Monday, December 12, 2005

Ordination and Priesthood

Here's a little piece I rattled off for my vocations advisor about my understanding of ordination and priesthood:

Over the last few years I have given considerable thought to the nature of leadership within the church and particularly the question of ordained public ministry. Here I will attempt to give a brief overview of the development of my thought and my current understanding of ordained ministry. I will begin with some of my initial reservations, then look at my current understanding of the ‘doing’ and ‘being’ of priesthood. I am aware that there are huge debates over the nature of priesthood, leadership and authority within the church, and many books have been written on the subject. I will offer here a brief personal reflection based on my limited current understanding which will inevitably only scratch the surface of a huge subject.

Initial Reservations

When I began my theology degree, 3 years ago, I began to examine the concept of ordained, full time ministry. Within the Vineyard movement to which I belonged there was a strong emphasis on the ‘equipping of the saints’ for the work of ministry. The role of leadership was to help people to discover their own gifts and release them within the church and the world to use those gifts for the mission of God. I was and am a firm believer in the priesthood of all believers and was therefore nervous of the concept of a special class of ‘priests’ who might be considered to be ‘super-saints’. Didn’t we all have access to God now through our man in heaven, our great high-priest Jesus Christ? Did we need a set of intermediaries to act as a go-between for us and God? Wasn’t the idea of priesthood a resurrection of an old covenant category?
I was concerned about a divide between clergy and laity whereby the clergy are expected (by themselves or others) to perform the real tasks of ministry and the laity are basically passive recipients. I also felt that is was unrealistic to expect one person to combine the roles of pastor, teacher, evangelist, administrator, worship leader etc, etc.
I now see that most of my reservations came either from a faulty understanding of Christian priesthood or from (real or perceived) historical abuses of that role.

My Current Understanding

I began to realise that despite my egalitarian tendencies, God does “set apart” certain people in order to serve the church. Initially I thought in pragmatic terms. Someone needs to prepare services, and pray for people and pastor them and visit the sick etc, etc and if these things are going to be done well, then it is better to have some people who are dedicated to the tasks. I have seen how difficult it is for people to be bi-vocational and feel that they are not able to do either job to the best of their ability. I am still suspicious of a one-man band model of priesthood and feel that part of a priest’s role must be to be a facilitator, someone who equips and enables others to live out their calling within the church and the world.

I like what Archbishop Rowan Williams says about the role of priests in forming communities:

“Communities, in spite of the sentimental way we sometimes think of them, don’t just happen. They need nurture, they need to be woven into unity (more of that in a moment). If the unity of the Church is not that of a mass of individuals with a few convictions in common but that of a differentiated organism where the distinctiveness of each is always already in play, then for the Church to be consciously itself, it needs people to see and show how diversity works together. Sometimes this is a role of active co-ordination, drawing out gifts and deploying them, sometimes it is helping some people see that what others do is bound up with what they themselves do.”(1)

Many people are suspicious of an authoritarian, hierarchical structure of leadership whereby there is a ‘chain of command’ a bit like an army, although I don’t believe the Church of England really operates this way, it is sometimes perceived to. In contrast to this I prefer the picture of a conductor of an orchestra as a model of priesthood. The conductor’s job is to know the piece of music inside out, (which includes being familiar with the composer), so that he can hear how it should sound in his head. The players can look at him in order to know when they should come in and how loud to play etc. He must then listen to the different instruments that are playing and conduct them to play together so that they make a beautiful sound and not a cacophony!

I have come to see that in addition to the ‘pragmatic’ side of priesthood (what a priest does), there is also an ‘ontological’ aspect to priesthood (what a priest is). God “sets apart” men and women to be certain things within the church, these include :

A servant. First and foremost, an ordained minister, whether a deacon or priest, is called to be a servant. He or she is a servant of God, a servant of the church and a servant of those in the parish in which he/she ministers. Jesus’ footwashing of the disciples is the obvious model which springs to mind. Not that a priest is to be a doormat who is always at the beck and call of everyone in the church, but for a significant amount of his/her time they are to be “available”, available to God and available to others. The only kind of authority which is appropriate within the church is that which is administered with humility.

A priest is called to be a witness who through his or her words and life is a symbol within the community of what the whole community is called to be. People should be able to learn more of the character and mission of Christ by observing the priest. This is indeed a high calling! It is one in which failures are inevitable, otherwise the priest would not be human. Nevertheless, the priest is called to watch their life and doctrine closely. A priest within the Church of England is not only a symbol within the church, but to all those in his parish who are not necessarily members of the church. He thereby represents not only Christ, but the church as well.

A person of prayer. As Michael Ramsay wrote, a priest is ‘to be with God with the people on our heart’(2). A priest is called to a life of prayer. Prayer for all those within his/her care and prayer to sustain his own relationship with God out of which he/she ministers. This again is extremely challenging and is an area that I know I need to grow in.

A minister of the Word. A priest is called to dwell within the biblical story from creation to new creation, so that it shapes their entire worldview, and so that they can make it come alive to people in a fresh and exciting way and show people their place within the story. They are called to preach the gospel in all its glorious fullness.

A minister of sacrament. A priest will stay close to Christ through the eucharist and will administer and help people to understand this sacrament. He/she also has the privilege of baptising people into God’s church. I must admit this is one area where I need to gain a deeper understanding of the priest’s role. Having enjoyed the breaking of bread with friends in people’s homes on many occasions I am yet to see why only an ordained minister can ‘preside’ over this celebration. It is probably in order to protect the ‘specialness’ of the Lord’s table, and not want it watering down, but I am convinced that a priest is not meant to be a ‘policeman’ of the table. I also still need to deepen my awareness of baptism as a sacrament and the priest’s role in this.

This is only really a start and there is much more that could be said. I look forward to reading around the subject and increasing my understanding of Christian priesthood.

1. R. Williams, ‘The Christian Priest Today’: Lecture on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Fri. 28th May 2004 -
2. M. Ramsay, The Christian Priest Today’, SPCK, London, 1972, 14


Barnabas said...

Hey, ‘The Christian Priest Today’book is an amazing book to read, It was suggested to me by the DDO to read, at first i thought it boring but as I read it I realsied what a wonderful spirit filled book I was reading, I've read twice and got different things out of it each time.

I also read "Freed to Serve" my Michael Green a great book which I really enjoyed, both books helped me explore ministry in compley different ways.

Jon said...

yeah, my vocations adviser recommended it and lent it to me. I found it to be full of wisdom. I'll have to get my own copy as I had to give it back to him. I'll look out for the Michael Green one as well.

What stage are you at in the whole process?

Barnabas said...

I'm just about to meet with the examining chaplins before hopfully going to selection.

Yes I need to buy myself a copy of "The Christian Priest Today"

If you want I can lend you a copy of Michael Green's book?


Tiffer said...

It was recommended me by a friend and then I was asked to review it for Vocations Advisor number 1. Fantastic book - I wish it was read by more evangelicals and anglo catholics alike!

Jon - email me :)

Jason said...

Hey Jon:

It is great to see you at this stage, and I enjoy hearing your musings over priesthood.

I am also delighted to hear that The Christian Priest Today is still being read. It was one of the most edifying and memorable books I read in seminary on the craft of being a priest, even though the professor suggested that it was a waning model. Ramsey is so pastoral, so...priestly.

And some good thoughts on priestly leadership. (I especially like the image of priest as conductor.)

I guess one way I think about Eucharistic presidency is that having it reserved for the priest serves an iconic or maybe "hostly" role. That is, the "breaking of bread" in friends' homes is legitimate, without ordained leadership, but in the choreographed drama that is the liturgy, there are certain roles -- perhaps for clarity's sake as much as anything -- that are reserved for certain people. And the clarity of expression of the sacraments within worship helps us to see God at work around us in the world in analogous ways. In this way, the Eucharist and baptism serve as paradigms. In other words, we can see and honour the presence of God in the breaking of bread in your friends' homes because we have learned what the presence of God in such elements (and among such people) is like in the worship of the church.

Anyhow, that's one way I think about it.

May God (continue to) bless you on this journey!

Jon said...

Thanks for the comment, Jason. Good to hear from you. I remember you as the priest who likes the Beasties!

I'm sure I'll return to 'The Christian Priest Today' again and again. I've picked up the Michael Green book as well.

Nice thoughts about the Eucharist. Lots more pondering to do around this one.