Words for my final Sunday morning at St Mary’s Whitkirk – with thanks for nurturing a curate.
6 years ago, in September 2013, I began ordination training. Along with all the obvious subjects…biblical studies, theology, liturgy…the word ‘formation’ was mentioned. This, it seemed, was a mysterious thing that was not taught, but would happen to us.
Some were skeptical…perhaps seeing training as just providing the tools for the job. Others – like me – were only too aware of how much change was needed. But nobody really explained how we would be changed – what this mysterious formation was.
I’m sure some of it took place at Mirfield…but alongside my teaching job it all passed in a bit of a blur. However, here at St Mary’s, with time, space, advice and encouragement, I think I’ve worked out something of what ‘formation’ is.
So this morning I’d like to tell you a story…of the formation of a curate…and since this is Matthew’s curate…you won’t be surprised to find that it’s also a story of coffee.
In July 2016 I arrived, a shiny new deacon…perhaps somewhat like the coffee I drank (instant). It is coffee (despite what the vicar might say) but perhaps only just.
So, I had the collar and the robes; I was up here and on the preaching rota…but it was, like this coffee, a bit shallow – lacking in depth. And I was trying to be ‘instant’ too. Busy, rushing from task to task, doing everything now – trying to squeeze all I had to say on the subject into my first Advent sermon…
This (coffee beans) is, of course, what I’m aiming to become. The real article (‘dark chocolate – dried cranberry sweetness’)…not just wearing the clothes and saying the words…but the weird and wonderful thing that is a priest in the Church of England.
And I have been ‘formed’. By being part of the life of St Mary’s…watching so many competent volunteers…sharing the joys and sorrows of your lives…and leading worship with those on my heart. In learning from Keith, David, Norman. In wise advice from Lawrie, including the reminder “there will be plenty more Advent sermons”
…and most of all from Matthew…so generous with his time and his wisdom. All those supervisions, invariably starting with the ritual of coffee making…a pause to share family news, ask about each other, and teach me to appreciate good coffee.
Formation has come through the cycle of prayer, scripture and worship. Through spending enough time with Jesus to become a little more like him.
‘Formation’, I’ve realised, is mysterious because it’s not something I do, it’s something God does. I had to learn the basics of weddings and funerals…but then I needed to allow the Holy Spirit to guard and guide my words and actions.
Like making decent coffee, this means putting time aside for preparation…of myself…time to let God in. Like making decent coffee – the extra time taken results in something better.
And I’ve come to realise that this priestly ‘formation’ is just a peculiar example of the Christian pilgrim journey. That it’s something for you as well as me.
Of course, you’ve already been on your own ‘coffee journey’ over to the Brown Cow and back…from instant to tasty – and ethical – ground coffee. And you’re all on a journey with Christ.
I think becoming a Christian is a life’s work. But each time we come here to worship there’s the chance of God working in us. We hear the scriptures, often familiar, often challenging…and week by week we’re confronted with the radical love of Jesus.
We need the repetition because it’s counter intuitive to our selfish natures. But if we let it, that constant drip of a different narrative will change us…the good Samaritan…the prodigal son…the unforgiving servant…today the warning against self-importance…and the challenge to do good without any thought of reward.
You’re lucky here – you get some of the best preaching I’ve heard…but if it doesn’t speak to you, ponder on the readings yourself during the week…think about what they mean for your everyday life. Make space for a bit of formation.
Another thing I’ve realised about formation is the importance of other people. Which is why Faithbook, Pilgrim, Lent courses are a vital part of parish life. They give the opportunity to explore our faith together…to put our ideas next to others and see how they are both enlarged. I treasure the insights I’ve received from people who have come to Faithbook or shared the Pilgrim journey.
And I think those people would agree that giving time to our faith, like giving time to coffee preparation, results in a deeper more satisfying experience. It contributes to our formation as God’s people.
If I can stretch my coffee analogy a bit further without it collapsing completely…the thing about coffee beans is that every bagful is different. Curates are given a training incumbent to…well, train them. I’ve been learning from the best…but it’s never been about trying to become another Matthew. Curacy has been about finding my voice…becoming the best priest I can be.
So there’s chocolate with cranberry sweetness…or chocolatey depth with apple, walnut and fig complexity…I’ll leave you to decide who is which…but the point is: training might be about producing competent priests…but formation has involved giving time for God to uncover and mould the particular priest he wants me to be.
So I leave St Mary’s no longer able to drink instant coffee. I suspect I’ll never reach the dizzy heights of Matthew’s coffee making – which now requires a stopwatch – but my morning coffee involves a cafetiere, and a pause – time for quiet, or a chat.
I leave St Mary’s having been formed into a priest ready to go to a new parish. My formation will continue there…as long as I keep engaging with the scriptures and spending time in prayer…as long as I am open to the actions of the Holy Spirit through those around me, through silence.
And I pray that you too will continue to be formed as the people of God in this place…through the weekly readings and sermons…by giving Faithbook or Pilgrim a go…by joining Matthew at morning or evening prayer…by sitting down together with a good cup of coffee.