Why the priest?

My apologies for the months-long gap in between entries– I got distracted by Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, which is a thing that can easily happen if it sits on your bedside table too long.

I also realized I was taking this whole “blog about The Christian Priest Today” thing way too seriously. Case in point: in addition to stressing over every single detail of the post, I had also managed to write a 1,800 word (and climbing!) essay that no one in their right mind would read. Whoops. (Don’t worry. This post isn’t even 1,000 words.)

So, back to Abp Ramsey: Why the priest?

During my life as a Christian, I have seen a number of theological understandings of ordination and the need for ordained ministers in the life of the church. On the one hand, there were those (especially prevalent in my Baptist days) who did not place much stock in what I will call the “professional religious person.” Anyone, so the thinking goes, who is called by the Holy Spirit can and should serve in a particular ministerial function, sometimes regardless of training or experience.  After all, everyone is called to ministry but only some do it vocationally.

On the other hand, however, the Episcopal Church takes a different route based on a different ecclesiological and sacramental understanding. It prioritizes long discernment processes undergone in the crucible of community, including numerous hoops through which one must jump as well as numerous points for re-evalution along the way.

Provided one has no prior theological education, the shortest route toward ordination in TEC can still take almost half a decade and requires a whole nexus of institutional support systems (local, diocesan, and national) in order to complete.

Though not perfect, this protracted process does at least work to ensure that, on the whole, ministers are well-trained and well-formed for the work that the Church requires of them. It views the priesthood as a profession that requires the same kind of vetting, training, and devotion as any other.

This approach, however, can lead to what I call an “over-professionalization” of the clergy that begins to run counter to the full reality of ordained ministry. When this over-professionalization goes too far, it can begin to erode the healthy functioning of the whole church, diminishing the necessary role of the laity while simultaneously contorting the contours of a proper understanding of Holy Orders.

I would argue that once these roles become distorted and confused, they also lose their intelligibility and potency. That’s when skepticism creeps in. (“What’s a priest really for, anyway? Why is the community of the church necessary?”)

Ramsey’s chapter offers a response. He takes on not simply a secular culture’s skepticism toward the priesthood, but the “malaise of doubt and questioning about the priesthood within the Christian community itself” (pg 5). Among the motivations for this malaise (a word Ramsey uses rather often to describe attitudes in the Church), Ramsey lists a trend toward anti-institutionalism that sounds eerily familiar to our present situation over half a century later.

In the face of this anti-institutionalism, Ramsey offers an explanation for why the priesthood remains an important (and integral) part of the faith.

According to Ramsey, the priest has four qualities that set her office apart:

1.) A priest is a person of theology. The priest is one set apart by the community to study and deepen their knowledge so that the knowledge of the entire community may then be deepened.

2.) A priest is a minister of reconciliation. There exists no shortage of resources– psychiatrists, counselors, and the like– who help folks with their problems. What the priest brings to the table is the “gospel of divine forgiveness” (pg 8). This good news isn’t just conveyed through Confession and Absolution, but also through preaching and teaching.

3.) A priest is a person of prayer. “As the teacher of theology the priest must pray, as theology which is alive includes not only book-work but the authentic knowledge of God which comes through prayer alone” (pg. 9).

4.) A priest is a person of the Eucharist. The priest stands as the peoples’ representative drawing those people nearer to the Church rooted in the Gospel throughout time, and thus to the redemptive work of Christ, through the celebration of the Eucharist.

Theology, reconciliation, prayer, Eucharist– the priest is set apart by the community for these particular purposes and functions. Ramsey intentionally omits “pastor” from his list because, as he says, “pastor describes the whole” (pg 10). The role of “pastor” to Ramsey incorporates theological instruction, acts of reconciliation, prayer, and the celebration of the Eucharist.

Notice that Ramsey does not spend time on what we might consider the work of “pastoral care”– going to hospitals, visiting the elderly, etc.

I contend that he does not mention these acts of pastoral care for two reasons: 1.) they are a given (and an extension of the above four items) and 2.) visiting people and caring for them does not require ordination, but is rather a function meant to be carried out by all members of the Body.

Indeed, the work of the laity is bound up in each and every one of Ramsey’s four aspects of the priesthood. The priest is not merely a professional religious functionary, but rather a member of the Christian community called by God and that community to serve in a particular way.

In the words of Rowan Williams, the priest is someone to whom the community of the Church has told to “stand there, and tell us what you see from there.” What it looks like to stand, see, and report is what the rest of Ramsey’s addresses begin to explain.


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