Thursday, July 15, 2010

Priesthood and Service to the Whole Church

Going through times of questioning why in the world God called someone like me to be a priest in the Church, it's helpful to come across reminders of what Christian priesthood is really all about. In a sermon delivered back in June for the ordination of priests at Durham Cathedral, Bishop N. T. Wright has done just that. Here's some of what he had to say:

Jesus is the one and only Priest. If there is any other priesthood, it is found not by addition but by inclusion: not by other people being priests as well, alongside Jesus, but by other people being priests within his priesthood. Jesus is the place of atonement, the place where heaven and earth meet. That is why, straight after this great prayer, he goes out to face the consequence of bringing together the utter holiness of heaven and the utter wickedness of earth, the utter joy of heaven and the utter misery of earth. That is what priesthood is all about: standing at the painful, holy place where the great fracture in creation is healed, the great gulf bridged, where the Word has become flesh and pitched his tent in our midst, revealing God’s glory as the Father’s only Son whose very nature is love.

And that is why, of course, all those who receive him, who believe in his name, are called God’s sons and daughters – not simply those who wear dog collars. All God’s baptized and believing people are priests: a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Every single one of us is called to find our true identity within the identity of Jesus Christ, to learn to pray within his prayer, to learn holiness within his holiness, to discover in private as well as in public what it means to enter the Holy of Holies, where heaven and earth meet. The priesthood of all God’s people is a deeply biblical idea; going all the way back to the book of Exodus.

But in Exodus, too, we find the humbling and glorious truth that God calls some people to be priests to the nation of priests. Some people are given the special calling to be the focal point of the nation’s priestly life; to be the means through which God enables the whole people to become what they are called to be. And this is doubly humbling. It’s humbling for the people, because they have to respect God’s call to a few to be the symbols and enablers of what they are all about. And it’s humbling for the priests, because the way they enable God’s people to be God’s people is through serving them, not lording it over them. That’s how Jesus did it; that’s how we all have to do it. Anything else turns the church into a religious club, organised according to the normal rules of the world around. And that’s why all priestly ministry is rooted, and remains rooted, in the Diaconate. The moment you stop being a servant you cut off the branch on which your priestly ministry is growing. The moment you stop being a footwasher is the moment you stop being a fruitbearer.

I appreciate Wright's way of distinguishing between the general priesthood of all baptized believers and the sacerdotal priesthood. And while he doesn't develop it in detail, I think he's right to suggest (contra arguments for direct ordination) that the ministry of the presbyterate needs to be rooted in the ministry of the diaconate. Too often, "holy order" carries connotations of standing above the laity (the "Father knows best" hierarchical model). But we do not stand above anyone. To be sure, we are set apart, but set apart for the reasons Wright notes: "to be the focal point" of the Church's priestly life and "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12). It's sometimes easy to forget this, and perhaps especially so if we priests forget that we were first ordained as deacons.

Perhaps one of the more challenging dimensions of the priesthood is the call to be "reconciled reconcilers." Here's Wright's take on that:

… you are to be people of unity: reconciled reconcilers, you are constantly to seek ways to bring God’s people together. You will be urged and tempted to join particular parties and groupings, and some such may be helpful for focus and support. But you are to be people of unity, people through whom Jesus’ prayer for his people comes true. That will be so symbolically from the moment you are ordained, and indeed one of the purposes of Holy Order is that the church may be united and seen to be so, with you as its visible and tangible signs. Only when we realise this do we realise how important the ongoing ecumenical task is, as well as the struggles for deeper unity within our own family. Work for it; pray for it; remind yourself that Jesus prayed for you to be its embodiment. Don’t settle for the cheap unity where nothing really matters as long as we vaguely get on with one another. Go for the hard one, the high one, the costing-not-less-than-everything one, that unity in holiness and truth for which Jesus prayed.

How far removed much of this seems from the agenda-driven political power plays within the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism more broadly! I think there's a tendency for many of us to identify the "true" Church with the "particular parties and groupings" we like and agree with. We have overly politicized the Church. The divisive spirit of the Ugly Party has infected the Body of Christ. And many of us among the clergy have spread the infection in our words and deeds.

For me, Wright's sermon is not merely a reminder of an essential dimension of priestly vocation; it's also a call to repentance. There's something larger and more important at stake than my personal, passionately held convictions, my parish, my diocese, or even my denomination - something our Prayer Book calls "that wonderful and sacred mystery" (BCP, p. 280). That something, of course, is the "whole Church," which the Rite-I post-communion prayer refers to as "the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people" (BCP, pp. 280, 339).

To live into the vocational identity of the priesthood means not only serving God's people at the local level, but also serving the larger whole of the Church. That service entails working for unity where there is division, and deeper communion where there is estrangement. That kind of work requires sacrifices, some of which I may not feel like making, some of which may be costly. But the call to unity and communion through the way of the cross still stands.

My prayer is that all the ordained may take seriously the call to be visible, tangible signs of unity in a time of deep and often hostile division. And I pray that I may be willing, by God's grace, to let go of my own agendas for the sake of the greater good of God's Church.

Lately, I sometimes wonder if I'm really up to this task. Please pray for me, a sinner.


George said...

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on Bryan and on all of us who depend upon your grace - sinners all.

Matt Gunter said...

This is wonderful, Bryan. Thanks for sharing it.

plsdeacon said...

There are many in the diaconate who support "per saltum" (direct) ordintation to the priesthood. They do this because they think it will enhance the dignity of the Diaconate.

I cannot not and will never support such a move.

The issue is one of formation. And I believe that formation is at the heart of the problems with TEC today. Before you can be formed as a priest or deacon, you need to be formed as a lay person. You need to be able to understand and articulate the faith. You need to show yourself active in ministry within and outside of the Church. You need to be a good Christian person before you can become a good deacon or priest.

The diaconate is formation as a servant and a Deacon is a walking icon of Jesus Christ the Servant. You cannot lead the people of God unless you are ready to serve them the same way that Jesus served them - dying for them. While we don't physically die (or most of us don't) we need to die to self and die to the honor that comes with ordained leadership. The diaconate forms us into those who have died to self to live for other. It is out of "half baked" deacons that we get "half baked" priests. I believe that our transitional diaconate is too short because it doesn't really give time to be formed as a deacon before moving on to being a priest.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Phil. On the whole, we do a dismal job of formation for those ordained to the transitional diaconate. It's largely viewed as a waiting period or a hurdle to get to the "real" order of ministry. And so I think that many of us in the priesthood do, indeed, have a "half baked" understanding of how and why our priesthood is grounded in diakonia.