A friend who is about to be made Deacon asked me for some advice on the immense task, joy and challenge of Ordained ministry. I am certainly no Michael Ramsay, but after a decade of Ordained Ministry in the Church of England, here are some small pieces of advice which I hope might be useful to her and others embarking on the Lord’s work. It is not comprehensive, and highly subjective and for this, I apologise.
- My wise training incumbent told me it would take him six months beat theological college out of me before he could teach me anything. I resented that at first, and then (probably after six months) realised he was absolutely right. Your formation which began before you went to BAP, continued at your College/Course does not end when you leave, but rather I believe it continues in your Title and throughout your entire ministry. You are constantly being formed until the day you are gathered into His presence. Recognising THIS is what will make you the priest God wants you to be.
- Don’t think you have to say everything about a text in a sermon in one go. You have the whole of your ministry to explore it. Now for me, typical homily length is less than 9 mins but tries to make one meaningful point. When theological students start writing essays, they sound like sermons, when deacons start preaching, they sound like theological essays: ditch that style asap and preach the Gospel of Inclusive love and forgiveness before you even touch the phrase “in the original Greek…”
- Throw away all that Barth, Von Balthazar and Tillich, you’ll never use them directly in your sermons or your pastoral work. Take all that learning and apply it in practice, not theory. Reinterpret and then go buy some good assembly resources instead, for this is what really matters.
- If a school asks you to do anything, then say yes. If you can learn to treat young people with respect regardless of their age then this will be your biggest congregation of the week; and even in non-Church Schools you can bag a regular visit for Collective Worship from once a half-term up to weekly. Put more effort into your Assembly than your Sunday homily, be creative, be Audiovisual and tell Bible Stories like you are there. It’s preparing the soil for the Sower to plant his Good News.
- Always wear a cassock to an assembly. Not a suit, certainly not jeans and an open-necked shirt. It shows the young people that you value them enough to get dressed properly. The collar is distinctive dress and the cassock, even more so. Wear a collar in the Pub. First time you do this, you will be politely ignored. Second time, they will acknowledge you. Third time, someone will ask for help, advice or prayer. In School, put on a stole for the blessing. Even deacons should end an assembly with at least the Aaronic Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26). Always end assemblies with a blessing. Always end Church meetings with a blessing. There aren’t enough blessings given in this world anymore.
- Tone matters most. You will sit with people at the worst times of their lives, when they hear bad news or speak of their loss of their loved ones, their broken relationships and their inner turmoil. There isn’t much hardcore theology or very much Scripture that needs to be kept in mind. Just be there. Hold their hands, and if they ask, you might have to agree that yes, this is a terrible thing. Your actions and what few words you say in the right tone will matter more than preaching the Gospel at that moment: be the Gospel.
- Remember that a priest remains a deacon for ever: you do not leave that behind, and the service of the faithful, the preaching of the Gospel and the building of the Kingdom are at the foundation of your priestly ministry of the sacraments. You should return to this siren call, re-reading it on the anniversary of being made a deacon:
Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.
Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound.
Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.
The Ordination of Deacons http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/ordinal/deacons.aspx
- Priesthood is a privilege and a burden, the ministry of the sacraments is a vital task in this world, not an optional extra. The Word of God made Flesh uses you as an agent in this world.
- Say every Mass as though it was for the first time, as though it was the last time, as though it was the only time. Prepare, pray and never just turn up and do it. If you don’t get half way through the prayer and don’t think “one day they’ll figure out I’m a fraud” then that is the day you should stop saying Mass because none of us are worthy to handle this monumental task, and it is only by God’s grace that we are ministers of his word and sacrament. On the anniversary of your ordination, and perhaps before each time you make your confession, you should re-read this:
Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.
Ordination of Priests http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/ordinal/priests.aspx
- Remember you don’t have a career, you have a vocation. You are not employed by the CofE, they pay you a stipend to do with awesome work, or even more awesomely, you have given freely to God your time in addition to working in the secular world. You work for God. You are his servant, and that means standing with the people of God against the world and the Church establishment tm in sometimes prophetic ways. The horribly political Church of England, the Anglican Covenant, that Plum Job in a Massive Church means nothing when you are at someone’s bedside to pray with them and anoint them as they die. This is what you are called to.
- Although Gin helps, Gin with friends works better, especially if you are single. Stay in contact with people your were at Theological College: meet for lunch occasionally because you will go through the same angsts together (curacy, first incumbancy, second incumbancy, first curate, first see even). Keep up Spiritual Direction, especially once you start to Spiritually Direct others.
- Love God, even when Ministry feels the lonliest place in the world.