Gravis: the Order of Priests


Fear the Lord

On this day 47 years ago (November 30, Advent Sunday, 1975) I was kneeling before Geoffrey Sambell, the Archbishop of Perth, in his Cathedral waiting, with some trepidation, for him to lay hands on my head. He was about to say the prayer,

‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God…’

The trepidation was because I had only been discharged from hospital four days earlier. In a game of tennis, I had twisted my newly repaired spine, and was still in some pain. I knew that the Archbishop needed only impose his hands lightly on my hair, but the custom was that all the other priests would then lay their hands on the Archbishop’s hands: somewhat medieval as a custom, but freighted with meaning.

The Archbishop assured me beforehand that he would lay his hands on my head, start the prayer, then lift his hands and take the weight of the other hands on his. I hoped it would work!

I was conscious that behind me in the first pew of the Cathedral were my parents, Aunty Jean and Nan. Nan, frail and determined, had asked her doctor bluntly, ‘If I go to Perth for my grandson’s ordination, will it kill me?’

The doctor knew Nan. ‘If you go to Perth,’ he replied, ‘it might kill you. But if you don’t go, it most certainly will kill you.’ So, Nan had made the 4-hour car journey from Tambellup to Perth. She was staying with her sister, Aunty Jean. The two sisters were unlike in every way. I loved them both dearly, but, put them together in the same house and sparks could fizz.

Nan had been the first to suggest, when I was about 10 years old, that I should be a priest. She instructed me in the basics of Christian faith. She literally taught me the Catechism (‘What is your name? N. or M.’ was the first question, and it took me years to work out what ‘N. or M.’ meant.)

When I was a teenager in boarding school, Nan asked me about my experiences in chapel services. She encouraged me to be part of the College Chapel when I was at University. She knew I had spent all my savings when I was sent to a private hospital while I was at theological college in Melbourne, and she sent me, out of the blue, a cheque for $2,000 to pay for my trip home from Melbourne at the end of my studies.

So, like the imposition of hands, Nan’s presence behind me was heavy. Gravis, the Latin for ‘heavy’, also means ‘serious’. Nan reached back into the 19th Century and her formation as a Christian in St John’s Church in Northam. Nan had been a crucial part of my experience of the faith at St Mary’s in Tambellup.

Nan’s presence in the Cathedral was heavy. The weight of her expectations on me was not so much that I would be a successful priest, but that I would be faithful to the calling. Gravis.

I had dreamed several times before Ordination Day of the Second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday after the Ordination. I would be in Bruce Rock. In my dream, the congregation waited in the church. In the vestry, I robed in my alb, amice and girdle as I had hundreds of times. I put the purple stole around my neck instead of slant-wise as I had as a deacon. But for the first time, I lifted the purple chasuble over my head and laid it on my shoulders.  It was too heavy. I could not bear the weight. I took the vestment off and laid it back on the table. I woke in panic each time. Gravis.

Take the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God,’ the Archbishop intoned, ‘now committed unto thee by the imposition of my hands…’

I felt the Archbishop’s hands gently and firmly on my head. I felt him lift his hands as the priests leaned in. The Archbishop tried to hold them, but he couldn’t, and the combined weight of a dozen priests’ hands came pressing down on my hair, on my head, on my neck, on my spine. Gravissimus!

I barely heard, ‘And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and of His Holy Sacraments…’ I managed to stay upright in the kneeling position, but I was grateful for the two Archdeacons who helped me stagger to my feet.

My first Eucharist at St Peter’s in Bruce Rock was a good occasion. And I rejoice that, when my health permits, I still occasionally consecrate bread and wine with other Christians.

Nan did not die as a result of her trip to Perth: she lived to see me ‘dispense the Word of God and His Holy Sacraments,’ in St Mary’s Church in Tambellup. 

I shared that ordination with Chris Albany, Len Firth and Peter McArthur. Chris and Len are still friends 47 years later. I share the day with  Bryan Shattock, a fellow-retired priest in St Brendan’s parish, who was ordained 8 years later. I still value the collegiality of the priests who laid their hands on me on that day (and all the others who have come since) and welcomed me into the Order.

My marriage is more precious, but my ordination is still at the heart of who I am. It is still gravis.

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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