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ON BEING A PRIEST

ON BEING A PRIEST

I was able to celebrate this morning. Three weeks ago I was unable to get through the early service, and since then I’ve spent my time at home, or at the hospital being cut into, drawn out of and generally explored. I’m coming to terms with being a priest with cancer and what that means to me, my family and the congregation I serve.

I celebrated the sung Eucharist this morning. It wasn’t all according liturgical Hoyle. I sat a good deal, preached from a chair, didn’t pass the peace, and stood a discreet distance from those leaving church at the end of the service. Of course the service really doesn’t have an end, or a beginning, but that’s a story for another day.

The church was almost full. I sensed the empathy between the congregation and this member of the congregation. Much of it was about mutual need. The priest was there. I needed the care and love of the congregation. Mutual need.

I have titled this blog, “On Being a Priest”. Those of you who are in tune with the present developments in thinking about priesthood may detect introductions into the theme of “mutual ministry” and perhaps wonder whether “mutual need” is an appropriate response to the phenomenon of a “poorly” parson meeting to make Eucharist with a congregation.

I’ve been reading Bishop Kenneth Stevenson’s “The Mystery of Baptism in the Anglican Tradition”. He explores different aspects of an Anglican approach to baptism through the thoughts of “classical” Anglican divines of the 16th and early 17th century.

I have to confess that one of the things about contemporary Episcopalianism which makes me uneasy is what I believe to be a rather odd concept of “covenant” or should I say a potentially odd concept of this Reformation doctrine. Certainly the Reformers and their heirs in the Church of England re-asserted the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people, of which baptism/confirmation was the outward and visible sign. I include confirmation because the Anglican Divines included confirmation and not to enter into an argument.

What was being asserted was the God-initiative in the business of being and becoming a Christian and being included in the Kingdom which is now and is to be. Perhaps the most important question asked, therefore was in what manner was baptism “efficient.” What was the relationship between what was done at the font and what occurred in the “heart” of those baptized? What was the connection of what God intends for the Church and the actual nature of those who profess and call themselves Christian?

That question is contained in every doubt we express about the “efficiency” of the church at its every level. If God has really done this, why does the church do that? That leads me back to the question of being a priest. We are told nowadays that everyone is a priest. That is true. I remember remarking at a conference between Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Nonconformists in England years ago, that Roman Catholics believe that no one is a priest except a priest and that to Protestants everyone is a priest except a priest.

What I can’t accept is that a priest is merely a sacrament machine for that leads back to priestcraft in short shift. Because I think that our Reformers were largely right about covenant I believe that God calls out from the priestly people presbyters, elders entrusted with the “efficiency” of Word and Sacrament.

What does that mean? In older times every community had its “story teller” who pointed to certain places and to certain stories in order to remind the village of its heritage and its purpose. Such people were regarded with awe and perhaps some superstition! In Medieval Europe they pointed to the churchyard, the church, the maypole, and recited the family trees of villages and the deeds of the famous. The story belonged to all the villagers. The story continued in all the villagers. Neither belonged to the story-teller, but in a real sense, the past, present and future depended on the faithfulness of the story-teller.

A priest is usually set in a “place” and is there to point to font and altar, to tell the story contained in Scripture and in the living tradition and to be a constant reminder of who we are and whom we serve. The reminder is not merely verbal. It is tactile. The benefits of Baptism, the treasure meted out in the Eucharist, the story told as the Word is read, taught and preached, extend into pastoral care and leadership. The care of the priest is to guarantee the “efficiency” of the covenant and to submerge the self into the priestly in sacrifice and thanksgiving. In celebrations of joy and grief, in expressions of remorse and utterances of love the priest is a constant reminder that those who sing and those who grieve are in God’s covenantal love, in God’s grace, and are in the called community of the Church, supported by the offerings of those who are “dead” and those who are alive.

Mercifully many of these duties are “automatic.” However daft Conventions may be, however weak our theology may be, however destructive we may be, the priest is also a “sacrament” because the Church is THE Sacrament. The words and actions a priest utters and performs are the “means of grace.” The Church IS, not because of what it does from time to time, but because of what God does in and through the Church through the gifts given to it. This is no excuse for priestly foolishness, for deadness in orthodoxy or the selfish excitement of the iconoclast. Yet the gates of hell shall not prevail. Despite us those covenanted to ministerial priesthood are “efficient” instruments, in “efficient” parishes and dioceses. I’m not sure about National Churches!

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