A celebration of 25 years in the priesthood.

Published on 7th July, 2014

Sermon preached at St Margaret’s Church, Roath, Cardiff on the occasion of the silver anniversary to the priesthood of the Revd Canon Stewart Lisk, M.A., Dip.Past. Stds. by The Revd Canon John Henry Lewis Rowlands, M.A., M.LItt., Team Rector of the Rectorial Benefice of Whitchurch, Cardiff and Chancellor of Llandaff Cathedral.

July 6th 2014

Before long churches, synagogues and mosques throughout the world will be holding services to commemorate the outbreak of the Great War on August 4th, 1914.  One young Swiss theologian was appalled to see that eighty-seven of Germany’s leading intellectuals had written a letter to the Kaiser wishing him well.  Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the modern era soon realised that the kind of theology that these intellectuals represented was vacuous, putting the human being rather than God in the centre.  The Great War meant nothing less than the unmasking of cultural Protestantism’s illusion about human development.  This outlook was brilliantly summarized a few years later by one of Barth’s followers in New York, Richard H. Niebuhr who said memorably in one of his lectures that this kind of theology represented a God without wrath who brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

Written in 1937, these words do resonate in our contemporary world.  Such an outlook is still very much alive in contemporary writing and thinking.  What can a priest, as he celebrates his silver anniversary, actually say or do to counter such thoughts?  The problem is that there are so many theologies of the priesthood, so many books, so much confusion.  There is a vast difference between the portrait of the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels and the priest in R.C. Moberley’s Ministerial Priesthood, published some eighty years later under the influence of the Anglo-Catholic Movement.  In our own day we have Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today, written in 1972 and recently the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard has written a lovely book simply called The Life and Work of a Priest.

So where do we turn?  The answer is very simple and is found in the rich tradition of the Christian Liturgy.  It has long been the claim of Anglicans everywhere that lex credendi is also lex orandi; in other words, if you want to see what we believe, come and witness our worship.  The liturgy makes the Church.  Recently, many theologians have emphasised this outlook in their writings, including Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, Catherine Pickstock at Cambridge and possibly most famous of all, Professor Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University, North Carolina, America’s greatest theologian, at least according to Dame Joan Bakewell in a Radio Three programme broadcast on Good Friday a few years ago.  It is the contention of these theologians, to varying degrees that the liturgy is not some activity to be performed or even to be examined in.  In Catherine Pickstock’s stark evaluation, outside liturgy, outside the logic of the Mass, there can be no meaning.

If you want to see what a priest does or who he or she is, then come with your priest to witness Holy Week.  I would like to emphasise that the priest is not somebody doing clergy tasks but is a priest through and through.  Here in Roath, every Palm Sunday Fr. Stewart leads his people on their Palm Sunday procession and distributes palm crosses to all God’s People.  Through the liturgy the past becomes present, the temporal eternal.  Similarly on Maundy Thursday night he washes the feet of his people in imitation of his Lord and Saviour.  At the Mass of the Last Supper, he breaks the bread of life for God’s starved folk.  He spends the vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting for the arrival of our Lord’s adversaries.  This is no mere enactment of a historical scene but is the vivid reliving through the drama of the liturgy of the actual events.  On Good Friday morning he leads his people though the increasingly popular devotions of the Stations of the Cross.  Yes, our Lord does fall three times, he greets his blessed mother, he tells the daughters of Jerusalem to weep for themselves, he is nailed to the cross, he dies for the sins of the world and is laid in the tomb.  In the Good Friday Liturgy he leads the holy readings and intercessions, venerates the cross of Jesus and distributes the holy body of our Lord from the altar of repose.

Our celebrant is no stranger to sorrow.  The priest is there with the old lady dying of a crippling dementia disease; he is there with the family distraught at the death of a young boy or girl; he is there with a young man suddenly unemployed; he is there to lead a sensitive funeral.  He is there to anoint the sick and dying.  The priest as a person of sorrows is a powerful daily reliving of the dramatic events of Holy Week.

The priest is also the person of love.  The desolation of Good Friday leads to the eternal joy of the Easter Vigil, the Easter fire, the candle of eternal light, the glorious readings from Genesis, Exodus and the prophets, the intercessions of the saints, the renewal of baptismal vows and the first communion of Easter.  The fifty days of Easter are a wonderful liturgical reliving of the eternal love the God shown us in the empty tomb.  But how does all this come about?  How can the sorrow turn to love?

Once again the liturgy tells us who we are and who we can become.  Scripture helps!  The wonderful sentiments of Chapter 13 of the First Letter to the Corinthians reflect accurately the profound Johannine insight of Chapter 3, Verse 16, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but receive everlasting life.  There was a time in the 1662 Prayer Book when the priest had to sing that verse as part of the Comfortable Words.  Charles Wesley could write passionately about love divine, all loves excelling while our own Ann Griffiths could write in Welsh in a hymn recently translated into English by Rowan Williams;

I saw Him Standing…

He is called Rose of Sharon…There he stands,

my friend, the friend of guilt and helplessness,

to steer my hollow body

over the sea…

What is there here for me?  I know

what I have longed for.  Him to hold

me always.

All this is truly awesome but it is to a modern theologian that I turn for the most profound understanding of divine love.  Fr. Stewart received his liturgical formation at St Michael’s College, especially during Holy Week.  It was there also during Eastertide that he experienced that divine love touching his human heart.  W. H. Vanstone wrote about thirty years ago one of the great classics of modern theology, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense.  I can still remember young candidates for the priesthood bringing copies of this classic into the Refectory, in an attempt, no doubt, to influence certain tutors!  Better still, though, Canon Vanstone, who was for many years a residentiary canon at Chester Cathedral and once came to address our Clergy School, wrote a hymn about his great classic, the fourth verse of which reads,

Drained is love in making full,

bound in setting others free,

Poor in making many rich,

weak in giving power to be.

The priest, a person of sorrows, of love and finally, the person of triumph.

Pentecost must be the forgotten feast of the Christian liturgical year.  Pentecost illustrates the triumph, no less, of the Christian Church over evil and darkness.  Here is the Church’s manifesto for the world.  Soon we will have election manifestoes but the Church of God is far more than the Conservative Party at prayer, the Socialist Party at Mass, the Liberal Democrats at the parish Eucharist or Plaid Cymru singing hymns and arias.  One of the priest’s main tasks is to prepare the People of God for the triumph that Pentecost brings.  When Fr. Stuart was ordained, the bishop laid hands on him and said, Receive the Holy Spirit, Stuart, for the office and work of a priest in your Church.  It is in that spirit our priest prepares his people for eternity, making this life more meaningful and the next life more real.

Sorrows, love and triumph.  This sermon has attempted to show that the priest, even here in Roath, can emphasise the liturgical life of the priest.  In daily living and witness, he can show how the church liturgically can reform society and counter so much that is negative, nihilistic and minimalist in the modern world.

How then will we leave this glorious church tonight?  Well, of course, we can carry on as we are.  We were made for spirituality but we indulge in introversion.  We were meant to feed our people with the bread of life but we are content with the dry husks of vague generalities.  We are meant to lift people up but the aesthetics of banality suits us better.  Yet we need not be so at all.  Priests, leading their people, can leave behind once for all the detritus of disunity and despair in the tomb.   In the power of the Holy Spirit we can indeed achieve our eternal destiny.  Bishop David Jenkins once said that, “you cannot keep God down”.  You cannot keep a good priest down, either.  Fr. Stewart, we congratulate you and wish you and your lovely family every blessing for the future.  May you continue to flourish.

To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all the glory, Amen.