'Do not fear - only believe' - a reflection on 30 years since ordination - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

'Do not fear - only believe' - a reflection on 30 years since ordination

'Do not fear - only believe' - a reflection on 30 years since ordination

Alison at her ordination. The framed certificate hangs in pride of place in the smallest room in the Rectory, testament to the fact she was one of the first women priests (& the admin team weren't used to typing "her")

Tuesday 3rd July marks the 30th anniversary of my ordination, so, over recent days, I have found myself reflecting on the journey I have made over the past three decades. And I'd like to share a few observations about that experience for reasons that are not entirely self-indulgent, as you will discover.

When in 1985 I was selected to train for the Church's ministry it was before women could be ordained - so I was in fact selected to train as a deaconess - which is a lay ministry. The law changed during my time in training; so on 3rd July 1988, in the Diocese of Oxford, I was ordained deacon. Being a deacon meant that, unlike a deaconess, I could wear a dog collar; I acquired a title - 'the Reverend'; and there were also certain tasks I was authorised to do, which I could not have undertaken as a deaconess (such as conducting marriages).

I was a deacon for six years before the law changed again, and in 1994 I was one of the first women to be ordained priest - which meant that I could at last preside at a communion service, and bless and absolve a congregation, and have the 'Cure of Souls' of a parish. It would be another twenty years before women could be consecrated Bishop - which is why it is so extraordinary for me now to be serving under the first female Bishop of London.

But it has not been the visible and functional aspects of the ordained life that I have found the most significant: it is the things that are hidden. Because, for me, ordination marked a transformation into a different mode of being. The closest analogies I can think of are the experience of entering a religious order, or of getting married. Because it was a transition that made a profound change both to my own sense of identity, and to how I related to the world and to the people around me. It certainly changed the way in which people related to me. Because the ordained ministry is something that you live, rather than a thing that you do.

I have (I hope) grown in wisdom and experience over the past thirty years, as well as in age. And yet, paradoxically, the more deeply that I have engaged with the mystery of God, and the mystery of human suffering; and the more that I have handled the sacred flame of all that is most precious in the lives of those amongst whom I have been privileged to minister - the more I discover I have yet to learn. Indeed, I sometimes feel that I know far less than I thought I knew thirty years ago, simply because there is so much more to know that I ever realised back then (if you can follow that!).

And although I have studied theology at a very high level, lectured at a theological college, and have been involved in theological dialogue internationally - in many ways my faith, and certainly my life of prayer, have, over the years, become simpler rather than more sophisticated.

Because for all the deeply challenging realities of human life, it remains the case that the things that really matter are always the most simple - and it is precisely those situations that the Christian Gospel addresses most powerfully and most profoundly. Because it speaks of love, and grace, and repentance, and forgiveness, and hope - not in spite of the darkness of our world, but out of the very heart of that darkness. And I have also discovered anew the importance of something that has been even more significant and formative than my ordination - which is my baptism. Let me explain.

I was baptised about fifteen miles away from here, in the church of St Nicholas, Hayes, on 24th May 1959. (Yes, I really am that old!) I was just over four months old at the time, so I didn't have much say in the matter (like you, Samuel!). I grew up without having much interest in religion or in church at all (quite the opposite, if anything). But there were two things about my baptism that were to prove incredibly significant.

The first was my godmother. Samuel is abundantly blessed with many godparents; my own family were rather stingy on the godparental front - so my sisters and I only have one each. But my godmother (who is now 92 - by weird coincidence, I saw her last Saturday for the first time in about twenty years) - was amazing. She was my mother's oldest and dearest friend, but for most of my life lived quite a long way away, so I very seldom actually saw her. But despite that, she was always on my radar. She always remembered me at Christmas and on my birthday. And she also gave me other very significant little gifts, which I still have. When I was very tiny she bought me this: My First Book of Prayers - and even though I was too young to read it myself at first, the pictures are still scored on my heart. When I was at primary school she gave me my first Bible. And she has, without fail, turned up at all the most significant events in my life. Although I seldom saw her, I knew she was always there for me. And I felt her love.

And the second thing that was significant about my baptism was this: I really couldn't be doing with all this churchy stuff until I was a graduate student, when I felt the need to find out a bit more about the Christian faith, if only to satisfy myself that there was nothing in it (and confirm my suspicion that it was probably just a kind of prop for sad people who needed that kind of thing). So I decided to take the plunge and go to a church service. The obvious place for me to go was the university church, where the Anglican Chaplaincy was based. But when I looked at list of services my heart sank. Because they all seemed to be Eucharists - Communion services - like this one this morning. And because I wasn't then confirmed, I thought (quite mistakenly) that I wouldn't be able to join in. But then I thought to myself (being a bolshy so-and-so, as I undoubtedly was): 'Hang on a minute: I am a baptised member of the Church of England. This is my church. I have every right to be at its services - and I don't remember Jesus saying anything about confirmation in the Bible.'

So I went to church in that spirit of extreme bolshiness - and was just blown away by what I encountered there: by the genuine warmth of the welcome that I received; by the real sense of belonging that I felt; by my encounter with a faith that was unafraid of hard questions; that engaged with the realities of life in a way that was courageous, and compassionate, and profound. And above all, by an encounter with the mystery of God, which has shaped my life ever since, and a faith that was simple, without ever being simplistic (and there is a very important distinction between the two). Which is why, six months later, I was myself confirmed in that church, at the age of 23.

This morning's Gospel reading describes two harrowing human situations, involving people who are utterly desperate: there is Jairus, a man whose daughter is at the point of death, who comes to Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him to help her. And, tucked inside that story, there is the tale of the woman who had suffered for twelve years from a condition that not only drained her of all the money she had in her attempts to seek a cure, but which left her utterly isolated, and alone, and frightened because, according to Jewish law, her constant haemorrhaging rendered her in a permanent state of ritual impurity - she was literally untouchable. This is why she touches the hem of Jesus's cloak, unseen and terrified: she dare not let anyone see what she is doing, least of all Jesus himself.

And Jesus seeing their anguish, looks upon them with compassion, and responds with his healing love. And embedded in the heart of that Gospel story, are five words that for me hold the key. When I spoke earlier of my faith becoming simpler, rather than more complex over the years, it is this that lies at its heart. Because what Jesus says to those who are in despair, and feel there is no hope, is: 'Do not fear - only believe.'

None of us can possibly know what lies ahead for Samuel, or what shape his future life will take. But the one thing that all of you who are here with him today can know, with absolutely certainty, is that by bringing him here for baptism, you have not only made him part of the family of the Church: you have also given him a most tremendous gift, a gift beyond price - the true significance of which may remain hidden for many years. But a gift it most certainly is.

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