It was my great privilege to be present last Saturday in St Edmundsbury Cathedral as my former theological college colleague, good friend, and occasional commenter on this blog, Christopher (Tiffer) Robinson was ordained priest. Many congratulations to him and his wife Amy – it was good to see him finally make it to his own big day.
Given this blog occasionally includes some of my own reflections on priesthood and to celebrate this occasion for my good friend, I’ve invited Tiffer to be my very first ever guest blogger on this website and to do some reflecting of his own now that he too is a ‘wannabepriest’ no more.
So over to Tiffer…!
“I was very nervous about being ordained priest.Â This is for two interlinked reasons.Â One is that I have an ecclesiologial conviction that we have got the diaconate wrong in the Church of England – being ordained a deacon one year and a priest the next (sometimes with only 9 months between them) has come to be seen as almost probationary, a mere hat-tip to the Christian value of servant leadership.
I am yet to hear a robust defense of the current system, and I see the negative effects of it throughout our clergy and laity – the perception of the parish priest as a manager, clergy who see certain things as beneath them and the general feeling that the priesting is the “proper” one, with the first ordination almost forgotten about.Â How many clergy do you know who celebrate the anniversaries of their ordination to the diaconate?
The other reason is that I like being a deacon.Â It fits the role of an assistant curate perfectly.Â I am not primarily a leader in the churches in which I serve, I am a servant, both of the clergy and the congregation.Â I realise that I remain a deacon for life, but I see the office of priest as relating to leadership, and my job description hasn’t changed overnight; it has simply had a couple of things added to it.Â I have more 8.30 Eucharists to do!
So it was with a certain reluctance and apathy that I prepared for my ordination to the priesthood – I did all the usual things, I received the sacrament of reconciliation, I went on an individual retreat for a few days, read all the books.Â But I never knew what to say when people asked me “Are you excited about next week”.Â It often felt that some of the people in my churches were more excited than me (those that understood the concept that is).
The retreat went surprisingly well.Â We were together with the deacon candidates, in a smallish retreat house, but there were long periods of silence followed by Pimms in the evening.Â The retreat conductor was a retired Evangelical Bishop, and although the way he put things was not to everyone’s taste I broadly agreed with him, and he was quite inspiring about ministry, although didn’t say much about priesthood specifically. I did have some good times of prayer,Â which is rare for me, but the day of the priesting, which was on the Saturday evening, was more boring than exciting, a lot of waiting around.
Then came the service itself.Â It was very strange, being in exactly the same positions in theÂ procession as last year, walking in to the same litany, sitting in the same seats.Â It made me remember with nostalgia the excitement, the worry and the newness of my first week as a deacon, wearing the collar for the first time.Â What was particularly special was seeing old colleagues and friends sitting in the priests stalls, who weren’t able to be there last year. Their presence reminded me of my journey to ordination, one being my sponsoring priest, one being a close friend during selection and another my prayer partner from college (that would be me, Ed).
My wider family who are largely unchurched commented that the only difference from last year was that all the people in the funny dresses crowded round with arms outsretched during the laying on of hands, and although that isn’t quite right, it is probably what stood out the most for me.Â I was surprised how moving it was.Â Although I had my eyes closed, I could feel this mass of people around me, it was welcoming, embracing almost.
As I looked up I saw my training incumbent, someone I have observed, learnt from, argued with, laughed with, and who gives me permission to minister alongside him, as well as other benefice and deanery clergy and the visitors I mentioned earlier.Â I felt truly welcomed into this college of presbyters, odd bunch that they are, and that memory will sustain me when I am feeling isolated and lonely in some godforsaken parish in the middle of nowhere sometime in the future (don’t overanalyse that last sentence…)
The next day on the Sunday was my first Eucharist, or as it was labelled on the buffet menu afterwards “Father Christopher’s First Mass”.Â The planning of this service had been a little contentious, as I wasn’t playing ball with those who were keen for me to do “First Blessings” and give roses to my mother (who wasn’t there!), but I chanted, wore a chasuble and genuflected at all the right moments, so I hope that has redeemed me somewhat.Â I was incredibly emotional just in the 10 mins before the service began, and I suddenly felt hugely unworthy, as perhaps I still do.
Two things had a special significance for me at the service, aside from the honour and priviledge of presiding over the Eucharist, which was very moving.Â One was being vested – after my incumbent had done a brief introduction, but before the service began, he and my preacher, who were both in alb and stole, led me to the altar and there put my stole around my neck and vested me with the chasuble, and it felt the same as being under that holy huddle the day before.Â It was them asserting my new role in the community, my new office of ministry.
In his introduction, my incumbent mentioned how much having a brand new priest was to be a cause of celebration to the congregations, and they gave me a round of applause, a theme which was continued in the sermon, where my friend called me a panda.Â Even people I previously thought did not like me seemed overjoyed at the occasion.Â I was presented with a gift at the end, of a very smart and expensive home communion kit (much nicer than Dave’s) which had been the result of months of passing a hat around our eight parishes.Â The bun fight afterwards had a real buzz about it, and the congregations of our sometimes struggling churches seemed to have a joy about them which is not always as obvious.
This week has been odd.Â I had a couple of days off to recover (!) and yesterday got up at the same old time to go to the same old church for morning prayer with the same old people, and had the same coffee and cakes which I do every Wednesday, but everything seemed endowed with a certain newness and excitement, the same smells and weather of last year and the same sticky feeling you get when you wear a tight collar in high temperatures.Â I found the experience quite odd, and needed to go and find refuge in a neighbouring church to recover, but my incumbent was on top of the world, more chirpy than I had seen him in a long time.
So I think my main reflection upon what has been a slightly crazy week is that it really hasn’t been much about me.Â That might sound odd, but it is true of so much in ministry, having to deal with projection and vain flattery, we do have to learn to distinguish between who we are and the role we fulfil in any given situation.Â In this situation my own internal feelings mattered less than what my ordination meant to the Christian community, the college of presbyters, and those who were more excited than me about the whole event.
In many ways my feelings reflect the tradition of the Orthodox church where the candidate is dragged to the Bishop by deacons, and given no choice in the matter – but the people are still asked to say ‘We do’.”