Bishop assures new Deacon that God will equip her for the trials of ministry

Drumragh (Omagh) parishioner and diocesan reader, Rev Claire Henderson, has been ordained Deacon at a Service in St Eunan’s Cathedral in Raphoe – becoming the first newly-ordained deacon in the diocese in three years. Rev Henderson will serve her Internship in the Raphoe Group of Parishes, which includes Raymochy and Clonleigh.

Sunday’s service – which took place under stringent Covid-19 restrictions – was the first ordination conducted by Rt Rev Andrew Forster since his consecration as Bishop of Derry and Raphoe last December. The reduced congregation had to wear face coverings and observe strict hand sanitisation procedures, and social distancing was adhered to rigidly in church.

Welcoming the congregation, Bishop Andrew said, “Usually, in an Ordination Service, the cathedral would be packed. There’d be lots of people here, there would be a real sense of occasion, a great crowd, and so on. But God isn’t impressed by crowds and the sense of occasion. God’s impressed by the heart and what goes on in the heart, and the Lord is here, and His spirit is with us.”

Among the select few present to witness what the Bishop called “a day filled with joy and filled with that sense of God’s presence” were Rev Henderson’s parents, George and Jean, the Curate at Drumragh, Rev Sean Hanily, and the former Rector of Drumragh with Mountfield, Rev Ian Linton. Bishop Andrew was assisted by the Dean of Raphoe, Very Rev Arthur Barrett; the Archdeacon of Raphoe, Ven. David Huss; the Archdeacon of Derry, Ven. Robert Miller; and the Diocesan Registrar, Rev Canon David Crooks.

In his sermon, Bishop Andrew said they were marking a very significant landmark in the story of Rev Henderson’s life and were thankful for so much that had led her to this moment. “We all know that there have been many difficult moments in that journey,” the Bishop said, “and through all of that, your faith has shone brightly as you responded to God’s call in your life.” The story of our lives helps us to mould the priorities and the pattern of our ministry – whether lay or ordained – the Bishop said. Turning to the candidate, he said: “Those things that have changed us, broken us, moulded us, shaped us, help set the pattern for our own service to God. So you bring so much from your story into the story of the lives of those whom you will serve. And today we’re thankful for all that your story brings.”

Referring to the Gospel reading (Isaiah 6:1-8), Bishop Andrew said it was interesting that Isaiah’s call [to ministry] came in Chapter 6. “I think Isaiah wants to tell us some of his story, some of the context of the man he was whenever God called him and commissioned him. Chapters one to five of Isaiah, if you like, set the scene – the context – for his ministry, and to say that it was challenging may be a bit of an understatement. Isaiah paints a word picture, in those first five chapters, of a country in a mess, of an uncertain future, and of a people loosening their grip on the foundational faith of their forefathers. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It sounds familiar to the world in which we live and the world in which we are called to serve God and His people.

“And he talks about a country that is absolutely desolate. Listen to these desolate words, something of a damning diagnosis by Isaiah of his own country, in Chapter 5, verse 30. ‘And if one looks to the land, only darkness and distress, and the light grows dark with clouds.’ Only darkness and distress, and the light grows dark with clouds. Everything seemed to be going wrong: uncertainty, pain and apostasy. You know, the context that we live in is a very difficult one. Uncertainty? Certainly. Pain? Yes. And we are called in this context to show and live out the good news of Jesus. We bring our story – the story of God in our lives – into the story of those whom we serve.

“All was pretty bleak for Isaiah before he was called. All was bleak in the country; all was bleak in the city. And then we have this famous scriptural line, Isaiah, Chapter 6, verse 1: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord’.

“Now, the year was somewhere around 740 BC; Uzziah had become king when he was 16, and he’d reigned for many decades, and most of the time it had been really good – he’d been a good king, a successful king. But then pride got the better of Uzziah and he makes a terrible mistake, [and] the judgement of God falls upon him. He ends up in the last ten years of his life living as a leper. His son, Jotham, becomes the regent during this time

“For Isaiah, the King – Uzziah – was symbolic of the nation and its plight and its problems. All seemed bleak as Isaiah begins his ministry. But, as one writer puts it, ‘When the outlook is bleak, try the up-look.’ When the outlook is bleak, try the uplook. ‘I saw the Lord,’ says Isaiah, and He was high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.

“It’s almost as if God was saying to Isaiah, ‘Yes, the king may not be on his throne, but I am. I am, Isaiah. I am on the throne.’ And where was God in all this mess that Isaiah saw? He was on the throne. And whenever we read the Old Testament, Job sees God on His throne, David sees God on His throne, Jeremiah sees God on His throne, Ezekiel sees God on His throne, Daniel sees God on His throne, and the apostle John in a revelation sees God on His throne. And in the midst of our uncertain world, faced with insecurity and fear – in the midst of our own insecurities and fears – whatever God is calling us to, we’re to be reminded that He is on his throne. And He is high and exalted. For Isaiah, all looked bleak, but then he saw the Lord. When the outlook is bleak, try the up-look.”

Bishop Andrew told the congregation that he and they needed to have a new encounter with God; they needed to widen their vision of who God is. “This isn’t some small God who we can manage and boss about, and tell Him what to do. This is the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty’ – the whole earth is full of his glory.” In Chapter 5, the Bishop said, Isaiah was finished, lost, undone. He has this new and deep conviction of his own sin before this great God and king, and [of] his total unworthiness. But what happens whenever we recognise total unworthiness? Grace comes.”

“Claire, you will feel inadequate, you will feel unworthy, you will feel ‘How on earth can we represent the one who is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty’ – the whole earth is full of his glory – and yet, grace comes. Every time we realise our unworthiness, grace comes, again and again and again. And grace came for Isaiah’s people and grace came for Isaiah and grace will come for you.

“Out of the abundance of the heart the lips speak, says Jesus, and whenever we realise our unworthiness, grace comes into our heart, and out of the abundance of our heart grace can speak.

“In our realisation of our unworthiness, grace comes; in our weakness, grace comes; in our inadequacy, grace comes; when we feel we’re at the end of our tether, grace comes. Why? Because it’s the nature of God. That’s what God does. That’s who he is. That’s what he did in the life of Isaiah and his people, and it’s what he’ll do in your life as well. And because God is enthroned in glory, he has not given up on his people; he has not given up on you and me. Claire, when you feel weak and inadequate and unworthy, grace comes. 2 Corinthians 12, verse 9: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

Bishop Andrew said any deacon, priest or bishop realises their own sense of inadequacy and their own sense of unworthiness before our holy God, but the holiness of God uses us. “Charles Simeon was a great preacher in Victorian days. He said the three key words of ministry were humility, humility and humility. And this new encounter with God leads Isaiah to new service.

“Today, Claire, you’re being like Isaiah: you’re saying, ‘Lord, here am I. Send me.’ You’ve heard the call of God. You’ve responded to that call. You’ve allowed your heart and your mind to be transformed by the holiness and the grace of God, and now He says, ‘Who will go for me?’ And you say, ‘Here am I. Send me.’ And God, in His grace and in His mercy, will continue to equip you and bless you to go – to go for Him, to go for Him here in this group of parishes, to go for Him wherever He sends you to. God requires faithfulness and He will look after the outcome.

“For Isaiah there were tough times. And, in your ministry, you’ll know joy and trial, privilege and pain, fulfilment as well as frustrations, but the one who is enthroned in splendour will still be on the throne. It’s His church and His work, and He will equip you and journey with you, and grace will abound.”

After the ordination, the Covid-19 restrictions meant a change to the usual routine following significant occasions at St Eunan’s Cathedral. The prohibition on the serving of refreshments meant there was no reception in the nearby church hall. Instead, members of the congregation posed for physically distanced photographs with the new Deacon before heading their separate ways.