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First Mass: Sermon

We are very grateful to Fr Peter McGeary, Parish Priest of St Mary, Cable Street E1, for coming to preach the homily at Fr Philip's first Mass. He has kindly granted us permission to reproduce the text of his homily here.

The full text appears below.

Fr Peter McGeary


What an honour it is to be asked to preach at somebody's first celebration of the Mass! The preacher at my First Mass burst into tears half way through; I shall try not to do that this evening. It's a great responsibility too, and very tempting to someone such as myself to launch all sorts of barbed comments from the pulpit; I shall only partially succumb to that temptation. A bit of advice from an old dinosaur as well? I shall come to that presently.

This evening is a time of high celebration, as we pray with and for Fr Philip as he begins his priestly ministry in the Church of God. Where shall we begin? Let us go to the far north and west, to Harrow-on-the-Hill, where around 65 years ago the artist and poet David Jones wrote these words:

'These, at the sagging end and chapter's close, standing before the tables spread, in the apsidal houses, who intend life...

'These rear-guard details in their quaint attire, heedless of incongruity, unconscious that the flanks are turned and all connecting files withdrawn or liquidated - that dead symbols litter to the base of the cult-stone, that the stem by the palled stone is thirsty, that the stream is very low...

'The cult-man stands alone in Pellam's land: more precariously than he knows he guards the signa...

This man, so late in time, curiously surviving...'

Thank God for the poets! For many years this preacher looked for theology from the theologians and he could not find it. He sought substance and passion and had instead found didactic worthiness, facile jollity, institutional denial, crude moralism. How can such nonsense sustain the life of a priest today?

I am more than ever convinced that poets, artists, novelists, musicians, are utterly essential for such sustenance. Because they look all around to see what's going on. They keep their eyes fixed on the horizon to see what's coming our way, they are a culture's early warning system if you like. Since around the fifth century, with one or two notable exceptions, theologians have tended not to use their neck muscles too much...

Those words of David Jones are from the opening of his vast poem the Anathemata - the title means 'devoted things'. Densely allusive, fiercely Christian, it maps out the symbols, the material things, that give meaning and shape to a culture, even and especially when that culture is not really that interested in them.

And the priest, the cult-man, curiously surviving in his quaint attire, is the one who guards these signs, these devoted things, these reminders that God might actually exist and that he might actually be in some sort of relationship with those whom he has created. That is what priests are there for: to proclaim and celebrate the relationship between God and his creation, a relationship focussed in, but by no means restricted to, the sacraments of the Church. Priests are there to deliver us all from the evils of philistinism and banality. Heedless of incongruity, they are there to remind us of what is true, rather than what makes us feel nice. They are vital – literally – life-giving

We give thanks to Almighty God that tonight we have another to add to their number.


Nice theory. Let's come down to earth, shall we? Between the theory and the practice lies the suffering.

Fr Philip, you have been ordained into the Church of God, more specifically that rather richly textured part of it called the Church of England.

You will get fed up with those who are in favour of the ordination of women, those who are against the ordination of women; those who won't baptise babies, those who will; those who loudly trumpet ‘gay marriage’, those who think that ‘gay marriage’ is the end of everything as we know it. You will get fed up with PCC's, synods, committees, ecclesiastical jurisdiction measures, faculty applications, the correct wording on gravestones, yes or no to inclusive language, organists who don't get on with the Vicar, difficult churchwardens, Rite One, Rite Two, the BCP, which bits of Common Worship we are going to use this week, the Roman Rite, and the countless liturgical confections that we may put under the umbrella of W.V.L. (What the Vicar Likes).

This will drive you mad. It will make you wonder why you ever bothered getting ordained. It will make you more cynical than you ever imagined possible. It will incite you to murder - in intention if not in act. And at those times the words of the ordination charge must thunder in your ears: 'Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ's own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross.'

This is your special suffering, the one that will never leave you as long as you are a parish priest. And all of that is to be grist to your priestly mill. Your job is to search for the rumour of God, to look for the devoted things, not just in the world outside where it can be quite easy to find, but also within the Church, where it can be much more difficult.

Above all, never, never forget that you are not up to the task. One of the most important convictions that you must hang on to if you are ordained is the fact that at a profound level, you do not and cannot know what you are doing. If you ever let go of that conviction, if you think for one minute that you are any good at the 'job', then you are on the slippery slope to that view that sees priesthood as a set of skills to be acquired or techniques to be learned, rather than what it is: the intense and troubled yielding to the love that will not let you go.

Keep your eyes and ears open and unparochialised. Bring the theory and the practice closer together through what you say and how you behave. Love the mad institution and pray daily that God will conform it more closely to its heavenly archetype.

And at the centre of all of this, take bread and wine. Offer, bless and give it.

And see God, curiously surviving.

Fr Peter McGeary

July 2018


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