At our retreat this year at Aylesford Priory we were privileged to have Canon Robert Teare as our chaplain. Fr Robert was available for conversation, confessions and he preached at Mass each day.
Here is the text of Fr Robert’s sermons:
Monday. St Matthias
It seems totally appropriate that you should begin your retreat under the patronage of arguably the most anonymous of the apostles. With the possible exception of Jude, whose name even is in dispute, Matthias is only known because he took the place of Judas, before that and after that not a whisper.
In saying that it is an appropriate day, I am not making an allusion to John Betjeman’s poem – ‘Blame the Vicar’ after the verse in Acts ‘the lot fell upon Matthias’ but because our calling as priests is essentially anonymous. However wide our own vision, however great our experience of life or of witness elsewhere, however deep our reading, what exactly we do, let alone achieve in our parishes or colleges or hospitals, or schools is known only to God. and perhaps our greatest reward is to feel a little less inadequate than usual.
Except that to probably far more people certainly that we can manage or even know, we will be that wonderful old-fashioned person – the parson, the holy person, the holy presence. The one who rings the bell because they are about their prayers, the one to go to in crisis, the one for whom we can scribble a little note on the newspaper that the corner shop keeps for them.
That might be what it says on the tin – this is the job of the parson, the priest. But it doesn’t quite fit the reality. Years ago, a Church College had had a chaplain who was a total disaster – whatever his vocation it was not to be a College Chaplain, and the college was determined that when he left the same mistake should not be made again. So instead of their being just three people on the interviewing panel there would be ten, but seven of them, mainly students, would show the candidates around and chat informally. The panel, the Bishop, the Principal and the Vice-principal, alone would see the papers. The panel knew immediately who they would appoint and he [it was in the bad old days] interviewed immaculately. They were surprised when they found that the seven were also unanimous but for someone else and they were equally sure that the panel’s suggestion would be disastrous. To give them their due, the panel offered the post to the students’ choice.
But the Bishop remained unconvinced and half way through the first term he asked that the Chaplain be an item on the Governors’ agenda. How is he doing? He asked the Principal, fine, I like him, he said. ‘Well get some solid evidence’ said the Bishop. The following day the Principal had one of the meetings he hated most. It was the termly meeting of the non-academic staff, the catering officer, the house-keeper, the matron, the head gardener, the Bursar, the head porter, the manager of the students’ union and old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. He was more than surprised that all of the people present knew the Chaplain – he felt sure that that had never happened before – but the things they said were friendly and very positive, but nebulous. Then finally the Bar Manager spoke up: his takings had improved considerably. There was laughter, but the Manager went on, he certainly comes to the bar a couple of times a week, and he has a drink, but the reason the takings have gone up is that the little first-year girls feel safe enough to come in and have a cup of tea. He affirms the Community.
And that is what we are about, affirming the Community in which we are privileged to work. The joy that we have in Christ should be contagious. We may be anonymous where we work, but with our partners, with our friends, with Matthias, with Mary with Christ himself, we are both known and deeply loved. But quite what we have done and are doing, God alone knows.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three ways of responding to the Mass of the Chrism. First, we can be so focussed on ourselves and our vows and on meeting our Saviour in Word and Sacrament that we barely notice anyone else around us. Or secondly, we can look around us and understand for the first time the meaning of the phrase, the see gives up its dead. Or thirdly, we look around with total awe and wonder that this bizarre collection of people, of very age and shape and seeming disposition have all heard the call of Christ and responded.
It is part of our ambivalence, our confusion about our fellow clergy. I was most shocked and others have said the same to me, that whereas when I was an ordinand they were universally kind and helpful and reached out to me, as soon as I was ordained it all seemed to change. As though here was a whipper snapper who would show them up by knowing the Definition of Chalcedon – and before you ask, don’t it was way after I left College, or who had read the last book by the latest bright-eyed child of a theologian and who thought that they, my elders and betters, were not only dinosaurs but ought to be extinct. I well remember my first chapter meeting in Winchester when ‘clergy expenses’ was an item on the agenda. When we reached that point, an old Canon said ‘gentlemen don’t ask for expenses.’ There was a murmur of agreement and we moved on. Apart from me and one other young priest, the ‘gentlemen’s’ lives were cushioned by naval pensions that were three times the stipend.
It seems that only in death can we truly value and appreciate them, those who have bought us to Christ, those who have nourished us, those who have given us magnificent examples. Of course, the example might not be one that we follow, on the contrary. I had a neighbour in Bournemouth who was a Conservative Evangelical whose faith was simple, if you were enjoying it, it was sinful. So, the chairs in his house were especially uncomfortable and his wife ruined the food – I could not even admire his garden – which was not difficult, naturally – but I learnt to weep for him and for all those who don’t find the world a truly wondrous place filled with beautiful people. And he did remind me something about confession, if he felt that he had offended me during the week, he rang me on a Saturday evening at 10.30 pm to apologise.
Or the old priest who turned up at one of my churches in Winchester. It took me a week of two to find him, he wore lay clothes and was quite self-effacing. And about the time that his name was fixed in my mind, the Bishop rang to say that he had heard ‘we had got him’ and that I should be warned and then he told me sub Rosa, an enormous lists of sins that the wretched man was alleged to have committed and I could assure him that I had seen no evidence of anything like that and no he hadn’t taken any services nor asked to do so, and he had hadn’t asked for money from me or from the treasurer, and as far as I knew he hadn’t contracted any relationships that caused me concern and so on and so on. Perhaps the old man had retired from sinning. Then one day I had a phone call from his house-keeper, could I come around immediately. I went. He wanted to make his confession. It was extraordinary. The Bishop didn’t know the thousandth of it. I blushed for the Bishop is his innocence and rejoiced for him in his ignorance. I pronounced the absolution. We said the penance together. I anointed him. He said ‘Amen’. And by the time I got home, there was a message to say that he was dead. Of course, he taught me about the dangers of leaving things to the last minute, but more important he taught me that in the end nothing can come between us and the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus our Saviour. And even in this battered old man there was still the image of God, there was still someone whom Jesus had chosen and called, still someone who had heard that call and responded.
I could go on, but the message seems to be that as pray for the repose of the souls of priests who have died that their goodness, the wonder of their calling strengthens and inspires us even more than it did when they were alive. It underlines the Resurrection for us, but it gives us hope that the work that we are doing now will continue after our deaths as we live on in those whom we have influenced and whom we will still be able to hold in our prayers as they will hold us.
Rest eternal grant unto them and let light perpetual shine upon them.
Wednesday. St Simon Stock
When the priest who baptised me died, the Bishop’s one and only line about him in the Diocesan paper said that he was the best judge of long-backed sheep in the County. That was all. He’d lived in the parish all his life, being born and brought up in the Rectory and at ordination he became his father’s curate until the old man died and then he took over and stayed there until he died. He had no stipend, he farmed the glebe, which was the largest single farm in the parish. And when he died, the Church Commissioners took over the glebe and the village lost its parson. It’s now one of 12 parishes in a group, their Rector lives four and a half miles in one direction and their team vicar lives 14 and a half miles in another.
We all know the reason why, there just are neither the people nor the money to have one priest for every perhaps two hundred and fifty people. But what has been lost is more than that. Parson Wrenford lived among his people, he shared all their hopes and joys, their disappointments and their anxieties. He was truly a compassionate pastor, he knew exactly how and where his people were. He too prayed fervently in Rogationtide and watched his crops grow with natural farmer’s anxiety. The parable of the sower could have been written by him. He too rejoiced at Harvest home and since the whole village had had to get into the fields to help with the harvest he too would have known that state of their harvest as they knew the state of his. To say that he was the best judge of long-backed sheep in the county was no idle compliment, it the supreme accolade of one who was totally involved in his community. He was close to everyone and everything, blessing that which was good and challenging what was not.
And it is so easy not to be involved: Diocesan committees, synods, trips Overseas to see the Church in action, all so tempting – so good for us, they widen our horizons, they take us away from petty parochialism. And if we want further excuse to escape there is always Facebook and twitter and all those other distractions of modern technology. But we can only be compassionate if we are with our people connected with them, in touch with them weeping, as they weep, dancing as they dance, and knowing why they are weeping or dancing.
Parson Wrenford knew exactly where all his flock were at any time of day, and they knew where he was, without mobile phones or I-pads or, for most of them, land-lines, but we, when we live in an Urban environment, soon find out where and how we can bump into our charges. The food hall in Marks and Spencer on a Monday morning, the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the school gate if you have the excuse of collecting children at the end of the school day – I found my relationship with my parish subtly changed when I no longer had children to collect from Primary school. I had to change my behaviour. They were all places where people could bump into you and then have the freedom to leave, places to talk about baptism or to tell me that Gran was still missing Grandad, could I call. It wasn’t as confrontational as a house call, when they would have to invite me in.
And should you ask what as this to do with St Simon Stock? I would want to hope that it had nothing and everything. Nothing in the sense that it was another time and another place. Everything in the sense that there is the same passion, passion for God, passion for neighbour. The Basque Philosopher Xavier Zibiri summed it up when he said, we don’t do mission, we are mission. In our very being we are told to be Christ-like that is our passion and that is the only certain way that those in our care will know about Jesus. We preach the Gospel, not with words, but by the way that we live. Indeed, that may be the only way that most of those whom we meet with will ever know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. As another Carmelite, Theresa of Avila, put it:
‘Christ has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet, no voice but our voice.’
And he has chosen us to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Alleluia. Amen.
Thursday Christ our Great High Priest.
I had an email last week from Janet, a neighbour, who told me that her two sons, born and brought up in the Church had now lapsed from it. They were scientists, would I suggest a book that would bring them back to Christ? The short answer was no. I had never met the men, both, I think, now in their forties. I had no idea whether they read books or not and no idea at what stage their theological education and understanding ceased. I emailed back to suggest a couple of novels and to underline that stark truth that they, the boys, even now, will get the surest picture of Jesus from the love and steadfast witness of their parents. The problem is that the demeanour of their parents, the wife especially, is of unparalleled gloom. Had Janet lived in Dickensian times, she would never have got a job as an undertaker’s mute, because no-one would be able to cope with a funeral that was that dismal and hopeless.
I suppose that it would be charitable to imagine that she is self-preoccupied with the wickedness of her sins and the pain that is all around her in the world, but neither of these things seem likely it is just that she really does see the worst in everything and everyone. Good Friday is the day where it all ends and I can just hear her saying ‘I told you so.’ Except that.
St Bernard of Clairvaux said: Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation, you should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God. and it is amazing how dwelling on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God changes everything. And we find this glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God most powerfully in every Eucharist. I have always tried to have the next Eucharist in my mind before I leave Church after the preceding one, so that my thanksgiving for the first is my preparation for the next. But also, I know full well that in every Eucharist I will always meet Christ in his Word and in the Bread and the Wine. And if I don’t it is my fault, for he is there.
I am sure that all of us have favourite passages from the Bible that we return to again and again, that are written not necessarily totally accurately in our minds, but definitely in our hearts, but what is so powerful is the way that the Spirit opens the Scriptures for us in ways and at times that we could never expect. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tell us that:
‘the word of God is something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword: it can seek out the place where soul is divided from spirit, or joints from marrow; it can pass judgement on secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing is hidden from him; everything is stretched and held fully open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves.’ [Hebrews iv:12-13]
And we know that is true when suddenly we are ambushed and I think that that is the only word to describe it, when we are ambushed by a word from the readings, as we stand to preach and realise that what we have prepared is rubbish, or when a verse from the psalms stops us in our tracks and makes Mattins fifteen minutes longer than usual.
And the bread and the wine: as human beings we find it very difficult to leave things simple, we want to dress things up, either literally or with fine words and great titles. We only have to think of the likes of His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay and so on seemingly ad infinitum and the fact that he has to have two flunkeys to dress him and the reality is that it still doesn’t make any difference he is still an aging 69-year-old beholden to Mummy. And whatever we say about the Bread and the wine, they are still bread and wine, symbols of the staples of life, except that they are given us by Jesus himself and we believe that he is present in them when we do this in memory of him. It is as mysterious as love, it is as mysterious as love because it is love and those of us who are blessed enough to share love with another, know that we cannot define what we have. We can look back at important points in our relationships, at especially precious moments, but the whole is a mystery that cannot be analysed or defined or even made comprehensible to any other then us, us two.
So too with the Eucharist. The two things that I miss most in my retirement are first, no longer having a Church, I hadn’t realised how often I popped into mine every day, first thing to open it and say my prayers and last thing for Evensong and to lock it and then at various random times each day to say hello. And then secondly, I miss the House Masses, where we used to communicate each other round the circle and I could arrange that the most vulnerable member present had to communicate me, to remind me that they, as well as Jesus, were feeding me.
And it is these encounters in love with God and my neighbour that bring me joy, joy to take out into the world, joy that is Christ in me Christ flowing through me like the life-giving sap of the vine. Joy in knowing Christ’s love. Joy in knowing Christ has chosen me, as he has chosen you. Joy that conquers the world.