With Easter behind us, the thoughts of the ecclesiastical classes turn readily from baptism to ordination. Courses conclude and colleges empty and cathedral precentors will soon be calming nerves at ordination rehearsals while photographers stand by to capture carefully-choreographed images of spontaneous joy.
We do, however, have something of a Goldilocks problem with ordained ministry, and perhaps always have had. Tending towards either too low or too high a sense of the priest’s particularity, we end up with a prosaic functionalism (with a full diary to prove it) or a mystical omniscience. Neither extreme is helpful.
No doubt some of the problem began with the Reformation, when old ways of thinking about what priests did at the holy end, confecting Christ in whispered isolation, changed utterly, shattering the sure understanding of the past.
It was with such notions of an ‘ontologically changed’ priest intact that, when I was at college 20 years ago, we knew no ruder word than ‘training’. Nor any word less accurate. Dogs and monkeys were trained. But priests and deacons were formed for the life and work set before them.
This is not a facile distinction, though it is partial and perhaps irritating. It shares with virtue ethics the conviction that what matters is not so much what we do as who we are. But being and doing are closer than cousins and inevitably cause each other: who we are informs and enables what we do. Experience, in turn, feeds our instincts, guides our reactions, and dyes within us a new and deepening authenticity.
This is true not just of Christian priests, but it should be noticeably true of them, and of any who are ‘subdued to what they work in’ through a daily focus on prayer and reflective praxis.
It is in part for this reason that I am not keen on the phrase ‘vicar factory’. I know that it is intended to be jocular and a remedy against pomposity, but it carries inescapable tones of the mass-produced pastoral operative. These are best avoided, especially as they lead by degrees from too low a doctrine of priesthood to no doctrine at all, resulting in calls for ‘lay celebration’ of the Eucharist, as if the people of God were not already the celebrants of the sacraments; and as if the president of their weekday community was not therefore the president at their Sunday altar.
But this is to open too many cans of worms. What matters to Goldilocks is that the particular nature of the priest should not be so diluted or dispensable that s/he blends invisibly into a magnolia background; nor so dilated and inflated that we end up with a beneficent witch or magus, always knowing best, exercising quasi-magical powers over bread and wine, as if the rest of the worshipping body need never exist.
This perhaps is the consequence of too high a doctrine of priesthood, one that sees ontology changed by ordination at the bishop’s hands, followed by admission to a wonder-working caste with revelation of arcane secrets, like where to find the Extended Prefaces on the Church of England website.
The challenge for Goldilocks, of course, is to find a description of priesthood that’s just right. A strong contender, and personal favourite of mine, is this definition by the late Canon Professor DW Hardy, who sees the priest as one who ‘in some sense personifies the embodiment in the Church of God’s work to bring truth and healing to the world.’
I love its provisional tone: he speaks only ‘in some sense’, not claiming to nail what is always elusive. He then identifies the work of healing the world as God’s, not by divine over-activity (what +Rowan once called micro-management), but through embodying that work in the Church, the hands and feet of St Teresa’s famous dictum. It is this embodiment that is then made public and representative by being personified in the priest.
Priests are not the Church’s only voice, of course, neither do they replace or overshadow the people, but they are those who in some sense gather and inspire them, sharing in the bishop’s care of them, equipping them for service so the work that God purposes may be accomplished.
This will require a depth and quality formed through daily prayer, repentance and renewal; formed, too, through work and training and the inevitably busy life of the parish. But which is harder to achieve? Not the busyness, the frenetic activity, the foolish over-working on the day off. These are easy, little more than competences and signs of confidence which I recently read should characterise the priestly life.
But they should not, for ontological change (especially if it is to be indelible) is not just a smear of chrism and a touch of bishop on the crown of the head. It is the long-maturing fruit of stillness, silence and study; it is the slow drip of baptismal grace inscribing stony hearts. And it is the bit we find the hardest, for it’s where escape-routes end, pretence is unmasked, and mere performance must become sublime truth-telling.
If all of the clergy, old hands and newly-ordained, could renew a commitment to these holy and ancient disciplines this Petertide, the Church would grow in service, and the Gospel would make its mark afresh upon a desperate world. And we, priests and people, would begin to know again who we are and, in some sense, to be clear what we are for.