24 June 2020
19 years in priestly
ministry and my scenic
route to ordination
I was ordained priest 19 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 20 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].
The Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June) is one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 20-21).
Bishops, in the charge to priests at their ordination, call us to ‘preach the Word and to minister his (God’s) holy sacraments.’ But the bishop also reminds us to be ‘faithful in visiting the sick, in caring for the poor and needy, and in helping the oppressed,’ to ‘promote unity, peace, and love,’ to share ‘in a common witness in the world’ and ‘in Christ’s work of reconciliation,’ to ‘search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.’
As I reflect on these anniversaries this morning, I recall too how my path to ordination began 49 years ago when I was a 19-year-old in Lichfield, following very personal and special experiences in a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.
It was the summer of 1971, and although I was training to be a chartered surveyor with Jones Lang Wootton and the College of Estate Management at Reading University, I was also trying to become a freelance journalist, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon, after a few days traipsing along Wenlock Edge and through Shropshire, and staying at Wilderhope Manor, I had returned to Lichfield.
I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield, and I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled into that chapel out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of an old church or chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.
I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was late afternoon, so there was no light streaming through the East Window. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.
This is not a normal experience for a young 19-year-old … certainly not for one who is focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.
But it was – and still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my ‘self-defining moment in life.’ It still remains as a lived, living moment.
My first reaction was to make my way on down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into Lichfield Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.
It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-2008), then the Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop at Lambeth. He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.
All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.
However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), which was beginning to unfold at the time. He was then then Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and facing trial when he opened his doors to black protesters who were being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the steps of his cathedral.
My new-found faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.
While I was working as a journalist, I also completed my degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was gnawing away in the back of my mind.
Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.
I return to Lichfield regularly, usually two, three or more times a year, and slip into that chapel quietly when I get off the train. That chapel has remained my spiritual home. I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But the traditions of that chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal form of Anglicanism; and the liturgical traditions of Lichfield Cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.
That bright summer evening left me open to the world, with all its beauty and all its problems.
As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. This morning, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought unexpected restrictions on this meaningful day, and I have yet to visit Lichfield this year.
The Collect of the Day (the Birth of Saint John the Baptist):
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour,
by the preaching of repentance:
Lead us to repent according to his preaching,
and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.