By The Ven. Keith Dean-Jones:
A priest is entrusted with four main responsibilities – to gather the people of God, to proclaim the Good News of salvation, to offer the Eucharist, and to send people into the world empowered as ministers of God’s healing and reconciliation. The four responsibilities are founded on Christ’s authority to bless and to forgive, and they are expressed in lives alert to the presence of Jesus and alert to the needs of people.
COVID-19 has created a situation that we have not faced for a century. Since March, we have necessarily been exploring other ways of worshipping and growing in our faith. We have been like our spiritual ancestors who were taken in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon in the sixth century B.C. and, with them, there have been times that we have cried out; “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137.4). In the strange land of the ever-shifting COVID-19 environment we have needed to ask, “How can we minister in the name of our Lord?”
A priest represents our Lord Jesus Christ to the people of God. This is primarily a matter of his/her ‘being’ or ‘character’, and not merely a statement of ‘function’. Even when a priest cannot be seen or heard, he/she maintains the role of representing our Lord Jesus Christ to both the Church and the world. Words and actions are important, but they are secondary to the importance of priestly character. Character must be kept healthy, and the life of prayer helps us to remain strong in the Holy Spirit in challenging and disruptive times.
I have also continued to find strength in the prayer of silence, sometimes termed ‘mental prayer’, since March. When one prays in silence, three things happen.
First, we recognise that the ‘work’ of prayer is the activity of the Holy Spirit of God. The apostle Paul rightly stated that, “we do not pray as we ought but the Spirit himself intercedes for us the with sighs too deep for words…for the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8. 26-27). This means that, regardless of our distractions and questionings, the Holy Spirit will unite our petitions to the prayer of the risen Lord. Even when we feel that our time in prayer has been wasted, when our minds have been like ‘a tree full of monkeys’, we ought not to be discouraged. It is Jesus who has being doing all the work, not us.
Secondly, in order to pray we need to listen. It is in a holy listening to Jesus who speaks to us in the Bible, in the events of the world and in our own hearts that we are guided in our prayer. We are challenged to see ourselves as we really are, ‘warts and all’, and, in listening to the Gospel, we recognise our failure to love God and neighbour and the declaration of his forgiveness. Prayer is like swimming, and just as we learn to swim by jumping in the water and propelling our bodies with our arms and legs, so we learn to pray by immersing ourselves in the love of God. And, like swimming, prayer is joyful, invigorating and cleansing.
Thirdly, our prayer is only meaningful if we act with compassion. This is evident in the way that our clergy have maintained close links with people in alternative ways in the COVID-19 environment. Telephone calls, emails, mailed letters and care packages and live streaming of services and events have made a world of difference to people who have felt anxious, isolated or lonely.
Through prayer we are connected to our Lord Jesus Christ and to one another as members of his Body. And, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease and face-to-face gatherings become more relaxed, we increasingly look forward to ‘being together’ and praying with each other in person again.