A late summer deluge – with rolling thunder – failed to dampen the mood in Christ Church, Limavady on the evening of Sunday 10th September, 2023 where Rev Andrew Neill was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster.

Rev Neill will serve his curacy in the Parish of Drumachose under the guidance of its Rector, Rev Canon Aonghus Mayes. The new curate’s wife, Claire, and their two children were in church for the service, along with his parents and siblings, members of his extended family, parishioners from Agherton (Portstewart) where he had served his Deacon Internship, and churchgoers from Christ Church.

Clergy, readers and choir members made their way into church against a dramatic soundscape, with heavy rain spattering onto the path, the church bell tolling in the tower looming over them and thunder rumbling from the low grey sky.

Bishop Andrew suggested that this evening’s offering – which was being taken up for the Diocesan Ministry Fund – should perhaps be diverted instead to the RNLI, given the difficulties the congregation had overcome to actually reach the service.

The Bishop thanked the Rector and the parish for organising the Service of Ordination. “Any ordination is special,” Bishop Andrew said, “and why is it special? Because it’s another step in the life of ministry for an individual – Andrew; it’s another step in the life of the parish that he will serve, here, in Drumachose, in Christ Church; and it’s another step in the life of the diocese and in the Church of God itself, as we ordain together. So, what we do tonight, it actually is an historic moment, and we worship and praise and give thanks to God that we can do this.

“And I know that for you, Andrew, this is a step in a long journey that has brought you here, and we’re delighted to welcome you back into the Derry and Raphoe family, as well, and also to acknowledge the amazing ministry that Claire [the new Curate’s wife who is the Diocesan Youth Officer] has in the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, as well. I’m completely biased, of course, but it’s great to welcome you back to the best diocese in the Church of Ireland.”

This evening’s sermon was preached by the Rev Malcolm Ferry, the Rector of the Parish of Agherton and a former Canon of St Columb’s Cathedral. Rev Ferry joked that in Agherton, that morning, they had built a small ark so that they could get to the Ordination Service.

Rev Ferry said the central act of ordination was the belief that the Holy Spirit empowered – gave to Andrew – those necessary gifts and talents, so that he might fulfil his ministry as priest. So, the Preacher said, by the Holy Spirit, Andrew would be enabled to preach, teach, counsel, administer sacraments in ways that benefitted the spiritual growth and wellbeing of the Drumachose congregation and the congregations where he would serve in future.

“Andrew will now be seen as participating in the ministry of Christ in a very unique way,” Rev Ferry said. “To represent Christ here on earth, called to imitate Christ’s compassion, his humility, his self-sacrifice. Andrew’s called to care for the spiritual needs of his people – the people here in this parish – and along with this, Andrew is tasked to intercede on behalf of the congregation when he leads prayer. He is the bridge between the parish and God as he serves as priest.”

There was no doubt, the Preacher said, that ordination carried with it a deep sense of calling. There was an expectation that Rev Neill would live out a dedicated service to God.

“Having, if you like, laid out the formal definitions about ordination to the priesthood, I want to offer you now some personal thoughts – personal thoughts as you, my good friend, will soon become my priestly colleague.

“I offer you these words: firstly, ‘personal’; secondly, ‘insightful’; and lastly ‘expectation’. There’s an expectation tonight of everyone present and, indeed, of Andrew himself, so, let’s look just for a moment at the personal nature of ordination. It’s a privilege and it’s a challenge. It’s a joy, it’s a sorrow. It’s very public and yet very private. It’s professional and yet informal. It’s pastoral – it will take over your whole life – and yet you remain the ordinary person you are.

“Ordination will be, for Andrew, a very powerful gear change in his life. Andrew, I know, has worried about it, prayed about it, wondered about it, deliberated about it, but one thing Andrew didn’t do was say “Och, sure, I’ll give it a go and sure if it doesn’t work out there’s a plan B.’ 

“That’s where ordination to the priesthood is different from any other job opportunity – it has the longest interview process known to Man! – it’s different. It’s not, from tonight on, life/work balance; it’s life/priest balance.

“I did suggest to you the word ‘insightful’, defined as ‘having or showing a very accurate and deep understanding’ of something. To go forward with your ordination, Andrew, without you being insightful, would be madness.

“Andrew you will have worked hard to learn as much as you can about what it means to be a priest, serving the people of God. You’ve had placements; you’ve seen from them and gleaned as much as you could from the role of priest. 

“But there’s little point in going ahead if, Andrew, you didn’t sit down and count the cost. The job is unique. It’s like none other. I’m still learning and I’m sure all the priests that are with us this evening would say that they’re still learning, too, because we have to keep learning because we’ll get swallowed up in the changing world where, it seems, rejection of Christ is getting stronger and stronger. 

“The job is fixed in some ways – we proclaim the truth of Christ crucified – but we proclaim it in a world that’s very different year on year, and the difference is happening at a break-neck speed.

“Finally, Andrew, there is that word ‘expectation’. Now, that word cuts both ways for the people here and for you. You will have an expectation of how the people here should see you and respect you as the priest, just as the people of this parish and indeed the people for the rest of your ministry [will] have an expectation of you.

“Now, I want to describe expectation in this way: the mould is already cast. The mould is cast long before this evening, long before my or any other ordination. The mould – whether we like it, whether we think it’s correct or not – the mould is cast. The mould is cast here in Limavady. The good people here will expect, as will the Rector, certain things of you. But you already know. You’ve been insightful. You’ve sat down to count the cost.

“The mould that is set is the mould of the priest. Not the leader. Not the preacher. Not the strategist. Not the popular entertainer, but the mould that is set is that of Priest.”

Rev Ferry said the ordained ministry was a blessing and a huge responsibility. “Through the laying-on of hands by the bishop and your fellow priests, we will enable you to fulfil your calling. We, your fellow priests, your bishop, we are here to help and assist you as we proclaim Christ risen, encouraging Christians to live more Christian lives, encouraging those who have fallen away to join the journey again, walking and sharing in people’s joys and in their sorrows. It’s private for you, Andrew, just as it was for those first disciples on that first day of the week when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders and Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be to you.’

“The doors aren’t exactly locked here, this evening, but I do hope they’re open. They’re not locked here, nor are we afraid in this town to proclaim Christ crucified. But this service is more than just the welcoming of a new curate. We want Jesus to be here with us and stand among us and say, ‘Peace be with you.’ [That’s] the very thing – that’s what we want to happen this evening – that as you enter this new role of priest, you’ll find peace.”

Rev Ferry, who guided Rev Neill through his Deacon Internship, told the Rector that his new curate would become his trusted and supportive friend.

“Andrew, as you begin this new ministry, with Claire and the girls by your side, we all wish to encourage you and hold you in prayer. Those who know you well know that you want to seek God’s guidance and his help. We know, too, that your heart has a passion for the work of a priest, and a personal commitment this evening.” 

This Service of Ordination was led by Bishop Andrew Forster, who was assisted by the Archdeacon of Derry, Ven Robert Miller, the Archdeacon of Raphoe, Ven David Huss, and Canon Mayes. Music was provided by the Choir of Christ Church Limavady, accompanied by organist Louis Fields.

After the service, the congregation hurried across the churchyard to the parish hall where they enjoyed refreshments. Bishop Andrew thanked the parish team for their hospitality, and the Rector for organising the Service of Ordination. The Bishop told the gathering that the relationship between a new curate and their rector was a special bond. “I was a curate in the early 90s and I still look back to what I learned as a curate. Do you remember a number of years ago a lot of young Christians used to wear a little bracelet and it said ‘WWJD’ – ‘What would Jesus do?’ Well, as a rector, I used to think not ‘WWJD’ but ‘What would Norman do?’ He was my rector.” 

Bishop Andrew told Rev Neill that he had come to Drumachose with much to offer the parish, but with a spirit to learn, also.

The Bishop also thanked the preacher, Rev Ferry, for a sermon which had great meaning not only for the newly-ordained curate but for every member of the clergy present.