sit still without being guilty.’

I think this is exactly right.   It is not a prescription for laziness.  But it is a challenge not to let our sense of urgency become anxiety.   Above all it makes it clear that clergy well-being is not only an end in itself. Though it is that!  Your well-being matters to God, to your friends and family and, indeed, to your Bishops.  But it is also essential in answering God’s call to minister in life enhancing ways.   Unless we relish eating cheese ourselves, how can we commend it to others?  In the same way – though I venture to suggest, more profoundly – we are called to commend to God’s people a way of life characterised by love, peace and joy.   So it is our first business to be loving, peaceful and joyful.  

This is central to my own thinking about Clergy well-being.   A very good group of your colleagues has now completed some really insightful work which focuses on what needs to be done to promote the well-being of clergy in this diocese.  Their work has my endorsement and blessing and it will, I hope, inform the revised Area Scheme, a proposal for which will in all likelihood come before Diocesan Synod at some point next year. 

I want clergy well-being and the flourishing of all God’s people to characterise my remaining years, God willing, as Diocesan Bishop.  But this will only bear fruit if we, as clergy, are willing to receive this gift, if we can say a principled “no” to the commercial, calculating, and increasingly anxious attitudes of the world about us, and instead receive the gifts of peace and joy, the gifts of time and space, that God longs to bestow on all his people, for His great love for us in Jesus Christ, has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given to us.

1 The Parson's Role Today, a paper given at the Wakefield Diocesan Clergy Conference, April 1966