A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 27th September 2023
Today, Friday and Saturday are what are called Ember Days. The origins of this word, Ember, are obscure. But the reality to which it refers are very ancient in Christian practice. There were four Ember times of fasting and prayer, marking the turning of the four seasons of the year – taking place on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following St Lucy’s Day on 13 December, the first Sunday in Lent, Pentecost and Holy Cross Day on 14 September. The observance probably came to this country in the late 6th century under the aegis of Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury. Originally these times of prayer were associated with the agricultural seasons of the year, but they soon became associated with prayer for the ministers of the church, and particularly for those to be ordained. Our Common Worship carries on this tradition and in the notes on observing Ember days bids us observe them before an ordination and even if there is no ordination “as more general days of prayer for those who serve the Church in its various ministries, both ordained and lay, and for vocations.”
It is particularly fitting that today in the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic church we also remember St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest who died in 1660. He was particularly influential in organizing charitable and mission work in France, and founded a number of organizations to this end. The most significant and lasting was the Congregation of the Mission and much of its work centred on another of Vincent’s main concerns – the proper education of priests and training them for work among the poor and uneducated.
Priestly ministry is very much in the minds of those who worship here as we await the processes of appointing a new incumbent. So keeping this day is particularly appropriate for us. We pray for a parish priest for this church. But we also pray for all those who are stepping forward to minister here as lay people.
If we think first about praying for the ordained ministry and particularly for parish priests, what do we really pray for? That may sound an odd question. But if you were to look at the Church Times and its pages of vacancies of different kinds you will see how people note all sorts of different skills and capacities from their hoped-for incumbent. These can be so overwhelming I sometimes wonder why there are any applicants for some posts. People say they want someone who is a fine preacher, an expounder of Scripture, someone who will nurture the musical tradition of the church, someone who is good with children or older people, someone who will play a part in the life of the area, someone who will “grow the church”. Then there is the proliferation of non-parochial roles – Directors of Formation and Ministry, Directors of children’s work, Directors of Mission, and Advisors on spirituality and many other aspects of Christian life. I rather think that all this misses the point of ordained ministry and what sustains it. The church is not a business creating and selling particular products. It is not here to nurture a buying public. The church is the gathering of the people of God to worship Him, to pray and deepen their life in the Spirit. From that flows everything else in terms of formal services, preaching, teaching and caring for others. Vincent de Paul’s life underlines this. All the pastoral and charitable work for which he became so famous, everything which made him such a profound influence for good, flowed from his spiritual life.
So when we pray for a new parish priest, or for those about to be ordained, or for people to offer themselves for this ministry, we should primarily be praying that all of these should be men and women of prayer, people whose lives are grounded in regular prayer, in keeping company with Christ. It is only as Christ grows His life within priests and deacons that they are enabled to become ministers of His Word and His Sacraments. The modern ordination service puts this well. After those to be ordained priest have made their vows the Bishop says, “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Where prayer is absent or neglected a priest is tempted to rely on his or her own strength and judgement, and that can lead to great harm for the person concerned and those to whom he or she ministers.
But as the Common Worship notes for Ember Day observance remind us, lay people also have various ministries in the church. (You may remember I spoke a little about this one Wednesday – 9 August 2023 – when we had a week with a bumper crop of saints of so many different kinds and with such different callings and ministries.) We all need each other with our different gifts and callings. As the writer to the Ephesians put it (ch.4:11-13), “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Or a little later, each of us in our particular ministry works together to make the one body grow and function properly.
So this Embertide let us pray for each other: in the knowledge that we all have a particular role in the ministry of the church. We all have a role to play in growing together to maturity, to the full stature of Christ. We cannot come to the full stature of Christ as lone Christians: we need each other and the gifts of each one’s ministry. But the foundation of that ministry, whether lay or ordained, is a life of prayer which draws us into the life of Christ.