Friday, 21 June 2013

Pondering Priesthood

Two priests outside Church House on day of Synod vote on women bishops
I had two main problems with the call to ordination in the Church of England. Well, actually there were multiple problems - the course of vocation never did run smooth - but two main intellectual ones. And they were big. They kept me thrashing around in the bible and Christian tradition for about six months before I dared talk to anyone official.

The first was some formative church experience where women as teachers and leaders were at best absent and at worst disallowed. This reflected a conservative theological reading of St Paul where Eve's deception in the garden of Eden, and the perceived creation hierarchy, were cited as reasons women cannot hold authority over men. I needed to know if I shared this view or rejected it. With something of a tussle, I rejected it.

Second, and more pressing, was the problem of priesthood. If you are ordained in the C of E, after a preliminary year you will be a priest. What did this mean? Was it legitimate in terms of the New Testament's 'priesthood of all believers'? Could I come to an understanding of 'ordination' that felt, not  so much comfortably numb, but comfortably mine?

So much hangs on language. If you are brought up non Conformist it's hard to even say 'priest' with any real meaning. To my ears 'priest' sounded male and it sounded Roman Catholic. It also sounded Old Testament. The female equivalent was worse - cult-ish - in a bad way - priestess of the cult of Diana or Astarte or something. My meetings with those that prepared me for selection were all around this problem. 'What do you understand by priesthood?' To which I would mumble something about 'the priesthood of all believers' and the patient response would come: 'yeeees, but what do you understand by priesthood?'

And so I was stuck, grappling with something that was fundamental, and yet excessively difficult to pin down theologically, which has furthermore been the cause of so many divisions within the church. Only men can be priests. Only the priest can 'celebrate'.The priest is representative. The priest is one of the people. The church can do without priests. The church can't exist without priests. Anglican orders are null and void. There were no priests in the the early church  There were priests in the early church. Ordination is indelible. It's just setting you aside for a function. Only the Bishops' hands. 'Tainted' hands.

So, reeling and tripping like an amateur ice skater, I came to the night before Ordination. We were holed up in a small chapel for the final Eucharist. I must admit I found that last Eucharist as a 'lay person' very hard. It had an awesome sense of the Holy. In fact I had taken my shoes off. It's the only time I've ever taken the bread and wine in bare feet. It felt like the final ascent of a high mountain. The lower slopes had been manageable but I feared failing at the last few metres. I desired yet drew back from the summit. It was like when you can see the bank on the other side of the water and you really need to get over there but there's a huge jump.

Three years in and I am no closer to defining priesthood. It grows to encompass many things, but with an expanding breadth of meaning it tends to get diffuse. President, intercessor, conductor, enabler, sign, presence, shepherd, witness, leader, visionary? 

I felt decidedly weird on the day of
'Ontological instability'?
Ordination, but this had a lot to do with getting up too early, being nervous, being hot, being photographed a lot, being told what to do by multiple Church of England officials and being first in the alphabet. At the end of the day a friend wondered facetiously if I was suffering from 'ontological instability'. I thought 'how clever, it must be that'. But was anything ontological really happening, or was it more a rite of passage, with all the attendant  feelings of liminality, uncertainty and unique spiritual opportunity? 

Recently I was challenged by reading a former Bishop in Australia reflect on the phrase 'ordained ministry':  'The notion of the ordained ministry suggests an ontologically distinct order within the ecclesia into which certain persons are inducted. This generates the entirely fictitious idea that those whom the church calls to the office of deacon, priest and bishop, are, in the first instance, being relocated to a different metaphysical realm, that is the ordained ministry.'* 

So I don't know...My gender and background keep me from identifying wholly with a position which makes me 'Christ's representative'. Yet it has to be more than just the 'charism' of leadership taken to its logical conclusion. Maybe its
meaning will always elude me. Maybe it doesn't matter day to day. Maybe the more you focus on priesthood the less you remember you are still just an ordinary Christian trying to be obedient.

I suppose the bottom line is this is where I seem to have come, this is where I am now, and this is where, with God's grace, I'm going.

*Stephen Pickard, Theological Foundations for Collaborative Ministry, p. 21, my italics. 


  1. I also struggle desperately with this question.
    I also come from a free chuch background - priesthood of all believers.
    Just 3 weeks ago our Deacon was one week from being ordained preist and teh vicar preached a sermon about the priesthood of all believers - said we were _all_ called to be priests,gave the impression that the ordained priest is more about function than anything.
    Then just 2 weeks ago, the now-priest's 1st celebration - and the whole jamboree was just _so_ intense, giving the very, very clear message that somehow this was the ultimate pinnacle... and yet the vicar says that to think that is an error. And yet the actual behaviour of both him and others in the congregation give the lie to his words...
    and simply to even _think_ about it causes me to feel immense, almost intolerable, pain and anger.
    I'm very, very stuck... have been struggling with this in prayer for weeks now and the pain simply gets worse and I don't even know _why_ I should find this soooo painful...

  2. Are you struggling with it because you too are sensing a call to be a priest?
    The pain you feel is possibly due to picking up the tensions within the body of Christ about it. We divide ourselves instead of all looking towards our Great High Priest.
    Take heart - St Peter and St Paul didn't always see eye to eye, but they were both vital members of the body, looking to the Head.
    Looking to the Head might also help you take your eyes off the apparent dichotomy in your situation and its associated pain. Don't dwell on it. Let it be.
    I have become convinced that the priest needs the people and the people need the priest - like man and woman are bound up with one another in the Genesis creation story. All leadership threatens to be lonely and only honesty about human weakness can save a priest from this.
    If you're thinking about a calling yourself, just let apparently conflicting notions of priesthood simmer away without trying to sort it out finally - the C of E is broad and there should be space for a wide understanding.
    God bless you.