24 June 2023
Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (27) 24 June 2023
This is the Feast of the Birthday of Saint John the Baptist (24 June 2023). Before the day begins, I am taking some time for prayer, reading and reflection, remembering that I was ordained priest 22 years ago on this day, 24 June 2001, and that tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I was ordained deacon 23 years ago (25 June 2000).
Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:
1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;
2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
However, I am interrupting that theme this morning to reflect on these 23 years of ordained ministry, to give thanks, to pray, to read, to think and to give thanks.
I was ordained priest 22 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 23 years ago tomorrow, on 25 June 2000.
The Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June) is one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Church Calendar.
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.’
These charges remain a sacred commitment for life, even after a priest retires from parish ministry. I retired from full-time ministry almost 15 months ago (31 March 2022) after my stroke last year, and I am in the process of seeking Permission to Officiate (PTO). But I shall always remain a priest.
As I reflect this morning on the anniversaries of my ordination, I recall too how my path to ordination began 51 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 – and in Lichfield Cathedral, both of which I returned to in recent weeks.
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 and the Tamworth Herald. 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 he 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 adult 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 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 expression 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.
The chapel in Saint John’s Hospital and Lichfield Cathedral remain my twin spiritual homes, and I returned to both again two months ago (24 April 2023).
As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. However, I still await PTO in a new diocese and I have found unexpected restrictions on celebrating this meaningful day. This continues to be trying at a personal level, and so it was good last week while I was in Dublin (16 June 2023) to return to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, where I was ordained. I am looking forward to being in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, tomorrow morning (25 June 2023), when the Revd Francesca Vernon celebrates her first Mass following her ordination to the priesthood later today. Both are reminders to me that I remain a priest forever.
Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (NRSVA):
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61 They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘The snowdrop that never bloomed.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (24 June 2023, Birth of John the Baptist) invites us to pray:
Let us give thanks for the life and ministry of Saint John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus.
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 your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament
have known your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org