What’s the point of clergy?

Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven.


That’s a very tricky Bible quote if you have Fr Paul written on the noticeboard outside church !

Priests have come a long way since I was a child.  In the parish where I grew up we had a vicar and we called him Mr Collard.  He was tall, serious and we were all a bit frightened by him.   He was replaced by Mr Allen  who prefered to be called Steve.   I defected and went to the next door parish which had a priest called Fr Owen.  My mother – who went to Steve’s church,  said it was odd that a man with a wife and two children called himself Father …..

Since I have been ordained I have been called almost everything :  Paul, Fr Paul, reverend Paul, vicar Paul, dean Kennington and sometimes even  ‘sir’.   I have got used to all of them, because – as Shakespeare said: ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’

But on a serious note, there have been a lot of changes in what clergy are and do over the years.    And it’s not only what clergy are called or what clergy wear – or whether clergy are men and women.    It all began when Henry the Eighth shaped the Church of England.  The question for 500 years has been whether clergy are priests who offer the sacrifice of the Mass at the altar or whether clergy are preachers who preach and teach the Bible from the pulpit.   In the 18th century it was the preachers and teachers who had it  – churches were built with enormous pulpits right in the middle so that everyone could see the preacher – and in the late 19th century churches were built with great stone high altars up marble steps so that the priest could offer the Sacrifice of the Mass surrounded by servers and incense.   And in the 21st century – whether we like it or not –churches are edging more towards wanting their clergy to be teachers and preachers –  with a bit of pastoral care and community involvment thrown in.

But life’s never be as simple as just one or the other.  We need teachers and preachers, we need pastors and community leaders -  and we need priests as well.  The catholic theology we have here at St Andrew’s is a bit out of fashion these days –I know,  – but we need to hold on to it because it’s a vital piece in the Church of England’s jigsaw – and the church would not be the church without it.

Let me explain:   First of all we need to know what a priest is:   In the Old Testament priests did what priests the world over and in most old religions did – they offered sacrifices.  They they killed animals and burnt the meat on stone altars. Why would they do such a thing?  They did it because ordinary people knew that they were sinful – greedy, violent, selfish, cruel – all the usual things -  and ordinary people knew that the gods were angry with them and that they would have to be punished.  The usual way the gods punished people was by sending natural disasters, storms, earthquakes, famines or diseases -  but they also knew that if they offered an animal, then the poor goat or lamb or bird could be punished in their place, and then the gods would be satisfied, and the disaster wouldn’t happen.

And before we make fun of that rather primitive view  – clever 21st century people still do the same sort of thing:  they wonder what they did wrong when somthing bad happens, and they still try to bargain with God to make something else happen –  if you, God, make this person better then I will give up smoking – or go to Church every Sunday – for the rest of my life .... it’s deep in the human way of things.

But the New Testament changed all that.  No more sacrifices of goats, or lambs or birds -  ther’s only one sacrifice :  once, only once, and once for all :  because Jesus is both the last real priest, and the last real sacrifice :  Thou on earth both priest and victim.   and the question the church has had to struggle with ever since, is how do we remember that great central fact?

For evangelical churches the answer has been that we have to talk about it.  We have to preach and teach about the sacrifice of Christ and explain it to people so that they can understand it – we need preachers and teachers.  Now there’s nothing wrong with that – we do need good preaching and teaching about all aspects of Christianity.  Bring it on ….  But for more catholic Christians, like us,  the answer is not talking but doing : we call it liturgy.

So the way we remember Good Friday by acting it out.    Catholic, and that means anglo-catholics – and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that when Jesus took bread and wine on that first Maundy Thursday what he was actually doing was teaching his disciples a play they could act out week in and week out from generation to generation.

Just as the body of Jesus is broken and his blood is shed on that first Good Friday,  so on Maundy Thursday – the bread –  this is my body – is broken, and the wine –  this is my blood – is poured:

And the beauty of Jesus giving us a play to re-enact rather than a creed to recite is that actions speak louder than words:  Actions can speak to each one of us in new and different ways – just like a play or a painting can.  Actions speak to different cultures, different temperaments, different countries, different centuries, different understandings, different likes and dislikes :  Actions can mean one thing to me and another thing to you – they can mean one thing in 4th century, another in the 16th century and another in the 21st century – and yet the same actions can carry on regardless.  When we talk about the death of Jesus on the cross,  we give just one opinion.  But when we act out the breaking and sharing in the liturgy, then – if our eyes are open – we can allow the death of Jesus to speak for itself.

That’s the beauty of liturgy.  Doing the same 2000 year old action keeps us true to the same 2000 year old mystery, whereas words try to pin it down.

And so – back to the beginning of this sermon – what are priests?  And can you call me father?

You’re going to have to make your own mind up about that one, and this congregation has a wide range of views about priests.

Some say a priest has to represent Jesus at the Last Supper, and that’s why Russian priests have big beards and long hair.

I – for what it’s worth –  believe that the priest represents the Church – the Body of Christ.  So – in a way – I represent you. If just one of you stood up this morning and said the blessing, then you would be speaking on your own behalf, but I have been chosen and ordained to bless and absolve and consecrate the bread and the wine on behalf of all of you together;  A spokesperson for the community, you could say – but only for those three things :  blessing, absolving and consecrating.

But I don’t just represent you, I also represent every other congregation in the Diocese of Chelmsford –  so when I say the blessing and the absolution and consecrate the bread and the wine here in St Andrew’s,  I have been authorised by the congregation of St Peter in the Forest and the congregation at St John the Baptist in Leytonstone and the congregation at Cornerstone church to bless,  absolve and consecrate on their behalf as well.   That’s why it was the Bishop of a diocese who ordained and licenced me and not just the churchwardens of one parish.   And so every priest in the diocese blesses, absolves and consecrates on behalf of every congregation in the Diocese – the whole Body of Christ.  And to push it even further – every priest blesses, absolves and consecrates on behalf of all christian people throughout the world.  -  The whole Body of Christ.    Roman Catholics don’t believe that anglican priests can bless, absolve and consecrate on their behalf because they don’t believe that Anglican Bishops are real bishops – but I do believe that anglican bishops are real bishops and therefore I believe that their ordinations are real and that they can ordain who they like to bless, absolve and consecrate on behalf of the whole church.  I put a lot of power into the hands of bishops!

And so …..   Jesus said :  Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven.

And so is it all right to call me Fr. Paul?   well, I think the answer is both yes and no.  No if you think that you have to do what the priest says.  No if you think that a  priest is more important than anyone else, and definitely no if you think that a priest is like God.  – as if you would !!

But yes, if you think that the priest is a person, a christian, like everyone else, who has been called and ordained by the Bishop to bless, absolve and consecrate in the name of the whole Body of Christ – not to be like God the Father – for we only have one Father, the one in Heaven.   But to be like a father – or a leader, or a carer, or a pastor in one very big family.

The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington