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Archbishop Justin's sermon at service to mark 20 years of women priests

Posted on: May 6, 2014 3:26 PM
Related Categories: Abp Welby, England, iawn, sermon, women

[Lambeth Palace] Men and women are "equally icons, witnesses, vessels of Christ for the world", the Archbishop said today during a service at St Paul's Cathedral marking the 20th anniversary of female priests.

Archbishop Justin preached and acted as deacon at a service today at St Paul's cathedral to mark 20 years of women priests. Canon Philippa Boardman presided at the service. Read Archbishop Justin's sermon below.

Archbishop Justin's sermon at St Paul's Cathedral service to mark the 20th anniversary of women priests

Ruth 1:16-18; Philippians 2:1-11; John 20:11-18

First of all, thank you so much to those who have organised this service; to obviously the Dean and Chapter and community here at St Paul's and the Bishop of London. But especially to those who put the service together, a huge amount of work. And particularly thank you for the invitation to preach. I am deeply grateful and immensely privileged. I was also very grateful to hear the testimonies a few minutes ago. . .

Churches - the best churches, churches as they should be, God's people in action - are not built through victories and defeats in legislative assemblies, nor as a result only of process and deliberation. Such things are necessary, even indispensable, but they are not sufficient. A good church is forged through its transformation into the likeness of Christ. It is one step of that journey that we mark today in celebrating 20 years of the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Like Ruth with Naomi, some deep acts of loyalty underlie the transformation with which our church has been blessed. Ruth chose to ally herself to God's people, whom she knew only through her in-laws. It was a choice against the odds and without lengthy consultation. Her experience of Israel's God was not one of blessing. Yet she said yes to the risk – a blind even fool-hardy risk which we now commemorate as an act of great faithfulness. And through her line, from her ancestry, we trace the Messiah’s birth. What was risk for her is blessing for us.

The journey of ordaining women has required much risk, from the Naomis as well as the Ruths. From those women and men who long ago stepped out on a course which seemed unimaginable, their costly grind paving the way for those gathered here to step forward. In our celebrations - and let there be celebration - let us not overlook the cost, the bitterness of disappointment and rejection, the knee-jerk resistance of an institution facing change. There is a double loyalty to Ruth, and many like her: a sacrificial commitment to a particular person or cause, and then a loyalty to the consequences, the baggage, that follows. I fear it is the second - loyalty to the machinery of the institution - that costs the most, not least because so often it fails to honour that sacrifice. As a representative of that institution, I want to thank those here today whose costly loyalty, whose scars, make this celebration possible, and I want to say personally how I grieve that it cost so much, to apologise for my own part in that hurt.

The institution that was Israel came to offer Ruth full acceptance. The overcoming of partiality in our church is fundamental to our transformation. Like Mary Magdalene, we outcasts have been cast in, and given a glimpse of God’s glory - which is sometimes most evident at the points of most despair. Mary like Ruth is another crucial link in the chain, this time the chain of witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that’s why she is sometimes called the first of the apostles, the apostle to the apostles.

In God’s grace our very humanity is the material through which God’s divinity is revealed. Male or female, it matters not, so long as in our beings, through our clay, in a willingness to risk everything and stop at nothing, we offer ourselves to Christ and for Christ. Then we may in his grace and love be made like Christ, who emptied himself and took the form of a servant, for the sake of the world. In our very weakness, we may be the instruments of God’s transforming power for the world.

We are not there yet; we never will entirely be there. But we celebrate how far we have come, let us be mindful of the distance yet to travel. In 20 years we have come a long way: How did we not see that women and men are equally icons, witnesses, vessels of Christ for the world? Twenty years, out of about 450. That’s less than 5% in the story of the Church of England, so far, a story in which we remain committed to reimagining ministry. We may be making progress but we’ve a long way to go. Today is a time of celebration, but never of complacency. 

We have also to get beyond talking about clergy. God in the wealth of His grace and His love to us pours out many ministries, and all are needed to flourish in order that His Kingdom may be seen and many may find His love and become followers of Jesus Christ. In a concern for the ordination of women, let us not lose sight of the fact that ministry is about God. God’s transforming work, in and through us. Transforming exile into homecoming as with Naomi and Ruth: transforming bitter grief into overwhelming joy, with Mary, ultimately transforming all humiliation into the never-ending glory of Christ.

When we can fully grasp this – ministry as all about God, in Christ – the church will be turned inside out. Because it – we – shall be engaged passionately with the world, looking outwards not inwards. Then it will no longer be the case that a parish not far from here receives 84 applications for their post, whereas something with challenge and excitement in the north east does not result in even one information pack being downloaded. 

There is much to celebrate. I don't want to lose sight of that for a moment - this is birthday time, party time; God be praised. We celebrate because God is good and does good things amongst us. We celebrate today because the good thing that He did twenty years ago is beyond all measure, good for His world as well as good for each woman who has found herself called into this ministry.  Let us therefore celebrate with fullness of heart and no holding back, not in triumphalism, but in awe at the God who so loves us that He gave us his whole self – so that all of us, men and women equally, may give our whole selves in following Christ our Lord. 


View more pictures and videos from the day on the BBC website: