Being a Priest Today
Exploring Priestly Identity
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For the last thirty years or so I have been listening to all sorts of
explanations and arguments about the priesthood, most of which have
seemed minimalist or sometimes just plain wrong. During this period my
own understanding of the vocation in which I have spent virtually my
entire adult life has developed and matured, usually in fits and
starts, and it is in this process of what I hope is healthy growing
that I have become ever more uncomfortable about the claims and notions
that I hear.
What is refreshing about Being A Priest Today, is that the authors, a
man and a woman, both priests and theological educators in the Church
of England, is that it starts out with an ontological understanding of
the nature of the presbyterial role rather than dealing with function
or status. It begins with the God who has called the whole church into
its priestly witness with the wider world God has made, a task within
which the order of priests plays a particular part, although to quote
Rowan Williams "there is no one way of being a priest" (Page 4).
Too much of what I have read and heard about the ordained has either
focused on the functions of leadership and the how-to of undertaking
them, or it has majored on sociological variables like rights, and
whether this particular group is represented within the rolls of the
ordained in the life of the church. I have been on a Commission On
Ministry and year after year have listened to people implying that
because they are who they are they have some kind of right to be
ordained, rather than approaching this task with the utmost fear and
In true postmodern style the priesthood is so often seen as a place of
power, and therefore it is vital that "we" (whoever "we" happen to be)
have a seat at the table in the palaces of power. To think of the
priesthood in this way is sheer bunkem. Cocksworth and Brown do not
even bother to address these misperceptions of what priesthood is. This
is not a contentious, argumentative work, rather these two set out with
gentleness, clarity, and precision to present a far fuller and richer
picture of this task to which some of us have been drawn by God,
drawing upon Scripture and the richness of the Christian tradition.
"Our calling into Christ is simultaneously a calling into Christ's
messianic ministry, his service" (Page 5).
Being A Priest Today is a book that needs to be read with care, it is
not something you can rattle through in an hour or two, and it is even
dangerous trying to scan passages that look less significant because
you can be sure that you will miss some of the treasures that lie
buried deep within what is being said. Certainly, anyone who cherishes
the misconception that priesthood is about power will have been forced
to surrender such an idea by the end of the opening chapter. If you
fail to do this, then you miss the point of the book in its entirety.
The authors tell us, "There is only one Christian priesthood, and that
is the priesthood of Christ, the priest into whose ministry we are
gathered through baptism and by faith, and in whose life human identity
is perfected," (Page 9)and this priesthood is focused on the perfect
sacrifice Christ has made for us, and just as he is one whose life was
lived entirely for others, so is that the reality with the ordained who
are presbyters in the priestly community.
The opening chapter, which is the key to all that follows, revolves
around a masterly unpacking of Paul's charge to the leaders of the
church in Ephesus in Acts 20. As I went through this exposition I
circled the words about priestly ministry that seemed the most
significant: "teaching... protecting... faithful evangelistic
preaching... catechetical teaching... care of the Church... the towel a
symbol of authority... tears... the mantle of suffering" (Pages 12-13).
If the Body of Christ has been called into being by the Holy Spirit,
priests are to function as men and women radically dependent upon the
workings of that same Spirit. It is not only an office that shapes the
church's life by what it says and how it instructs, but it is one that
is called by that self-same Spirit into a life of prayer and of
holiness "that will be an example to the Church" (Page 21).
Today such holiness sounds a radical (almost innovative) idea, but not
only do Cocksworth and Brown back it up from 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20, but
also from the charge to the presbyter in the 2nd Century Canons of
Hippolytus, but also from the bishop's charge in the contemporary Roman
rite for ordination of priests. It is this call to holiness that, as
far as I can see, is then filled out in the remainder of the book,
beginning with the fact that the priesthood is a call to being for the
Other and being for God.
The priesthood is about being for worship, the Word, and prayer. It is
about living holy lives, being agents of reconciliation, and as men and
women of blessing. Each of these chapters is chock full of substance
and challenge, and my copy of the book that I read on both sides of the
Atlantic as well as in a 767 over it, is as marked up with underlinings
and marginal notes as any book that I possess.
There are sweet quotes like, "Our vocation is to combine a passion for
God's living word with a joy in living in God's world" (Page 84), or
"Polishing and perfecting the saints, ourselves included, is a lifelong
vocation to holiness" (Page 153).
Living in the midst of the angst that is the Episcopal Church, and
watching beloved brothers and sisters tearing apart, and tearing one
another apart, I found myself particularly challenged by the chapter
"Being for Reconciliation." God, we are told, would stop at nothing to
reconcile us to himself, and we as those who preside at the Eucharist,
the rite, as it were, of reconciliation, have a special responsibility
for this ministry both in the church and beyond.
If our task is to minister to those seeking reconciliation to God,
hearing confessions and pronouncing absolutions, then this has profound
implications for the way we as clergy live our lives amidst so much
division and bitterness. The church should be the body which, by its
own determination to be reconciled with one another, shows forth what
God's purpose is for all people -- yet how far we are from that
reality. "The tendrils of reconciliation run widely and intricately
throughout God's world, the tap root is the reconciliation of God in
Christ who is our peace. We who are reconciled to God ourselves are
entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation" (Page 179).
Yet the reconciliating power of the Gospel is not some lowest common
denominator kind of thing, sentimental mushiness, or brushing
differences under the rug that is so often presented as reconciliation,
rather it is something that cannot and does not contrive to sidestep
the Cross, God's supreme reconcilatory act. Reconciliation is painful
for all involved, including the reconciler.
The truth is, and this bubbled through this whole book, there is a
tremendous amount of suffering and pain that are part and parcel of the
priesthood -- because the Christ we follow is one whose life was shaped
by suffering and pain. And so it is that we our sent out in mission --
which is the burden of the final chapter of the book.
Drs. Cocksworth and Brown use a plenitude of resources to make their
case from the Apostolic Fathers, Henri Nouwen, and Dallas Willard to
liturgical rites from around the world and a richness of traditions.
They quote John Donne, George Herbert, Michael Ramsey, Richard Baxter,
and John of the Cross, as well as John Wimber, Oswald Chambers, Eugene
Peterson, Julian of Norwich, and Barbara Brown Taylor. The text is
enriched by the delightful poems and hymns of Rosalind Brown. This is
not a book with a party flavor or a narrow bias, and neither is it one
that is for the faint-hearted.
If you are a priest and you read this book, be ready for your
presuppositions and practice of your vocation to be changed, as well as
any sense of satisfaction that you might have with your own
sanctification. If you are a layperson reading this book, then not only
will it raise the bar for your own discipleship, but it will help you
to challenge (graciously, I hope) your own clergy in the exercise of
their ministry among you.
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