Thirty three years ago I was sent on a placement from Westcott House to the East End of London. Part of the purpose was to experience the life of some black Pentecostal churches. It was quite a happy shock to the system, especially when I was asked to speak for at least half an hour. I actually spoke about today’s gospel reading from Luke 7, where an objectified and shunned person breaks through all the Pharisee’s ‘churchy’ barriers to honour Jesus and to be set free from her sins. On Tuesday, it was the untimely funeral of Andy Lee, aged only 51, at St Paul’s Hills Road in Cambridge. It was a transformative experience for me to confirm Andy after hearing his testimony before I confirmed him. He told us that he had been sectioned more than twenty times under the Mental Health Act and that at last people in authority were taking his religious delusions seriously. In my head I figuratively tore up my safe sermon after hearing Andy be ready to receive the grace of God to take responsibility as a person of hope for excluded people. I have no doubt that I was changed by my encounter with an unsafe person who challenged my verities not about the gospel, but about the many authentic but different ways in which we can serve Jesus.
Just as nearly all ancient English ceremonial is an invention of Edward VII, the bringing together of ancient practices in the Chrism Mass is an initiative of Vatican II. Given the importance of our recently invented parish customs, we should not be too tight-lipped. My experience of the Eastern Orthodox world is that if an innovation is worth promoting you always say that you’ve always done it, whether that is the blessing of holy oil or the occurrence of hospital chaplaincy.
I mention hospital chaplaincy because the Church in recent times and across most traditions has discovered the power of the anointing of the sick. We also use oil to signify the sealing of the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. In Confirmation and Ordination we express our confidence in people being anointed not only as those who are called through their baptism but also sent as adult Christians both to be uncertificated Christian adults – the ordination of the laity – and also those set aside and consecrated to be deacons, priests and bishops.
The Chrism Eucharist is a coming together of ancient strands that may not have always been connected. What I would observe, however, is that this is a wonderful opportunity to meet at the beginning of the great three days of our faith. In this Eucharist we celebrate that we are all being formed in the real world of flesh and blood as people who become the bread of Jesus in the world. We are allowing our humanity to be shaped by God through His anointing which takes in not only our flesh but the effect upon that flesh of the refreshing and cleansing of water, oil, sunshine, the harvest of bread, the fruit of the vine and all to make us the continuing embodiment of the Incarnation of Jesus by our faithful living of His gospel.
When I first started attending the Chrism Eucharist in the 1970’s it was an Anglo Catholic statement which largely confused bishops. I have seen adherence grow to draw together people serious about renewing their vows alongside very different, largely lay Christians, who have come to appreciate the miraculous power of holy oil to bring us to healing and much more radical anointing for service, an anointing which brings to the foot of the Cross and sends us as messengers of an empty tomb.
I think that one of the uniting factors here is a deep desire for forgiveness and mercy. There is the story that a noble lord had a nightmare that he was speaking in the House of Lords without preparation only to wake up and discover that he was. You might say that there is no reason to renew vows which we do as ministers today unless we have broken them. Derr. The truth we come to offer today is that we all live the nightmare of failure. We are all sinners. All of us from time to time lose energy and focus because we suffer bereavement and disappointment. Wonderfully and terribly, we are all human.
I have felt this acutely as I prepare for my first ever experience of study leave which begins on Low Sunday. I am having difficulty with my control issues. What will Bishop David and my other immediate colleagues get up to while I am away? They will have ideas of their own. They might even take the opportunity to talk freely about how I might do better when I get back. Actually, I have encouraged them to do so in the trust and union which we share as those who receive God’s anointing as the baptised. We are all part of God’s priestly people. You may have noted that the actor, Tim Pigott-Smith has just died. He was especially famous for his part as the sadistic officer in the televised version of Jewel in the Crown. Tim managed to play tragic figures like King Lear. He was just about to play Willie Lowman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willie is a more meagre figure than Lear; but Willie’s son declared, “Attention must be paid. Attention must be paid to this person.” Well, we are here because, for all our failings, by grace alone we are called to be jewels in the crown of the King of Kings. As He did, we know tragedy and failure as well as joy and laughter. We have many costumes: but we seek to have only one face which mirrors the face of the Servant King. As the Early Church was multi-lingual in Greek and Latin there was nuance not only in the language which described the nature of Christ but also what it meant to be a person or model of the character of this Christ. My study leave is about how Christ-like character is given and practised in the setting of our schools, but also in how we characterise vocation to a variety of public ministries.
All of you who are David’s and my colleagues as priests and deacons read my lips: I admire and trust you for who you are and what you do. I say the same to you who are LLMs and ALMs and all uncertificated Christians present. And David and I with the priests and deacons are here to do something specific: to renew the vows we made at our ordination which themselves are the fulfilment of the hopes and aspirations which first drew us to ordination. We recently celebrated in the Cathedral the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of twelve women as deacons. We acknowledge that some of you waited a long time for those hopes and aspirations to be fulfilled. Others of you are sticking faithfully to the truth of that first calling which does not permit you to support the ordination of women as priests and bishops. We have come today, however, to express our unity not in a professional qualification but in a consecration of human beings to be configured with Christ, the High Priest. It is not a personal privilege but a consecration for service.
I was chaplain to an evangelical bishop who believed that he was changed by the grace of orders, just that he did not realise it until the third time round. I believe that the grace of orders does change us fundamentally as we are aligned to the gospel of grace to serve the will of Christ in every aspect of our being. Many of you will have sat on my sofa and heard me remind you that you are a priest in everything else you are as a spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend, lover, judge and prophet. The reason that this all came together in the 1970’s is so that clergy were invoked by and with the bishop to lead God’s people through the three great days of the revelation of Christ as King so that they can renew their baptismal promises on Easter Day.
I long for the day when the depth and volume of that renewal of baptismal promises transforms the world even more obviously. Our diocesan strategy, Fully Alive 2025, is entirely posited upon church growth. But we already know that growth is not a purpose but the outcome of transformation in Christ. The heart of the strategy is the Way of Life in which we encourage one another in contagious holiness as individuals and as churches and networks.
I have just discovered Netflix and the dramatic power of The Crown. I was very moved by the tableau in which Queen Mary – played by Eileen Atkins – curtseys to the new Queen Elizabeth. This is not an oblique demand for deference for the bishop. What captured my thinking was the emotionally deficient Queen Mary telling her granddaughter that Lilibet was dead and that she had become an entirely different person as the Sovereign. What little we actually know from observation about HMQ is that she did not pay her grandmother too much attention. She has survived and thrived as a consecrated lay person by integrating her authenticity as a disciple with her public office. The General Synod document, Setting God’s People Free, lays before us that priests and people are equal in the economy of salvation. There is no worthy priest who is not a disciple at the root. There is no serious disciple who does not have priestly characteristics. In The Crown there is great attention to royal costume. I am pretty sure that consecration for service means for the Queen and for us is that we put on Christ. Amen.