Ordination Charge – Ordination of Deacons and Priests
23rd September 2015
Adamnan of Iona (also known as Eunan) is probably not top of your list of famous Christians from the British Isles. Today is the day on which he is remembered within the life of the church as he died on 23rd September in the year 704. He had been born around 624 near Raphoe, County Donegal, was educated by the Columban monks near his home, became a novice at Iona in 650 and was made the 9th abbot in 679, a position he held until his death. He is best known for writing a very fine biography of St Columba, described by one commentator as “the most complete piece of biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period but even through the whole Middle Ages”. But there are two other reasons for starting with Adamnan today, both of which link with aspects of our callings to ordained ministry in the church over 13 centuries later.
In the year 697, Adamnan played a leading part at a synod of the celtic church held at Birr or Tara. Interestingly Church Synods were a form of representative government long before anybody thought of parliaments. And that Synod passed a law, known as the Cain Adamnain or Canon of Admanan, which forbade the killing or taking into captivity of women and children in times of strife. That may seem fairly unexceptional to us, but we are talking about an age in which women especially had no status and would have been seen by many as a legitimate spoil of war. And of course we are only too aware of the situations in the world today (and not only in Syria and Iraq) where a law such as this is as necessary now as it was in Ireland in the seventh century.
Adamnan’s desire was to protect the vulnerable. In doing that he was acting in conformity with scriptural teaching – especially as found in Deuteronomy, the Hebrew prophets and elsewhere – about the obligation on rulers in particular to be vigilant to the needs of such as widows, orphans, aliens, the homeless poor and others. A tradition which we see enacted so beautifully in the book of Ruth. Bishops at their episcopal ordination are told that “They are to have a special care for the poor, the outcast and those who are in need”. Deacons are told at their ordination that “They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible”. Those ordained to presbyteral ministry of course continue also in that diaconal calling, and are told additionally that “They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need”. There is here a very clear emphasis for all of us who are ordained, an emphasis which emerges very clearly from the scriptural tradition and runs as a unifying thread through the story of the church’s ministry down the ages.
That tradition has been and is made real in so many ways. In both of our partner dioceses in Tanzania, the bishops have particular concern for the position of women in their communities. In the one diocese, a church school founded especially to educate young women and thereby enhance their opportunities in life and their standing in society. In the other diocese, the intention to found a church vocational school which will have equal number of female and male pupils; and also the development of a women’s empowerment programme at the diocesan Bible School, giving young women basic skills for life. More generally, Bishop Given speaking (as he did at our recent diocesan conference) about wholistic mission – mission which places evangelism alongside education, healthcare and the tackling of poverty. And he is very clear that nobody else is doing that in his area.
In our own nation, alongside much that is less honourable in our history, we have a really rich and inspiring story about Christian action for and with the vulnerable in our society. William Wilberforce in relation to slavery, Josephine Butler in relation to prostitutes, Elizabeth Fry with prisoners and countless others inspired by their faith to work for good in society. Or the history of monastic hospitality, the foundation of hospitals and hospices, the establishing of schools in poor communities long before the state thought to do so. The probation service (sadly now facing significant challenge) with its Christian roots, the host of church-related and faith-inspired organisations working today in the fields of homelessness, debt relief, criminal justice, and a myriad of local and even individual responses to human need as it is made manifest in our communities.
Engaging with all of that is not an added extra for some of us. It is a core part of our calling, alongside and intertwined with the work of evangelism, the ministries of teaching and spiritual nurture, the calling of God’s people to worship and prayer. And in this, referring to the words for the ordination of deacons, we are ‘to work with our fellow members’. In other words, I think, we are to be those who inspire and lead the people of God, animating their response to human need. It is part of what is described elsewhere as “the whole mission of the church, pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical”. It will look different in each place, and the good news is that across our diocese we have a growing number of examples of congregations and other groupings taking initiatives in relation to what they see and experience in their own places. And where that is not happening, we (you) have, I would suggest strongly, a duty, not least through our preaching, teaching and personal example, to help the people of God to see that this is part of our gospel calling in all of our communities. And of course we know well that, while there will be some places where the vulnerable are very visible, in different forms they are present everywhere. And we are called to be with them.
I said that there were two reasons for starting with Adamnan today. And the second is that he was instrumental in trying to bridge the gulf between the Celtic and Roman traditions within the church in these islands. The surface focus of that seems to have been around the date of Easter and the particular style of tonsure adopted by monks, both of which may seem to us to be pretty inconsequential matters – though perhaps I might acquire a taste for offering guidance on clerical hairstyles! But what is significant is that Adamnan spent considerable time journeying between Scotland, England and Ireland in negotiation, and he also paid the cost of alienation from his own community at Iona where there was considerable opposition to any accommodation with the Roman tradition.
Those of you to be ordained priest this week-end will be asked this question: “Will you, knowing yourself to be reconciled to God in Christ, strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?” Whether locally, nationally or globally, the church is no stranger to division and dispute and never has been. The letter of James refers to “conflicts and disputes among you”, and we know well that, despite the statement in Acts that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”, division of different kinds has actually been a hallmark of the church since the beginning. Last week, our Archbishop took an initiative in relation to the unity of our Anglican Communion; he has invited the Primates of the Communion to meet with him in January, and he has included an invitation to the leader of the Anglican Church in North America to be present for some of that gathering. How people will respond to that, we have yet to see. But he has been willing, perhaps a bit like Adamnan, to go out on something of a limb in the search for unity; and he is also opening up the exploration of how unity might be discovered in different ways to the past.
For most of us, our striving to be an instrument of peace will be at other levels. It will be in the everyday of congregational life where Christians often show a remarkable aptitude for falling out with each other and taking offence. It may be in the context of your engagement with the local community. I was meeting somebody yesterday who was telling me the story of his involvement as vicar in bringing together a variety of interest groups in the life of a housing estate, where residents, local authority and a number of others were all at loggerheads to the overall detriment of everybody and the well-being of that place. Over a number of years, he was able to be an instrument of peace in that place. Two weeks ago – and many of you were there – we had a residential gathering of the clergy of the diocese (the first such for many years). One of the things that cheered me was the active participation of our clergy from right across the ecclesial spectrum, and a real sense that ‘party’ identities were not high on anybody’s agenda. And last week there was a remarkably united and positive gathering of our national College of Bishops – proof if need that miracles still happen. More seriously, I do think that in both cases part of the dynamic was that we gave serious attention to worship and prayer together. We are to be instruments of peace, and an important expression of that is in our own relatedness to each other within the ministerial fellowship of the clergy.
704 to 2015 is a fair jump, but Adamnan’s story may nevertheless have useful things to say to us about the ministry to which we are called today. “Strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world”. “Reach into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible”.