Sermon on the occasion of celebrating 50 years of ordination, preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on Sunday 16th October 2016 (Trinity 21).

But as for you continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ”.(2Timothy 3:14-15).

 

Part of what I have to share with you this morning has been inspired by the writings of Fr Richard Rhor in a wonderful book called ‘Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the two halves of life’. Richard quotes a question from another writer Mary Oliver which very much fits with celebrating 50 years of ordained life within my total story. She asks, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ I remembering coming up with several answers to this with regard to what I wanted to do with my life-a pharmacist, teacher, a priest. I caught a rather idealised glimpse of being a priest somewhere around the age of 12.I have rebelled against it many times but God is smarter than I am, so here I am again fulfilling the role and work of an ordained minister of his Church and in his world.

 

Let me briefly return to this notion of ‘the two halves of life’. He puts forward the idea that we spend the first half of our lives creating ‘a container’ endeavouring to answer questions like, ‘What makes me significant?’ ‘How can I support myself?’ ‘Who will go with me?’ The second half is to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver. What he means is that the second part of life can be a rich journey of discovery of our deepest and fullest life which we largely do not know about ourselves. Both parts are necessary, cumulative and are sequential. We shall always be trying to answer those first questions although we can journey deeper. One is not better than the other.

 

So it is with this thought in mind that I want to share parts of my journey, in the words of Timothy ‘what I have learned’ as an ordained priest in which I have endeavoured to answer those first questions of Richard about ‘my significance’ ‘my support’ and ‘my travelling companions’.

 

Pre ordination it was largely as a chorister and an altar server that I glimpsed the mystery of God in worship with its wonderful rich music and liturgy. What a container that has proved to be when concentration wanders and questions abound. That was something which I was to return to big time as Precentor at Worcester Cathedral-music and liturgy as a holding presence of the mystery of God. But I needed theological college to burst my bubble and focus my attention on the person of Jesus, the sacred scriptures and the whole paraphernalia of what is means to be a priest in the world. It was here I learned to be critical, I think largely as a rebellion against a rather formulaic teaching style.

 

I feel sorry for parishes who have to put up with green curates! I was one. I had chosen a wife as a companion and as time progressed sadly this did not work out. I followed a path of educating myself through training courses to become a decent pastor and teacher-skills lacking in my Theological Training. I was exposed to teaching in schools; working as a volunteer in a coffee bar in a seamy bit of town where the youngsters were constantly in trouble with the law through drug taking, drinking and promiscuity; chaplain in  the local hospital; part time prison chaplain and was given a new housing estate of 10,000 souls to be their pastor. This was a time in which I painfully learned my craft-how to comfort a mother with a baby dying in her arms, how to get through a funeral service of an 18 month old child with cracking up, fending off the advance of clever prisoners, managing a youth club where adolescent hormones were on the rampage!

Who supported me? There were several parish priests (I served in a group of town parishes in Lowestoft), my POT tutors, wonderful parishioners who took me to the pub and a stumbling faith that this was what God was calling me to do.

 

My next job was to be Warden of a Diocesan Residential Centre, Youth Officer and Parish Priest in a small village-a heady mix, of living several lives mostly held in tension being pulled by the Parish on one side and my educational role on the other. I had a wonderful Chair of the Conference Centre who was also my Archdeacon-Tim Dudley-Smith of hymn writing fame. When things got hot Tim would be beside me literally.

 

So here I learned to say yes and no with varying degrees of success; but above all my ministry with the young people catapulted me into a study and ongoing dialogue about religious language-something I still wrestle with. How to communicate the things of God, of Jesus Christ, of the sacred scriptures, of the mission of the Church in a way which relates to human life? I learned to converse with people from Germany, the Soviet Union, Israelis, adults with special needs, ordinands, youth and community workers, teachers. I decided my priestly role was to provide a safe space for dialogue about questions they wanted answering, and a place of hospitality. It was out of that they asked me about my faith.

 

Diana Butler Bass in a new book, ‘Grounded’ is my latest sortie into religious language. She redirects our thinking into answering the question ‘Where is God in our world?’ Her exploration of God in dirt (earth), sky, water, roots, home, neighbourhood, and shared space reconnected me to a faith not confined to the institutional Church and one we are commissioned to find new expression in our common life together. The learning goes on.

 

My time at Worcester Cathedral was a sweet and sour experience. Learning to work with very musically able young people, lay clerks and musicians and the Dean and Chapter, was as pleasurable as it was totally frustrating with having to manage the competing demands of each. Singing Evensong each day was a haven in which I learned to let go of many of these frustrations as I was drawn into the Opus Dei-that round of worship which is constantly nourished by the monastic foundations of the world. My ego was stroked as I met with members of the Royal Family at the Maundy Celebrations and Prince Charles at the unveiling of the Elgar statue, Archbishop Runcie for the Diocesan Centenary Celebrations on Worcester Cricket ground, Cardinal Hume at the 500th Benedictine Celebrations, accompanying Dame Judie Dench practising ‘God’s Grandeur’ at the Three Choirs Festival. Then my ego was crushed when my marriage broke up.

 

I felt like I was living on the edge of my competence during these times but what a school for learning resilience. This for a while completed my full time ministry in the church. From now on I journeyed in the wilderness for a few years.

 

I emerged wiser, chastened, but needing to find a job like thousand of others. I learned ho to apply for job and present myself at interview and all those elements that make up paid public employment. In short I was immediately immersed what some of you would call the real world-buying and renting houses, supporting family etc. I faced the issues of living and working alongside ethnic communities, surviving feminist caucuses, being a commuter, wrestling how I could be a priest in this new world. Visits to monasteries and Cathedrals provided nourishment but what about being a priest? My conclusion was that those I served were my community; here I could give thanks for their work and love them as best I could. A priest above all is a facilitator, a go-between, a human being who is prepared to share in the sufferings of humanity, a person who endeavours to be Christ for others. I had many rich conversations and made many friends-few who attend church but who have spiritual depths that connects us to each other.

 

I knew some aspect of ministry was missing. So in fear and trembling of being rejected I offered to return to working within the institution. Returning to the institutional church is challenging. As I gingerly travel in the second half of life I want to push the boundaries of faith, take risks, go deeper, get lost, discover more of who I am, learning to travel with new companions (inc Christine and the dogs), finding I can sit lightly to institutional nonsense, but finding a deep satisfaction in learning to becoming who I am rather than what others would want me to be. I hope I am travelling to a place of deeper peace and satisfaction. That does not mean I can or would want to bypass the pain of the world. Rather that I can live it not having to know the answers or the direction but trust that God’s grace is sufficient for me. I thank God for all who travelled and continue to travel with me.

 

John Towler

Assistant Priest

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