Sermon given by Rt Revd Bob Hardy on the 50th anniversary of Anthony Phillips’ Ordination – Sunday 24th September 2017
Let me begin with a confession. We’re not very good at anniversaries and celebrations in my family. Some folk are marvellous at remembering dates of this and that. They keep a birthday book, send an appropriate card, and organise friends for a happy celebration. But we’re not like that. We muddle along, my wife and I, passing the original Valentine card between us – we’ve had the same one since we were engaged (it’s getting a bit dog-eared by now, after almost fifty years) and we remember the children’s birthdays, but not really doing much beyond all that. I think we’re probably wrong, for we deny ourselves some simple pleasures and starve our affections of their proper place.
But Anthony, as you would imagine, is better organised, and he’s brought us together in this Eucharist to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his priesting, and to give thanks for all that is has meant to him, and to countless others as well.
First, then, our giving of thanks. Well, plenty to thank God for in his distinguished ministry in both Oxford and Cambridge; his notable headmastership of the King’s School, Canterbury, and all those countless and largely unseen acts of priestly work I know he has done over the years, counselling and ministering to his pupils and parishioners, comforting his friends, and not least his writing and reviewing and his academic work. To make a list would be embarrassing; to leave them unacknowledged would be unjust.
But beyond, and as a part of all this, we thank God also for the comfort and support of Anthony’s wife Vicky, and for their family. I’m one of those who firmly believes that the grace and goodness of God is not just given a man or woman at ordination, but shared and manifested to us throughout our ministry, and not least through our wives and families. How much we ask of them, and how generously they respond. So we thank God for Vicky and their family, and we pray for them in this service as they go on in their life together. It’s entirely appropriate that we should bring all this together in our Eucharist – making our own thanksgiving part of that supreme offering which Christ himself makes for us.
And that brings us to a second task in this service: to reflect for a moment, on the very nature of that priesthood and offering – the offering not only of Anthony, but that offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies in the service of our Lord.
You know already, as Christian people, what is the special mercy of Christ to us in the sacraments of the Church. It is that he simply puts Himself there – in this water, in this bread and wine, and in this man and woman through the laying-on of hands. Christ comes to us, and he comes in independence of anything special in ourselves – certainly not in anything special in the bread and wine, not, for that matter, anything special about the priest – except of course their particular calling to the priesthood. But that, is never all. For we believe the men and women who bear these sacraments are also, somehow sacramental in themselves. They are there to make the Church findable. They are the appointed people for Christ’s people to rally around – the focal points and the centre of that fellowship and unity we hold together. And what that means you can see here, in this very service.
In a Eucharist, the priest for a large part of the service is not more that the voice of the congregation. Some of the prayers we say together, some the priest says on our behalf: it makes but little difference.
Or, again, in the receiving of the sacrament, the priest is in the same position as any other Christian receiving the body and blood of Christ.
But there is a moment when all this changes, when the priest steps into the place of Christ himself, to do what Christ did – to take and bless, to break and share. It’s much the same in Absolution, and if you have ever gone and made your own confession to a priest, then you will understand what I say when I tell you that through the priest, Christ speaks the absolving words. The priest is there, as I’ve said, to make the Church findable, to help us the better see the saving work of Christ. The priest is the token of Christ, the person in whom Christ sets up the standard of his Kingdom and calls us to the colours.
It’s just this fact, of course, which shows up our priesthood so terribly, and makes us and them, too, so painfully aware of their deficiencies. Being a priest does not make someone more helpful to others in wisdom and kindness. But it gives people a right to the priest’s services. Anyone may be a better Christian than the priest, more holy of life, more deeply versed in prayer and compassion. But the priest has a special obligation to lead the devout life, to study divinity, to pray, and so be ready and fit to give some help to others in those important matters. Again, others may expound the Faith, they may write and speak in Christ’s name more wisely and competently than the priest. They may do these things, and even do them better. But the priest must, and that is the point. The priest must keep the people supplied with their food. He or she must keep giving them some word from God, not always a very easy thing to do as Anthony, I guess, could testify to his cost.
I’ve been talking about priesthood – about “them”, so to speak – as though I wasn’t one or them myself. But, of course, I am, and in all I’ve been saying, I’ve been thinking of my own ministry, for someone doesn’t cease to be a priest when they become a bishop, any more than they cease to be a deacon when they become a priest. Inevitably there’s something slightly absurd about all of this, for what we stand for is so infinitely greater than our inadequate and limited selves. But if you think about it, there’s something equally absurd about being a Christian at all. For none of us can let off being Christ in our particular place and station. We are all pygmies stumbling around in giant’s armour. But we have to put up with it. It’s the price – how small a price – paid for the supreme mercy and grace of God that he doesn’t wait for our dignity or perfection, but simply puts himself there, in our midst, in this bread and wine; in this priest; in this Christian man and woman and child; all to draw us to himself.
For He whom we serve gave himself first for us, first as an infant lying in a manger, and then as a man, dying on the Cross. He never stands on his own dignity at all. And surely, if Christ is willing to be in us, and if he has mysteriously chosen us to show Him to the world He has redeemed, then it is a very small thing that we should endure being fools for Christ’s sake – and that we should be shown up by the part we have to play.
Thank God, then, for Anthony’s rich and varied ministry and for what it has meant to so many. And thank God, too, that he called Anthony to the priesthood, and that, in his loving-kindness, he makes Himself known to us, and calls us to be His followers and His friends.