"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Monday, April 7, 2014

Christian Priesthood: an open ended essay ....

Historical context: In ancient Israel, priests acted as mediators between God and his people. They ministered according to God's instruction and they offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. Once a year, the high priest would enter the holiest part of the temple and offer a sacrifice for the sins of all the people, including all the priests. Christians believe that Jesus' priesthood is the fulfilment of that prefigured in the Old Testament. Confusion arises from the fact that the word “priest” is not used in the New Testament in relation to the ministry as we have come to understand it: Apostles, Bishops and Presbyters are never referred to as priests. Jesus alone is the priest and the whole church is the priesthood. The priest does not so much stand between God and each of us as acts as a midwife to that relationship. In Jesus we see God and humanity coinhere. In other words God's divinity and our humanity permeate each other like a divine-human exchange.

In the New Testament there are two words from which the idea of priesthood seems to derive: ἱερεύς (hiereus) meaning "sacred one” and πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros) meaning “elder" or “one who leads”. The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews draws a distinction between the Jewish priesthood and the high priesthood of Jesus, particularly as Jesus was of the House of Judah and not of the House of Levi; it teaches that the sacrificial atonement by Jesus has made the Jewish priesthood and its ritual sacrifices redundant. So, for Christians, Jesus himself is the only high priest, and Christians have no priesthood apart from participation in the priesthood of Jesus, the head of the Church.

This Epistle develops the idea of Jesus as supreme "high priest," who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7:23–28). Protestants believe that through Christ they have been given direct access to God, just like a priest; so, in opposition to the concept of a spiritual hierarchy within Christianity, the doctrine is called the priesthood of all believers. God is equally accessible to all disciples, and every Christian has authority to minister. It is in the First Epistle of Peter that the idea of church as priesthood is developed.

During the Reformation, while Luther did not use the exact phrase "priesthood of all believers," he talked of a general priesthood in the Christian world in his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in order to dismiss the medieval view that Christians in the present life were to be divided into two classes: "spiritual" and "secular".

That the pope or bishop ….. dresses differently from the laity ….. in no way makes a Christian or spiritual human being. In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:9 says, "You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom," and Revelation 5:10, "Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings."

However, this belief in the priesthood of all believers does not mean that there is no order, authority or discipline. For example, The Lutheran Church maintains the biblical doctrine of "the preaching office" or the "office of the holy ministry" established by God in the Christian Church. So, alongside the priesthood of all the baptized, the pattern of ministerial priesthood from the old Catholic church was maintained, a pattern which shares in a unique way in the priesthood of Christ, and which differs essentially from the common priesthood of the faithful. The Augsburg Confession states:

Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper public call (Article 14).

It is hard not to see this understanding influence in some of the other churches of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the Anglican Church which considers all baptized members of the Church able to take part in the ministry of the Body of Christ. Anglican Christians traditionally believe that 1 Peter 2.9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light  gives responsibility to all believers for the preservation and spread of the Gospel and the Church, as distinct from the liturgical and sacramental roles of the ordained priesthood and episcopate. Anglicans, like the Lutherans, recognise the apostolic succession of bishops, the means by which the historical link between the present day and the early church is maintained.

The Catholic Church maintains to this day that the understanding of priesthood arising from the Reformation has been debased because it has lost its unique sacral dimension. They seem to interpret the Protestant understanding as taking away the model of priest as “set apart” and different from the rest of men. The tendency of Protestantism, it is claimed, has been to ground the identity of the priest ecclesiologically rather than christologically with an emphasis on functionalism with the priest is seen as a representative of the Church rather than as a representative of Christ. The process of laity empowerment in the church has been understood largely as a conferring of different ministries on them, tasks which previously were often carried out by the clergy. The result is a blurring of the identity of the priest both in the eyes of the clergy themselves as well as among lay people. These practices “give rise to a "functionalistic" conception of the ministry, which sees the ministry of "pastor" as a function and not as an ontological sacramental reality”. (Pope Benedict speaking as a Cardinal in 1998). This seems to bring us back to the start of this section and the issue of whether ἱερεύς  (sacred one) and πρεσβύτερος (elder or leader) are compatible or mutually exclusive.

The priesthood as I understand it:

In his book, Now is the Acceptable Time, Stephen Bayne writes talks about the tendency of individuals to talk about "their" ministries and points out, There is but one ministry, Christ's ministry. He is the only minister there is in the church. This idea is further developed by Kenneth Kirk, in his book, The Vision of God he writes, ... Jesus, though he spoke little about "seeing God" brought God more vividly before the spiritual eyes of his contemporaries than any other has ever done. He gave a vision of God where others could only speak of it. 

Priesthood is a defined role: we act within given parameters so it is not a licence to do our own thing but there is no exact template and if there was no one would fit it. One thing that does need flagging up, though, is that the call is Christ's but it is not a call to every role and aspect of priesthood but a clear inner calling to some of it. How one writes about priesthood is obviously influenced by personal perception and experience. Throughout my adult life I have had the good fortune to know priests who reflected in different ways the attractive image of Christ the Good Shepherd as they witnessed to the radicalism of the Gospel.

Priests are Christians before they are priests so whatever is special about Christians, or about the whole body of Christians, the church, will apply to priests too. We need to be clear from the start that the priest is not called in the first place to do something, but rather to be something: a person who reflects the person of Jesus and grows into his likeness in a distinctive way that builds up the body of the church. Writing in the introduction to Bonhoeffer’s No Rusty Swords, E. H. Robertson explains Bonhoeffer’s idea of a renewal of the mind from within which could only be accomplished as the mind of Christ was formed in the Christian. He [Bonhoeffer] took this beyond the “Be like Jesus” mantra and recognised that this renewal was a process and not a formula. This is not to be seen so much as a religious process, nor one that leads to the “religious person”, but as leading to “the person”.

One of the key things that my time with the Lutherans taught me was that the efficacy of the sacraments derives from their being God’s sacraments and therefore the worthiness (or otherwise) of the priest is an irrelevance. This is fully consistent with the doctrine of Justification through Faith by Grace Alone and I find this immensely reassuring as I don’t think I could contemplate the priesthood without understanding this fundamental of the fact that it isn’t all about me. No one is ever worthy of the priesthood: the Disciples themselves were a very mixed bag, with their own weaknesses and doubts. I remember Simon Peter's words to Jesus as he sensed him calling him to service: “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5. 8). But Jesus called Peter all the same. What matters is not how I feel, but that Christ is calling me. It is not for me to ask, Why me?' (Although I do, constantly). God does the choosing. I am not chosen because I am better than others, or more worthy than them. Like God's people in the Old Testament, I am special because I have been chosen, not chosen because I am special. The priest is no less in need of salvation, forgiveness and healing than any other disciple. It is the Holy Spirit who unites the priest to Jesus Christ in a special way at his ordination, and the priest is totally dependent throughout his ministry on the continual indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The point is, as Michael Ramsey puts it in his book, The Christian Priest Today, Christ gives the gift of ordained priesthood and calls men [and women] to it. in the same way that he called the twelve and the wider group of followers.

A priest friend never tires of telling me that a priest is a man of God’s pardon, an instrument of forgiveness to others, but he is also a sinner, in need of forgiveness and renewal himself. Consequently, a priest needs to be a man of humility, realizing that in his weakness God calls him and that he responds, not on his own merits, but through the power of God working in him.

I would love to be able to say that humility is a strength of mine and I am sure that when he speaks in this way my friend is delivering a personal as much as a general comment. But I have experienced circumstances when I have felt drained of all my personal resources and strength and have felt “the dark night of my soul” and yet God has continued to use me and work through me.

I’m also not very good at renouncing myself. Yet every follower of Jesus is asked to “renounce himself and take up his cross” and follow the way of the Lord (Matthew 16. 24). There is a radical “leaving behind” involved in all discipleship (Matthew 8. 18-22; Luke 5. 11, 28). The Disciples themselves left everything to follow Jesus, and any call to ministry will always involve something of the same. I don’t know what that might mean in real terms and I often wonder what God could possibly ask of me in urban West Yorkshire that would represent that level of sacrifice but in my current mind-set I don’t see the priesthood as being about “giving up”, but rather about “taking on”.

Alter Christus and In Persona Christi:
During the actual service of ordination the Bishop reminds those to be ordained that they are called to “grow up into his (Jesus’) likeness and sanctify the lives of all with whom they have to do." I have always thought of the priest as being Jesus’ understudy in this world but an understudy who is also a representative of fallen humanity. Christlike? Me? If only! And yet we are called to be “alter Christus” - another Christ. In a very real way we, as priests, mediate between man and God and between God and man in the same way that the High Priests of the Old Testament did and in the same way that Hebrews asserts Jesus “our Great High Priest” did. In 2010, Pope Benedict told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that a priestly vocation is “not chosen by anyone for himself,” but a call to serve God in the Christian community. When he answers that call, the priest represents Jesus, who is never absent in the Church. A priest "never acts in the name of someone absent, but in the person of the Risen Christ.” Catholic teaching notwithstanding, that sounds like a universal model, what Ramsey calls the representative nature of ministry.

The priest is Christ’s ambassador, his authorized representative among his disciples. God entrusts him with his own continuing ministry. He puts his trust in the priest – the one he chooses, and makes him a steward, both of his people and of his presence. That is an awesome responsibility.

In their book, The Fire and The Clay: The Priest in Today’s Church, Peter Allan, George Guiver et al. note, The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10.45). This image is given a more concrete presentation by John in his description of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the eve of his passion. As applied to priesthood, the image suggests the quality of humble labour for other, in obedience to the Father, and to the point of sacrificing one’s own life. This must characterise the life of the priest. This is one of the realities of Christ’s life into which priests must seek to grow, and thus make it present for their people.

I remember when I was on my parish placement in Estonia, asking my supervisor about his views on the priesthood. It may have been a cultural or linguistic thing, but he talked almost exclusively in terms of “doing”  and it wasn’t until he began to talk in terms of “being” that much of what he had just said made more sense. It is what we are that matters. We do what we do because we are what we are: priests of Jesus Christ.

When I read the references in Hebrews to Jesus as High Priest it seems to me that the writer repeatedly stresses that Jesus was and is one with the people. It is as though he recognised that there would be for many readers a hesitation about this article of our faith, that Christ was "truly human." This quality, essential for any priest, is declared repeatedly, "in the days of his flesh" "Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears." At the point in his life which so vividly touches our own, qualifying him to be our priest, we have this time of fervent prayer. My challenge at this point lies in asking myself whether, in my humanity, I even begin to reflect this fervency of spirituality and, of course, I don’t much like the answer. I have to remind myself again that it is seeing Jesus as role model in my pilgrimage of faith which is what is required and any attempt at an analysis of levels of success is pointless.

Steven Croft in Ministry in Three Dimensions notes that intercession is the calling of every Christian. However, we need to assert that this aspect of prayer which is the giving of one’s self secretly on behalf of others is a vital discipline and tool in priestly ministry ….. it represents the foundation and core of any ministry which is concerned with seeing individual people reconciled to God, churches established and made strong and society transformed.

That said, I have to identify more with Barbara Brown Taylor who, in her writing, An Altar in the World, notes, I know a chapter on prayer belongs in this book, but I dread writing it. I have shelves full of prayer books and books on prayer. I have file draws full of notes from courses I have taught and taken on prayer. I have meditation benches I have used twice, prayer mantras I have intoned for as long as a week, notebooks with column after column of names of people in need of prayer (is writing them down enough?). I have a bowed psaltery - a Biblical stringed instrument mentioned in the book of Psalms - that dates from the year I thought I might be able to sing prayers easier than I could say them. I have invested a small fortune in icons, candles, monastic incense, coals and incense burners.

I am a failure at prayer. When people ask me about my prayer life ... my mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem. I start talking about other things I do that I hope will make me sound like a godly person. I ask the other person to tell me about her prayer life, hoping she will not notice that I have changed the subject. Perhaps this is what Ramsey means when he talks in a more upbeat assessment of “wasting time with God” and notes that such time is never actually wasted.

This leads into the idea of a priest needing to be a role model in his/her turn and the term often used is being of “good character”. I am slightly wary of this from my time with the Lutherans as I can see a variety of pitfalls looming, not the least being a sense of needing to be “good enough” and of living up to a model of discipleship that is defined by others and also because of its hints of a gospel of good works of which we should be cautious. I was once fortunate to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu and was able to tell him something of my story. Something he said to me has stuck with me since, “God has chosen you for who you are. He chose you for your uniqueness. Do not let others change you.”  There have been times when I have felt constrained by other people wanting to change me and expressing disappointment that I was unable to fit their template. But Archbishop Tutu is right. God has called me for who I am and for my uniqueness and I should be more confident about that and less apologetic about not being someone else. In that context, every time I remember that a Diocesan Bishop once told Archbishop Welby that there was no place for him in the Church of England, I both smile and feel encouraged.

There are obvious things that might designate someone as not being of good character: problems with drugs/alcohol, unhealthy and inappropriate sexual behaviours and attitudes; racism, sexism, homophobia etc; uncontrollable temper; lack of empathy; a sense of innate superiority; failings with confidentiality and lack of discretion, wearing sandals with socks and so on. Beyond that it becomes more difficult and, I would suggest, more subjective. If I am looking at the qualities of a priest, while I might reject the promiscuous, the drug addled, the gossip and so on, might I not also be in danger of rejecting people simply because they aren’t like me and the model of discipleship I have adopted and which largely reflects the model of discipleship of those I associate with? After all, how could someone possibly have a calling from God and espouse that theology or that churchmanship? Might I not be wary of them because their life experience has been very different to mine; because they have a view of the faith which is too challenging and too prophetic for my sensibilities; because the methods they use in communicating the Gospel owe much more to contemporary methods of communication and technological know-how than I am entirely at ease with; because they are so unlike my understanding of priesthood that they seem rather threatening?  In that context I remain intrigued by Archbishop Welby’s experience as someone who has also failed to fit other people’s templates of priesthood.

All the churches stress the importance of “good character” in their Ordinands. So what does that mean? What constitutes “good character” and what constitutes subjective projection? This seems to me to be particularly relevant as we struggle with the nature of Holiness, especially as we are, none of, us fully formed or re-formed in the nature of Christ. However we are expected to acquire the essential priestly qualities which we see reflected in Christ's life as found in the Gospels: the priest's human personality should be a bridge for others to encounter Jesus. Jesus had a perfect human nature, and in Mark we read that as a man he did everything well (Mk 7:37). Of course many of his qualities will be underdeveloped in us and so they have to be worked at if we are to acquire that attractive Christ-like profile. But I fear that if we strive to be something we are not, and that striving for perfection leaves us all too aware of our limitations, that way lays depression and guilt. It is here that the words of Desmond Tutu always return to comfort me. “God has chosen you for who you are. He has chosen you for your uniqueness. Do not let others change you.”

This, of course, needs to be balanced by St. Paul's words to the Christians in Rome, I appeal to you therefore brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect. This means our whole being, a transformation which is effected by God, by divine grace.

So, despite our human limitations the priest has a duty to try to develop Christ-like qualities but not at the cost of sublimating his God-given personality. There is a fine balance here between striving for a standard we know we cannot attain and giving up because of the impossibility of attaining it.  Certainly as a priest I need to mature my talents for communication and social interaction so that God’s message through me comes across as credible and compelling despite society’s competing messages, but above all we need to live lives that will be authentic to the extent that they reflect Christ. We are, after all, in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). That however, begs the question of what authenticity looks like and to whose definition of that standard we are being held.

We see the characteristics of God revealed through Jesus’ disciples down the ages but primarily in Jesus as the incarnation, and those are the characteristics we must seek to emulate. It’s then down to us with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to work out which of the Fruit of The Spirit and which of the gifts bestowed upon the church are best reflected in our personalities and to play to those strengths - and to try to work on the rest as the Spirit gives us grace, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians) Although we continue to be a work in progress, this requires a realistic sense of self and of self-worth.

Vocation and ministry spring from the nature of God and therefore shapes the church. Does the church play safe? Are we too worried about the “troublesome priest”, the prophetic voice speaking through and to the church? Sometimes it is that voice which speaks more to the unchurched than the voices that seem to reflect the status quo. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the world.” Jesus tells us in Mat 10.34. Personally, I don’t hear enough of that sort of talk in the church: I don’t think we have anything like enough Giles Frasers, Desmond Tutus, Martin Luther-Kings or John Shelby Spongs in the church today, but maybe, just maybe, with the arrival of a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury who clearly model and express a concern for the poor and marginalised, the tide may turn a bit more.

Prophetic ministry is, indeed, part of the priestly ministry but my own feeling is that we don’t hear it enough because in our selection of ordinands we are too reluctant to take risks: I can imagine a latter-day Giles Fraser “failing” a BAP chaired by a latter-day Martyn Jarrett. “Too outspoken. Too risky.”

Of its very nature the priestly vocation demands a deep relationship with Christ: 'I have called you friends' he told his disciples, who were, surely, his first priests, at the Last Supper (John 15.15). That relationship with Christ, however, is not something that comes automatically as a consequence of ordination. The Ordinand is already expected to have developed a mature relationship which can be developed further in priesthood, cultivated in prayer and study and allowed to mature progressively during the lifetime of the priest. That spirituality should also be an example for others to emulate. This gives central importance to the bonding between our spiritual life and the exercise of our ministry. When I look back at my own journey of faith and formation, it is clear to me and to those who have known me for a long time that I am not in the same place now as I was at the start of that pilgrimage. I would hope that those observers would interpret that as evidence of ongoing spiritual development.

The priest should be grounded in God. Dare I even whisper that? I don’t even come close – but I strive daily to be more the disciple God would have me be: my morning devotions include the petition, “Give me the words, the attitudes, the opinions and the skills” and I ask that I might reflect God to others; that they may see Him in me and that I may see Him in them. In those times spent reflecting on scripture I seek to find practical applications for myself’ I know the WWJD? Mantra may seem a bit trite to some but it is a good starting point. The idea of obedient discipleship is one that has been hammered home to me. The Lutheran Church is very suspicious about “good works” and the idea of striving to be a better disciple is a non-starter because it smacks of a gospel of justification through good works, so the motivation behind our behaviours, particularly those which seek to please God, really come under the microscope.

I was never entirely happy with this approach and I would always argue that while we don’t behave as we do to earn God’s favour, God still has expectations of us because of the requirement to be obedient disciples. “Go and do likewise ….”

For me, at the very heart of this lies the realisation that I am loved passionately and unconditionally by God and, when we know we are loved (and we see this in the world of our own human relationships) we respond: we want to respond in kind and to please and that includes, in our own inadequate ways trying to reflect and express that love to those who are around us.

That leads me to another key role of the priest which is to preach the word of God, to be an evangelist. In the present cultural environment where, as never before, people are bombarded with audio and visual information-overload, it is difficult to make our voices heard above all the distractions. Our preaching is also challenged by an increasing religious illiteracy and as a teacher of Religious Studies I often hear myself asking, “How do you not know these things?” Since we believe we are bearers of the message of salvation, following the example of St Paul we are asked to preach the good news of salvation in and out of season if we are to convince people that the attractions of this world do not in the long run provide redemption and in such a secularised society that will often seem completely counter-cultural.

What do we mean by evangelism? Is it the street preacher, frightening away the shoppers outside Harvey Nicholls with their message of God’s wrath and judgement? Is it the saccharine-style “Just come to Jesus” which requires no intellectual engagement? The you-have-to-tell-everyone-about-Jesus-because-they-are-dying-in-their-sin approach, which, having given its message, notes: “I’ve done my bit. You know the message now. My conscience is clear.” – the approach which condemns the softly, softly approach of winning the right to speak and showing empathy, genuineness and respect to people as friendship evangelism. “What happens if they drop dead tomorrow and you’ve not given them the message of Christ Crucified”? Does priestly evangelism encompass new technology such as blogging, Facebook and Twitter? Is it only what I say, or can it be how I model discipleship? As a priest which method of evangelism should I adopt? Up until now, I’ve just been letting the Holy Spirit do her thing in my life, but then I’ve no scalps to display.

However, we need to remember that while the priest may well be personally involved in mission, much of the time it will be about equipping others for the process of mission and evangelism. As priests we are members of a ministering church and the church is called to be a servant church in many ways. Within the Lutheran tradition diakonia - the diaconate - has most generally been interpreted in terms of social responsibility. 
I could go on. I’ve got into my stride but enough is as good as a feast. I’ll leave the last word to Stephen Platten from his book Vocation: Priests stand before God with humanity upon their hearts and, at the same time, before humanity with God etched on their hearts.









1 comment:

  1. I wish to thank you so very much. I am presently wrestling with my own thoughts about these things as well as discernment committee and their quixotic expectations. Your ruminations have helped clarify some things which have been vexing me in this process and are working to crystallize what I need to say and do going forward. Thank you again.