Sunday, 22 July 2007

To be a Priest of God today

Let me declare my vested interests.

For nearly nearly forty years I have served as a priest at an extraordinary time when Christian belief, practice and values have declined to the point where they are no longer owned by the majority of the population. Churches in Britain are now a 'cultural' minority of similar size to Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish religious communities combined.

In the contest of ideas that has been going on throughout my lifetime if not before, all traditional religious communities, belief systems and cultures have been overwhelmed by the vigour of a materialist consumer ideology, driven by the creative enterprise of modern science and technology commanding an economy which now embraces the entire world. Much as I admire human achievement and thrill to witness many of the great changes and leaps forward in knowledge, I have always been greatly disturbed by the patchiness of moral progress, the persistence of social injustice, chronic poverty and the rule of force. All of these degrade our humanity and undermine progress. Indeed because of this great weakness, the very means of making progress from which we benefit can be turned against us with great destructive power.

Since I was a young man I've seen the danger that materialism turns into a idol to be worshipped, an idol capable of consuming its devotees. I offered myself for the priesthood at a time when contemporaries were protesting against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam war, and engaging in politics to fight against injustice, notably apartheid, at that time. I felt that the most important battle to be fought was for humanity in danger of losing its way by the abandonment of its relationship with God. Getting ordained and serving in the church was my response. Not that it ruled out doing other things, but to my mind the spiritual struggle was what most needed to be waged, and I wanted the world to know that. Have I succeeded? Have I contributed anything worthwhile to the things I care about.Indeed, is there anything I can say or do that will make a difference in times like ours?

In the minds of some, religion has been discredited by the findings of science, and the practical capabilities of technology to change the world for the better. In the minds of others, religion is no longer of interest or value in giving meaning to their world, or not even worth enquiring into, on the part of those who were raised outside the direct influence of any religious community.

There are still others to whom a religious world view remains important. Some cling to traditional religious beliefs and approaches to life, reacting against the predominant world-view, in order to protect themselves and what they hold to be sacred. Others search for meaning and value in life wherever they feel they may find it among the remains of religious and spiritual tradition which persist despite all the changes of the past half century.

There are many different potential audiences I might seek to catch the attention of. My experience doesn't allow me to ignore any of them.

It's not that I'm ambitious to gain attention. I merely wrestle with the question of what can I say that will lead everyone to stop and think about their lives – their origins and their destiny as human beings owing their existence to that which is utterly beyond comprehension. What can I say that will enable others to see questions about God in a new light, and take them seriously?

Being, as the Bishop who ordained me insisted ; 'a priest of the church of God', governs how I approach life and how it is best lived and enjoyed to the full. It means being set aside, consecrated to represent others in relation to the source of our being, not only in the performance of religious rituals, but through prayer, by being a spiritual guide and interpretor of life's journey to anyone prepared to trust me in this role. To be a trusted person, an ambassador, a resource person, on behalf of anyone who lives by faith, not merely a representative of my own religious denomination, is what this means to me..

I want to commend the practice of a life of faith to every kind of person, no matter what their present convictions may be, no matter how healthy or broken their lives might seem to be. Faith, meaning living by trust in One who is beyond comprehension as the author of our existence, yet who can be reasoned about and more importantly can be understood and related to, by the opening up of the inner self to that which is utterly beyond self. This is what I consider to be the most worthwhile and rewarding of all human activities.

Faith acknowledges that our ultimate purpose, meaning and value do not rest within ourselves or the universe we are part of, but in the One we cannot grasp, who transcends us, who embraces us, holds us in being, who invites, but does not compel our awe, wonder, adoration and worship, whom we regard as God. To be a priest means not only being a representative person in relation to God. It means being an advocate for God, a lifetime's calling to proclaim and persuade others of the value of seeking to know and worship the source of our being.

This is what it means for me to be identified openly, publicly as a preacher of the Gospel by ordination as a priest of the church of God. And I thank God for the freedom to be just this, in Britain today fully aware of how others in the priestly role who put their lives in danger by simply being openly what they are. Having said that, I have noticed during my working life how much of the good will once expressed towards clergy is ebbing away, and being replaced by contempt, mockery, hostile criticism, emphasis of the failures and weaknesses of a few rather than the strengths and successes of the majority.

But, who am I as a priest? How did I come to be possessed by such a calling?

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