Twenty Five Years In…

Twenty Five Years In…

Reflecting on 25 years a priest

Reflecting on 25 years a priest

I was ordained priest in 1993. John Major was Prime Minister, George Carey Archbishop
of Canterbury and my ordaining bishop was holy, grand and known by some as ‘the last
of the Prince Bishops.’ The senior clergy of the time had all been ordained in the late
1950s to the early 1970s and were products of their age: the prevailing theological
tradition was broadly liberal, and we were prepared for a priestly ministry that was still
essentially pastoral, with the task of the clergy to lead the church (probably as a lone
ordained individual) and to do what clergy had done for generations: visit the sick, lead
worship, represent the church in the community, and still to enjoy something of a status
as a community leader. That I served a curacy in middle-England Hampshire probably
only emphasised that historic role and task. The Church of England voted to ordain
women as priests in my first year of curacy – the woman who served alongside me as a
deacon in Chandler’s Ford had to wait longer than I did to be ordained priest, even
though she was ordained deacon before me. We had little or no experience of women’s
ordained ministry.
How times have changed. Today we have a woman as Bishop of London, one of the more
theologically-conservative dioceses in the country. A bishop who has pretentions of
grandeur is something of an anachronism (the last one with any of that about him is soon
to retire…no names mentioned!). Today it is a form of generous open Evangelicalism that
is the prevailing theological mood of the time. The clergy – whether of that tradition or
not – are far more theologically orthodox than a generation ago. Sixties liberal theology
is seen as something as relic and aberration in the modern Church of England – even
twenty-five years ago, at the beginning of the rise of the New Age Movement, the 1960s
liberal claim that everyone was preparing to abandon superstition and that what we
needed was a ‘secular Christianity’ looked very suspect. Today religion is at the heart of
our public discourse and, to quote G K Chesterton, “when people stop believing in God
they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.”
Clergy in 2018 are viewed through very different lenses than they were even in 1993. In
part we have made our own bed to lie in with the various scandals of sexual abuse and
subsequent cover up, but alongside that, the collective loss of religious awareness in
society has resulted in an indifference to clergy. Among the younger generations, our
regular appearances in the media to opine on matters of sexual morality, make us seem
part of the problem in society, rather than part of its solution. How refreshing it was to
hear Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding offering a compelling vision of
what Christianity is meant to be: a revolution of love.
Today’s clergy are trained to be evangelists and collaborating team leaders rather than
solo performers. It will be interesting to see how our new Associate Vicar goes about his
role in Community Development and Mission: I am looking forward to learning from what
he has learned and the way he has been trained.
Despite all the differences, and the increasing complexity and challenge of the role of a
priest in the 21
st century, there are still commonalities. People are still hungry for
meaning and often struggle to find it in a marketplace of faith and spirituality, both
fulfilling and ludicrous. Increasingly in our culture, with the self as the arbiter of
meaning and morality, there is isolation, loneliness and atomisation. We know more
about people in Syria than we do about the people next door. And so people long for
community. Despite all the suspicion of institutions, therefore, when people discover for
themselves what faith in Jesus Christ has to offer in terms of personal meaning,
community life beyond individual fulfilment, and vocation to serve others for the sake of
social transformation, the Gospel still has power.
Being a priest in 2018 is a far more challenging thing than it was in 1993, but it is in
many ways much closer to the way in which primitive Christianity had to find a voice
and a place to stand to live out and proclaim the Gospel. I cannot see that changing. It
would be pointless for the rest of my ministry, let alone the ministry of the church, to be
an exercise in attempting to reclaim a nostalgic past that probably never existed. So
bring on the next 25 years with all that they will bring!

Deo gracias.
Your brother and priest.
Simon

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