The Power And Dignity Of The Priesthood

This was published in an edition of the Sewanee Theological Review devoted to ministry. It touches on the discussion on this site about the priesthood.

The Power and Dignity of the Priesthood

A Talk given at the Annual Meeting of The Society for the Increase of the Ministry
At Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, November I, 1995, By the Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994

Much has been written about the perception of a crisis in the priesthood. The Cornerstone Project was developed by the Episcopal Church Foundation in order to help strengthen ordained leadership at a time when clergy are reporting themselves to be discouraged, confused and highly stressed. One of the most recent findings of the Cornerstone Project is that the parish priests in the project had difficulty articulating a theology of priesthood. The staff found that the priests in the project could discuss theological readings with competence but that when they spoke about their parish ministries they did not tend to speak in theological categories. I was one of a group of clergy, theologians and Cornerstone staff who attended a conference at the College of Preachers in June of 1995 to attempt to understand the meaning of this finding and to suggest a course of action. The thoughts that I am going to share with you tonight represent my contribution to that discussion.

While there are many practical problems in the parish ministry which must be addressed, it is my conviction that the fundamental stress, the fundamental crisis is a crisis of meaning. There is a genuine confusion about the meaning of priesthood in the minds of the priests, bishops, deacons and laity. What does it mean to be a priest? What is the work of a priest? This question dogs us to such a degree that the question, “Do we really need priests?” is a question seriously asked today. Perhaps you have heard of the cutting edge liturgical practice of celebrating the Eucharist by putting the elements in the midst of the assembly and reciting the prayer of consecration as a group as a way of witnessing to the priesthood of all believers. This kind of activity points toward a crisis in the understanding of the meaning of the priesthood, indeed in the meaning of the church itself.

I had a vivid experience of this crisis of meaning at a recent clergy gathering in my home diocese of Connecticut. At the first clergy conference we had with our newly elected diocesan bishop, there was a great discussion of the number of hours a priest should work per week. This discussion generated more heat than light. It was clear to me that the topic touched the parish clergy in a tender place and that none of the Bishop’s kind and prudential advice about an appropriate work week seemed to console or satisfy. I realized that the question being answered, “How much should I work?” was not the question really being asked. That question was,”Does my work have meaning?” In a growing parish with good finances and improving membership the question of meaning seems to have an obvious answer. Many clergy serve in places where despite persistent and dedicated effort there is little observable result in terms of growing revenue and membership. What does it mean to pour out your life in such a ministry? Does it make a difference? If so, what is the difference that it makes?

Whence cometh this confusion? There are number of factors which converge. There has been a change in the society. There is the much discussed post-modern, post-Christian society in which the church as an institution has become increasingly marginalized. There is the generation shift, the change in values, the consumer mind set of the Baby boomers whose loyalty must be constantly rewon. There is much good discussion of the exterior forces that converge to challenge our understanding of parish ministry and priesthood. These must be taken seriously and they require a response. But all these issues simply exacerbate the underlying confusion in the theological meaning of priesthood. One of the reasons the church and its ordained ministry are having trouble responding effectively to the change in social context is a lack of conviction about what is essential about holy orders and the life of the church. I want to limit my remarks to the theological sources of the confusion. We have no hope of responding effectively to the sea change in the context of the church without an inner clarity about the nature and meaning of holy orders and the church.

But what is it that keeps us from being clear? What confuses us? We are confused about soteriology, about the doctrine of salvation. There is in my estimation nothing like a soteriological consensus in the church today. For some, salvation is rescue from divine retribution by confessing dependence on the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. For some, salvation is the pursuit of a spiritual journey. For some salvation is a metaphor for social justice or psychological wholeness. Most of the popular images of salvation treat the church and its ministry as accessories before or after the fact of salvation. The locus of salvation is elsewhere; at the revival or the charismatic conference, at the meeting of the women’s caucus, at the retreat or the conference on spirituality. We don’t know what salvation is and we are looking for it almost anywhere but in the parish church and we expect almost anyone to be its minister save the parish priest. The result is that we inhabit the forms of the church without understanding their meaning. The church becomes increasingly merely a secular organization. It ceases to be holy, sacred, the sacrament of the new life in Jesus Christ, what St. Paul calls the arabon, the down payment of the Kingdom, the wedding of the bride and the bridegroom. The church ceases to be God saving us by sharing his life with us. Instead the church becomes the organization for those who have been saved and are bible believing or those who believe in empowerment and liberation or those who are on a journey. Many parish churches are crucified and paralyzed by the competition and conflict between these kind of groups in the parish as they struggle for a church “that fills my needs.”

The confusion about the meaning of salvation is a huge problem afflicting the life of everyone in the church and seriously hampering the effectiveness of the church’s mission. It is a problem that is especially corrosive to the life of the priest. The priest has a special ministry, a special service in the economy of God’s salvation. If it is hard to know the meaning of salvation, then the servant does not know the purposes of the master and becomes unsure of what he or she is supposed to do. There are three primary forms under which the confusion about the nature of salvation appears. Salvation is confused with an idea or concept; salvation is confused with an experience or feeling; and salvation is confused with a program of social, psychological or political liberation.

When one one hears of the “Christian idea of God, Gospel Values, The Christian idea of the afterlife,” there is a danger that God’s salvation in Christ is being reduced to a concept in the intellectual realm. Christianity becomes a way of thinking about God, humanity, human responsibility and so forth. The sacraments begin to stand for ideas, concepts, values, rather than being a participation in a living reality. This approach is a natural temptation that arises from the need to study the faith in relation to the other great world religions and the popular secular creeds of the moment. The faith must be objectified to make this study possible. But the faith of the Apostles is not primarily a theory which is to be abstracted from the “Christian myth.” The faith of the Apostles is a witness to the saving acts of God in the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus Christ and the coming of his spirit. The salvation of God is not an idea, the Christian idea of God or the good life, to be compared and contrasted with other ideas. If salvation is reduced to a concept, it will simply dissolve and disappear in the solvent of pluralism. The priest is simply then the representative of one option among many for a private spirituality and will him or herself secretly be on the lookout for a better idea. Such a self-understanding cannot support the kind of sacrifice that the priesthood requires. I once read a book about religion in Japan after World War II entitled, The Rush Hour Of The Gods. There is a danger now of the priest being trampled in the rush hour of the gods.

Salvation is also not to be confused with one event or one experience, for example the experience of “being born again” or “baptized in the spirit.” Then salvation becomes not God’s gift renewed in us daily through our fellowship with God in the Body of Christ, but a possession which tempts us with self-righteousness and threatens to divide the church in a new way between haves and have-nots. In this scheme the priest will either be a have or a have not. The power of his or her ministry will not be the inner mystery of the priesthood but a public claim to a particular experience. The power and dignity of the priesthood will be constantly gainsaid by individuals who claim a more authentic experience. This confusion of salvation with experience and emotion is a rather natural reaction to the dessication of the soul that arises from the abstraction of the first position.

Salvation is also not to be confused with a social program or a political agenda. In our politics and social relations we must witness to the salvation of God but no program of social progress can be identified without remainder with God’s salvation. I remember when I was a student at Boston College, the great Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez lectured us and said, “Liberation is very important, perhaps I shall have to die for Liberation, but Liberation is not enough, even for me not enough and for you certainly not enough.” When salvation is confused with liberation, the priest becomes the agent of something which has not yet happened, which may or may not come to pass and which is marked with the moral ambiguity of all human enterprises. Again the priest is attempting to have a power whose source is not an inner secret, the mystery of sacramental priesthood, a particular role in God’s sharing of himself through his Son in the power of his Spirit, but a public claim to the status of victim or righteous liberator. Again the church is divided into haves and have -nots. Those who have the right social and political agenda and those who do not. The priest comes to stand for something which though it echoes and reflects important ecclesial themes is nevertheless of the world and not God’s church. It is good that there be greater equality between men and women in the social and political realm but that is not the same thing as mutual subjection in Christ in whom there is no male or female. The political world of righteous victims and wicked oppressors is the problem to which the great democracy of sinners, the great democracy of the redeemed is the answer.

Salvation is not essentially an idea, or an isolated experience, or a program. Salvation is God redeeming and rescuing his people from sin and evil. Salvation consists of real events that have taken place: the coming of the Messiah, his death for us on the cross, his victory over death, his risen life poured out upon us in the coming of his spirit. Salvation is the recreation of human beings and human society and, St. Paul says, the whole creation in Christ. Salvation is a new life, a different life from the life of the world. It is not an idea or a private experience or a program, it is a reality. The Church is the sacrament of this reality. This reality is to be accepted or rejected. To accept it is newness of life, life abundant, life everlasting. To accept this life is to accept the new reality of God’s sharing of himself with us which is the secret of the life of the church. To reject this life is to be left defenseless in the face of sin and evil, to have no help against the enemy of our souls.

There is also a confusion about the problem of universalism that undermines the missionary zeal of the church. The evangelical and renewal wing of the church has adopted the theology of the American frontier revival. People are sinners in the hand of an angry God and unless they profess faith in Christ through a “personal decision” they will burn in hell. The majority of our people and clergy balk at the idea that friends, family members and faithful adherents of other religions who are unconverted but yet good and decent will be damned at the last day. There is an understandable allergy to the presumption of knowing what God will do with any individual soul on the last day and this translates into a missionary reticence, an evangelical timidity that threatens to trivialize the church and its ministry. The problem as it is presented in the popular imagination of our church is a distraction. We can not know the ultimate destiny of any individual soul. We may hope and pray that God will ultimately turn every rebel home. We must leave open the terrible possibility that God will allow some to rebel against his love forever. We should resist the temptation to become preoccupied with speculation about the ultimate consequences of God’s plan of salvation, profound though the problem may be. Rather we should focus our imagination on the reality of our own struggle with sin and evil. The drama of salvation is not primarily a theoretical problem to be solved, the problem of the relationship between God’s judgement and the pluralism of the world’s religions. The drama of salvation is the drama of real men and women who are really threatened with a real evil and who must face a real death, with real guilt and estrangement. The drama of salvation is God’s real sharing of his life, his grace, mercy, healing, forgiveness, his recreating love with these real people in a real history through the one who is really his Son and in the power of whose Spirit the church really lives.

The world we live in is still a world where there is no human answer to the problem of sin and forgiveness, where death and the devil are still the enemy of our human nature and where the new spiritualities and the great world religions offer people yet one more path of laborious ascent to God. The news of God’s descent to humankind in its distress with a sacrificial saving love, with the reality of a new life, here and hereafter, is still water in the desert, still light in the darkness and still life itself to those who are perishing. It is sad to watch the church constrain and devalue its mission because of a speculative universalism while people are sinking into evil and despair in front of our eyes. If the priesthood is to regain its power and dignity the priest must have eyes to see both the peril in which our people live and the blessing of the church as the reality of the new life, the place where there is a constant transformation of human life in the power of the Spirit. When we are blind to these realities we are blind to the holiness and sacredness of the church as the locus of God’s saving activity and we see the church as a merely institutional and organizational reality.

There are many symptoms of the displacement of the church as a theological reality, as something which is holy and therefore has a holy order by the church as an organization. There is the vain hope that we will find the solution to the problem of the church and its ministry in reorganization, in better management, in training in leadership, in the right social psychological perspective, such as family systems theory. All good things. All good in their place. All representing needed improvements in the life of the church and in the skills of clergy but none of them the long awaited messiah. It is no good to be more efficient and effective if we do not know the secret of our life together and the secret of our individual callings within that common life.

Perhaps the most common symptom of the ascendency of the church as organization is the almost exclusive use of political metaphors of power in our church. There is much talk of the balance of power between clergy and laity. The feeling here is that the clergy have too much power and the laity too little. The image here is of a power pie. If you have power you have taken it from someone. The more you have the less I have. This is real. These are the kinds of dynamics addressed in the canons of the church. They are wise about this kind of power. Our canons and constitution recognize that power can be abused by each order of the church, clerical as well a lay. But there is another kind of power such that the more I have the more you have. This power is mysterious, abundant and fecund. It is the mystical power of Christ, the power of His Holy Spirit gifting the church in such a way that the whole body is built up. The nature of this power is to empower individuals with unique gifts for the furthering of God’s plan of salvation. Israel was not weak because Moses was strong. Israel was weak when it rejected the ministry of Moses. The early churches were not weak because Paul was strong. The secret of his power was his ability to build them up in conformity to Christ.

The church is an organization and institution. These things are good and necessary but they have meaning and purpose only as they transcend and fulfill themselves as elements of the Body of Christ, as the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit, as a foretaste of Christ’s Kingdom. The incessant use of political metaphors and power analysis is confusing to the church and causes it to lose its consciousness of itself as a pneumatic reality–a fellowship whose inner secret is an abundant and supernatural power to have a life of love with each other and the Father that more and more conforms to the love the Father and Son share with each other in the unity of the Spirit.

In the church there are those who are called to a distinctive conformity to Christ in His vocation to reconcile all things to the Father in the unity of the Spirit. Jesus says to Peter,”Do you love me more than these? Feed my sheep.” To such as these Christ through the Spirit gives a unique power, an anointing. The priest is a distinctive and unique agent of the power of Christ in the church–the Christ who at the cost of his life gathers the lost sheep of Israel, the Risen Christ who breaks bread with the disciples, who bids them look for the Spirit to come upon them and who sends them to proclaim peace to all the nations.

We are also confused about the necessarily sacrificial nature of the priesthood. Our democratic and egalitarian instincts rebel at the idea of what appears to be an elitism. Both clergy and laity are loathe to admit the costliness of the priesthood. There is a fear of two classes of Christians, of making the clergy into super-christians. There is an insistence by clergy and laity alike that priests be ordinary, that priests have no special status. This can be seen in the move toward a false familiarity between laity and clergy, the abandonment of clerical garb, that traditional symbol of a sacrificial and consecrated life. There is a sort of perverse desire to have a priesthood but one which is not to be revered, to have some sort of order in the church but one which is not holy.

But God works his salvation by giving unique vocations to unique individuals. When a bishop is consecrated, the witness of prophets, apostles and martyrs is invoked. God lays claim to every life by making a special claim on particular lives. “Behold the spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” A life that is surrendered to such a call has a unique dignity and power(what the old writers called an indelible character) not because it is perfect, without human fault, but because it can no longer escape the terrible pressure of being a means God has determined to use to implement his plan of salvation. God’s appeal of love to humanity through Jesus provokes guilt and hostility and rejection which is overcome by the suffering of sacrificial love. The vocation of the priest calls for a close identification with Jesus in his humiliation and rejection and his sacrifice of suffering love. The priest can be surrendered to this vocation. The priest can rebel. The priest cannot escape. This is costly–sacrificial. It is to be identified especially closely with Christ’s longing for the lost sheep of Israel, with his weeping over Jerusalem, with his disappointment over Peter, with his suffering and humiliation, with his cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” with his patience as he walks with them unrecognized, explaining everything in Moses and the prophets pertaining to the Messiah, with his joy as he breaks bread with them after the resurrection.

If because of a confused egalitarianism the priest refuses to identify with God’s hierarchy of sacrifice and service, the priest will miss the power, dignity and blessing of his or her special calling. If the laity refuse to revere the reality of such a call, such a unique sacrifice. If they prefer mere comradeship to a mother, a father, an elder, a presbyter in God, one through whom God makes his unremitting, terrible, yet tender appeal for fellowship with Him through his Son in the power of the Spirit–if such is the case, God’s desire to pour out his power upon his people is frustrated. When the people revere the special sacrifice that is the life of a priest they do not diminish themselves; they claim their own dignity as a people who are ever redeemed by a costly and sacrificial love. When the people discount and are irreverent about holy orders(sometimes sadly with the collusion of a cynical priest), they demean themselves and lose their dignity and cut themselves off from a mighty channel of the transforming love of God.

St. Paul says (ICor:26) of the Body of Christ that when one organ suffers, all suffer, and when one organ flourishes, they all rejoice together. The solution to the problem of a lack of dignity and power in the ministry of the lay order implies a corresponding problem of a loss of dignity and power in the ordained. We cannot build up one part of the church by diminishing another part. The church finds itself in a new and challenging missionary context. To be effective in this context will require prudence about cultural sensitivity, leadership skills, organizational effectiveness etc. But these things in themselves will not renew the power and dignity of the church, that power and dignity which is inherently attractive. To this end priests must regain a consciousness of their dignity and power as a unique and indispensable vocation in the economy of salvation. This is an essential step for the church as it regains a consciousness of itself as God’s communication of his life to his people, as the anticipation of the kingdom which is to come, as the reality of God’s salvation.

One thought on “The Power And Dignity Of The Priesthood

  1. Excellent article. This was most encouraging in that it was true. It seems you have quite nicely diagnosed a serious illness in the Church’s body.

    The power narratives are most certainly present, a vestige of a Hobbesian influence in the modern nation-state dialectic. Even Christians tend to implicitly think Hobbes was right, that religion and politics are separate, and that the former often cause problems, so the Church shouldn’t be political. My only thought would be not to throw out the baby with the bath water. While “political agendas” often refer to a possessive marker of identity in the only two brands of modern politics: Liberal-liberal or Liberal-conservative, I think we can offer the true politic, ie Church, as a body not marked by possession, but as one of participation. I think your have/have-not vs sacramental way of living meets this problem well. E.g. If I have to hear one more person ask me if we “have events” I might have to start telling the truth, “Yes, we worship the Living God in three Persons every day.” 🙂

    I think the move you clearly set up for but didn’t explicitly make is that the “Dignity of every human person” found in our Baptism and ‘recognizing equality between individuals’ are not the same thing. Perhaps you know your audience 🙂 It might be equality only exists between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and all the rest of the cosmos is ordered accordingly around that. One of the nastier implications of the sacraments is that by ‘participation’ we believe one can be more or less holy, e.g. we pray to saints. So even noting two people are the same kind of thing, e.g. two priests, is not the same thing as saying they’re equal. For instance there are twenty-four seats for twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles around the Throne of God. I suspect I’ll never get to sit on any of that counsel. Your comments on egalitarianism I think point to this exact problem and why Americans especially have a hard time understanding the Liturgy. It simply does not compute. “The People,” laity has come to no longer mean every one, including the priest. Now ‘The People’ means everyone but the priest. It seems a certain constitution has wiggled its way into our churches. It seeks to flattens the Economy of God into a plain of equality, destroying all saints, sanctification, and sacraments into worthless things. Why would we need saving? We’re all equal.

    When and if it begins to, we create ‘liturgical committees’ who fancy themselves holy enough to Create qua Creators, a new way of worshipping the LORD, despite His own revelations to us on how to worship Him fittingly. Church-in-the-round does us no favors here, ‘experimental liturgies’ do us no favors here, putting the elements into the crowd for all to consecrate neither, but only further destroy the Order of Melchisedek. This seems to but further confuse the true meaning of Dignity with its mundane, shadow counterpart. Seems we end up with priests offering unholy fire and the rest asking, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ Then no one knows their order, and without them there is no participation in Justice.

    I may have ranted far too much. I delighted in the article, thanks.

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