Saturday, 1 December 2012

The 'priesthood' of 'priests' and the priesthood of believers

In the wake of the vote against the women bishops Measure, I find myself pondering just what questions we now need to be asking. If the recent General Synod vote is to have any redeeming outcome, it will probably involve the willingness to rethink assumed theological positions.
This is certainly being urged by ‘egalitarians’ on ‘complementarians’, but there is every reason why that could be applied to all.
Without a doubt, women bishops would be an innovation in the Church of England, contrary to the entire tradition of Anglican history from before the Reformation to the present.
Such a thing might indeed be possible — some are arguing it is a gospel imperative — but by the same token, surely any position, no matter how long its pedigree or widespread its acceptance, is thereby similarly open to question (if not necessarily to overthrow).
And one such must be the nature of ‘priesthood’. In the wake of the Synod vote, blogger Revd Jody Stowell wrote, for example, of her feeling that she “simply did not exist at the same level of priestliness” as her male colleagues. Again, she said that she felt like “a second class priest”. Indeed throughout her post the underlying conviction is that she is a ‘priest’.
Yet whenever I read such language I cannot help, as a Protestant, being reminded of the words of Martin Luther: “Worthy of anathema is any assertion that a priest is anything else than a Christian” (LW 40:19).
Despite my Anglo-Catholic upbringing I have always, since my conversion, regarded it as self-evident that every Christian is fully a priest. Equally, I have always instinctively shared Luther’s view of the continuing use of the word ‘priest’ and its impact on our thinking:
... we neither can nor ought to give the name priest to those who are in charge of Word and sacrament among the people. The reason they have been called priests is either because of the custom of heathen people or as a vestige of the Jewish nation. The result is greatly injurious to the church. (LW 40:35, Concerning the Ministry, 1523)
Now of course Ms Stowell may be using the word ‘priest’ in its proper sense, as ‘presbyter writ small’. I do not need to assert any covert Romanism on her part.
But if we are to have a frank discussion of women in the episcopate, it is not inappropriate to have an equally frank discussion about all of us, men and women alike, in the ‘priesthood’ (or presbyterate) and to attempt to identify what this really ought to mean. For in following Luther’s thoughts on the subject, those functions which are reserved to the Anglican priesthood are properly seen as belonging to all in the Church by merit of their shared ‘priesthood’. Thus he writes,
... all Christians, and they alone, even women, are priests, without tonsure and episcopal “character.” [...] So when women baptize, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately, and do it not as a private act, but as a part of the public ministry of the church which belongs only to the priesthood. (LW 40:23)
Now if we were to accept this position, I wonder what difference it would make to the debate on women’s ordination and consecration? For Anglo-Catholics, I suspect it would simply be intolerable. But would it affect the views of the proponents of women bishops if we accepted that any and every Christian, without episcopal ordination, could celebrate the sacraments and do all the other things appertaining to the ‘priesthood’?
In a way, the position is not much different, after all, to that of evangelicals like myself whose position on women being vicars and bishops is that they should not, rather than that they cannot. To say that anyone could perform these functions without episcopal ordination does not mean they should, but that is a very far cry from saying that they simply could not even if they went through the motions.
It is here, however, that we come up against the assumptions within our present framework. In its criteria for selection, for example, the Ministry Division of the Church of England insists that candidates for ordination “should be able to speak of the distinctiveness of ordained ministry within the Church of England”. This is in addition to being able “to articulate a sense of vocation to the ordained ministry” and having “an inner sense of call”.
All this, it seems to me, is likely to make any candidate for ordained ministry think that he or she is ‘special’ in a way which is not common to all believers. And this is further complicated by the fact that in Anglicanism we tie this up with the language of ‘priesthood’ — a word which, however much we may (or may not!) wish to gloss it as meaning something other than what it did under the Old Covenant, speaks of a special relationship with God and with the rest of humanity.
Now of course there is something special about the ministry conducted by clergy. But the important question is how it differs from the ministries of all believers. Are there two kinds of priesthood — one common to all and another belonging to a special order within the Church? Or are there just specialities within the 'priesthood of all believers' like there are specialities in, for example, the Navy, with some having expertise in one area, some in another, but all (like the crew of a ship) essential to the whole?
There are some who would argue that the Anglican model of priesthood provides an important link to the ‘Catholic’ Church — that our orders are a vital lifeline with the wider community of believers and with the grace of God necessary for our life in Christ.
There are others who would be dismissive of all talk of distinctions or of sacraments.
But there are others again who would regard the Anglican attitude as not so much a ‘model’ as a set of unexamined assumptions, where priests are ‘distinctive’ but no one is quite sure how, where the ministry is ‘sacramental’ but no one is quite agreed why, and where the people of God are all ‘special’, but some are not quite as special as others.
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  1. I'm not a Luther geek, but did he always think that? Didn't he start to move down the "we're all Priests" line, then worry we'd end up with no need for clerics then back track? Where as Calvin, saw a continuity & discontinuity, but 1 continuity is that in OT & NT God's people are a nation of Priests from whom some serve as distinct "Priests".

    Darren Moore

  2. As a Reader who is looking at Ordained Local Ministry, I suppose I am going to be asked all those questions about the distinctiveness of the ordained ministry. Now, I'm not sure what to say - I feel rather like I felt for one year at University when I had to suppress all my natural feelings and become a Marxist, just to pass the exams. Are there prescribed answers for these questions any more, now that there is a whole long list of licenced lay ministries?

    It was all much easier in Michael Ramsey's day. Having been advised to re-read his classic text 'The Christian Priest Today' (revised 1985), I found it came from an age where clergy did everything, and thus they could reasonably claim some distinctiveness, but the only distinctive thing left for the ordained now is sacramental in nature, and I'm not sure what to make of that, either.

  3. Not being far enough along in my study of 'Fathers and Heretics' (to quote Prestige) generally, I have yet been fuzzily wondering whether ideas such as you quote from Luther - that have been very much with us since the 1520s in various forms - represent varieties of 'neo-Montanism' and whether they have also been explicitly considered - and rejected - as such. If so, where might I find some details?

    Further as to "should not, rather than [...] cannot", I have wondered about something more in the direction of 'need not, rather than cannot'. But also, with respect to the largely unchallenged, and when challenged, defended 'Ignatian model' of one (local) bishop, with presbyters/priests thoughout Church history (until the 1520s +), 'certainly "can" compatibly with Scripture' - prior to any attempt at further discussion as to 'need' or 'should'. That is, that '(monarchical) episcopacy' and a 'presbyteriate' - of a more distinct and enduring sort than Genevan-style eldership - are unexceptionable, and remain so when (as historically) exclusively 'male'.

    Psolomon Psmith

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  5. I think your last paragraph puts it in a nutshell: the Anglican model is indeed a set of unexamined assumptions, and there is a great reluctance to examine them.

    I was at an Anglican synod in South Africa that decided that women could be ordained to the diaconate but shouldn't be. The archbishop set up a commission to examine the diaconate and report back to the next session of synod, and it met several times over the next three years at considerable expense. The commission produced a detailed report, but when it was tabled for discussion synod voted to "move to the next business" -- the strongest possible rejection. They did, however, accept a motion that women be ordained to the diaconate. They did not want to know what the diaconate is, as long as women could be ordained to it. Unexamined assumptions indeed!

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