Homily for 26 April 2020
In our denomination, as you know, there is no official priesthood. We have no hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, and the ministers are not divided up into vicars, curates, rectors, canons, rural deans &c. Ours is a ministry of ordinary men and women, and indeed a lay-led ministry in many congregations. Our ministers are not set apart from everyone else. Ours is a ministry that is a part of ordinary life: a priesthood of all believers (as it has been described).
As a result of the covid 19 lockdown, the Vestry will have to decide whether the minister is on furlough or not. If I am officially on furlough, and chapel is in receipt of a government furlough grant, then (like anyone on the dole) I am not permitted to work.
There are two aspects of ministry or priesthood in its traditional form. Firstly the priest or minister is part of the community he or she serves, and is involved in it. Secondly, the minister is representative. He or she articulates the community’s needs, and lifts up the people in prayer.
As you can imagine, it is very hard to draw the lines and make clear-cut distinctions in something like this. Personally I would regard myself as being a member of our congregation whether I am on furlough or not. And that means like any other member of Great Meeting, I may contribute to services, and ring someone up to ask how they are getting along.
A distinguished performer once wrote of his art: “It is my duty to stand in all weathers at the cross-roads of human experience, assimilating all that I can, so that the essence of any emotion may irradiate my voice as I sing of it. And my listeners may thrill to this, as being an articulation of something within themselves.”
I personally think this is true of all genuine art. For example, what we appreciate about the books we really enjoy reading, is what they tell us about ourselves. When we hear a great piece of music, or stand before a wonderful painting, when we go to the theatre and become absorbed in the play, what we are hearing and seeing and being delighted by, is the sound of the notes we cannot sing out loud, but which is the music within us, the emotions in the words of the actors, the colours and forms the artist has succeeded in creating on his or her canvass, the narrative which carries us away on the printed page..
The way the distinguished singer understood his own art is not very different from each of our own vocations, as we practice our skills for the benefit of others. Firstly, to stand at the crossroads of human experience, sensitive to those among whom we live and work, is to enter into what they are thinking and feeling, and empathizing with them. And secondly, it is to see if we may perhaps articulate something of their experiences, which will show them we understand and genuinely sympathise.
Given a moment’s thought, we can see that the priesthood of all believers extends to every vocation and occupation, to every condition of life, where people are our real concern, and where their trials and difficulties matter to us.
There is a famous account in the gospels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. A great multitude had assembled to listen to Jesus teaching. At one point he asked a disciple, “Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” Another disciple answered, “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two fishes; but what are these among so many?” Jesus therefore took the loaves; and having given thanks, he distributed them… likewise also of the fishes as much as they would… And there were twelve baskets of broken pieces which remained over unto them that had eaten.
Without wondering too much about how this might have been possible, the thing we notice is that the lad which had the barley loaves and two fishes brought forward what he had in order that it might be used.
There is a priesthood that belongs to every person. None of us arrives empty-handed. Each of us has a function and a purpose. This goes a good deal deeper and stretches a good deal further than we might at first imagine. I personally believe it is a significant part of what brings us to attend chapel in the first place. It is our response to our call to care for others, and of course to care properly for ourselves.
A prayer by Vivian T Pomeroy, from Unitarian Orders of Worship, ed. Peter B Godfrey 1986:
“O God, we bring before thee the life we have lived in the week that is past. We thank thee for everything we were able to do and found it good in the doing. We thank thee for duties which were not so welcome when they appeared, but left us glad that we had done them. We thank thee for the friends we knew we could trust, … and for all the good workers who maintained the fabric of our world. We thank thee for the hours when we were very busy, and for the hours of release and quiet. We thank thee for little victories won over ourselves; for all the words well spoken and for things wisely left unsaid.
“O God, we bring before thee the week now beginning and our hopes for it. If there are things left undone which reproach us, may we have a steadfast mind to do them. If there are things we ought to finish, may we turn to them again gladly. But may we not be downcast because there are some things we shall never finish, inasmuch as they are so great. May we not become slothful because time is long; may we not become feverish because time is short. May the past be our benediction and the future our challenge. Amen.”