"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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Life of the Priest: being or doing? Or both?

I’m just thinking out loud here really: this has been a topic I’ve been challenged to consider recently and I’d appreciate some feedback from others.

It does strike me that the role of the priest is often task driven, and often in a reactive rather than a proactive way. Parish life is full of “doing” which is both routine and unexpected. I know many clergy who seem on the verge of burn-out because they are so busy. However, I wouldn’t want to claim any special pleading for clergy: this position is hardly unique and I know teachers, doctors, social workers and solicitors who feel much the same about their own professional busyness.

What is it about the role of the priest in terms of the distinction between being and doing? Being v doing? What does that mean? How am I being? What am I being? What do we mean when we talk about the inner life as balanced against the external life?
One friend who acknowledges that he is easily distracted by the doing element of his job talks of being challenged about the distinction between being a priest (being) and being a vicar (doing). That seems a good place to start.

I suppose it seems obvious to note that although teachers, doctors, social workers and solicitors etc. can be Christians and therefore have a spiritual element to their lives there is no expectation that this will be the case. It is a given for the priest.

In their book, The Fire and the Clay: The Priest in Today’s Church, Peter Allan, George Guiver et al. note, If priesthood were simply a matter of doing certain jobs on behalf of the church, it would be natural to think of priests as no more than people delegated by the church for certain functions from time to time. But priesthood is a matter of becoming a certain sort of person: and it is by the gift of God that any Christian is able to grow into personhood and it is God’s call and that person’s response that initiates growth.
Everything that Jesus did followed from his close relationship with God. Making a practical application to our own lives with Jesus as role model is a bit more complicated. I have a number of friends who talk about the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule for living argues for a balance between the doing (manual labour in monastic terms) and the being (reading, prayer and meditation). It is absolutely essential that a priest have a "rule of life" - that is "doing" but which nourishes the "being"! It is, of course, a structured balance built into the life of the monastic community. My daily life has routine but it is not the strictly delineated routine of the monastery. My days have structure but that structure is far from timetabled and so while I can appreciate the teaching of St. Benedict in terms of the need for balance between the doing and the being, I can only take it as a general principle.
There is one element, however, that does resonate. Those monks who were working away from the community were exhorted to maintain the discipline of the spiritual life of the monastic community and to pray wherever they were at the same time as their brothers in the monastery. Prayer is part of the life of the church: I may not be able to literally pray at the same time as other members of the universal church without spending the whole day on my knees, but when I pray I know that I am joining in solidarity with the wider worshipping community.

So, to recap: what am I doing when I am “being”? We are in danger of getting all ontological here and so it strikes me that there are two possible approaches:
·       To be authentically myself and in the moment

·        To be in God’s presence

You can, of course have one without the other, but they are not mutually exclusive. Either way the basic requirement is time and privacy. I’m really not sure how we can be responsive to the call of God in all the busyness that surrounds us if we are not taking time to be still and quiet. Surely to be otherwise would lead me to act from my own agenda and in my own strength?
One immediate problem is that the time alone spent with God can itself become an activity – even a chore: it’s another thing that I must build into my routine and therefore it loses spontaneity.

I have always had an interest in the link between spirituality and personality types. My Myers-Briggs profile is ENFJ and, apparently, I can expect to be bored by routine approaches to spending time with God. This has certainly been my experience and I have berated myself down the years for the unsatisfactory nature of my prayer life. I find the daily office largely a barren exercise. (There, I’ve said it.) I also regularly fall into the trap of seeing prayer as a means to an end (intercessions) rather than an end in its own right. I am a hopeless case and yet I need to be clear about the fact that I need that time just to be in the presence of God.
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.

However, this isn’t the place to get side-tracked into discussions about models of spirituality and approaches to prayer. We need to concentrate on the nature of being v doing.
However, in those quiet moments with God I am acutely conscious of the danger of making God too small: we are talking about the supreme being in the universe and I have to constantly remind myself that this God transcends any descriptors we can have of Him and, that although this God can only be known by what He chooses to reveal of himself to me, at the same time that revelation is on-going and is not to be limited or constrained by the limit of that self-revelation as found in scripture. Although that is a good start, there is so much more which is to be revealed which is why we constantly need to be in conversation with God and listening.

In that respect, but as an aside, I am regularly struck by the thought that God’s self-revelation did not stop at the death of Saint Paul. That’s why I find Bonheoffer, Martin Luther-King, Desmond Tutu, John Shelby Spong and others so inspiring because they continue to reveal God to us.

A number of clergy friends have talked about the ontological change that comes with ordination. Whatever we were before, we continue to be but with the added dimension that we are now priested: an indelible change takes place. Priesthood is part of the nature of being: we are priests now where we weren’t before. What I admire about those who talk about this is their realisation that it takes a lifetime to grow into a fuller understanding and practice of the changed person ordination ushers in. Even here, though is an awareness that the being leads into the doing: the priest does priestly things – those things only a priest can do: presiding at Sacraments, absolving, and pronouncing the blessing of the Church etc. A priest is a person who stands in the place between heaven and earth and who accompanies other human beings as they attempt to see where God already is. The priest is a sort of guide, but is that guide because of their own personal experience on the journey. So doing can sometimes be a part of being. This leads others to argue that there is a false duality at the heart of the discussion.

Perhaps another way of looking at things is to consider that the "being" part is about recognising that we are sons and daughters of God who are loved beyond measure and that the "doing" part is about how we put that into practice. I have read that this position is summed up clearly in John 15.4, "Dwell in me as I in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself, but only if it remains united with the vine; no more can you bear fruit, unless you remain united in me." Without that deep inner relatedness and indwelling we cannot move outwards in love and giving and creative action. Without it we run the risk of burn-out through trying to do things to our own agenda and in our own strength. A number of people I have spoken to talk with conviction about the day going better if they have started it in silence with God.

Others stress that we minister with our own selves. So whether someone is prayerful, emotionally well-balanced, informed, wise, judicious, generous etc. makes a difference - and that doesn't have anything to do with "ontological change" but with whom we bring to ministry. So the being of ministry is vital and brings us back to the idea that being can mean being authentically ourselves and in the moment.

The problem for priests and the Church in general is - and this is a personal view - that it has a poorly developed understanding of being and undervalues just 'being', and has a very inadequate training in being because most Church leaders themselves don't have a well-developed awareness of their inner life – or am I projecting? In my time of theological training and formation I can remember no emphasis being put on the being but quite a lot being put on the doing.


  1. Thanks for this reflection. It is always a challenge to find the balance between action and reflection. Even Jesus seems to have oscillated a bit erratically at times. The great thing, it seems to me, is that the "being" side is never alone, but in the company of God the Beloved.

  2. So, some of my own reflections: