Monday, 1 March 2010

Evangelicals, priesthood and elitism

A lot of what I have written about ministry over the last few days has been ‘thinking out loud’ (for the last posting, see here) — and whilst I don’t think I’m at the end of the trail, I do think I’ve reached something of a personal milestone.
Some time ago, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali caused some controversy when he said that there are “virtually two religions” in the Church of England. He was referring, of course, to the long-standing divide between conservatives and liberals, and although this division is endlessly nuanced, in the end it is clearly present.
I have now reached the (interim!) conclusion, however, that we must overlay on top of this divide between “two religions” another divide between ‘two ministries’ — in short, two ‘priesthoods’.
On one side of the divide are those who view the Anglican priesthood as essentially ‘functional’. The priest is someone given public authority to do what any Christian can do, as it were ‘in the privacy of their home’. Ordination therefore confers on the priest nothing other than this authority, and any accompanying prayer for the grace of the Holy Spirit is simply that the priest may perform this function of priesthood properly and effectively — just as we might similarly pray for a newly-arrived teacher or a local mayor. For sake of simplicity, we will call this the ‘priest as presbyter’ model, bearing in mind that the English word ‘priest’ derives from the Greek presbuteros, or ‘elder’.
On the other side are those who take the view that the Anglican priesthood is essentially ‘personal’ (the technical term is ‘ontological’). In ordination, the person being ordained is, as it were, ‘made into’ a priest — he (or she) is no longer quite what they were as a layperson, and is not simply ‘authorized’ by ordination, but is changed and ‘empowered’ by it. The views on this ‘empowerment’ may vary, but the essential characteristic is that priest and laity are in some way separated in what they are, not just in what they do. We will call this simply the ‘priestly’ model, since for most people, the word ‘priest’ conjures up exactly this ‘set apart specialness’ of someone different from the layperson.
Now of course, there are nuances also to these distinctions. There are many jobs, for example, in which it is hard to separate the office from the person. A policeman, for example, is always a member of the police at all hours of the day or night, whether on duty or not. Again, a fortunate person may find themselves in a job for which they were, in a sense, ‘made’ — such as the skilled teacher or compassionate carer. The clergy are very fortunate in often being able to find their niche in this way.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the two views are clearly distinguishable. And the important thing is that they overlap the other distinction between liberal and conservative.
In particular, there are traditionalist priests and liberal priests — both sure of their ‘separateness’ and of the fundamental importance of their own ordination to their relationship with God, with the Church and with the world, but both (as Nazir-Ali observed) operating with entirely different theological assumptions at almost every other level. Importantly, this overlap also includes ‘evangelical priests’, who, for example, see themselves having a singular importance in relation to the sacraments, not simply a particular role.
One finds rather less overlap between traditionalist and liberal presbyters. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually encountered the latter. On the contrary, the insistence on using the actual term ‘presbyter’ is something I have only found in the most ‘straight’ of strait-laced evangelicals. However, there are undoubtedly liberal Anglican priests for whom what they do outside the framework of liturgy and church is a fundamental expression of their ‘priesthood’ — as theologically important to them as celebrating the sacraments.
To repeat: the key point is that the ‘priesthoods’ overlap, rather than simply distinguish, the theologies.
The recognition of these two ‘priesthood’ models is important, however, for two pressing reasons. The first is that it directly affects whom we will admit to the priesthood and on what basis. The second is that it directly affects what we expect this person to do, and therefore how we will train and equip them.
Now the problem as I see it at the moment is this: the Church of England desperately needs, and indeed is increasingly demanding of its ministers, a predominantly ‘functional’, ‘presbyteral’, approach to ministry. However, it is deeply committed to the personal, ‘priestly’, model of ministry. We are thus calling people on the basis of their ‘personal’ characteristics, and training them to function accordingly, whilst what we need is predominantly ‘functional’ ministers, completely unlike what has gone before, enabling others to share their ‘presbyterate’.

The final point I want to make at this stage, however, is that for all evangelicals our whole practice of ministry is infused with the ‘image’ of the personal priest. The result is that even whilst we may decry the ‘sacramentalism’ of the  ‘priestly’ model, we imbue the  ‘presbyterial’ model with an almost unconscious elitism! Later, when there is a bit more time, I want to post on the implications of this for Anglican ministry.
John Richardson
1 March 2010
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  1. thank you for this John - a useful bit of reading before the Vocations advisers and wardens of ordinands meeting tomorrow!
    best wishes

  2. "for all evangelicals our whole practice of ministry is infused with the ‘image’ of the personal priest" I don't quite understand what you mean by the 'image of the personal priest'. Will you exlpain further please?

  3. Helegant, what I was referring to was (further up the page) "the view that the Anglican priesthood is essentially ‘personal’ (the technical term is ‘ontological’)" whereby "the person being ordained is, as it were, ‘made into’ a priest — he (or she) is no longer quite what they were as a layperson, and is not simply ‘authorized’ by ordination, but is changed and ‘empowered’ by it."

    This view may be consciously rejected by some evangelicals (including myself) but the structures of the Church of England, and the structures within which we minister in society push us into habitually acting within that framework.

    So, for example, people will treat me as ontologically different, even though I don't believe I am, and I must, perforce, respond to that, even when it is something as mundane as them apologizing for swearing in front of me - something which they will not do just because someone is a Christian.

  4. Surely there is a mediating position here that one can believe, and I think some do. That would be that ordination confers a real empowerment to the priest but without an ontological change.

    For an analogy, consider public officials other than police. They are officially empowered to have authority in certain areas, but only in so far as they exercise that authority as part of their public duties. When they go home at night, or when they resign their job, they are just like anyone else.

    Similarly one might argue that priests are empowered to celebrate sacraments only as they do so officially on behalf of the church, but that empowerment does not imply an ontological change.

    The Church of England takes that line to some extent in that priests are supposed to celebrate sacraments only with a bishop's licence. But I wonder if anyone would take the line that sacraments celebrated without that licence are not only unauthorised but also null and void?

  5. Peter, I think the 'mediating position' you're advocating is pretty much that of Reformation Anglicanism. So, as Article 23 puts it, "It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching or ministering the sacraments in the congregation, before he be lawfully called and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have public authority given unto them in the congregation to call and send ministers into the Lord's vineyard."

    However, that is by no means the only position held by Anglicans in this country, and there are most certainly those who would hold that "sacraments celebrated without" ordination "are ... null and void". That is one of the key reasons why those Anglo-Catholics who believe women cannot be priests have a real problem with it.

    My own position is pretty much the former, that ordination is about 'authorization', but of course that does not entirely resolve the issues arising from the ordination of women as far as I am concerned.

  6. John, the distinction I intended to make between your position and the one I put forward (not necessarily my personal position) is that I was suggesting that ordination conveyed some real "grace" or empowerment to do something which ordinary people cannot do in their own home. On this view "lay presidency", even at home, is not just not allowed but impossible - but so is presidency by unauthorised priests.

  7. Peter, I think that is not really different from the 'other' position I'm putting forward above. As opposed to "prayer for the grace of the Holy Spirit ... simply that the priest may perform this function of priesthood properly and effectively", the other view sees this not in terms of functionality but, to use an old term which recurs in the House of Bishops document Eucharistic Presidency, in terms of 'priestly "character"'.

  8. PS to Peter, I don't think it's worth worrying too much about trying to find a 'third way', as I think effectively there are only two functional approaches.

    In any case, I intend to post some notes on a new approach within the 'first way'.

  9. This may be a bit simplistic, but as an evangelical anglican I have a high regard for the Bible (whilst not completely ignoring tradition etc). And not only do I fail to see any biblical basis for the personal or ontological view of ministry, in my opinion this approach completely contradicts the new testament principle of the priesthood of all believers. It effectively says that there are two classes of christians, clergy and laity, and that there is an inherent difference between the two. I think this is totally wrong and it actually represents a gross distortion of the gospel.

  10. The words I've found helpful in distinguishing a Reformed Catholic view from the hierus view are "representative" and "representational". I believe that the Anglican formularies encourage us to see the priest/presbyter as a representative, set apart for the ministry of word and sacrament as pastor/teachers. What they do not encourage is any sense that the priest is someone who represents Christ in an iconic sense.