January 8, 2012


                                                                Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 8 January 2012

The other day I was asked by one of our parishioners what I thought was the job of a rector.  I said that I could not tell him what the job of a rector is, but that I could tell him what is the job of a priest, because when a person is ordained to the priesthood that person makes a number of very distinct promises.  They are right there in the ordination service and I recommend that you take up your prayer books now and turn to page 532 in the English version or pagina 434 en español.  In the Episcopal Church a priest makes six promises, although at other times and in other parts of the Anglican Communion a candidate for the priesthood made only five.  But as we are in the United States of America let us follow the text of the currently used version of the Book of Common Prayer.

The first promise has to do with the relationship between priests and their bishop.  A priest is not required to agree with his or her bishop, but to respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of the bishop.  We shall return to the notion of “pastor” and “pastoral” a little further on.  The key thought in this promise is that the priest will respect the leadership of his or her bishop.  In other words, as a priest I look to the diocesan bishop for leadership at the human level.  My loyalty then is first and foremost to my bishop.  Some parishes, and certainly some parishioners, do not always grasp this, but within the Episcopal Church my first loyalty is not to the parish but to the bishop.   The Vestry might call a priest to be the rector of the parish, but it is the Bishop who gives consent to the call and it is the Bishop who licenses the priest to minister in the parish.

The second promise has to do with the first priority in a priest’s day-to-day life.  It is to be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures and in the search for knowledge.  To be the sort of priest envisaged in the Prayer Book a priest has to spend a lot of time in reading and study.  Even the Internal Revenue Service recognizes this by allowing the clergy to take a tax reduction on any books and magazines we purchase, provided they have to do with the work of the sacred ministry.  A priest needs access to books and a place to store them, and a parish needs to provide the priest with sufficient space in the parsonage for the priest’s library.  And the priest needs to be allowed all the time he or she needs for reading and studying the Holy Scriptures and literature related thereto.

The third promise has to do with the actual work of a priest.  It has to do with the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, in particular the Sacraments of the New Covenant.  As the Thirty-nine Articles indicate in Article XXV,

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God. 

(All that is on page 872 of the English version of the Prayer Book and pagina 766 en español.)  The emphasis of a priest’s work is to be on preaching and Bible study classes for the parishioners, and on the public administration of the Lord’s Supper.

The fourth promise is to undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom the priest is called to serve, labouring together with them … to build up the family of God.  This is in singularly United States English, the difficulty being in the use of the word, “pastor”.  Parishioners, quite correctly, understand the word to mean “shepherd”, for that is what the Latin root behind the word means.  Unfortunately, the word “shepherd”, or its Hebrew equivalent, is never used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe a priest.  It is always used either of people who literally herd sheep, or of kings and governors.  In a republic, such as the United States of America, this nuance might not be noticed, but nevertheless it is important.  The word that the New Testament uses to describe what in Anglican Communion practice is called a priest is presbyteros, our English word “presbyter” and our Spanish word, “presbítero”, as in El Libro de Oracíon Común.  This Greek word means an elder, but that raises the question: What was an elder in New Testament times?  In other long-lived traditional societies an elder was one to whom those running the affairs of the community referred for a decision as to whether a proposed action corresponds with what are the accepted ways of the community. 

You have heard me explain before that a priest is not a pastor because he is not a shepherd, but rather is the sheepdog of the Good Shepherd, who is Jesus, and that anyone else who accepts the title “pastor” must by definition be a bad shepherd! 

Seen in this light this fourth promise is a pledge to work with the membership of the parish, and in a special way with the lay leadership to build up the family of God.  The prayer that we have been using for many months now, it is Prayer 13 on page 818 of the Prayer Book or pagina 708 en español reflects this as it asks that we might receive a priest who will care for God’s people and equip them for their ministries.  I believe the best way to describe such a role is as that of counselor and adviser of others who have their own ministry to carry out within the parish.  That would be a Scriptural understanding of what the promise means. 

The fifth promise has to do with the pattern of life of the clergyperson and the clergy family.  We promise to pattern our family life in accordance with the teachings of Christ so that we may be a wholesome example.  Truth to tell there is not much in the Gospels about Jesus and his family, but what there is shows a group of people with great respect for each other, concerned about each other, and very courteous towards each other.  And in the greatest crisis of that family’s life, there was a gathering together to do what had to be done without demur or hesitation.

But there is another side to this promise, and one which many outside the clergy family might not appreciate.  For the priest it may not be difficult to live in the goldfish bowl in which parishioners so often place the clergy family, but for the spouse and for the children there are pressures to conform to an image of how they should live that few members of the congregation would expect to live up to themselves.  And because of the nature of a clergyperson’s working schedule, the clergy household is forced to live a life that is different from that of other families.  Should a parish call a married priest to be its minister, then that priest’s family must be allowed the room and the time to live as normal a life as anyone else in the parish in order to be a wholesome example to everyone else.

The sixth promise has to do with the prayer life of the priest.  This is at the same time the most private part of a priest’s ministry and the most public.  First though, it is clear that a priest must be a person of prayer and must always find time for prayer no matter where he or she may be.  The public part is easy enough, with the services held in the Parish Church or wherever members of the congregation gather together with their priest.  For these occasions we have the Book of Common Prayer, and how fortunate we are as members of the Anglican Communion to have such a valuable resource for prayers.  In some parishes in which I have served the public offering of Morning and Evening Prayer has been part of the life of the parish, and parishioners have joined the clergy in the parish church for this twice daily act of worship.  Sadly, in the pressure of modern urban life this practice is far less common than it once was.  Yet the priest should still read the office each day on behalf of the parish, and woe betide the parish whose priest does not do this, and woe betide the priest, for failure to read the office not only breaks contact with God but also with the parish as well, and it soon shows. 

Private prayer is a much more personal exercise, but it is still a vital part of a priest’s spiritual discipline, growth and hence life.  And private prayer can be offered almost anywhere at any time.

Well, those are the six promises a priest makes during the rite of ordination, and when a priest has made those promises openly in public before the entire assembled congregation, then the Bishop proceeds to the consecration of the priest and after that hands the newly ordained priest a copy of the Bible and utters the words of commissioning.  We find them on page 534 in the English version and pagina 436 en español. 

“Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given you to preach the Word of God and to administer his holy Sacraments.  Do not forget the trust committed to you as a priest of the Church of God.”

And that is the job of a priest, and if a rector is a priest that is the job of the rector. 

But what about all the other things a rector does, and some layfolk would say is supposed to do.  As a priest-in-charge I am told all too often what I am supposed to do, and it seldom has anything to do with what I have promised to do or have been given authority to do by the Archbishop who ordained me to the priesthood nearly a half-century ago.  I am told, especially by some of our Caribbean parishioners, that their rector back there and then used to do this, that and the other.  I served in the Caribbean back there and then and I know that rectors did not do all the things that I am told they did.  Rectors back then had curates, and it was one or other of the curates who visited, or who taught Sunday School, or ran the AYPA.  I know, because I was one of those curates.  The rector whom I assisted had three curates, and the rector of the next parish had four.  My own rector was also chaplain to the General Penitentiary and to the Police Academy, but the priest who actually went to the Penitentiary and who conducted the monthly Church Parade service at the Police Academy was not the rector, it was yours truly.    

During my entire life, I have only been called on by members of the clergy at home on four occasions.  Once was in the 1940s when the Reverend Mr Smart, the curate, not the Vicar, visited our home and invited my mother to send me along to test out for the choir because the music teacher at the local school had said I had a good voice.  The second time was in 1964.  I was at home and it was lunch time and the doorbell was rung.  I got up and went to see who it was and found standing on the doormat hat in hand the Bishop Douglas Sargent, the Bishop of Shelby, the suffragan for that part of the Diocese of York in which I had just arrived as a deacon.  He apologized for calling without notice but he had just come to welcome me to the Diocese and to find out how I was settling in.  The third time was in the year 2000.  We were leaving the parish of St Mary’s in Cadillac and the moving men were packing up the pantechnicon with our effects when the front doorbell rang.  This time it was the Bishop of Western Michigan who had come to say goodbye, to thank us for our service to the Parish and the Diocese and to wish us well in our retirement.  And the fourth time was again in 2000 and this time when the doorbell rang it was Fr Dan Moore and he was not just welcoming us to Port St Lucie but he was also inviting me to assist him on a fairly regular basis.  In all my seventy-seven years I have never been visited by the Rector of the Parish or the Bishop of the Diocese when I have been sick at home or in hospital, but I have known that I have been in their prayers.  I have been visited by members of the Parish, for visiting is one of those duties of the Parish as the Body of Christ in a particular place about which we read in the New Testament.  And it is to the New Testament that we need to look to see how the ministry of the Parish is to be conducted. 

In Acts 6 we read of a problem that confronted the early Church in Jerusalem.  The non-Aramaic members felt that they were being neglected.  What did the leaders do about this?  They asked the members of the Greek-speaking community to identify seven of their number who would then be commissioned to do the work of ministry among the Greek-speakers.  Let me say that I made a similar suggestion recently to the Spanish-speaking members of our congregation but so far I have only been given one name, and that by the spouse of the person named, not by the main body of the Spanish-speaking members. 

Paul faced a similar problem in the Church at Corinth, and he discusses it at length in I Corinthians 12, and in the Church at Ephesus, and he discusses this at shorter length in Ephesians 4.  Paul’s solution was that we need to recognize the God-given talents that are to be found in each individual and encourage each person to use that talent, or occasionally those talents, to the glory of God and the building up of the Church.  This is what lies behind the Prayer we mentioned earlier about the calling of a rector.  No one person has all the talents, but there are within the Body of Christ all the talents that are required for the total ministry to be carried out in any parish.  And the average parish priest cannot know who has got which talents, only the parishioners know this.  So the wise move is for a priest to ask a group of lay people to meet together to discern the talents of everybody in the parish.  You do not ask anyone what are the talents that they have, because there are always those who will hide their light under a bushel!  The group does the discerning, as was done in Acts 6, and when one member of the group is the subject of the discernment process that person should probably leave the group until his or her talents have been discerned.  Why?  Because there are those who fondly think that they have talents that they do not have, while there are others who do not recognize the gifts God has given them. 

We did this in Cadillac, and when the exercise was complete the stewardship secretary included in the annual stewardship letter an indication of the talents that the recipients had been discerned as having.  One member, whom the group thought was a potential priest, was totally surprised at this, but now she is well along in training to become a priest.  Other members were challenged to other ministries that can well be performed by a lay person, and once they had accepted the challenge some took up those ministries.  When I resumed the position I currently occupy in 2008 I asked that a similar exercise be carried out here, but I am still awaiting any results.  If we do not know who we are, then how do we know what talents we do in fact have in the parish that may be put to the service of God?  Let me urge that in the months before the new rector arrives the Stewardship Committee undertake just such an exercise, so that the incoming rector will know what talents are available in the parish. 

These days rectors do not have a large number of curates, or even one.  Father John at Saint Andrew’s has no curate.  Father Jonathan at St Simon’s has no curate.  Here at Holy Faith, I have no curate, although I am blessed to have Father Pepe who assists by serving the Hispanic element in our congregation.  Reverend Mary at Nativity has a retired Bishop-in-residence, two retired priests and an ageing deacon, but she does not really have a curate.  Rectors do not have the domestic help that they had fifty years ago.  They do not have gardeners and chauffeurs.  Most of them do not have a full-time secretary, paid or otherwise.  All these additional tasks have to be taken on by the Rector and the rectory family, as they are in every household.  We are not living in the mid-twentieth century but the early twenty-first, and parishioners need to adjust their thinking to the newer realities.  And this will mean much more responsible and active commitment by the lay members of any congregation.  Where that commitment on the part of the laity exists, then the parish grows and lives.  Where such a commitment on the part of the laity does not exist, then the parish shrivels and dies.  It will not matter who the Vestry calls as the next rector, unless all the members of the congregation, whatever language they speak, wherever they come from, whoever they are, unless and until all the members of the congregation make a full commitment of all that they have received from God in terms of time and talents – and I am not even talking about treasure this morning – the future of Holy Faith will remain in jeopardy.  Do not moan about what the priest should do for you, but seek to find out what you can do for the parish and then, for God’s sake, go out and do it!