A Sermon preached at James Gardom's first Mass
St Mary's, Witney, Oxon
Wednesday, July 3rd 1991
There are many models one could take of the priestly ministry suitable for someone embarking on such an adventure.
One thinks, for example, of George Herbert's 16th century Country Parson; of John Vianney, the Curé d'Ars in the nineteenth century; or perhaps of Brother Lawrence toiling away in his 17th century kitchen; or the tragic fictional 20th century priest portrayed in George Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest.
But this evening I propose to take Chaucer's Poor Person of Religion from the General Prologue to the 14th Century Canterbury Tales and his brother layman, the humble Plowman as my starting point.
But first a short background to the Tales themselves. Written towards the end of the 14th Century they describe a time when England was just beginning to recover from the horrors of the Black Death of 1349 which had killed, quite indiscriminately up to a quarter of the entire population.
As a result of this epidemic many people at every level of society had lost what faith they had in divine providence. But at the same time there had occurred one of those breakdowns in self- discipline which so often accompanies such a disaster; added to this there was a grave shortage of wise and holy priests (many of whom had succumbed to the plague in the course of caring for their congregations). All these factors conspired together to pave the way for a new kind of religious opportunism to flourish.
"Religion" was clearly a good thing to be "in with". Anyone with a sense of his own importance and a smooth tongue could have an absolute field day!
There were profits to be made, too, by people such as the Pardoner, selling pardons and worthless relics from his bag of goodies; the Summoner, his friend, could no doubt be bought off from delivering his summonses with a suitable backhander, thereby at the same time enabling him to satisfy his taste for strong wine, red as blood. The Friar secured young innocent girls by the dozen and then bought their silence with money filched from his order; the Monk was wealthy enough to spend most of his time riding and hunting, and very little in the cloister where he belonged.
And I have no doubt that each and every one of these "worthy" people (for so Chaucer called them) justified his behaviour to himself. It was, they argued "in keeping with the spirit of the age". Where, I wonder have I heard that one before? Or "everyone does that sort of thing nowadays", they said. Indeed, they probably did - that was just the trouble!; some claimed that it was unreasonable to expect clergy to be different from anyone else; and anyway, they went on, if clergy distanced themselves from such things how could they possibly "get alongside" their fellow which, as everyone knows, is the secret of all evangelism.
Well it was left to a layman, Geoffrey Chaucer, to put all this into words. And yet, whilst quietly ridiculing the disgraceful state of the Church of his day, right in the middle of the Prologue he describes two people, the Parson and the Ploughman, who exemplify in his words all the things that so many of his fellow pilgrims were conspicuously lacking.
The Parson, we are told, was poor. Poor, that is, in comparison with some of the others, but able nevertheless to afford to ride a horse on pilgrimage to Canterbury. Had this Parson happened to be well-to-do there is no suggestion that Chaucer would have admired him any the less. The point he is making is that wealth or the lack of it, is no yardstick by which to judge the success of any priest's ministry. It's simply irrelevant. "I have learnt", said St Paul, "to be content with what I have. I know both how to abound and be abased". No doubt after a good season of tent-making Paul could afford to buy himself some new sandals or even a few luxuries. In a recession he felt the pinch like everyone else." I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me", he wrote.
"But rich he was of holy thought and work He was also a learned man, a clerk"
One of the casualties of Chaucer's day as it is of ours was the lack of really learned priests. I am told that certain theological colleges today have largely given up studying the subject their title suggests they exist to impart and equip their students to be social workers. And indeed it is very rare to find any parish priest today engaged on serious theological study.
The result of this is two-fold. On the one hand we assume that lay people are as ignorant if not more so than ourselves: that is probably true, though it reflects no credit on us as their erstwhile teachers; but from there it is only a stone's throw to imagining that they are not sufficiently intelligent to be taught anyway.
Now that is a most serious misconception. No one, but no one is unteachable unless they wish to be so. Of his Parson, Chaucer says:
"His parishioners devoutly would he teach Benign, he was, and wondrous diligent . . . He was to sinful men not scornful Nor arrogant or haughty in his speech, But in his teaching discreet and benign to draw people to heaven by fair and gentle means, by good example - that was his business
That word "business" by the way was meant to be a pun, contrasting the Parson with those other pilgrims whose business consisted in lining their own pockets by whatever means.
In those three words by good example of course lies the key to the whole situation.
It may well have been the case that the Monk, the Friar, the Pardoner and all the others were themselves relatively ignorant and ill-educated people, perhaps through no fault of their own. And that, I think, any layman would be willing to overlook. But what really stuck in ordinary people's gullets was the palpable gap between what these people professed to believe and what they actually did in their everyday lives.
By contrast the Parson, Chaucer tells us:
"This noble example to his sheep he gave
That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught"
and he continues a few lines later:
"For if a priest be foul in whom we trust
No wonder that a lewd man turns to rust.
Well ought a priest example for to give
By his cleanness how that his sheep should live."
Much of the trouble springs, as I hinted earlier, from the very natural desire to "feel important".
Now in one sense of course the priest is really important: in the sense that is that if he makes a mess of his job then a great deal of damage is going to be done both to himself and others. In this sense a priest is as "important" as any airline pilot flying a plane or surgeon removing an appendix.
But that sort of importance fails to satisfy many priests. They want a kind of stand-alone importance which is something of their very own.
But that, of course, is the one thing no priest can ever have. Of all the jobs in God's creation it is the one par excellence where such stand-alone importance can never happen. The ministry is not his; the sacraments are not his; the people are not his; the message of salvation is not his. Never were the dice so heavily loaded against anyone than they are against the priest who wants to "feel important".
I'm reliably told that one way to "get on" in the Church of England at the present time is to get oneself voted onto committees and synods and make a lot of noise and generally adopt a high profile.
Well, it may be. But such things all tend to take the parish priest away from those people to whom he is ministering.
Of Chaucer's Parson it was said "He did not leave his sheep encumbered in the mud whilst he rushed off up to St Paul's in London or become chaplain to a brotherhood of like-minded clergy. No doubt there are good reasons for going to London from time to time, and fellowship with like-minded clergy can be a source of much strength. But beware of either when they begin to exercise a fascination over and beyond that of caring for the people of the local parish.
And what of the Parson's brother, the Plowman?
Between them, it seems they made the perfect example of the shared ministry.
Like his brother, the Plowman "loved God first of all". But that love was expressed towards his neighbour. Over and above his paid work he was willing to thresh, dig and delve for Christ's sake, free of charge, for every poor person in need. No doubt he kept his brother the Parson, informed as to who was sick or in trouble, and he, in his turn, was prepared to listen to any request the Parson might make on behalf of one of his parishioners who had fallen on hard times. Perhaps someone had strained his back, or got a septic foot. Well, the ploughman was always there after working hours to do what he could for the man who was laid up.
Do you see the idea? There is a desperate need for sound teaching today, as there was in the time of Chaucer, but the answer doesn't just lie in improved educational programmes; alongside the learning process there has got to be the loving process - a willingness to live out the Christian life in all its fullness.
And that fullness, of course, entails sacrifice: a "making holy" of the commonplace which everyone takes for granted.
To God's priest is committed the care of God's people. Only ordinary people, but to God, each one is of inestimable value. In that commitment is subsumed the whole of life. Ordinary, everyday, matter of fact life as the world sees it, but each second, each minute, each hour is a gift from God as the priest should see it. In the parting words of St Paul to the Elders of the Ephesian Church as they stood around him on the beach at Miletus, he is to:
"Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock of Christ over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to feed the Church of God which he purchased with his own blood."
It was the determination of the Parson and the Plowman, each in his own way, to fulfil that precept which earned them Chaucer's admiration and made him feel that, even in the midst of so much that was wrong, there was yet hope for the Church of God in his day and age.
"He had no interest in feeling important or being looked up to", said Chaucer of the Parson. In other words he didn't make a great song and dance about those Church matters which really aren't of as much importance as some parsons like to make out;
"But Christ, his lore and his apostles twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himselve"
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