Being A Priest In A Difficult Time: A Response

This essay was originally published as part of a SEAD series which included Christ Seitz and Phillip Turner on “Being A Priest In A Difficult Time” Some of the essays are published on the ACI site here. [Editor’s note: this link is broken. We apologize for the inconvience.]

A Response By Leander Harding, To Reflections On Being A Priest In A Difficult Time by Philip Turner and Christopher Seitz

In my neck of the ecclesiastical woods there is a standard format for sermons at ordinations, celebrations of new ministry and Holy Week meditations on the renewal of priestly vows. The speaker is obliged to give a passing nod to the event at hand and then devote the rest of the agenda to a discussion of the preeminence of baptismal ministry. The hoary bogie man of clericalism is trotted out and denounced to the satisfaction of all present. Patriarchalism, hierarchalism are said to be bad and collaboration and mutuality are said to be good. Something is often said about the ministry belonging to the people and not the priest and about looking to the members of the congregation who are the “real” ministers.

Like so much of the semiofficial rhetoric in the Episcopal Church today the problem is not the text but the subtext. The dignity of baptismal ministry, the dangers of clericalism, the role of the ordained as servants of the servants of God, who can deny the significance of these themes? (Though even these themes can be used in disturbingly hostile ways. I once listened to what seemed like a tome on lay ministry at the service to honor a priest who was retiring, beloved by the congregation, after a long and honorable ministry, of which 25 years were spent in the parish where the service was being held. While there was nothing wrong with what the bishop was saying, the context made it seem an astonishing indifference to a life of sacrifice and caused one to wonder if an intentional insult were being offered.) Very often these sermons and speeches about “mutual ministry” and “common total ministry” which are offered on occasions when the liturgy is speaking of the unique offering of the priestly life say little with which I would want to take issue. It is the subtext which often leaves me oppressed in the spirit. The subtext says in effect, “Let us not be confused. There is nothing happening here which has any eternal or supernatural significance. For after all neither the church, nor its preaching, nor its sacraments, nor its orders of ministers are really necessary in any meaningful way. Let us not expect very much of this priest. Let us not expect anything sacramental. Let us not expect any unique presence of Christ in the church through this offering. Let us especially not expect any unique sacrifice on the part of this individual. For we all know that if we require a profound and irrevocable sacrifice on the part of our priests we shall be expected to make profound and irrevocable sacrifices ourselves. And let us not be confused about the solemnness of this person binding him or herself to the profession of the Apostolic Faith. Let us not think that anything dangerous is happening when a man or woman signs on the dotted line that they believe the scriptures to contain all things necessary to salvation or when they undertake to lead the congregation in the recitation of the creeds of the church. For if we thought that then we would be bound by something more than our own unformed and uninformed consciences and would be obliged toward a dangerous and risky profession of faith ourselves.” Sadly sometimes one looks over and sees the ordinand happily nodding through it all, relieved to be let off the hook at the last minute. So instead of confession in all its meanings and a sacrifice of thanksgiving, we get one more ritual where we assure ourselves that our sins our benign and God indulgent.
To cultivate a clergy who are encouraged as a matter of principle not to believe in the uniqueness of their vocation is yet another symptom of the difficult times to which these talks are addressed. Against the backdrop of predictably anticlerical and psuedo-egalitarian talk about the priesthood this collection of sermons and meditations by two faithful scholar-priests comes as the shelter of a mighty rock within a weary land.

Both Philip Turner and Christopher Seitz give very sober estimates of the theological crisis of the Episcopal Church and both counsel perseverance and warn against schism and the sectarian impulse. Philip Turner takes up a theme that has become a hallmark with him, that is what is needed in this church which is embracing revisionist theologies and practices that are nothing short of apostate, is not more argument but more faithful practice. He argues that sound theological discernment requires a community of faithful practice and he warns us away from fruitless partisan wrangling and politicking and calls us to renew the practices of prayer, scripture reading and community life that might create an environment in which faithful theological discernment might take place. Turner questions whether the witness of scripture and the wisdom of the tradition can be apprehended in churches where the fundamental Christian practices have atrophied. Philip urges the clergy to pick up that particular aspect of their vocation which calls them to constitute themselves as a college of presbyters who meet in prayer, and particularly the scripture soaked prayer of the daily offices. and in the context of this prayer and with a commitment to the mutual charity and submission of true Christian community take up the great issues that divide the church. He has faith that more people are converted by holiness of life than by argument. One is reminded of St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel always, use words when necessary.”

It is a very odd fact of life in our church that the typical life of a diocese provides for little interaction between the clergy and virtually no connection between the bishop and clergy apart from official visitation. The vision that Philip Turner proposes of the bishop and the college of presbyters as a real Christian community gathered regularly in common prayer, worship and spiritual conversation is hopeful. It is the monastic strategy for dealing with the unfaithfulness of the church. The monastic strategy seeks to renew the church by forming exemplary Christian communities while at the same time resisting the sectarian temptation to schism and separation. The proposal is to reform the church by creating within its structures islands of winning and winsome faithfulness. There will be places where such a strategy will work and where community can even be built across lines of division. There will be other places where the polarization is too well defined and such community building is only possible among the like minded. I endorse the effort. It will bless us in any event to return to the practices of prayer and study which should have defined our lives all along. But while we are praying and engaging in the overdue business of renewing our Christian and priestly practice, the General Convention will likely vote us into new regions of apostasy.

I miss in both sets of talks a consideration of the priest, in the phrase of Austin Farrer, as a “walking sacrament.” One of the things that has devitalized the sign of priesthood in our church is the way in which the bonds between the signifier and the signified have been loosed. To be a priest is to be someone whose hands are tied. While Anglo-Catholic ritual is not always good theology it is ever good psychology and the ritual of binding together the new priests hands and placing in them the Bible and the communion vessels shows to all and no less to the new priest that this is a life that is by choice constrained by choice and vow, by a faithfulness that allows no second thoughts, as Philip Turner helpfully reminds us. So the people when they see a priest should know what this person is bound to confess and perform. We have already entered into a time which shall soon become more well defined when it will seem that we are tied to things which can not be found in the scriptures, the creeds or the historic liturgies. Of what shall we then be walking signs?

Turner’s proposals give us a spiritually challenging way to live and renew our vocation in a church which has itself become a broken sign but a practical way of saying I intend to be a sign of this and not that is needed. There is a need for some distinction and separation that is not schism and sectarianism and the fruitless search for the pure church. There is a need for clarifying the sign so that the sacrament may be preserved. The model of Roman Catholic clerical congregations is well worth considering. This has traditionally been seen in Anglicanism primarily in catholic circles but perhaps the time is ripe for an order of priests founded on adherence to orthodox doctrine and commitment to practices of prayer, bible reading and study that could include priests from across a spectrum of churchmanship. It could give a way for the pastoral fruitfulness of different theological postures and different visions of priestly fidelity to be put to the test. It could give congregations a chance to understand easily to what sort of things particular priests are bound and for which they stand.

Christ Seitz’s meditations helpfully direct us to the Old Testament. Here we find the story of a church more like our own than the church of Acts. He directs us to those prophets who are called to minister to a church that is manifestly unfaithful and corrupt. He reminds us that hidden within the prophets words of judgment are words of grace and that hidden within the words of grace are words of judgment and that these realities are not mutually exclusive but hang together in God’s faithful love for His church and are two parts of God’s one act of providential testing and refining. It is very helpful to be reminded that in the Bible, “the language of judgment is a language of purification and hope.” The present chaos is forcing clarification, forcing decision and forcing alliances that would have seemed impossible a short while ago. We must be cautious about identifying ourselves with the prophets because prophecy is not a self-choosen vocation but it may come at any time to any one of us and we can all be encouraged by the remembrance that the prophets were not in control of the response to their message nor the consequences of the response. The prophets had a role that was given to them which required faithfulness and trust in the wisdom of God.

Providence is one of the great neglected themes in contemporary theology even in more traditionalist circles. It is good to be reminded that the Bible teaches that “man meant it for ill but God meant it for good.” It is good to be reminded that the living through of God’s providential history may well be hard. But that does not mean that we live in a God forsaken world. It is not beyond the powers of God to turn the present troubles to great good for His church. This should give us courage to persevere in faithfulness to our vocation.

I am also grateful to Seitz for bringing our attention to the role of the priest as intercessor. It is very helpful to do this by way of contemplation of the prophets. Thus we can put aside any lingering nervousness about crude and superstitious ideas of intercession associated with chantry masses and Reformation debates and can see the connection between being the bearer of the Word of God and the necessity, the inevitability of intercession. How can the heart of the priest not be broken by the response of the people to the Word of God whether it is a response of repentance or a response of resistance. It would take a very stony heart to resist the call to offer up prayers on behalf of these people, impossible once commissioned to bear the Word of God to a particular people not to constantly carry them on your heart as you stand before the Lord.

Here for me there is a disconnect between these earnest discussions that we church professionals have amongst ourselves and the reality of the parish and the people for whom I particularly intercede. Most of what distresses me is simply unknown to them. One of our local parishes invited John Spong to town. I was riled, I was distressed, I was roused to apologetic zeal and the defense of the true faith. We had a few folk who went to the lecture. They didn’t stay to be part of the new and improved Christianity. Most of the folk in my parish had no idea what I was talking about. They were too preoccupied with the sick spouse, their drug addicted child, the recent lay off, their own struggle to find the bare essentials of faith. Within the parish I live very much in the church into which I was ordained and I exercise a ministry that has a form that is recognizably the same as the ministry exercised by the nine rectors before me in the 260 year history of the parish. It is when I am with other clergy, in the conventions and conventicles of our church that I am forced to confront militant unbelief and unfaithfulness and moral relativism. I have these things in the parish but even their practitioners do not want to advertise or advance them. I find myself wondering how to raise and handle the issues of the “difficult times,” that seem so irrelevant to the real difficulties of the real people for whom I pray and hoping and praying that God will sustain us all in our several callings. If I resign from the parish over some action of the General Convention many people are likely to understand only that one particular intercessor has stopped praying for them. I need very much a way to stay with them without seeming to stand for things that are contrary to the vows I have taken.

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