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What Is A Priest?

A monk being vested as a priest at ordination (Mateus Campos Felipe)

I recently had the privilege of leading a pre-ordination retreat for three people to be ordained deacon and one person to be ordained a priest. The three who were ordained deacon, will (Deo volente) be ordained priest in future. One of my reflections on the retreat included material adapted from a funeral sermon (for a priest) given by by Bishop Richard Chartres (it is worth reading and reflecting on also by those who are not priests – and not called to be priests):

…Priests are not called to be salespersons for God. God does not need our merchandising. Christian priesthood is not a profession; it is a vocation, a covenant, a kind of possession by the holy and eternal God. As it says in the letter to the Hebrews [5:4] “one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was”….

We live at a time of disorientation. There is a malaise which even afflicts some priests who seem to have no idea of who or what they are; no clear idea of what they are trying to do or why they are trying to do it.

This has tempted some to describe aspects of our church tradition including priestly ordination as “key limiting factors” as they search to connect with “young people”.

It is true that we have been overtaken by very rapid social change in which we can expect the Holy Spirit to reshape the Church. As an era in which perhaps we felt too much at home, passes away, it is right to look expectantly for the living forms that Jesus and his Church will take in the Christian centuries to come. But alongside this proper expectancy there is an insidious temptation to believe that we can abbreviate the birth pangs of the new age by drastic surgery when we really don’t have the spiritual insight to understand what we are doing.

It seems to me that we are in particular danger of reducing the Christ given sacramental character of the Church to a thin and insubstantial sociological concept. The Wesley brothers were well aware of the potential of lay led cells for praise, mutual encouragement and study of the bible. Such gatherings are as relevant and fortifying today as they were in the 18th century. But as the Wesleys would have been the first to point out they complement but cannot replace the Church. The Church worthy of the name is brought into being by baptism and nourished by the eucharist it grows into the place where we can be incorporated as very members of the body of Christ.

The reality of the Church is constituted not by the prescriptions of some committee but by the celebration of the transformative eucharist by an ordained priest in the presence of the community of the faithful. The priest is the representative of the Diocesan Bishop and together they are knots in the net which maintains the unity of the church in faithfulness to the teaching of the Apostles. This is how it has been over many centuries and in many different cultures.

As Richard Hooker said the eucharist properly celebrated is “performative and not merely illustrative”. The Eucharist builds the Church and is not something the Church “puts on” to cater for our religious needs and tastes. It is the way appointed by Christ in which the world itself is re-membered through the growth of his body.

No doubt the impatience with inherited forms reflects a disappointment with so much church life that many people currently experience. It has always been so. As Origen wrote in the third century “If Jesus had good reason to weep over Jerusalem, he will have much better reason to weep over the church”. The church should be a restorative cell capable of neutralising the cancers that are gnawing at our society but as we know the reality is so often depressingly anaemic. But demolition is no answer.

Andrew Brown, one of the shrewdest commentators on the religious scene in our day, observes that one of the symptoms of extreme hypothermia is the urge to remove all one’s clothes even in a blizzard. Panic is a faithless and fruitless response to the challenge we face… 

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