01 December 2014
Liturgy 9.2 (2014-2015): Seminar: Spirituality of ministry;
readings on the minister as person, private, public and holy
TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality
Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:
[3 p.m., Monday 1 December 2014]
9.2: Seminar: Spirituality of ministry; readings on the minister as person, private, public and holy.
Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a priest today (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2nd ed, 2006), Chapter 7 (pp 129-153). Published in the US as: Rosalind Brown, and Christopher Cocksworth, On being a priest today (Cambridge MA: Cowley 2002).
The Right Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth has been Bishop of Coventry since 2008 and is a former Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge (2001-2008).
Canon Roslaind Brown is a renowned hymn writer and Canon Librarian of Durham Cathedral, with responsibility for the public face of the cathedral’s life including visitors, education, the Library, pastoral care and relationships with the wider community.
Malcolm Grundy, What they don’t teach you at theological college (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), Chapter 16 (pp 162-172), ‘Spirituality and a Rule of Life.’
Canon Malcolm Grundy has been Archdeacon of Craven in the Diocese of Bradford (1994-2005) and Director of the Foundation for Church Leadership (2005-2009).
Sister Barbara June (Kirby) SLG, ‘Simple Gifts: Priesthood in a Praying Community,’ (Chapter 5), pp 62-71 in George Guiver et al, Priests in a People’s Church (London: SPCK, 2001).
The Revd Sister Barbara June (Kirby) is a member of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God in Fairacres, Oxford, and has been an NSM curate in Saint John’s, Cowley.
Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, new ed., 1992), Chapter 9, ‘The Ordination Gospel’ (pp 61-67).
Archbishop Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974). After a curacy in Liverpool, he became a lecturer to ordination candidates at the Bishop’s Hostel, Lincoln, when he published The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936).
His parish postings included Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge, before he became a canon of Durham Cathedral and Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham. He then became the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge (1950), Bishop of Durham (1952), Archbishop of York (1956) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1961).
This book started life in 1972 as a series of sermons to ordinands by Archbishop Ramsey. These 15 succinct essays, updated in 1985, provide timeless theology and practical advice that are just as relevant today
Prayer is both an individual and a collective action, and even when we pray individually, we are praying for ourselves and we are praying on behalf of others. The Caroline Divine, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), wrote in his Latin Devotions that “he who prays for others, labours for himself.”
In prayer, we need to be mindful of the needs of others, and in ordained ministry we have a responsibility to help and to teach others to pray. To do this, we need to develop our own prayer lives, so that praying does not become a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our lives.
Fixing a pattern for regular prayer could include using the office (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer), valuing silence, being regular at the Eucharist, and praying as you read Scripture, and not just studying it.
But what about being priests at prayer?
Being priests at prayer
In his Letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul tells the Church in Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Philippians 1: 3-4).
In preparing for ordination, most ordinands realise that prayer – their own prayer life, praying for others and being a person of prayer – is a major expectation in our vocation and ministry.
My experience is that whatever else people want of us, as priests or clergy, they want us to pray for them and to pray with them. However, Rosalind Brown and Christopher Cocksworth say that “almost without exception” prayer is the one area that clergy admit to feeling they are failing to meet their own expectations and hopes, quite apart from the expectations of those we minister among.
Too often, as clergy, we end up with feelings of failure and guilt, feelings of being unable to pray as we wish to. Many clergy know what it is to wonder whether their parishioners or members of the congregations would lose all trust for and respect in them if they only knew the paucity of their prayer life.
The other side of these feelings of guilt and failure, is the feeling that comes when we are spending time in prayer and keep getting the nagging feeling that the time would be better spent “doing” something more productive.
The call to a life of prayer
Prayer is at the heart of our ordained ministry.
At your ordination, you will be reminded in the words of the ordinal that as deacons you are called to “strengthen the faithful” and to “lead the people in intercession” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 555), and that as priests you “are to lead God’s people in prayer and worship, to intercede for them … ” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 565).
Bishops too are to “pray for all those committed to their charge … and to lead the offering of prayer and praise” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 576, 577).
All of us in ordained ministry – deacons, priests and bishops – are asked at our ordination by the bishop: “Will you be diligent in prayer …?” The response is: “With the help of God, I will” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 556, 566, 578).
Archbishop Rowan Williams writes of “three-ness” of prayer for those who have been ordained: “If you have the charge of priesthood laid upon you, then the Sunday liturgy, the Daily Office and private prayer are simply there, and there is no way around them, even if you should want one. They are part of the bargain, and they grow on us as we increasingly sense in them something of the sovereignty of God. In this way, they become both a commitment and a joy, even if there are times when we would rather be doing something else. The ‘three-ness’ is not a matter of law or rules, but a part of the essence of being Christian.” (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections).
Finding the strength to pray
At the opening of the prayers at the ordination service, the candidates for ordination are reminded that “none of us can bear the weight of this ministry in our own strength …” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 557, 567, 578).
So, where do we go to seek and draw the strength to pray? Despite those prayers at ordination, we do not suddenly become paragons of prayer when we are ordained. Indeed, whether or not you have disciplined prayer life, you know by now that you do not pray and cannot pray on your own strength.
In that weakness, I find it reassuring when the Apostle Paul reminds me: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8: 26-27).
The ordination charges to be diligent in prayer, to intercede for the people, to lead the people in prayer and worship, and to teach them by word and example are possible to fulfil only because of the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
The priority of prayer
Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said that “the prayer of the priest is … supremely important as the source of his ability to train the people in the way of prayer.”
A daily rhythm of prayer creates a growth that may remain imperceptible to us individually. But others know whether we are people of prayer. We do not have to tell them.
Prayer should be and must be at the heart of our ordained ministry. Being a priest is not simply an occupation, but is a vocation, a calling. And our prayer is not one more function or part of the job description. We are called to be people of prayer, people for whom prayer is not just something we do. Rather, prayer must be the environment in which we live because we live in God.
The poet John Donne (1572-1631), who was once Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, wrote: “[Prayer] may be mental, for we may think prayers. It may be real, for we may speak prayers. It may be actual, for we may do prayers … So then to do the office of your vocation sincerely is to pray.”
But how do we work at making and maintaining prayer as the priority it should be in our ministry?
The Irish hymn writer James Montgomery (1771-1854), in a well-known hymn (Church Hymnal 625), wrote:
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.
Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.
Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
the Christian’s native air,
our watchword at the gates of death,
we enter heaven with prayer.
In this hymn, Montgomery suggests that prayer is our natural environment, not something that we do under duress at certain times, because it is a task or burden, or because it is one the obligations imposed on us as a condition for ordination.
Prayer is the intimacy of our life in God. Prayer is being “lost in wonder, love and praise.” Prayer is the short glance in God’s direction. Prayer is the awe and wonder felt at a beautiful sunset. Prayer is the pain or the pleasure as we listen to news. Prayer is the cry of help when there are no words to express those feelings and no words to describe that need. Prayer is the silence of being in God’s company in sorrow and in joy. Prayer knows nothing too high to be too majestic or too low to be too mean for bringing before God. Prayer, like breathing, is the underlying rhythm and pulse of life.
Or as Michael Quoist says in one of his books: “Everyday life is the raw material of prayer” (Prayers of Life, 1966).
But how do we work to overcome those difficulties that sometimes stop prayer from being the soul’s desire, that stop prayer from coming from our heart as easily as the simplest form of speech, that stop prayer from being as natural as breath?
Difficulties in prayer
When we are full of joy, prayer may come easily in terms of words and actions. But when we are broken-hearted, bruised, tired or confused, we may find that all we can do is present ourselves, physically, in our place of prayer without finding words.
Some of the weaknesses in prayer that each of us is familiar with include not having enough time, and being distracted constantly by other thoughts in our minds or other events taking place around us. When we find difficulties in prayer are crowding around us, and the words cease, the thoughts wander, and we want to escape from the place of prayer, it is worth remembering that at times our presence alone is sufficient prayer.
Saint Theophan the Recluse: an inspiring and great Russian teachers on prayer
Among the inspiring and great teachers on prayer is Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894). A persistent theme in his writing was the task of developing an interior life of continuous prayer, learning to “pray without ceasing,” as the Apostle Paul teaches (I Thessalonians 5: 17).
He wrote: “Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”
Priestly ministry calls on us to live on the boundary between earth and heaven, to be at home in both worlds, to be able to speak of each in and to the other.
But how do we ensure that we have an interior life of continuous prayer that is the driving force for everything in ministerial life?
Prayer at the heart of ministry
Some advice that may help people in ordained ministry who find that their commitment to prayer is becoming difficult would include the following: do not worry, slow down, be disciplined, keep priorities in focus, do not get too upset or worried about techniques of prayer, do not try to be perfect.
Do not worry?
You know the saying, “It could happen to a bishop.” Bishop Alan Abernathy has conceded: “I must say that I still find prayer very difficult. There are days when I cannot pray. There are days when I do not want to pray. There are days when I wonder if am living a lie” (Fulfilment & Frustration, p. 120).
When you face difficulties, remember that you are not alone. Everyone in ministry has these feelings at different times. Indeed, everyone has these difficulties.
Kenneth Leech has written: “There is no need to rush around feverishly looking for a prayer life: we need to slow down and look deeply within. What is the point of complaining that God is absent if it is we who are absent from God, and from ourselves, by our lack of awareness … At heart, prayer is a process of self-giving and of being set free from isolation. To pray is to enter into a relationship with God and to be transformed by him” (Kenneth Leech, True Prayer).
In the canon law of the Church of England, Canon C26 reminds all clergy – bishops, priests and deacons – of our call to and duty of daily prayer: “Every bishop, priest, and deacon is under obligation, not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause, to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly; and to celebrate the Holy Communion, or be present thereat, on all Sundays and other principal Feast Days. He is also to be diligent in daily prayer and intercession, in examination of his conscience, and in the study of the Holy Scriptures and such other studies as pertain to his ministerial duties.”
This is not a canonical requirement for us in the Church of Ireland. But it is a good and useful, tested discipline.
Keep priorities in focus?
You will be under pressure to do, rather than be. Being a priest is much more important than doing the things that people think we should do as priests. We are ordained to be ministers of word and sacrament and to be people of service and prayer. But you will constantly under pressure to do things – under pressure from parishioners, from other clergy, even from your bishop do so many things that you were not ordained for. At times, that pressure may be so great that you are finding there are unacceptable pressures on your prayer life and the time you give to prayer.
That pressure was recognised over 60 years ago by Evelyn Underhill when she wrote: “We are drifting towards a religion which … keeps its eye on humanity rather than Deity, which lays all the stress on service, and hardly any of the stress on awe: and that is a type of religion which in practice does not wear well. It does little for the soul in those awful moments when the pain and mystery of life are most deeply felt. It does not provide a place for that profound experience which Tauller called ‘suffering in God’. It does not lead to sanctity, and sanctity after all is the religious goal.” (Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life with The House of the Soul, p. 4).
Do not get upset about techniques of prayer?
Almost 100 years ago, the great pioneering spiritual director, Somerset Ward (1881-1962), warned: “It is a common reason for failure in prayer, that we are more aware of the subject of our prayer rather than its object; we are apt to think more of what we shall pray for than of how we shall pray” (Somerset Ward, To Jerusalem, p. 111).
There may be times when the words of the Daily Office, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, pass you by and you cannot find words for prayer. But your presence is prayer itself. There may be times when the words and actions of the Eucharist or Holy Communion pass you by. But you can be assured that you are caught up in the timeless prayer of the Church, present with all the saints, and the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.
Do not try to be perfect?
Because of the images and expectations that people will project onto you, it becomes easy to forget that we are called not be priests who are perfect, in perfect places and parishes. No. We are called to be priests and people of prayer as we are, in the lives we live today. Learning to deal with and to dismiss unnecessary guilt is an important discipline in the priestly life.
Do you remember how Eli upbraided Hannah for her apparently unseemly behaviour as she prayed in the Temple? He accused her of being drunk and making a spectacle of herself. But she replied bluntly: “I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord,” or, as the Jerusalem Bible translates that verse: “I have been speaking to God from the depth of my grief and resentment” (I Samuel 1: 16).
We do not need to feel holy as we pray, or to worry whether others will regard us holy as we pray. God meets us where we are, not where we think we should be, where we are pretending to be, or where others think we should be.
You may find devising a rule of prayer is helpful. You may, perhaps, want to consult a spiritual director about this. But I repeat, in the words of Saint Theophan the Recluse: “Remember, all of this is a guide. The heart of the matter is: Stand with reverence before God, with the mind in the heart, and strive toward Him with longing.”
Whatever you do, do not worry, slow down, be disciplined, keep priorities in focus, do not get too upset or worried about techniques of prayer, do not try to be perfect.
Abernathy, Alan, Fulfilment & Frustration: Ministry in today’s Church (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
Bloom, Anthony, Practical Prayer (Ben Lomond CA: Conciliar Press, 1989).
Bloom, Anthony, and LeFebvre, Georges, Courage to Pray (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973).
Christou, Sotirios, The Priest & the People of God (Cambridge, Burlington Press, 2003).
Leech, Kenneth, True Prayer (London: Sheldon Press, 1980).
Quoist, Michael, Prayers of Life (Dublin: Gill and Sons, 1963).
Redfern, Alistair, Ministry and Priesthood (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1999).
Underhill, Evelyn, Concerning the Inner Life with The House of the Soul (London: Methuen, 1947).
Ward, R. Somerset, To Jerusalem (ed. Susan Howatch, London: Mowbray, 1994).
Williams, Rowan, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 1995).
End-of-module visit: Irish Jewish Museum (8 December 2014).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a contribution to a seminar on 1 December 2014 in the Module TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality on the MTh course.