Feed my Sheep
A sermon preached by Canon Jeremy Davies, the Eucharist, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
Wednesday 29 June 2022
You may find it hard to believe, but it has been known for sermons to change the direction of people’s lives. And I am not just speaking about Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel. The great nineteenth century preacher and follower of John Keble and Cardinal Newman, Hurrell Froude, was said to have converted towns and villages by the power of his oratory. Some years ago I published a book about preaching, not least to acknowledge the debt I owed to a succession of preachers whose command of the pulpit impressed me even as long ago as a cathedral chorister in Wales. And even more so during my time as Precentor here in Salisbury where Sunday after Sunday I was fortunate enough to hear the wisdom and spiritual insight of bishops, deans, canons and others who raised the bar pretty high for the rest of us who were inspired and challenged by them to take preaching seriously.
In that book on preaching I also included this tribute to the bishop who, fifty years ago today, ordained me as a priest, partly as a result of a sermon I had heard him preach. Forgive me if I quote from it now:
In many ways it was a sermon I heard as an undergraduate as I was completing a theology degree in Cambridge which quite by chance (though I don’t believe in chance) shaped the course of my future ministry. It was a remarkable sermon preached at Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge by Bishop Trevor Huddleston.
(At this moment members of the congregation who are my age or older are nodding their heads at the recognition of a familiar name. Those who are a generation or so younger – as I discovered when I was a university chaplain – are looking at me with blank expressions as though to say – ‘Trevor Who?’ )
Bishop Trevor was once well-known the world over for his courageous stand against the apartheid regime in South Africa where for many years he worked as a priest in a slum parish on the edge of Johannesburg. That parish of Sophiatown he passionately described in his spiritual and political classic Naught for Your Comfort which was published in 1956.
By 1969 Trevor Huddleston, had been recalled from South Africa by his community had just returned to be Bishop of Stepney, after eight years as Bishop of Masasi in Tanzania. His sermon at Great St Mary’s was dramatically entitled ‘England, Naught for your Desire’ and was preached to a packed congregation. In his homily the bishop drew a contrasting picture of life in the Africa he had left behind, with its sense of community and more relaxed tempo and the England where he now ministered in East London with its pace and pressure and disintegrating communities. It was a highly charged political sermon, full of passion and challenge. But the thing which caught my attention especially was the sense that this famous bishop who strode the world stage as a champion of social justice spoke from a reservoir of spiritual depth. One phrase in that sermon I remember particularly:
‘If we lose our capacity for stillness (and I fear we are fast losing it) then we are in danger of losing our identity as the children of God.’
It was that phrase and that sermon which caused me to write to Bishop Huddleston to talk with him about my future. I had felt that that Sunday evening I had heard a man who lived out of a passion for God and the things of the spirit and who was at the same time passionately concerned about the way the world was and how it might be changed. In response to my letter he invited me to his home in Commercial Road (the first Bishop of Stepney to live in his episcopal area) and the upshot was that he suggested that I should forego most of my sixth year in Cambridge.
‘They’ll only make you play croquet and drink sherry” was his witheringly accurate assessment of my pre-ordination training. I was to work as an assistant youth worker in the Arbour Youth Centre on the notorious Ocean Estate, and be part of the parish staff of St Dunstan Stepney. In due course when my year was up I was ordained deacon by Bishop Huddleston, and then in 1972, fifty years ago today, I was ordained priest, to serve my title in that same wonderful parish.’
Several biographies have been written about Bishop Trevor and in one, the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Shridath Ramphal, wrote:
Throughout his working life Trevor seems never to have lost the sense of being simply a parish priest – but a priest whose parish is the world…in all his moves from South Africa to Tanzania, to London and the islands of the Indian Ocean, and as he rose from priest to bishop and archbishop he never ceased to be the compassionate priest whose campaigning ardour reflected his love for his fellow beings – and his anger at injustice.
I hope you will forgive me for lingering a while on the bishop who ordained me, but I do so because it seemed to me then and since that he
marked out the depths and challenges of what it means to be a priest today. Bishop Trevor was both a priest and a monk (of the Community of the Resurrection) and his life (however busy) was steeped in prayer with each day beginning with a contemplative hour in his chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. But his passionate, political involvement was not a contradiction of his contemplative centring – on the contrary the one grew out of the other, they hung together. Whenever I read Trevor’s words in Naught for your Comfort – I hear his voice ringing down the years.
Prophecy, he wrote, is a function of the church, and must be so till the end of time, for it will always be the duty of the church to proclaim that this world is God’s world and that infringements of his law will bring their own terrible penalties…..The sin of racial pride, the evil of the doctrine of apartheid must be condemned by the church and their consequences clearly and unmistakably proclaimed. That is prophecy : it is also politics.
Bishop Trevor handed on to those whom he ordained the grace of orders, but he also, through his own example, challenged us with a vision of priestly service, – a challenge not only to those whom he ordained, but to all who are baptised into the new humanity of the risen life we celebrate in Jesus. Again in Naught for Your Comfort Bishop Trevor wrote:
Young Africa stands waiting and his eyes are vigilant eyes. We have baptised him into the fellowship of Christ’s church. We have told him that he is the child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have taught him to say ‘Our Father’ with us. We have placed upon his lips the body of Christ and told him that it is a pledge and a proof of our communion with one another. In every possible way we have driven home to him that truth which we recite every time we say the Creed, that we believe in the Catholic Church – the universal church in which all barriers of language and culture and custom are broken down.
Bishop Trevor was deeply sceptical about the willingness of the church of his day to live up to the ideals of equality and freedom it purported to proclaim – but he, at least, thank God, was prepared to step up for those ideals when the church at large feared to – even though it won him a reputation as a turbulent priest – monk though he was.
As I say, I still hear his voice, and I pray God that fifty years on our ministry – my ministry – indeed the ministry of the whole church of God
may be inspired by that vision of priesthood (a common priesthood shared by us all) steeped in contemplative prayer, nourished by the sacraments, and which sees the struggle for social justice (way beyond South Africa) not as an optional extra but as essential to our vocation as pastors – called, as St Peter was, to feed Christ’s sheep (and by God’s grace to be salt to the
In recalling with gratitude the friendship and inspiration of this charismatic bishop, I have in mind as well the many, many others who have shaped and influenced my ministry and who have taught me what it is to be a priest. There have been so many colleagues, friends, priests and spiritual directors and members of religious communities whom I remember with affection and gratitude – and not least the communities I have served in Stepney and at QMC and at Cardiff University – and perhaps above all the members of the congregation here at Salisbury whose prayers and friendship have been and remain a source of encouragement for which I can only say – thank you.
But above all thanks be to God who calls men and women to his service, to be instruments of his peace and signs of his love and compassion in his world, and thanks be to Him that some are called (and enabled by his grace) to be prophets in the struggle for justice. May his holy name be blessed and praised.