Readers from as far away as Castlerock and Ballyshannon, and many parishes in between, converged on Raphoe this evening for a Service of Holy Communion for current and serving Readers, many of whom had led services this morning.
The Service was led by the Dean of Raphoe, Very Rev Liz Fitzgerald, and organised to acknowledge and celebrate the Readers’ contribution to ministry in the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe.
The Dean was joined by Bishop Andrew Forster (who preached the Sermon); the Diocesan Warden of Readers, Rev Canon Derek Quinn; Rev Canon Robert Clarke (who is responsible for training Parish Readers); the Archdeacon of Derry, Ven. Robert Miller; and the Rural Dean for Raphoe, Rev Canon David Crooks. Many clergy from both dioceses were in the congregation.
Bishop Andrew began his sermon by acknowledging the many gifts Readers share in churches here, week in and week out. “I want to say thank you to all of you for your commitment, for your love, for your energy, for your spiritual depth, for the life that you’re bringing to parishes across the length and breadth of this Diocese because of your ministry as Parish Readers and Lay Readers. I want to say thank you. And in saying thank you, I hope you realise both the importance and the significance of what you do – the importance of what you do in leading the people of God in worship, and the significance of what that means not just for the people in the pew but in the wider community. I want to say thank you tonight for all that you do and all that you continue to do. And as you use your gifts – just as our Gospel reading explained – as you use those gifts, it seems to me that God increases those gifts, uses them all the more, allows us to reach out in even greater ways in ministry for him. So, thank you.
“I honestly believe,” the preacher continued, “[that] it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and it’s the most wonderful privilege in the world to serve him. Now, we can serve him with many different functions in many different places, but tonight I want to give thanks to God for all of you, for how you serve him in the context of liturgical ministry, leading, reading, praying and preaching. Thank you.”
Bishop Andrew told the congregation that what they were called to be were people “who shared the story”. It was like a modern-day page turner, he said. It was exciting, It was interesting. We wanted to see what happens. “For you and me – for all of us in ministry – I think God calls us to be people who ‘turn the page’, who keep the story going, who share the story in the world around us, because we know it’s a life-giving story; we know it’s transformative; we know it’s a story that is exciting and wonderful, and a story that the world needs. And in your ministry, as a Parish Reader, or as a Lay Reader, or for those of us who are ordained, never simply think of it as just about making sure a service happens. What you’re doing is making sure the story is shared, the story is told – the story that brings life and love and hope and peace and mercy into a needy world – we keep the story going.”
The Bishop drew the congregation’s attention to a verse in the New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians 14: ‘If you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in the gifts that build up the church.’ “Now, all of us are in leadership in the church, and our great call is to build up the church – the church of which Jesus says I will build my church and the gates of hell will not stand against it. But yet there is much that seems to pull down the building of the church nowadays. We’re smaller. We’re smaller in numbers – we know that – that’s why we need you so much. And sometimes when we’re smaller, we feel it’s just about holding on. We’ve a secular culture around us that in many ways wants to demean faith or, if not demean faith, ignore it completely. We live in a world that is suspicious of authority – sometimes for the right reasons – but has become suspicious of the authority of Scripture, for instance. Scripture says when the foundations shake, what will the righteous do? Well, try to excel in the gifts that build up the church.”
Bishop Andrew focused on three themes in his sermon: place, privilege and power. Place matters, he said. Columba saw the importance of place, building monasteries right across our Diocese – places that became mission stations sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ within those communities. “Place matters. The places that you serve matter. They’re important to God. They’re important to you. I really want us to recapture that Columban vision, to allow Columba’s spiritual DNA that is within us as a Diocese to come to the fore, that we would see all our parish churches as mission stations, places bringing light and hope and love into the community. That’s what you do.”
Often, the Bishop said, when he thanked Readers for leading a service, they responded by saying it was a privilege. “And it is a privilege, isn’t it?” he said. “It is a privilege to lead the people of God, to pray with the people of God, to open God’s Word with the family of God.” Bishop Andrew said he would hazard a “fairly accurate guess” that the reason why the Diocesan and Parish Readers present were involved in “this great privilege of leading God’s people in prayer and in praise” was because they had been touched, blessed and overwhelmed by love – by the love of God, and by how his love had accepted them and won them over, had forgiven them and helped them and been gracious to them. “What a privilege it is to experience that love and then what a privilege it is to share that love in these places that matter, in these places that count, in these mission stations right across our Diocese.”
How do they do it, the Bishop asked? “We do it in the power of the Spirit…I want to tell you, whether you think it or not, you are gifted by the Holy Spirit of God. You might feel I don’t deserve those gifts or I didn’t ask for that gift – maybe, in fact, I didn’t even want that gift – but you are gifted by God. Ask God for his gifts so that you will build up the church…Gifts given by God – that’s what will make the difference, even in a culture that seems to turn its back on the Church. We will be found to be faithful because the place matters, because we understand the privilege, and because God empowers us through his Spirit to serve him.”
Bishop Andrew had further words of gratitude, this time for Canon Derek Quinn and Canon Robert Clarke for all that they continued to do to see lay ministry grow and expand in our Diocese. And he thanked Dean Fitzgerald for organising Sunday evening’s service.
Music for the service was provided by the Cathedral Organist, Renee Goudie, and by the men and women of the Cathedral Choir. And afterwards the congregation enjoyed fellowship and light refreshments at the back of the church.