The Feast of Sts Peter and Paul (June 29) marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the sacred order of the priesthood (eleven years to the diaconate). My ordination by the Bishop of Horsham in the parish church of St James the Less, Lancing, West Sussex, seems an age ago, and since then my life has taken on a direction that has been unpredictable, to say the least.
As I was looking for a suitable analogy, the image that came to mind was that of white water rafting, which my son Julian and I did a number of years ago. I remember the skipper of the raft shouting “hold on!” whenever we entered a treacherous stretch of water. (At one point Julian and another person were thrown from the raft into the river – kept afloat by their lifejackets, they had to wait for us to throw them a line before we could pull them back on board). For my own experience, it was the words “hold on!” which seemed relevant. In my vocation as priest there were times when I needed to “hold on” to my faith, when the waters of life were swirling around me and carrying me forward to God knows where.
Sometimes I look at priests like Rev. Cloud Rutter, who stayed in one place – St Barnabas – for 28 years, and wonder why it couldn’t be the same for me. Instead, my history has been peripatetic, and I have learned to “go with the flow.” I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just the way it turned out. I have learned to be thankful for what is, rather than for what could have been. God has richly blessed me, and while I am alive I will continue to offer myself in service to him, wherever he leads me.
The challenges I have faced have helped to shape me and my ministry. When I look back, I can see how my life has been changed by contact with others whom I would not normally have met, and part of my calling has been to share times in people’s lives of both joy and grief. It’s been a huge privilege – you can only do this job if you love others, and what you learn about love is that love can expand endlessly.
When I was considering a call to the priesthood, and questioning whether this was right for me, I attended a service to which a large number of priests had been invited. Before the service they all assembled in the church hall, and I looked at each one in turn and tried to see myself in them. I came away thinking, “no, I don’t look like any of them.” Later, I learned that God calls priests in the size and shape of the individual person, not according to a mold or pattern. A quick look at the variety of saints in the history of the church should have convinced me of that. It was therefore a relief to know that God had called a “David-shaped” priest as well as other kinds. God has used my special talents (and shortcomings) for the work of his kingdom.
Christian communities are like families – they work best in a loving environment where the predominant sentiment is to offer yourself rather than to be served. The church is a kind of family which needs to be rooted in the sacramental life and in prayer. The classical definition of a priest is someone who mediates between God and his people; the priest represents the people to God, and God to the people. That is why a priest must be a person of prayer, always praying for the needs of the church and its people. The priest also hears through the Holy Spirit what direction the church ought to take. A priest articulates a vision for the church, which should always be Christ-centered. Churches that become too much of a social club at the expense of developing a deeper faith tend to have problems. And being in a church where everyone is complaining about something is hell. The antidote is to cultivate thankfulness.
I am grateful to everyone who has affirmed, encouraged, blessed, listened to and prayed for me. Without the support and love of others I would not have got out of the starting blocks. It’s nice to belong to a community which encompasses both heaven and earth, and which is united in the love of Jesus Christ. By the way, if you are reading this and thinking, “maybe God is calling me?” then please take this call seriously. The Holy Spirit may be prompting you to embark on a different course in your life’s journey. But first, speak to a priest, who will be sympathetic to your call. And if it goes any further, remember those words of advice: “hold on!”
With thanks to God for ten blessed years.