We have come here this afternoon to do a number of things together. Firstly, and what is most important to Father Julian, we have come here with him, in his last act of public worship in the Diocese, to worship the God who created us, and loves us and preserves us.
We are here too, not only to worship with Father Julian, but also to assure him of our love and our prayers as this period of his priestly ministry amongst us comes to a conclusion, and as another chapter in his ministry commences. We are here as well to celebrate with him his fiftieth birthday and to give him a jolly good farewell party. I am conscious that whilst we are here to do all three of those things together, we will variously have come here giving a different priority to each of them.
Our service this afternoon combines both a focus on the Word in Evensong, which we have just participated in together, and on the Sacrament in Adoration and Benediction, which will follow in a few minutes time. Whilst many of us will be familiar with Evensong, some of us may not have experienced adoration of, and benediction from the Blessed Sacrament before.
We do not know exactly when the tradition of reserving the Blessed Sacrament for the purposes of adoration began within the life of the Church. Certainly there are clear references indicating that St Basil (who died in the Fourth Century) divided the Eucharistic Bread in to three parts when he presided at the Eucharist: one part to be consumed by him, one part to be distributed amongst those who were gathered with him, and one part to be placed in a golden dove which was hung above the altar.
Being publicly blessed by the Eucharistic Bread in a form recognisably similar to what we will do today was taking place in the Thirteenth Century connected with the Feast of Corpus Christi, where the Sacrament was carried in procession through the streets held in a monstrance (similar to the monstrance that Father Julian will hold with the sacrament inside it this afternoon), in order for the faithful to view and adore it.
In the same century, in France, King Louis VII decreed that the Blessed Sacrament should be on public display for continual adoration to give thanks for the victory of his armies over the Albergensians, and that practice of continual adoration continued in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Avignon from that time until it was interrupted by the French Revolution. Increasingly a tradition arose in other places for the Sacrament to be continually exposed (on display) in churches for public adoration.
In our own Anglican tradition in more recent times the Sisters of the Precious Blood in England, as one example among many, have taken it in turns to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in a continual ongoing cycle for over one hundred years.
Whilst the practice of the exposing of the Sacrament for adoration and prayer was developing in the Thirteenth Century, a second practice of lay people gathering after the working day was ended for the chanting of prayers was also becoming popular. And over the next few centuries these two actions were merged into one. The faithful would gather, usually in the evening, for chanted prayers. The Blessed Sacrament would be exposed, more prayers would be chanted or recited, and the service would end with the people being blessed by God through the exposed Sacrament. So what we will do today can be traced directly to that developing practice of prayer and adoration down through the centuries. It is not a novelty or a historical curiosity but a common form of worship in both Anglican Catholic and Roman Catholic churches around the world today.
Of course, Anglicans here in the Diocese of Newcastle, and around our Communion, hold a variety of different understandings of what the Sacrament of the Eucharist is all about. For some of us there will be a belief that there is nothing special or different about the bread and the wine on the altar except that they become a symbol for us, a sign, a reminder for us of all of what God’s love in Jesus has done: they serve as a memorial for us, as we remember the life of Christ. For others of us there will be a belief that the gifts on the altar remain bread and wine but that God is present, surrounding them in a most holy and special way which is different from how God is present everywhere else in the world. For others of us there will be a belief that the bread and wine are in a very real way transformed into the body and blood of Christ. When we celebrate the Mass together what appears to be bread is actually Christ’s body, and what appears to be wine will become his life blood.
Within our Anglican tradition, and indeed within this Diocese, all of those different beliefs have been embraced and rejected by different groups, in different places at different times. But what we as Anglicans generally believe is that, however exactly it happens, through these holy things the real presence of Christ is here, tangibly and purposefully and especially with us.
Father Julian and I first met over fifteen years ago, and we have been best friends ever since. I must admit that throughout that time I have had to get used to the fact that there are certain things embodied in him that leave me feeling rather inadequate when I look at myself. Any of you who have enjoyed hospitality at his dining table will know the passion that he has for culinary excellence and good company. On Friday evening when he came for dinner at my home, I was only able to offer him (in the absence of my wife) re-heated pizza and a fairly bland salad. Not so at gatherings in the Assistant’s Priests house at Cessnock or Tuncurry before it.
Similarly, when I hear of his acting exploits in parish reviews and performances, and remember back to some of his earlier performances in Oxford – from nuns, to fairies, to dwarfs to goodness knows what else – I marvel at his ability to entertain. And his passion and gifts in music, at the organ or piano, and in the choirs that he has trained and led and sung in, make me most grateful that there are priests like Father Julian in the Church who can sing and play so well, given that there are many of us who cannot.
Whenever I am caught up in the experience of really good live music I am aware of the quantum leap between listening to a CD or being part of a live event. It does not matter how good a music player is at home, whether it has enhanced speakers or surround sound facilities, no CD will parallel the experience of a live performance – whether it is sacred choral music, or pop, or country or jazz. When we are having the experience of being in the same place as performers who are making live music, or entertainers on the stage we know the contrast between something that is live and present, and the inadequacy of listening to a recording.
Presence is important. We know, don’t we when we think we are being present to other people. And if we just think about the Church communities that we come from, we know those people who will be present to us in conversation when we gather with them, and those who will not. So when we talk about presence, we know what it means: and it means the same thing when we talk about Christ’s presence, real presence with us in the transformed bread and wine of the Eucharist. Really present with us, like live music and performance and open conversation; not nearly present like a recording, or an encounter with someone that just goes through the motions.
Our second lesson this evening was read from Saint Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. The portion that we heard comes from right at the start of a long and complex communication that he had with the Christian community who lived in that city. Saint Paul is longing to come and spend time with them, but because he isn’t able to at that time he begins his letter by assuring them of the prayers that he has for them. In our imaginations, when we think of that early Church in Rome, we may well have in our minds a vast edifice filled with Christians like you and me. In reality, at the time that Saint Paul was writing there were probably no more than one hundred people, meeting in homes, in a city with more than a million inhabitants. Father Julian, with his friend Father John Corbett visited Rome some years ago, and celebrated Mass amongst the catacombs where the first hearers of that letter were almost certainly buried.
The prayers which St Paul offered for those first Christians in Rome, in the early days of the Church have joined the continual and unending movement of unceasing prayer in the name of Jesus of which we are a part today. Our worship and prayers this afternoon are joined not only with the first readers of St Paul’s letter, but with the martyrs and saints and faithful people who have prayed throughout the centuries. We must never become fooled into the idea that the life of the Church is encompassed only in the congregation that we see around us. Today, our prayers are not only joined with all those who have come before us, and indeed those who will come after us, but are united as well with Christians around the world who are praying at this moment in time.
Father Julian is returning to England to be closer to, and to be more immediately available to care for his mother. But even though he will not be physically here with us, he will remain entwined with us through his prayers in England and ours here, which form part of the one unending prayer of the Church. Just as he has brought insights of the English Church to us here, we hope that he will take something of the distinctive customs and understandings of the Australian Church back with him, to nurture him and support him in his ministry. What – by faith – we can be most sure of, is that the same loving real presence of Christ that we experience here, will remain with him there.
I speak for many of us when I say that we are going to miss Father Julian greatly. He has become a good friend to lots of people across the areas that make up this Diocese over the last few years. Particularly in the Parishes of Forster-Tuncurry and Cessnock-Wollombi, and on the Diocesan Mission’s Committee and in the work of the Newcastle School of Theology for Ministry, Father Julian has left his own unique mark for us.
He has prayed for us, cared for us and given us the sacraments. We have been enlivened by his humour, and his love for us, not to mention his wide array of vestments and liturgical attire. We are grateful to him for baptising our children, educating our young people for Confirmation, and preparing our couples for marriage. We are indebted to him for caring for the dying, burying our dead and sharing with us in our grief.
Father Julian very deliberately chose this service of Evensong and Benediction as his final act of public worship here in Australia in order to ensure that our focus was on Jesus and not on him. I apologise to him for diverting our gaze for just a few moments. This afternoon we join with Father Julian in prayer and worship, and in adoring Christ in the Sacrament of the altar, the Lord Jesus Christ whom Father Julian has unashamedly presented to us in his priestly ministry and life amongst us.
We thank God for Father Julian; and we thank you Julian for being who you uniquely are amongst us. Blessed and praised be Jesus Christ, in the most Holy Sacrament of the altar.