In Jesus, priest, prophet and shepherd-king there is the perfect balancing of love, truth and power.
There is only one priest. Christianity is life in him. Jesus Christ brings perfect glory to God and full salvation to the world. As ‘priest over the house of God’, Jesus gives his household the Church, ‘confidence to enter the sanctuary’ in worship and, by his once for all offering ‘full assurance of faith’ and salvation (Hebrews -22).
In Jesus there is to be found the perfect combination of three qualities so dispersed in a broken world - love, truth and power. These qualities in the life of God are reflected in the triple office of Jesus shared with his Church - that of priest, prophet and king or shepherd.
‘It is he whom we proclaim’ writes
The same energy is to be at work in the ‘apostles’ of today seeking maturity in Christ in the Church. The Holy Spirit energises the clergy as they make themselves tools of his building up the life of Christ in love, truth and power.
‘No one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit’ ( 1 Corinthians 12:3b).
'God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5b).
‘When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13a).
‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8a).
Working under the authority of and in the person of Christ and empowered by his Spirit, the ministerial priesthood looks to the consecration and maturing of the Church in love, truth and powerful witness. The balancing of these qualities is expressed in the three titles of priest, prophet and shepherd king traditionally ascribed to Christ
In this Chapter and the two that follow attention will be given to how an empowering priesthood acts for Christ as priest, prophet and shepherd in building up the Church.
THIS IS MY BODY GIVEN FOR YOU
A friend who is a priest once confided in me that he had become more and more ‘Calvinistic’ in his view of human nature as his ministry had proceeded. Somehow he had lost his original optimism about the people he dealt with in the Church. He expected the negative. Despite that perception he was still a highly convivial priest who helped generate a convivial Christian community. Yet, in his heart he was somewhat broken by his experience over his years of priesthood. He had learned that as God treats us as better than we are so must we Christians endeavour to treat our fellows – the Lord being our helper.
There is something dismaying about a priest who holds contempt for his people. Lack of love in the Church is a major flaw and sign of her human inadequacy. Because her members are chosen for her and do not choose themselves or one another, finding the love to build an effective Christian community is an essential priority to be addressed by her leaders.
‘Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross’ (1).
Contemporary talk of love shows at times a shallowness that hardly measures up to the Christian use of that word, which honours the sacrificial gift of Jesus himself. ‘I love you’ so often means ‘I love me and want you’. In Christ, ‘I love you’ means ‘This is my body given for you’. The ministry of priests preserves those words which, read at every Eucharist, define and challenge the Christian community.
Empowering the Church is a matter of facing this challenge of love, which relates to both the truth and power which are also granted in Jesus. Any reading of the lives of the Saints quickly evidences that the love of God and neighbour has been a struggle all through Christianity. Conviction about the truth of Christ and the empowering of grace has always been necessary to help the Saints prevail in love.
Love is a gift to be given
and to be welcomed in the Church. The self-sufficiency of contemporary
humankind has so invaded her that there are many problems about both giving and
receiving love. Yet only as love is built can a
Priests have something of a task in helping the Christian community ‘break in’ some of her stronger members. There can be insensitivity about the more indomitable Christian. C.S.Lewis drew a picture of one such lady ‘who spent her energies in the service of others’. He added, ‘you could tell “the others” by their hunted look!’ In such cases priests need courage to get alongside these stronger members and help their fuller consecration.
Sometimes the more confident and energetic members of a Church, like Lewis’s lady, are incapable of receiving love themselves. Many priests even find the welcoming of love very difficult themselves. They have been so schooled in independence that the admission of a need for love is almost anathema.
The priest helps build love in the Church by challenging the strong to deeper sensitivity and vulnerability. The channelling of people’s strengths to God’s praise and service is as helpful to a loving Christian community as the misuse of those strengths is damaging. Priestly ministry is about helping people consecrate their strengths to God, which sometimes requires encouraging them first to ‘let God love them’ .
Building love in the Church links to the growth in humility and a sense of people’s need of grace. Only as people are confident enough to ‘be themselves’ does a community really form. ‘All of us who are part of the community know our individual failings, yet while we are there we are lifted into something greater than any of us could achieve alone…Our places of worship are about turning strangers into friends…There is no greater source of peace – peace of the soul – than this, knowing that we are known, recognising that we are recognised. Then I understand how community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, how I live and what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name’ (2).
One of the great weaknesses of the clergy is failure to trust. Sometimes it is the experience of betrayal that stops the honesty basic to building up a community of trust. Bearing graciously with petty ‘betrayals’ is essential if a priest is to be Christ’s instrument of building love. This is perhaps why someone wrote once that ‘at the centre of every “living” parish there is a “dying” priest’.
Priesthood is a matter of connecting people one to another through connecting them with Christ. It is said that the place of greatest solidarity in the world is among those who see themselves in some sense as at the foot of the Cross of Christ. Though ordained priests represent Christ's merciful forgiveness through their office, where they are able to witness truthfully and without scandal to their own personal need for mercy, they definitely enhance the work of reconciliation among Christians.
‘There but for the grace of God go I’ said the Puritan watching the condemned man ascend the scaffold. A sense of mercy needs cultivating in the Church today so that she is seen as an oasis of mercy in a judgmental world. We are said to live in a ‘culture of contempt’ where the mass media continually exposes human frailty and judges it without forgiveness. The miracle of Christianity is a God who is less concerned to give people what they deserve than to give them what they need. In building love in the Church priests and people are being prophetic, speaking of the truth of God which empowers and sets free.
‘The vocation of all those who share in the priesthood of the one High Priest is to keep re-making in him the broken connections between earth and heaven where our High Priest is’ writes Thomas Lane. ‘The task of the person in ordained ministry is the continual making of connections between the word of God and the daily lives of people - between word, sacrament, and pastoral ministry. This must be done in continual partnership with Jesus Christ and with all those who exercise baptismal priesthood. The dream of God for the universe is a world in harmony, in tune. But the world fell out of harmony, in the mess we have come to call original sin. Into a world out of harmony and out of tune, the Son of God came saying ‘See, God, I have come….to do your will, O God’ (Hebrews 10:7). The letter to the Hebrews gives us his programme for the only true priesthood, the only true sacrifice, the only true at-one-ment, the only true in-tune-ment’ (3).
In his high priestly prayer Jesus pleads for unity among his disciples ‘so that the world may believe’ (John 17:21). Over twenty centuries those in holy orders have served this unity basic to mission, albeit inadequately, so that by the visible unity of Christians there might be a sign or sacrament of unity for humankind.
‘By all means have your special friends’, wrote Monsignor Knox in his book ‘On the Priestly Life’. ‘Only be sure of one thing – be sure that everybody in the parish is your special friend as well!’ (4). Building unity in the local Church can be very costly for priests. Yet, as Michael Ramsey addressed his priests, ‘you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman’ (5).
The ministerial priesthood is itself, under the episcopacy, a sign guaranteeing the unity of the local Church with the universal Church. That sign of unity which is the priesthood has the potential to empower the local Church as it seeks to be ‘one bread… one body’ (1 Corinthians 10:17).
In a fragmented world, the unity of Christians in the grace of God continues as a challenge for ‘the world to believe’ in Christ, source of that unity. Yet for the Church to be empowered and invigorated by new members requires yet more costly efforts towards visible unity, both in congregations and between denominations.
The renewal of the Church in love is prior to her growth, for how can people accept the claims of Christ when they see lack of love in his Church?
1. Ordination of Priests The Alternative Service Book 1980
2. Jonathan Sacks Celebrating Life 2000
3. Thomas Lane A Priesthood in Tune 1993
4. Ronald Knox The Priestly Life 1958
5. Michael Ramsey The Christian Priest Today 1972
Love and truth walk in your presence, Lord Psalm 89:14
In Chapter 3 attention was given to how an empowering priesthood serves the building up of the Church in love as it acts for Christ as priest. In this Chapter our focus moves on to the prophetic aspect of the ministerial priesthood. This aspect runs alongside the priestly and pastoral elements as sure as love, truth and power are to be found in Jesus.
Church growth surveys depict growing Churches as those that have attained a loving atmosphere open to the challenge of Christ’s teaching and the empowering of his Spirit. Such Churches tend to have a leadership combining these qualities intrinsic to Jesus Christ in being friendly, principled and enthusiastic.
Mahatma Ghandi related his experience of the Christian Church in South Africa in the early part of the twentieth century. Hungry for a spirituality himself, he was disconcerted by the lack of interest in spiritual matters there. Apart from the lack of teaching ministry, the congregation he joined appeared to him more of a social club than a school of prayer. It was this perceived lack of seriousness about truth and spirituality that led him to move on from Christianity to recover his own native religion.
Where there is an emphasis upon a loving fellowship to the detriment of the teaching ministry the Church can appear shallow. Conversely where Gospel truth prevails over the human element, the Church can appear shrill and forbidding. The ultimate partnership of love and truth is affirmed several times in Scripture. In the Psalms, for example, we read this affirmation of their equal balance: ‘love and truth walk in your presence, Lord’ (Grail Psalter 89:14b).
As a community is formed in Christ there is a building in love, a consecration in truth and an empowering in the Holy Spirit. The ministerial priesthood plays an important role in achieving this balance in Christ.
Prophetic ministry relates the word of God to particular situations bringing challenge and urgency into people's considerations. This ministry of challenge so essential to the Church’s mission is shared in measure by all the baptised as they help people interpret their personal situations in the light of Christ.
If all the baptised possess such spiritual authority, the ministerial priesthood, bears authority in a particular fashion. Bishops and priests bear authority as a gift to the Church as a whole. The triple office of Jesus - prophet, priest and king (shepherd) - is their particular witness as one section of the Church emphasising what is to become more and more true of the whole community.
The good news of Christianity lies in what Jesus Christ did for the world and in the abiding energy of his work. The momentum of the Christian Faith has carried it through twenty centuries including periods of hostility or indifference.
Any community with a purpose is held on track by appropriate authority. The Christian Church claims to have been given authority by Jesus Christ to continue his saving mission of bringing all that is into fellowship with God. The scriptures and creeds, the orderly succession of bishops and Church Councils - all hold authority in the sense of holding Christianity to its divine purpose. The exercise of authority within the Church is ideally the instrument of the living Christ working through scripture, tradition and the reasoned consensus of Christians.
In facing up to Christian divisions over a remarkable century of convergence between the Churches, it has been widely recognised that authority and leadership within them is a sovereign gift of God to be welcomed as the servant of mission. ‘Authority is exercised within the Church for the sake of those outside it, that the Gospel may be proclaimed “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). This authority enables the whole Church to embody the Gospel and become the missionary and prophetic servant of the Lord’ (1).
Church leaders are not seen to receive authority by their merits, and neither is the God-given authority within the Church totally invalidated by her failure to preserve Christian unity over the centuries. The ordained ministry is a gift to create this ‘holy order’ lifting the baptised up to God in worship and turning them outwards in love to humankind as a sacrament of salvation.
‘Yet it is far from true that while the Church is our Lord's creation the ministry is only a device whereby the Church can be effective. Both Church and ministry are gifts of the divine Lord Jesus. He appointed twelve that they might be with him, and that he might send them forth. When he ascended on high he gave gifts to men. The apostle draws his commission and authority from Christ alone, and he uses an authority given to him when in Christ's name he ordains and commissions the presbyters. "Take thou authority for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God now committed unto thee by the imposition of these hands, and be thou a faithful dispenser of the word of God and of his holy sacraments….our consciousness is not of our own status, but of Christ whose commission we hold and of the people we serve in his name' (2).
The renewal of the priesthood requires a recovery of confidence in the teaching office of the priest. Priests need to be reminded that ‘they have their orders’ as a divine gift and calling. It is an unfashionable, military image but true to scripture and the Christian tradition. The ministerial priesthood shepherds, teaches and leads worship under clear authority handed down from the Founder of Christianity himself. At the same time ‘to have convincing authority (they) must share the journeys of people, enter their fears, be touched by their disappointments, their questions, their failures and doubts' (3).
'Convincing authority' is the very quality to be sought and re-established by the Church, starting with her leaders. Fr. Radcliffe points out how the sharing of life between priests and their people at a deep level helps them win respect for their office as well as their person. The numerical decline of the Western Church undoubtedly links to the rejection of authority in the sense of what is ‘aloof’ or ‘institutional’. It links also though to a perception of the Church as a less than spiritual body. So many are seeking spirituality through eastern religions as if the grass were greener outside Christianity.
‘Convincing authority’ in a priest or bishop links to a costly involvement with God’s people. More profoundly, it links to their own ‘conviction’ as persons called to be ‘convincing’ in what they teach. As with Moses and the burning bush, there needs to be a ‘fire’ that sets things going. Moses’ mission was actually kindled by fire, by an encounter with God, cloaked in awe and mystery.
‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5).
Abraham, Joshua, Samson, Gideon, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Paul…all find themselves convinced through encounters with God that are both personal and mysterious, moving them to worship.
Empowering priesthood cannot be ‘fired’ without the sort of humility bred from personal encounter with the mystery that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Only as the Church is brought to her knees before the splendour and holiness of God, only as she is compelled to ‘take off her shoes’, only as we, individually, encounter the mystery of Christ, will we be fired for the Kingdom of God.
Mainstream Christianity steers a middle course between exalting the authority of the ordained and exalting the need for their authentic experience and manifestation of Christ. The gift of order in the Church served by those in ‘holy orders’ is seen as something objective that prevails over the unworthiness of the office bearer. Priests who are not mindful that the Sacraments they celebrate are valid only despite their own unworthiness are guilty of presumption. Yet priests who put confidence in God to act through their priesthood irrespective of their own interior disposition are also presumptuous. Sacraments may be valid but ineffective because of the dispositions of the human participants.
St Francis de Sales speaks of two prime virtues in Christianity - humility and confidence in God. Where Christians are both ‘struck by God’, knowing their need of him, and have expectations of God to provide for them, the Holy Spirit can be made present to sanctify. By analogy priests need both confidence in their office and calling as priests, and humility before the mystery of God, to bear their office appropriately if they are to be effective for Christ. When the concept of the office of priests has been brought into question it has very often been through evident lack of humility in the exercise of that office.
Grace Kelly, an American film star, married Prince Rainier of Monaco. She was asked how she took to people coming and curtseying to her. ‘It's my office and not my person that they honour’ was her sharp reply. So it is over the honour given on occasion to priests, through whom people reverence a particular gift of his representation from Christ to the world.
There are certainly priests whose sense of the dignity of their office has become inseparable from a devilish self-importance. Yet there is a balancing constituency who are losing the energy and momentum Christ would lend to their office by latent cynicism about their calling. Loss of confidence and loss of humility are both serious failings in the ordained ministry, which undermine the spiritual vitality of the Church as a whole.
INSTITUTIONAL AND CHARISMATIC AUTHORITY
Scripture sees the Church as ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’ (Ephesians 2:20). Apostolic and prophetic ministry are seen as inseparable there. In practice they have drifted apart. A distinction has grown up between the ‘institutional’ and ‘charismatic’ aspects of the Church, which can be seen as linked to the apostolic and foundational aspect and to the more dynamic and forward looking aspect expressed through the gift of prophecy.
One of the great challenges to the Church today is the reintegration of these aspects so that the charismatic essence may shine out through the dullness of her institutional structure.
Whereas the cultic role of priests leads the Church in her cycle of worship their prophetic role seeks to direct the community. There will always be creative tension between the ‘cyclical’ and ‘directional’ elements of the Church. They can be roughly identified with the complementary terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Evangelical’. 'Catholic’ Churches which are strong on the cycle of worship often need to develop a greater sense of the pilgrim people of God ‘following the Lord's leading’. Conversely the clear task-orientation of Churches focussed on outreach needs to be balanced by the recovery of worship as foundational. ‘The Catholic Faith is this, we worship..’ (Athanasian Creed).
Once again, we return to the inseparability of the priestly, prophetic and pastoral aspects of all ministry which in turn are faithful to the love, truth and empowering to be found in Jesus. In particular priests’ preaching and teaching ministry balance their celebration of the Sacraments and their pastoral ministry following the same dynamic.
There is a saying in educational circles which runs: ‘I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand’. It represents a formidable challenge to traditional Christian teaching e.g. the former memorising of the Catechism. At the same time, the visual and ritual aspects of the Faith illuminate and deepen its verbal proclamation. This can be particularly evident when preaching at the Eucharist summons self-offering to be acted out in the ‘taking, blessing, breaking and sharing’ rites. Similarly the liturgy of baptism is rich in symbolism yet needful of an appropriate message of challenge or personal testimony to bring out the element of empowering latent in the rites.
As the minister who presides over baptism the priest has an eye to the holding together of liturgical, catechetical and pastoral considerations. The practice of infant baptism without the challenging of the parents to faith is a prophetic failure. At the same time too rigorous a baptism policy can undermine the priestly and pastoral aspects of Christ's care.
Perhaps the prophetic element is the more necessary in a post-Christian society. The whole consciousness of what it is to be a Christian is affected by the conduct of the rites of baptism. Here there is the clearest statement of Christian Faith and for it to be made with evident insincerity undermines the call to integrity. On the other hand, the Church's prophetic voice in baptism, the sacrament of conversion, will only be heard if it is in turn a loving voice. The time given to the pastoral care of the families involved is extremely important in gaining mutual understanding and respect for truth. The whole Church membership needs to be made aware through ongoing teaching of the dignity and responsibilities of baptism and so help interpret and defend it before the world.
In turn this raises the issue of Christianity in relation to modern culture, where there is flexibility and where there is inevitable conflict and even spiritual warfare. A counter-cultural emphasis is particularly to be found in the revised ordination service of the Church of England, preserved from a similar expression in the Book of Common Prayer. The Bishop addresses those to be ordained priest in these words: ‘You are to be a messenger, watchman and steward of the Lord; you are to teach and to admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord's family; to search for his children in the wilderness of this world's temptations and to guide them through its confusions, so that they may be saved through Christ for ever’ (4).
The teaching office of priests requires courage to proclaim the unfashionable as well as prudence to know how to do so most appropriately.
There is a Don Camillo story where the village priest has one of his many rows with the village Mayor. He goes into Church and kneels before the crucifix. ‘Should I consult public opinion about this one, Lord?’ he enquires. ‘I shouldn’t bother’, the Lord replies from the Cross. ‘Look what it did to me!’.
The Christian Faith is a school of courage and priests as ‘public Christians’ are inevitably teachers – and learners - in that school. To be courageous is to possess the God-given capacity to transform fear into something beautiful. The word ‘courage’ is linked to the heart – it means literally to take heart, to grow strong in heart. If the purpose of God is to form our hearts and give us courage, would that be possible if priestly ministry was without contention?
‘This is the victory that conquers the world, our faith’ writes St. John (1 John 5:4), who also reports these words of Jesus: ‘Take courage, I have conquered the world’ (John 16:33).
How can we be given such ‘overcoming faith’ without also being given things to overcome? How can we gain heart without at times having to brave disheartening circumstances?
Nevertheless courage always goes hand in hand with prudence. It is prudent to go gently in pastoral situations linked to the Church's teaching on sexual ethics. Such prudence needs to go hand in hand though with the courage to include such teaching within the overall scheme of catechesis. ‘We have our orders’. There is a responsibility to hand on what we have received from the universal Church before our own private judgement. It cannot be handed on ungraciously but it must somehow be handed on. As someone expressed it in terms of the teaching of the sixth commandment, the gracious emphasis is 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' 'rather than 'Thou shalt not commit adultery'. It is our sense of worth given by God that needs prime emphasis.
The wise priest brings in the hard teachings in parenthesis to a focus upon the grace of God and the dignity of the human person in his image. ‘The body of Christ is galvanised not by knowledge alone nor teaching, nor conviction, but the presence of one who expands the horizons of what it is to be a person’ (5).
1. Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission (ARCIC) The Gift of Authority 1999
2. Michael Ramsey The Christian Priest Today 1972
3. Timothy Radcliffe Sing a New Song 1999
4. Ordination of Priests The Alternative Service Book 1980
5. G. Guiver et al The Fire and the Clay 1993
Empowerment is the business of the Church because it has always the energy of Jesus Christ
An empowering priesthood acts for Christ as priest, prophet and shepherd. In this Chapter attention is given to the third ‘shepherding’ or ‘pastoral’ ministry every priest holds in the name of Christ.
Good priests reduce unemployment in the Church. They see their task under Christ not just in terms of caring for their congregations but also in helping their congregations employ more of their caring gifts. ‘The task of the ordained ministry is not simply to minister to the congregation but to create and direct a ministering congregation through the detection, development and deployment of God-given resources’ (1).
Many parishes are finding a use for the Lady Chapel on a Sunday morning. After the Parish Eucharist lay people with listening gifts stand by there to offer prayer for specific needs after the service. In this way personal matters that come to the surface through the experience of worship can be dealt with by a specific commending to God. Such prayer ministry frees their priest for the ministry of welcoming newcomers and dealing with the many practical matters that surface on a Sunday morning. This is a development reported as occurring throughout the Church of England in the recently published report on the healing ministry (2).
Among a multitude of observations about healing ministry the Report has one observation with a potential now being more realised than ever in pastoral ministry. ‘There is nothing to prevent any Christian praying for a sick person on an appropriate occasion’.
At the same time the encouragement of such ministry of prayer is accompanied by new guidelines which honour the priest's and the bishop's oversight. ‘No one should act in isolation; all should be trained as part of being ‘under authority’’. Priests are to foster the empowering of Church members in this realm whilst focussing the Gospel imperative ‘to heal the sick’ in their own sacramental ministries of confession and anointing. A balance is to be struck between too narrow a sacramental approach, downplaying the role of the laity, and too disordered a scheme, where pastoral damage can occur through misplaced enthusiasm.
The realm of the healing ministry is just one example of where an empowering priesthood is being instrumental in ‘building up the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12b). This upbuilding is a process in which priests use their authority in Christ's name to empower the ministry of the baptised.
If priests are ‘celebrants’ of the Eucharist, that privilege brings with it the responsibility of generating a community of prayerful celebration. If they are preachers and prophets, it is to invigorate a witnessing community. Their pastoral role, as in ministry to the sick, is likewise one that releases pastoral gifts of service to be directed towards the work of God.
Surveys have demonstrated that a Church led
by one priest can rarely grow beyond 150 members unless the Church appoints lay
leaders and forms cell groups. In such groups people can know one another and
grow together as Christians in faith, love and numbers. New life and growth is frequently associated
with a ‘devolution’ of pastoral care. The traditional model of the local Church
with its priest near to being ‘
Empowering priesthood witnesses to the power of prayer. Many pastoral encounters involving priests or lay people with the needy fall short of leading people literally into prayer. Sometimes this omission reflects pastoral sensitivity. Other times there is a loss of both nerve and faith in the one who is pastorally active. Although it is not everyone’s gift to talk naturally about God and to God, many more could discover this capacity. In the author’s experience ending a pastoral encounter with a prayer brings out most fully the nature of what Christians call ‘pastoral ministry’. If we see ourselves as instruments of God pointing people to God, how should it feel other than natural, whilst alongside people, to help them voice their expressed needs to God there and then?
Robin Greenwood speaks of the traditional priestly ministry of blessing: ‘He has a particular role of blessing liturgically that is a mirror of his more general role of blessing. This is about encouraging (or inversely, discouraging) or as it were ‘giving permission’ (or not) to a step forward in mission or ministry…. It is so vital that the priest takes delight in drawing out the understanding, the skills, the commitment and the hope of every Church member. The ministry of blessing is about praising, encouraging, and expecting the growth in ministry of the whole of the body of the Church’ (3).
The authority that is given to the priesthood to act in this way is directly linked to that of Christ himself, the Good Shepherd, in the ordination service: ‘(Priests) must set the Good Shepherd always before them… (they are to) grow up into (the Lord's) likeness and sanctify the lives of all with whom (they) have to do’ (4). It is this security, sealed at ordination, which should help priests overcome their own inadequacies by consciousness of their special anointing in the Holy Spirit. ‘Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.' (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)
The recovery of such ‘competence’ among the
ordained is a vital necessity, especially as it is linked in terms of the
Gospel to their own need of grace and to the rejection of legalism. Where
priests recognise the authority they have and use it to ‘give authority’ to
others the Church’s pastoral ministry develops. Failure to recognise this
divine commission is behind much loss of energy and direction in the Church
today. Misappropriation of the same
authority to serve ‘letter’ before ‘spirit’ is equally damaging.
Warren describes a confident ‘missionary priesthood’ in these words: ‘They will need to be like conductors of an orchestra, drawing out the gifts of the many and finding how best to harmonise them. They will need to be emotionally secure, and neither threatened by gifted, visionary and able, lay-people, nor lacking the ability to stand over against the congregation, when necessary’ (5).
In UK politics there is an ongoing debate about sovereignty in Britain vis-à-vis the EEC. Some see the nation losing power and vitality as European union advances. Others argue that loss of sovereignty can actually lead to the gain of power and vitality. It is this second argument that should appeal to the priest, who should be always ready to ‘pool his “sovereignty”’ as a gift from Christ to help empower lay ministries and to strengthen the body of Christ as a whole.
A Churchwarden once paid an unusual compliment to his priest in conversation with the mission officer. ‘What we like particularly about Fr. Peter is that he doesn't make us feel guilty when we occasionally miss meetings.’ The man was managing director of a firm that took him all over Britain. Despite his most valiant efforts he could not always make it to Church meetings. No doubt Fr. Peter found it frustrating on the occasions Church officers were absent from important meetings. He refused however to show such frustration, always appearing to believe the best of absentees. Such a generous priest was helping to create a relaxed Church where grace and mercy triumphed over judgmental attitude.
Unfortunately the situation described is highly untypical of parish priests who are so often overworked themselves and can be very impatient with lay people who fail to volunteer effort or attendance. Diminishing membership puts heavy pressure upon smaller Churches and their priests in this realm.
One priest of my acquaintance has over his desk ‘I am a human being, not a human doing’. Coping with stress is a major requirement for priests. Their failure to do so depresses their Church. Their ability to cope with pressure empowers and enthuses.
It was said of a late American Cardinal that
‘when he sat down there was always more space’. To be serene and peaceful in
the midst of the pressures of life is a pointer to the presence of an eternal
perspective. It gives those nearby permission to be themselves, to enter the
evident space and open themselves up to the priest and to God. It helps ‘to
equip the church for its mission of being fully human and participating in the
humanising work of the kingdom of God’ (
An empowering priesthood is one modelled on both the energy and the availability of Jesus. It takes to heart the incident with the blind man in the Gospels. The Lord is at one time moving energetically to Jerusalem via Jericho. Yet in the tenth chapter of St. Mark's Gospel it is recorded that Jesus, though heading with the crowd to his passion, takes time to stop and to give his full attention to one blind man. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
How can priests make such space for people to do business with Jesus today? Although priests need prayer and discernment concerning their own availability, perhaps the first thing they have to recognise is that Jesus can make himself available through any Christian and not just the priest.
Making space for people to do business with God through the Church inevitably entails broadening the base of pastoral involvement. The widespread appointment of parish administrators is seen by parishes as a way of releasing the clergy from their desks. In some parishes with large home communion rounds authorised lay ministers operate three weeks out of four leaving the priest a monthly visit. In this way the priest can preside over a ministry whilst making space for ministries of listening and befriending beyond his own. The teaching ministry of priests is being similarly devolved in many parishes to house group leaders who are trained by the clergy.
Friendship is more and more recognised as being vital to healthy communities and Churches. Surveys of Church growth show how new members come into the life of the Church mostly through friendship with Church members. Some parish priests are becoming concerned to relax the demands of midweek activities with this in mind. Protecting the ‘space’ for the membership to be active in networks and personal relationships outside of the Church is good for them and for the growth of the Church.
The concept of ‘friendship evangelism’ is helpful to a point. True friendship has no agenda that overrides friendship for its own sake. At the same time, since friendship is based on honesty, to hide from friends how Christ helps our human and social flourishing would be dishonest. Ann Morisy writes of how the Church should be more confident about seizing occasions which crop up naturally in social engagements to help people ‘do business with God’. Where there is space made for Church members to be themselves in any social network, the possibility of their quite naturally leading a prayer for a specific need that crops up cannot be excluded (6).
In a parish mission a Church member I visited as missioner had a friend she had been taking to the doctor every week. My visit had entered their conversation. As a result this lady welcomed the anointing of the sick at my hands and received a great sense of peace and blessing. Any healing that was given linked both to the sacramental rite with the priest and to the ongoing helpfulness of her Church friend.
There is an important principle here. Empowerment is the business of the Church because it has always the energy of Jesus Christ who sends us out in the power of his Spirit. An empowering priesthood recognises that ministry ‘in the person of Christ’ is one that they head up but one that is very often only ‘headed up’. The ‘body’ of Christian ministry lies mostly elsewhere in the prayer and active service of all the baptised. It seemed especially important, during the rite of anointing of the sick lady, to invite her friend to join the priest in the laying on of hands to express such a ‘concelebration’ of Christ’s healing.
Making space for lay ministries requires an investment of time by the clergy to help their development. It actually creates more pressure and potential stress upon priests when they commit themselves to a programme of lay training. In particular time spent with Church members equipping them is often subtracted from time spent by the priest in the wider community.
How do priests make space for themselves? How can they avoid being overwhelmed by the endless expectations upon them? How can they help the capturing of vision which will give the focus and direction needed in their parish?
Two gifts are necessary - prayer and discernment – and they are the subject of the next Chapter.
1. Eddie Gibbs I Believe in Church Growth 1981
2. House of Bishops of the Church of England A Time to Heal 2000
3. Robin Greenwood Transforming Priesthood 1994
4. Ordination of Priests The Alternative Service Book 1980
6. Ann Morisy Beyond the Good Samaritan 1997