Christianity—a Practical Religion

When we look around at the people we meet in Church, I’m sure we see a good number of practical people. And I’m sure that most of us would like to be thought of as practical people. We don’t hold dreamers or idealists in very high esteem, in fact we probably get rather impatient with some of their notions. OK, we may not see many visions, but we do like to get something done. Castles in the air are too wishy-washy for us. We want something solid that’s wind and weatherproof. Great ideas are all very well, but we have to deal with things as they are. There’s so little that gets done, and there’s so much to be done that we really haven’t got time for dreams.

The world needs workers and the best that we can do with what there is of our lives is to pack them as full as we can with practical usefulness. If you come across a lame dog by a stile, you know it wants something more than a stimulating talk on the art of jumping. Our duty is not to waste time in thinking how splendid it would be if there were no lame dogs and no difficult stiles in the world, but just to help the dog get over the stile.

I remember my Granny saying, “A pennyworth of practical help is worth a pound’s worth of sympathy any day of the week.” She wasn’t underrating the value of sympathy, but simply saying that if a pound’s worth of sympathy can’t be converted into at least a pennyworth of real human service, then that sympathy is a pretty poor thing. To feel pity and to do nothing makes an emotional luxury of something meant to stir us into giving practical help. Life is very short for all of us. If we want to leave our corner of the world a little cleaner, healthier, and brighter than when we found it, we need to cut down the talking and arguing about it and get on with the work required.

Christianity is a very practical religion with the aims of preaching the Gospel, healing the sick and blind, comforting the broken-hearted, freeing the oppressed. Practical programmes. There’s enough work to keep us busy for as long as we live.

Jesus was always at work. He was always doing good to somebody, sometimes preaching or teaching, healing, comforting, rebuking – always at work. And I don’t think we can really understand the Christian faith, unless we too are doing something for others. I may get into trouble for saying this, but some of the intellectual difficulties we have with our faith will never be solved by thinking. The only way in which we can see our way through them is by doing. It is by putting the precepts and principles of Christianity into practice, as much as we can, that we begin to understand them. Christ comes to meet us where  we are. If we are trying honestly to do our Christian duty, we shall find Jesus one day standing alongside us.

It’s amazing how many of life’s puzzles are solved when we set to and help others. We’ll never understand everything in this world. It isn’t as though we were sent into this world to make a sketch map of the universe. We shan’t be judged by what we understand but by what we do and were. God gives us all enough light to work by. It will be time enough to understand when we have finished the work that he has given us to do.

The life of the Christian is all coming and going – coming to Jesus for the strength that he alone can give us, going back into life to use that strength in doing good to those that need us, as and when and while we may. Do not dream your time away in wishing that the kingdom of God would come. Help it to come by doing your bit in your own corner of the world. Try to translate the dream into business. It’s a hard task, I know. I find it hard. So, I expect, do you. We can only do our best. We can only try our hardest. But if we keep on trying our hardest and patiently aiming at our best, God may work in us, and through us, in ways we just can’t imagine.

My apologies for the blunt bits in this article, reading it through I realise that I’m actually addressing myself as much as anybody. Happy Easter! May you, like Mary, find the Master standing beside you.

Max Young

Do You Feel ‘Up Against It’?

I was feeling pretty low at one point in January due to a variety of things – perhaps I had a slight case of Seasonally Affective Disorder, affected by the fog as it and life seemed to close around me. Anyway, I met a number of people who were also finding life a bit of a struggle for reasons that were far worse than mine, and knowing that seemed to jog me out of a rather introverted spell.

Thinking and praying for these people brought to mind one of those phrases to describe them as being people who were ‘up against it’. Like the foggy weather at the time the phrase lacks clarity. What is the ‘it’ that some people are up against? I don’t think that it’s life, because we have to deal with that every day. It can’t be God, or anything to do with the will of God, because if that was the case what could possibly save us from a final and irretrievable despair?

‘It’ must be a circumstance or a combination of circumstances that are on our minds that seems to haunt us, like an unseen enemy that’s trying to hurt us, physically, mentally or spiritually. We’re probably all aware, to some degree, of what that feels like but it’s not always easy to put into words.

Of course, we’re all individually very different and so we react to the challenge of being ‘up against it’ in very different ways. Some people seem to almost thrive on being ‘up against it’. They think about their situation as a challenge, a test of the stuff they’re made of. They refuse to be beaten, or if they are beaten they’ll jolly well go down fighting. This is the stuff that heroes and heroines are made of, those who throughout history faced pain, peril and hardship and stubbornly refused to give in, and in Harry Lauder’s words kept ‘right on to the end of the road.’

Some of us are not nearly as brave as the ‘bulldog breed’ and when we feel ‘up against it’, we get demoralised almost at once. We become out of sorts with everybody and are bitter and resentful that life isn’t as easy as we want it, so we tend, if we can, to find some way of escaping the challenge. If we know people like this, including ourselves, then we mustn’t be hard on them.

There are people like this who have tried hard and held their own for years. Then there came a breaking point, when, totally worn down, they felt they couldn’t go on. To meet people who are at this point, to see their unhappiness and hopelessness is one of the most tragic things I know.  What they need is not our contempt but our sympathy, not our indifference but our urgent help.

So, how can we help each other in an emergency of this kind? I think that if it’s ourselves we’ve categorized as ‘up against it’, we ought to be really certain that things are as we think they are – I mean, that they’re not something we’re imagining. When life looks dark, the explanation might be that we’ve put on dark glasses. It is quite possible to feel ‘up against it’ when all the time we’re only up against ourselves as I was in January.

But what about our faith? Where and how does that come in? It may well be that life seems too much for us, if we’ve only got our own resources to count on, but we’re devaluing our faith if we forget about our God and his power and his grace. God’s power isn’t a final resource,  that we only call up when everything else has fallen by the wayside. God’s grace represents the normal, everyday need of every one of us. Maybe it’s this that people forget – perhaps because God has been excluded from their daily lives and only when they are ‘in extremis’ do they remember that he is there beside them in the person of Jesus.

Quite possibly it may be the forgetfulness of this fact – with the neglect, for example, of daily prayer – that has brought us to where we are – ‘up against it’. If any of us have kept God out of our lives, can we wonder at our confusion and despair? Prayer is the threshold over which God steps to be in our spiritual home, to stand beside us and share and support all aspects of our lives – to change our attitude from “I’m up against it” to “We’re in this together”. Put out the welcome mat and open the door!

Max Young

A ‘Possible’ Invitation

On 15th January this year Steve preached about Jesus’ invitation to the first disciples and suggested that we might issue an unconditional invitation to people we meet in our everyday lives to come to All Saints or St Mary’s and see what we do. If they do come we have to convince them that the Christian message is still a relevant one.

Two thousand years ago Christianity started when people were attracted to the personality of Jesus. The crowds gathered not to be given a creed but to meet and listen to him. Our movement was started when Jesus invited people to be his disciples with the simple words, “Follow me”. He asked them for their unreserved loyalty, to give up everything, at once, without a word of excuse or protest, and go after him. “Follow me” was the sum of all that he had to say to them.

That invitation still stands. But how can people follow Jesus today? Many people recognise Christian teaching and generally approve of it and say that they’d like to be able to conform to it and to see others, nations as well as individuals, do the same. But there are difficulties.

One of them is in relating Jesus to the concrete situations in which they find themselves today. How does the twenty-first century Briton emulate a first century life? We live in a highly complex, mechanised, industrialised and competitive society, whereas Jesus lived in one that was largely rural and pastoral. And the character of life was different. He wasn’t married, didn’t have to set up a home. He left the carpenter’s shop to become an itinerant preacher. The simplicity of his life and the excellence of his character make an unfailing appeal. But today, with family claims, business interests, and property concerns, people want to know whether it’s possible to transfer any pattern of behaviour from his life to their own.

Is the teaching of Jesus relevant nowadays? Can people get the direction they need to grapple with the moral dilemmas of our complex modern world? There are people who appear disappointed by what seem to them the limitations and inadequacies of Jesus’s teaching in this respect. So many of their problems, they say, aren’t mentioned in the Gospels, especially the problems of public life – the possession of property, the nature of government, and the policies of nations in their dealings with one another.

But they don’t understand what Jesus came to do. They look at Jesus’ teaching and expecting to find a set of rules, a code, an ethical guide-book covering every contingency in life and providing rule-of-thumb directions for all ethical dilemmas, personal and social. There is no such code in the Gospels.

Jesus wasn’t a lawmaker. He didn’t try to provide a complete compendium of moral duties. He described a way of life and by his words and actions showed that it was do-able. The value of his teaching is not in telling us how we ought to behave in every circumstance and in every relationship, but in describing a way of life to be worked out in personal character and social relationships.

So long as this is remembered no one is likely to label Jesus’ teaching as antiquated or irrelevant. Too much can be made of the difference between his world and ours. In many ways it was a world strikingly like our own. Then as now there were people organising their grievances in self-righteous pressure groups – insisting on their rights, aggressive, grasping. Then as now the Haves were ranged against the Have-Nots and there was suspicion, animosity and friction. Then as now there wars and rumours of wars, and a background of exploitation, oppression, and unrest. Christ lived in a world which in the basic essentials was extraordinarily like our own.

The truths he taught and the issues he dealt with are timeless. The human heart has not changed with the years – its loves and hates, its hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows, its temptations, passions and failures. He spoke about sin, and how deliverance from it can be found; about the cares and anxieties of daily existence and pointed a way to a simple, un-harassed life. He spoke of the human soul, of its worth, its rights, its possibilities, its responsibilities. He spoke confidently and convincingly of God as the Father of men, answering and satisfying the deepest craving of their spirits.

What is there in this that is irrelevant today, that would justify us chaining Jesus to the first century and denying his validity now? You cannot date Jesus. “Heaven and earth,” he said, “shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” His words are as alive with spiritual appeal today as when they were first spoken. Has there been any age when the Beatitudes, or the parable of the good Samaritan, or the Golden Rule weren’t deeply relevant?

There is, however, another and greater difficulty. Some people, although they know Jesus offers a solution to the problems of our lives, doubt the practicability of the solution. The way of life is beautiful and noble but isn’t it too idealistic, high and hard for ordinary people? They persuade themselves that there must be an easier way, something less demanding or perfectionist, and that the honest thing is to own up to not being a Christian. They may say that there would soon be an end to all our troubles if only people would act in accordance with the teaching of Jesus. It is a big “if”. It would be a wonderful world if everybody lived by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, but with those principles so demanding, with the world and human nature what it is, what prospect is there for such a world?

Yes, Jesus does set us high standards. Let me name some of them. We are: to put God and not self first; not to be anxious about food or clothes or money; to be absolutely honest; to love our enemies; to forgive always ‘those who sin against us’; to be perfect as God is perfect. What claims Jesus makes on human nature! What an optimist he is! Men didn’t always show him their best side but he believed in them and their ability to meet his challenge. He never gives up on humanity. He is always calling on people to be bigger, braver, wiser and more God-like in the living of their lives. He never speaks as though evil is permanently rooted in the order of things. It is because he sees us as children of God that he makes such exacting demands and pitches things so high.

We need a faith like that today. There are too many among us who view the mean and debasing elements in humanity as impossible to correct, who view any talk about the Golden Rule and a warless world as being a waste of breath.

Of all the obstacles standing in the way of a better world this is the most powerful, this cynicism about the possibility of changing human nature. There was no such cynicism in Jesus. He wasn’t blind to the evil in people, but there was something else he never lost sight of – the wonderful latent goodness in ordinary men and women.

He saw hidden possibilities in everybody he met and believed they could be called into life. His standards are high, but he doesn’t expect us to attain them without help. We aren’t left by ourselves. God is always at hand enabling the person who turns to him to do things which are impossible to mere human nature. Jesus repeatedly emphasised that – that if we’d get in touch with God we’d receive the power to rise to finer and better things.

If that way of life is to become a reality for us, we have to learn to live by the help and grace of God. That was Jesus’ secret. He lived by the help and grace of God, and taught that all of us, day by day, hour by hour, may do the same.

To follow Jesus isn’t easy. But if we want to follow him, and will turn to God for strength, a power will take possession of us that will enable us to dare and do the impossible. This is not romancing. It has happened in previous generations and is happening to men and women today.

I know there are some of us who are drawn to the Christian life but are afraid of failing to reach Christ’s standards. We must remember that we are not alone. God is with us and we can draw on his Spiritual resources. Remember what Jesus said when his disciples thought his demands were so hard and high that nobody could rise to them, “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Get those invitations out!

Faringdon’s Got Talent

Those of you who went to the WATSAN event on 25th November will know that I have been thinking about talent, and you would have been on the receiving end of culinary, sung and spoken examples from Faringdon’s talent pool.

We also saw other aspects of this pool at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance that was organised (no pun intended) by Joy Blake with Faringdon Brass, the Ferndale Community Choir, Army Cadets, Yvonne Belcher, our town Mayor Councillor Dr Mike Wise and some stunning audio-visual compositions by Gordon Belcher.

But, of course, talk of talent makes me immediately think of Jesus’ parable of the Talents written in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In them Jesus told of the master commending his servants who had made good use of their gifts, saying that , because they’d been faithful, “in a few things” they’d be rewarded by being “put in charge of many things”.

Matthew and Luke’s stories, though basically parallel, do differ in some details but have essentially the same meaning. The phrase ‘faithful in a few things’ reminded me of the one used in Jesus’ parable about the wily steward that was our Gospel in mid September, when Jesus said , Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. (Lk 16:10).

The British Biblical scholar Dr James Moffatt translated this as: “He who is faithful with a trifle is also faithful with a large trust”,

But as I see it, I think he missed the point. Jesus is not saying, “because he is faithful with a little, therefore, in the future, he will be faithful with much”. What Jesus says is that this is a statement of present fact, that to be faithful with a little is to be truly, greatly, wholly faithful; it is to be faithful in much.

If we are faithful in little matters, that is what counts with God – it is the faithfulness that’s important, not the size of the task. Faithfulness is faithfulness, nothing more, nothing less.

“Well, Max”, I can hear someone saying, “this is just semantics, what difference does it make?” To my mind, it makes a very real difference that is relevant to many people today.

The parable of the Talents is used to teach that honest efforts, and hard work, will have their reward. That’s all very right and proper, and I’ve nothing to say against it. But this neat little bit of moral philosophy doesn’t always apply, and I’m sure it wasn’t what Jesus meant.

For example, I don’t think it applies to a large section of the community; what of the wives and mothers amongst us? What reward after years of faithful service? Surely we’re not suggesting they should have two homes to manage instead of one; or five, instead of two children to care for, saying, “You, who have been faithful in a few things shall now be rewarded by being put in charge of many things”, are we? There’s something to be said for a wife and a mother being made Prime Minister, if she’s got the appropriate skills, but what about the millions who will still be faithfully carrying out their daily tasks to the end of their days? Surely their reward is in their faithfulness, and it is of such as these that Jesus said, “Who is faithful in little things is faithful in much”.

It is faithfulness in small things that is so desperately needed today, not in order to get greater opportunities that may come as a reward, but for the love of true and honest work, and for the joy of serving others.

Most people think there’s not much they can do to shape and influence the great world issues of today. But don’t the great issues depend on individuals, and don’t individuals come from homes, schools, Churches, communities, where faithfulness in small things shows character even as it creates it?

Jesus didn’t say, “He who is faithful in matters that are the smallest will be faithful in greater ones” – anyone could have said that – he put the emphasis where it is so often forgotten, that to be faithful with a little is to be truly, greatly, wholly faithful; it is to be faithful in much. I hope this explanation of Jesus’ message will help and encourage those who are filling small places, and doing little things, with great faithfulness, and always will be. So, go to it, faithful talented Faringdonians! Have an expectant Advent, a joyous and happy Christmas and New Year, and an eye-opening Epiphany!

Max Young

They shall grow not old

On Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday we will hear again the well known central verse from the poem For the Fallen that is regularly used as an exhortation and statement that tells those listening of our determination neither to forget, nor to overlook, the efforts and sacrifices of those who served our country and Commonwealth in the First and Second World Wars, and subsequent wars and conflicts.

Strangely though, this poem wasn’t written by a soldier who had seen action, but by Laurence Binyon, a 45 year old keeper of oriental prints and drawings at the British Museum. He wrote it sitting on a cliff-top at Polzeath in Cornwall in early September 1914, just a few weeks after the Great War began.

The poem has a smooth and rhythmic flow and uses formal, elegant language that, today, encapsulates the deep sense of respect, admiration and grief which marks our modern act of collective remembrance. The verse They Shall Grow Not Old… was actually written first, and its words, with their sombre repetitive rhythm, give it an enduring power when we hear them read aloud in public.

As the Great War progressed, and the casualties grew, its words resonated greatly with those who had lost husbands, sons, brothers and friends and neighbours. The whole poem has a spiritual depth and meaning, and its final verse, with its imagery of stars sparkling in the infinity of the heavens, gave those left behind both consolation and hope.

But at its heart its middle verse in particular means that, even now some 102 years later, we are determined We will remember them. The verse was set to music by several composers including Sir Edward Elgar in 1917. Their various compositions are for soloists and choirs, accompanied by orchestras and/or pipe organs.

And it was echoes of that same verse that came into my mind in the middle of the night. They seemed to amalgamate, quite naturally, with two events that happened earlier in the year. The first occurred when a Wednesday group, that meet and sing for fun, learned a short West African Song invoking the ancestors – it was a song that really moved me with its simplicity in line and harmony. It was called Pora samine and we sang it as part of an Oxfordshire choir in the Sheldonian Theatre in mid-March.

The second event was the service on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July. In preparing for the service I came across a photograph of a grave in Amiens of a soldier who had fought for the French forces in the battle. He was in Les Tirailleurs Senegalais and would have been recruited from the French Colonies in West Africa.

Those two events and the verse from For the Fallen seemed to gel together, and I could imagine relatives of that soldier standing in the cemetery singing Pora samine just as I can imagine the tune adapted for They shall grow not old . . . being sung within the memorials at Menin Gate, Thiepval and Tyne Cot.

If you are able to attend the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance in All Saints’ on the evening of 11th November, you will hear the poem read in full, with our Community choir, conducted by Louise Woodgate, singing, unaccompanied, the middle verse They shall grow not old.

Reunions make you think, don’t they

I’m writing this article having just returned from a reunion weekend in Romsey with three couples with whom I served in the Army. I’ve known them for 54 years in the case of the men and about 48 years for the ladies. We are all married with golden wedding anniversaries spread over the next five years and apart from a bit of hearing difficulty, we are all blessed with reasonable health. The thing that struck me was that although our career paths diverged, after the Army, we are all content with how our lives have panned out and respect the variety amongst us. We had much to talk about and our hosts had arranged an interesting itinerary – altogether it was a most enjoyable reunion – it’s my turn to host next year.

Our time together reminded me of a story of a reunion of past pupils of a school run by a religious order. One of the priests, who’d been abroad for years, returned for the reunion and found himself surrounded by a host of ex-pupils whom he hadn’t met since they left school. To an observer it would have been obvious that he was much loved and respected.

He had a natural graciousness that seemed to trigger an outpouring of the details of their post-school lives. There was an architect who’d built a number of public buildings, including two churches; a university professor who was the author of a number of learned books; the CEO of an international company; a highly successful farmer who used the most modern technology in improving his harvests; a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church; and the Principal of a famous public school.

What a pleasure it was for the old priest listening to all their impressive successes and achievements. It appeared that there wasn’t a failure among those who had returned for the reunion.

He didn’t say much as he listened to them, just nodded and smiled. When they’d done, he congratulated them on their achievements. Then, opening his arms to them he asked them, “And now, tell me what you have made of yourselves?”

There was a long silence. They didn’t really want to talk about themselves. It was clear that they’d been so absorbed in their careers, with their energies focused on efficiency and success, that they hadn’t the time to grow emotionally, and so, in terms of relationships, many of them were impoverished.

There are people who may have done great things in their public lives but failed in their private lives. Most people who are successful at their careers leave their personal lives a long way behind. Indeed, their successes are often achieved at the expense of their personal lives.

Do you remember how in the parable of the Talents the first two men were commended by Jesus because they used their talents, but he berated the third because he had buried his talent?

When Christ talked about talents, he wasn’t meaning say, a musical talent, or a footballing talent. Those talents are important, and full marks to those who have, develop, and use them. But nowadays they are, in my opinion, outrageously over-valued and over-rewarded. Christ’s parable goes a lot deeper. Ultimately the only thing that matters is what we make of ourselves.

But we’re wrong if we think it is about making something of ourselves in a materialistic sense, though this is not ruled out. The ‘wife of noble character’ mentioned in the final chapter of Proverbs could hardly be described as being either successful or famous. Yet she is held up as a model. Why? Because of the person she is – industrious, caring, wise and virtuous. She’s got something more valuable than wealth or beauty. She has a loving heart. She has put her talents at the service of her family, her neighbours, and the poor. And so she is respected by the whole community.

Life is God’s gift to us. What we do with life is our gift to God.

Max Young

Our Priesthood

I was talking with someone in the Barber Rooms after Steve’s installation last month and we were trying to find a word that summarised our feelings – the service had been so uplifting and, to my mind, had illustrated very clearly that we ARE a priesthood of all believers (remember the last two articles I wrote in the magazine?).

From outside All Saints’ we were called by the bells, then inside we were greeted joyfully as we entered our church where it was so apparent that we were a very happy multi-talented crowd whose priesthood or ministry had worked so well during the inter-regnum and who were looking forward to continuing that priest-work with Steve and Wendy.

Well, the word that came to me to describe my feelings was ‘Hope’ – I felt that there was a feeling of confidence in the future of our work together under Steve’s leadership.

The Bishop and Steve were very clear that such work can only be effective by our efforts moving outwards from our church buildings to operate among the people of the two parishes. And one of the outstanding differences between the Christian priesthood and others is that in other religions the priesthood’s work is usually limited by the boundaries of the temple, shrine, sanctuary or holy place. It is concerned only with services, sacrifices and worship. No Israeli priest was expected to go amongst his fellow Jews to minister to them, to bring comfort, help or healing. No Buddhist or Hindu priest would dream of doing such a thing.

But we have a new kind of priesthood, one given to us by Jesus Christ. It is his own priesthood, as he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free’.

He sent his disciples out to preach and heal, and told his church ‘to feed his sheep’. And in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he showed the difference between the old priesthood and the new.

From its formation the Christian Church began to do what no other religious body had ever done before, and set up a ministry of teaching, helping, healing and shepherding amongst their neighbours.

I feel sure that the church’s success in winning over the hearts and minds of people was in a large part due to its pastoral ministry. This priesthood of the Christian Church – both clergy and laity – was a new phenomenon, and the success or failure of the church’s mission was, and is, a reflection of the degree to which its pastoral work is emphasised or neglected.

Today we have plenty of opportunities to exercise our individual priesthoods and it is heartening in Faringdon to see this work in action in so many aspects of our church life. Let us thank God for this and for all those amongst us whose personal examples in word and action are affecting for good the lives of those with whom they come in contact. This is truly priestly work and the scope for it is unlimited. By using our lives and abilities in almost any way in the service of Christ will fulfil our priesthood and help us to be worthy of the vocation to which we are all called.

Max Young

The priesthood of all believers (2)

I had quite a few interesting conversations with people after last month’s article about the Priesthood of all believers. It seemed that quite a large percentage of people had always assumed a vast divide existed between clergy and laity that was only bridged by ordination. Not only that, there was an assumption that a much lower standard of character and conduct was acceptable for the laypeople who themselves, quite rightly, demanded the very highest standards from the clergy. I’m sorry, but that’s not on, laypeople and clergy are equally ‘priests of the Lord’, and should have the same high standards.

I hope that you agree! Now I will try to answer one of the questions I was asked, which was, “What is it that this ‘royal priesthood’ of clergy and laypeople are ordained to do?” Paul, in Romans 15,  speaks of himself as “Doing the priest-work of the Gospel.” But what is this priest-work?

In the Old Testament the priesthood was a body of people set apart for the service of God’s Sanctuary – to keep the sacred fire on the altar alight; to offer the daily sacrifice; to trim the golden candlestick and to renew the showbread. In a word, their primary duty was the maintenance of God’s worship.

In the Early Christian Church, as we read in the Book of the Acts, the Christian community is seen thinking of itself as “a royal priesthood, offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The Church maintained its priorities in the Breaking of the Bread, the prayers, and the gathering together for worship on the first day of the week. No doubt the Church preached the Word and ministered to the poor, but it saw itself principally as a society for worshipping God through Jesus Christ.

I think we sometimes have to remind ourselves in modern times, of the inseparable connection between priesthood and worship. Today there is a tendency is to make much of moral conduct and philanthropy, and to think that worship isn’t so important. We should be ‘decent’ people; kind to our neighbours and supporters of charities. As for worship, well it just doesn’t seem to appeal to some people. So we have become a nation that is largely non-worshipping – there are so many more appealing things to do with our Sundays!

Humanitarianism cannot take the place of worshipping God – the worship of the creature in place of the Creator – God has first claim on us, and as his priests, it is our appointed duty to “stand in his sanctuary.” It is, I think, obvious that, if the earliest Christians hadn’t seen their gathering together as their primary duty, the Church would have rapidly gone to pieces, and nothing more would ever have been heard of it.

Is the duty of Sunday worship just a mere matter of personal inclination?  What would have happened if the earliest Christians had regarded their priesthood in this way, and had felt no particular obligation to join in when the Church met for worship? Does it matter less now than it did then?

And if we accept and believe in the priesthood of all believers, then we must remember that the priesthood has always had a representative character. In Old Testament days, whether ‘the congregation of the people’ was there or not, the sacrifices were offered; the priests of the Lord kept watch in his sanctuary, and took their appointed place carrying out their priestly duties. Whatever the nation, Israel, did, the priesthood stood before God for them, and made offerings in their name, as their representatives. In the same way our Christian Faith reveals Jesus standing before the Mercy Seat and making his offering for us.

What we have to do is to think of ourselves as forming, collectively, the Church, the priestly body, God’s ministers, in a world which is alienated and estranged from God, as our modern world is becoming more and more – a world too ignorant of spiritual values, too neglectful, too careless, too absorbed in the feverish pursuit of amusement and of money, to offer God the worship which is his due.

The priesthood of all believers

Someone asked me about the meaning of this phrase – they had been commenting on how well the parish seemed to be proceeding in the interregnum and wondered if it was linked to those words.

Well, of course, it is! There’s a particular passage in Peter’s first letter in which he says, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

And remember the scene in the Upper Room after the resurrection when Jesus solemnly ordained, not just the Apostles, but the whole body of believers gathered in the room? He breathed on to them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit, and gave them the authority for the remission of sins. The details of that scene could never have been written unless it was a commonly accepted truth throughout the whole Church that the Lord had solemnly ordained the whole body of the faithful to exercise his ministry to the world.

There’s a definition of the Priesthood of All Believers that declares this means that every individual has direct access to God and shares the responsibility of ministering to other members of the community of believers.

The man who asked me about this implied that our interregnum had been made easy because we have access to a number of retired clergy to help with services. The success of our parish’s ministry during the interregnum – and I believe my fellow clergy would agree with me – has had a little to do with our input, but a great deal more to do with the work of our lay brothers and sisters.

We are all, as it were, ordained by the laying on of hands at our Confirmation – very similar in essence to the ordination of the Clergy – Confirmation could be considered as the ordination of the Layperson to their sacred office. It’s worth remembering also that the Church accepts as perfectly valid Holy Baptism administered in a proper form by a Layperson, in the unavoidable absence of the Parish Priest, or in a case of emergency.

And no celebration of the Holy Eucharist is valid without the presence of Laypeople whose “Amen” to the Prayer of Consecration is an essential part of the Celebration. The Celebrant acts on behalf of the whole body of the faithful who are present – in being, as it were, their mouth and hands. In addition, the preaching of God’s Word can be, and is, committed to laypeople, who, as Local Lay Ministers, share this very important work with the ordained Clergy; and when, at public worship, the Absolution is pronounced by the Priest or Minister, it is given in the name of the whole Church.

I hope this explanation helps to show that the Church recognises the Priesthood of all believers. The difference between Clergy and Laity is that although they share one Priesthood, there is a definite distinction between the office of the Priesthood and the office of the Laity; the former are people who have been authorised and empowered to perform special duties and offices in the priestly Body, on behalf of its members, such as teaching, administering the Sacraments, pronouncing the Absolution, and, (If they’re Bishops) confirming and ordaining.

It is a truth that the Layperson has a priesthood, which they share with the clergy, and that, in a very true sense – except in just one particular respect – the one is just as much a priest as the other.

Max Young

Realising our Prayers

I forget who it was that said “Prayer is always hard work”, but I’ve met quite a few people who were worried that they found it difficult to pray. In some ways I don’t think it was ever meant to be easy, as say picking up a phone that’s ringing and being put straight through to God. Like many things in our lives, it’s worth as much as the effort we put into it. Casual prayers, though sometimes rushed in the busy-ness of the morning, or repeated rather robotically in our tiredness as we go to bed, undoubtedly have a value, because they at least recognise that we depend on a Power beyond us. But to be frank, they’re  mere shadows of what prayer is, and of what it could mean to us if only we took the time and trouble to go for it seriously.

But the main difficulty, I think, isn’t in the saying of prayers, but the realising of them. What do I mean by that? Well, what a difference it would make if , as we pray, we could get some real feeling that there was a listening Presence around us that made us know that we weren’t just talking to ourselves.

We shouldn’t  be too tired or lazy to pray, as we so often are. We shouldn’t start with a massive weary sigh as we struggle to collect and concentrate our thoughts. And we shouldn’t end our prayer sessions with the horrible misgiving that the whole thing is just a meaningless, lifeless repetition of old familiar words, that we just say  without really believing that they’ll be heard or achieve any good.

But, sadly we don’t often perhaps get that sense of getting through to the unseen. Earthbound, we don’t seem able to lift our thought above the level of everyday life, to convince ourselves that there are any other realities or that the universe contains any state of life beyond our own. So we knock and knock at a door that never opens. We ask and ask, with no hope that we shall ever receive. We search  and get tired of searching, since it seems that we’ll never be able to find.

Now what’s the reason for that? To be honest, it may be all our own fault. Prayer isn’t often a disappointment if we take it seriously. But if we can only spare a couple of minutes for it, are we being serious? Do we really expect that we can snap our fingers and instantly switch off our thoughts, from the busyness of the lives we are living, and in the twinkling of an eye – possibly a very sleepy eye too – be aware of the glories of the spiritual world about us – aren’t we expecting too much? It takes a fair time to get to have a quiet mind and tune in to try, in an attitude of patient stillness, to listen for that voice that we so desperately want to hear answering us.

Even so, we may never seem to get through, as it were, to the other side. We do get through, but we may not be able to realise it. In that case, obviously, it’s no fault of ours. It only means that we are among those who are asked to have that greater faith – those promised that greater blessedness for believing without seeing.

It depends, I think, partly on the make-up of our personality. We may find that prayer is fairly easy for us and the realisation of the unseen is never very difficult. If we are by nature something of a mystic, if we’re artistic or musical, love poetry or drama, we may have that kind of make-up. But we may be very different – essentially practical, as many of us like to think we are – someone  who wastes no time in sentimentality or dreams, but who gets things done. If so, we will likely be useful in the world as it is, but possibly find it hard to pray. Our prayers are just as good as anybody else’s, but we’ll find it difficult to realise them.

We should remember, however, that we can’t choose the times when the clouds break and the sun comes shining through, but we can be ready for them, and I’m quite sure that prayer time isn’t the only time when we can get through to the unseen, or the unseen can get through to us. We may not have felt God near us then, but haven’t we felt something thrill within us when we, say, were walking down a country lane or by the sea; laughing happily with a friend or playing with a child; reading a book or sitting quietly alone with our thoughts? I have – have you?

If we’ve had that experience we can never say that we have not realised the Presence of God. The pity is that we are so slow to recognise it for what it is, to be thankful for it, and to wait eagerly, hopefully and reverently for the time when our personal clouds break and we shall feel the light and warmth of God’s Presence again. I pray that this happens in God’s good time for you.

Max Young