WAITING FOR ORDERS
Walk with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Matthew 11:29
The most common industrial injury at one time among the clergy was said to be a hernia caused by moving a heavy object unaided. This reveals a lot about the state of the priesthood - a degree of impatience and a reluctance to enlist lay ministry.
Sometimes priests feel they are ‘pushing’ alone. The boat of holy Church seems beached yet they get to pushing it out to sea. With the company of others the boat could be launched by human strength. It is best though to await the coming of the tide.
Empowering priesthood helps the Church await God's tide and timing as the best way of moving forwards together.
‘The calling to ordained ministry with which
I began had somehow been lost on the way, or overlaid by activity, or simply
broken in the battle’ writes
One of the consequences of a more functional approach to the priesthood has been loss of emphasis on recollection as the clue to empowering. Sometimes the pressures on the ordained extend them so far outside and beyond their inner life that it can appear that ‘no one is at home’ within them.
How many priests, when apparently listening, have most of their deep attention in the next task? We have so many ‘plans-to-serve-him’ we have no space for his empowering of ministry in the present moment. Into this situation, again and again, we need to hear the words of Jesus.
‘Are you tired? Burned out in religion? Come to me get away with me and you will recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly’ (Matthew -30 from The Message (2)).
Empowerment comes to priests and Churches as they discover the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’. There is no forcing of the will of God for individuals or community. Only by patient, prayerful discernment can real advances occur, as there is a purification and alignment of human intention with divine providence. ‘All that we do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed’ is hard counsel in its challenging of self-determination by individuals or Churches.
Monsignor Ronald Knox in his book ‘The Priestly Life’ has a clever definition of idleness. ‘Idleness is not doing nothing; it means giving priority, always, to the things which interest and leaving our other duties to queue up.’ (3) In other words the clue to priestly zeal is developing such an interest in the things of God that our priorities are sifted accordingly.
We reach the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ only by deepening our attention upon the Lord himself, notably by setting apart a generous period of prayer day by day. In this way something of God's eternal perspective is obtained for daily living, sifting the important matters for our attention from the merely urgent matters. Ironically it is this forced discipline of daily prayer that seems essential to ‘unforced’ living. Those who adopt such a discipline will readily confirm the consequences of dropping their prayer from time to time. The people to be seen, the writing to be done and the services to be conducted weigh heavily and have no harmony about them. Priests need to give wholehearted attention to such a variety of people, issues and situations that they need a special gift of attention. Where can grace to sustain such attention be obtained if it is not sought in prayer?
THE GIFT OF DISCERNMENT
‘Never before have human beings had as much spare time as today, and never yet have they had as little time… Although the world offers us unlimited possibilities, our own lifespans are short. Hence many people panic because they think they might miss something, and thus accelerate the tempo of their lives… A person who lives ever faster so as not to miss anything always lives superficially and misses the deeper experiences of life. Everything is possible in that person's world but only very little is real.’ (4)
Without discernment human beings get overstretched by the pressures of life. There can hardly be empowerment in a life that has no discerned path since all energy is rapidly dispersed. A similar dynamic applies to the Christian community as a whole. Some Churches have a rich diversity of activity which seems to lead them nowhere in particular. In such situations there is a need to discern priorities and to capture unifying and directing vision from the Lord.
‘Test everything; hold fast to what is good;
abstain from every form of evil.’ (1 Thessalonians 5: 21-22)
An empowering priesthood ministers in such a way as to help individual Church members discern and loosen unhealthy attachments. The pressures of modern living make for a profound loss of energy through regret and anxiety. With so much opportunity people lose inner energy through their regrets about lost opportunity. They also lose energy to anxiety about so many fearful possibilities. Where people discern their attachment to such fears they are in a position to break the bonds and claim new freedom and energy in Christ.
Empowering priesthood recognises that lack of empowerment in the Church very often comes back to forms of over-attachment that need gentle but firm challenge in individuals and congregations. Sometimes the answer to fresh empowerment is right under our noses if only we can discern it.
When God sent a vision to
Bernadette in 1854 it was to have consequences for the whole world. Millions go
on pilgrimage to
There is a parable here of spiritual discernment and empowerment. Like Bernadette we need guidance to lift the stones that stem the flow of life-giving streams both within us and also within the life of the Church as a whole. Sometimes the erosion of our faith has placed a stone over the fountain. Other times broken relationships in need of repair are causing spiritual life to dry up inside us or inside the Christian community. It is then that a seeking of vision from God can have enormous impact as he shows us just where to dig to release his life.
‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were going to receive.’ (John 7: 37-9a)
One of the things that weigh down upon spiritual vitality is tidy-mindedness. Many priests like things too neat. The Holy Spirit is not always tidy-minded and is certainly not small-minded! Empowering priesthood is priesthood that can recognise and ridicule its own small-mindedness and help others to do the same, whilst capturing the larger vision of what the Spirit is doing and wants to do in a community.
It is the quality of attentiveness to God and to one another that helps priest and people discern what is needed in the parish. Only through such discernment can parish life be given suitable direction. As previously mentioned in Chapter 4 there is always creative tension between the ‘cyclical’ and ‘directional’ aspects in the life of the Church. Whilst the ‘cyclical’ aspects of Church life, her repeated feasts and social events, remain foundational, they are to be balanced by a ‘directional’ element. The pilgrim people of God are called to seek and follow the Lord’s leading aided at times by their prophets.
Ann Morisy describes how a nun’s prayer for the homeless so burdened her she began to investigate ways they might be served in her town and ended up recruiting a team to serve them. ‘A prayer burden may ultimately lead to action, as it did for Sister Teresa, but at a minimum it commits us to a struggle which is wider than self-concern.’ The vision which started in one woman's prayer and imagination came to bear fruit in a vital ministry of service and outreach (5).
Empowering priesthood recognises that ‘without vision, the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18). Waiting together for orders from on high finds its reward in the revelation of way forwards that excite motivation within the Christian community.
In a diocese the diversity of parishes makes the catching and ownership of a central vision a perilous business. One of the difficulties is building sufficient involvement and trust among priests and among parishes to establish a genuine communality. Parish priests share their ministry with the bishop as ‘apostle’ in the diocese. When there is a partnership ‘apostolic’ in both an institutional and missionary sense a powerful spiritual prioritisation emerges within the Christian community.
In the years before the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1963 Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley brought to his diocese the vision of a consecrated people. Such was the ownership of the vision that some of the Clergy Chapters began to meet weekly to pray. It was a period in which a high degree of trust and openness to one another and to God emerged among priests and people in Coventry Diocese. Even to this day people recall the extraordinary envisioning of those days and there are many that can trace the kindling of their vocation back to the apostolic vitality of that diocesan initiative. (6)
Empowering priesthood is always by its nature in partnership with the episcopate. Where this partnership captures ‘the abiding energy of Jesus Christ’ there is a particularly convincing apostolic mandate. ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you’ (John ).
2. Eugene Peterson The Message 1993
3. Ronald Knox The Priestly Life 1958
4. Jurgen Moltmann St. Paul’s Cathedral Lecture on Preparing for the Third Christian Millennium 1998
5. Ann Morisy Beyond the Good Samaritan 1997
6. Stephen Verney Fire in Coventry 1964
In 1988 the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops challenged their dioceses to seek ‘a shift to a dynamic missionary emphasis, going beyond care and nurture to proclamation and service’ (1). This became a foundational statement for the Decade of Evangelism now completed.
Among the more radical contributions to
thinking in the Church of England during the Decade stands an occasional paper
of the Board of Mission, ‘Building Missionary Congregations’ (2).
Where it most falls short is in its lack of regard for the ordained ministry as servants of the recovery of ‘a dynamic missionary emphasis’. In particular the definition of the Church in terms of mission neglects consideration of her first priority. Worship is considered mainly as servant of spirituality for mission rather than for what it is in itself – the giving of glory to God. The radical nature of this book is made clear in its preface by the Chairman of the Board of Mission who stresses that both ‘revolutionists’ and ‘evolutionists’ must have their say about future directions.
‘evolutionists’ are to speak out in any sphere that complements the
thinking of ‘Building Missionary Congregations’ it should be concerning the
gift of the priesthood as servant of empowering. ‘You cannot sustain a
missionary congregation’, writes John Finney. ‘It is like a ring doughnut,
there is nothing at the centre.’ Engaging with this observation
If the call for a ‘dynamic missionary emphasis’ is to gain new momentum it will be as the Church renews her confidence in the ministerial priesthood as one of his gifts of empowerment.
In developing the theme of an empowering priesthood, attention has been given extensively to the centrality of Jesus and how priests act for him in a particular way. It is the particular function of priests to call down the Holy Spirit and ‘make present to his people the work of Jesus Christ’ (3). This can and should make an enormous difference to people's lives.
As traditionally understood, sacraments are effective signs, rites that change things for people in both senses of that phrase. As the risen Christ used signs to make himself known after his resurrection, so the same Lord Jesus, since Pentecost, is seen to be manifested, and particularly through the sacramental ministries of those called to represent him in the priesthood.
Sacraments are no empty rituals - or at least that is meant to be the Christian conviction. By the power of the Holy Spirit Christ renews his presence and that presence brings about transformation. Sadly, Christians have divided over the priority of the subjective and objective aspects of this manifestation. There have been times when the sacraments have appeared empty of Christ through their unworthy and mechanical celebration so that people sought a vital relationship with Christ elsewhere in ministries of prayer and of the word of God.
Empowering priesthood is a priesthood that brings together what history has sundered so that Christ is recognised in both word and sacrament. Where Christ is preached, the Eucharist becomes more fully his sacrifice as people more consciously offer themselves in union with him to the Father. Where Christ is encountered at a deep level in the sacraments, a hunger for the scriptures is born.
‘We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls...mere improvement is not redemption... ‘ warned C.S.Lewis. ‘God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.’ (4).
An empowering priesthood sees itself as instrumental to this business of transforming rather than improving people. Priestly ministry helps effect encounters of disciples with their Lord and their consequent transformation.
‘All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
How can priests be more effective instruments serving such transformation?
The most precious resource in evangelism are changed lives, people who can speak of the difference Jesus has made to them. Sometimes the transformations people can speak of are astounding. Other times they give testimony to a more gentle, gradual transformation. Every Church should have evidence of how Christ is growing more real to people. One of the tasks of the priesthood is to help the Christian community grow confident enough to voice their experience in all its diversity.
Karl Rahner once made this prophecy, which must be heeded, today in the Church: ‘The religious person of the future will either be one who has experienced something or he will no longer exist’ (5).
One of the tasks of the sacred ministry is to give ear to and to affirm and encourage the experience of the sacred that is so vital to the health and growth of the Church. It is a task that requires humility in a priest. Sacred ministers are not set apart to be necessarily holier than the next Christian but to give space to the priority of spiritual transformation. It is their own sense of inadequacy in this realm that is in principle their best resource. Too often a lack of readiness to thank God for other people's blessings stalls this sort of prioritising. There is also a fear of public statements with weak theology about them.
The great Archbishop Temple spoke powerfully to such reservations: ‘It does very little harm if an eager layman talks heresy, provided he shows and imparts a love for the Lord Jesus. It does great harm if a priest talks orthodoxy so as to make men think the Gospel is dull or irrelevant’ (6).
In the training of priests there is an inevitable stress upon systematic, balanced theology. There is a reluctance to economise, to throw out a provocative line to challenge. Evangelistic preaching is always a shade unbalanced, going out on a limb deliberately to provoke a personal response to Christ. It requires courage and imagination to address people's needs with urgency, requiring a decision for the Lord. Concern for balance has its place in the overall teaching and preaching scheme but it has to give way at times to words that shock and challenge by their immediacy and directness.
Raniero Cantalamessa gives a similar warning: ‘The fides quae (the things to be believed - catechesis) have carried the day against the fides qua (the act of faith - evangelisation). The miracle of coming to faith has less stress today than the completeness and orthodoxy of the content of faith itself’ (7).
Recovering an emphasis on ‘the miracle of coming to faith’ is a grace to be sought out within the overall catechetical ministry. The success of the Alpha Course lies in its simple summary of Christian Faith providing enough of a basis to provoke personal commitment to Christ and empowering by the Holy Spirit (8). Many have criticised it for its economy and oversimplification. Those whose lives have been transformed by attending Alpha tell a different story. They say they have found enough ‘lines’ thrown out at them over the fifteen sessions to facilitate a grasping of Christian Faith. Naturally they will move on from Alpha and with receptivity to fuller catechesis, to ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27 RSV).
An empowering priesthood is one that sees Christian formation going beyond the intellectual to the volitional, the consecration of the will to God, which is the recipe for transformation. This is nothing new. Preparation for the sacraments, especially Confirmation, has always emphasised growth in relationship to Christ as foundational. The involvement of mature Christians in this process guarantees a sharing of experience that goes beyond knowledge of the things of God towards the knowledge of God himself. As in the Alpha Course, effective Christian teaching makes space for people to raise questions central to their lives. In this way, aided by the Christian community, they are able to do personal business with God.
Preparation for infant baptism seems most effective when it both makes space and allowance for the parents, with all the demands young children make upon them, whilst giving them the clear invitation to commit themselves to Christ on behalf of their children. The balance of welcome, challenge and empowerment there is in Jesus needs to be perceived in his priestly body. Where people respond to Jesus through the Church and commit themselves they become vital resource people for subsequent baptism preparation, real catalysts of spiritual transformation.
Long term Church members who restrict their involvement to Sunday worship can fail to find opportunity to connect their perceived needs with the resources of the Faith. The late American evangelist, John Wimber described his experience of the Church in England in a telling sentence: ‘When I worship in English churches I detect in the congregations a remarkably high level of personal need, matched by a correspondingly low level of expectation’.
In many inner city Churches almost all energy is taken up from the clergy and lay ministers in serving their evidently needy members. There is much loving care but, as Wimber expresses it, ‘low level of expectation’ of Jesus making a difference. Sometimes this situation indicates a pastoral mode of the Church negligent of the prophetic and empowering emphases.
In some Churches the members have had no experience of the miracle of people making a transition from agnosticism to faith although such miracles continue day by day. Rahner by contrast writes boldly of the importance of such conversions: ‘The possibility of winning new Christians from a milieu which has become unchristian is the sole living and convincing evidence that, even today, Christianity still has a real chance for the future...it means more to win one new Christian from what we may call neo-paganism, than to keep ten ‘old Christians’’ (9).
Where a congregation is privileged to encounter such vivid transformations there is a ripple effect renewing faith expectancy. ‘It is for this reason that I covet for every Christian, whether he be one of the clergy or of the laity, that from time to time he may have the privilege of being at hand when God breaks into someone’s soul. It freshens, deepens and beautifies with an all-pervading warmth the whole of our ministry.’ (10)
Empowering priesthood catalyses ministries that invite transformation and not just the serving of need. Jesus meets us at our point of need to lead us on into transformation. There are many instances in the Gospels of lives touched at a specific point of need that are subsequently transformed into wholehearted commitment. The loss of expectation that Christianity can follow the same course today needs to be challenged.
At the same time priests have the balancing task of challenging oversimple views of transformation. On occasion people have been led to overplay the role of spiritual experience to the detriment of the virtues of obedience and perseverance.
There is a cautionary story of St. Seraphim of Sarov being asked why it is that some people seem to get the Holy Spirit more than others. ‘Just determination’ was his answer.
Though virtues like determination cannot earn salvation, they dispose people towards Christ in an ongoing way. It appears that the Lord is more interested in the firmness of our desire for him than in anything else about us. The faithfulness and determination of priests does much to inspire these essential qualities in the membership of their Churches.
Empowerment involves the release of potential energy in the Church. It is a locating and releasing of gifts and strengths. The consecration of human strength to God’s praise and service is at the heart of evangelisation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a particular emphasis in his writings upon the consecration of strength. He once wrote, for example, that Napoleon's sin lay probably more in his misuse of strength than in his sexual misdemeanours. As Bonhoeffer’s own martyrdom by the Nazi’s itself witnesses, the worst damage done to the world is done through the misuse of strength rather than through human frailty.
Some priests are given a vital charism. They accomplish the consecration of the strong. Sometimes at a word or by a glance, people find themselves caught into service with a new direction for their lives. It is said of St. Ignatius Loyola that as a young man he visited a good number of priests to discuss the existence of God. One day he met his match in a priest who would not enter discussion but rather insisted that he made his Confession. This priest apparently provided an important stage in the harnessing of Ignatius’ great energies for the Church.
Dom Helder Camera died in 1999 having spent his life in the service of the Brazilian poor. He abandoned his bishop’s palace to live among the poor, took his meals at the taxi-drivers stall across the road and hitched lifts instead of riding in his official car. He became a great pioneer of the social gospel. Yet when he tells the tale of his life it is more the mystical than the practical that takes precedence. He said the biggest change in his life came not from the poor but from an encounter with a Cardinal he served in organising the big Eucharistic Congress of 1955 in Rio de Janeiro. Cardinal Gerlier of France, moved by what he saw of Rio’s shanty towns, put it to Dom Helder that he would better put his organising talents to the service of the poor. Camera writes: ‘And so the grace of the Lord came to me through the presence of Cardinal Gerlier. Not just through the words he spoke: behind his words was the presence of a whole life, a whole conviction. And I was moved by the grace of the Lord. I was thrown to the ground like Saul on the road to Damascus.’ Through this powerful encounter with a great priest Camera’s gifts became more fully consecrated to the service of God’s kingdom. (11)
Such encounters with holy people are at the heart of all effective evangelisation. ‘When a person awakens to the awareness of God around them, the light of this belonging suffuses their presence and radiates outwards from them. This is natural, wholesome and authentic. In the end the most effective and trustable witness is the integrity of individual presence.’ (12)
1. Lambeth Conference Recommendation 44 1988
3. General Synod Report Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry 1986
4. C.S.Lewis Mere Christianity 1952
5. Quoted in G. Guiver et al The Fire and the Clay 1993
6. Archbishop William Temple in Towards the Conversion of England 1945
7. Raniero Cantalamessa The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus 1994
8. Holy Trinity, Brompton The Alpha Course 1993
9. Karl Rahner The Shape of the Church to Come 1972
10. Bryan Green The Practice of Evangelism 1951
11. Jose de Brouker Dom Helder Camera: the conversions of a bishop 1979
12. John O’Donohue Article in The Way, Vol. 34, No. 4 1994
LOOKING TO JESUS
Look, Father, look on His anointed face, and only look on us as found in Him. W. Bright
Churches Together in England expressed the challenge of the Third Christian Millennium as one inviting the Churches ‘to forge a link in people’s minds between the year 2000, the name of Jesus Christ, and the possibility of personal meaning and public hope’ (1).
In many ways the recovery of an empowering priesthood is linked to the recovering of the centrality of Jesus in the Church today. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw the Christian community again and again to proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Corinthians 12:3). The recovery of the lordship of Jesus is at the heart of the experience of revival in the Church all through her history. Renewal of vision is a challenging of attitudes that ‘make God smaller than the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus’ (2).
Michael Ramsey speaks of the inspiration to be drawn by priests from dwelling on the person of Jesus who blends ‘authority and self-effacement, severity and tenderness, loneliness and involvement in humanity, ceaseless energy and rest and calm in the midst of it’. ‘Teach them not only the Real Presence in the Eucharist but about Christ whose presence it is...Your own ministration will need again and again to be made alive by your own realisation of Christ’. ‘When you promise to minister the doctrine of Christ’, he says in an ordination address, ‘it will mean showing the people Christ himself’.
True empowerment relies on the power of Christ. ‘who has became a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent but through the power of an indestructible life’ (Hebrews 7:16).
‘All Christian ministry finds its source, its model and its authority in the ministry of Jesus’, writes Gordon Kuhrt, who goes on to identify five aspects of the ministry of Jesus that should challenge Christian ministry today. There is a modelling of Jesus who is ‘sent by God; witness to God's Kingdom by preaching, teaching and signs; ministering to human need through care and healing; servant-like in attitude and filled by God's Spirit’ (3).
Kuhrt affirms that ‘in spite of all the frailties and failures of the Church's life (Jesus) is its source - for he calls his people to ministry; its model for he is the example of ministry; and its authority - for he commissions and empowers through his Spirit. There is discontinuity because of the ultra uniqueness of Christ, but we must, nevertheless, keep looking to Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 12:2, 13:20).
He is himself critical of the idea of a ministerial priesthood representing Jesus out of deference to the Reformed tradition within the Church of England. At the same time he well represents the traditional view through extensive quotation from the Report ‘Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry’ which affirms the Christocentric understanding of Ordination.
‘(Ordained) ministry is not simply delegated by or derived from the community. It is argued that theirs is a distinctively different form of priestly ministry in that (to quote the Report) it ‘is an appointed means through which Christ makes his priesthood present and effective to his people...Their (episcopal and presbyteral) ministry may be called priestly in that it is their vocation to help the whole people to realise their priestly character... It is in the particular relationship of the Eucharist and the ministry of reconciliation to the sacrifice of Christ that the priestly character of the ordained ministry is most evident. This ministry is priestly because through it God makes present to his people the work of Jesus Christ, the mediator who brings humanity to God’ (3, 4)
MATTERS OF PRINCIPLE
Sadly the empowering of the priesthood within Anglicanism at least is hampered by the Reformation divisions. As Kuhrt notes, for many ‘the concept of a ministerial sacrificial priesthood is unscriptural.’ As an Anglican writer seeking to do justice to both Catholic and Reformed traditions he seeks no ‘careless compromise, but rather a principled agenda to take what is right and best of those traditions and weave them together. That is not an easy task… we do nobody any favours either by judging the issues or by unnecessarily polarising them.’
If clarity about the nature of the ministerial priesthood has no consensus as yet in Anglicanism hope for convergence must lie somehow in ‘looking to Jesus’ (Hebrews 12:2) with the whole Church to catch afresh both vision and empowerment.
The polemical statement ‘no man between myself and God’ must be honoured in as much as it seeks to look to Jesus. Those who see Christ as ‘coming between our souls and God’ and hold to his representation by earthly priests must be aware of the real danger of idolatry. It was said of Fr. Raymond Raynes of the Community of the Resurrection that he had the gift of engaging people through his representative priesthood so as to pass them straight on to the Jesus he represented. His transparency to Christ was exceptional. Most priests are less adequate vehicles of Christ.
‘For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human.’ (1 Timothy 2:5) Is the unique mediation of Christ undermined by the ministry of intercession and of priesthood? If all prayer and sacramental ministry is perceived as ‘through him, with him and in him’ there is in principle no subtraction from the mediation of Christ. His prayer and sacrifice rise up from his body, which has imparted to it all ‘the benefits of his passion’.
Someone who sees a prayer answered ‘in the name of Jesus’ could not arrogate to themselves the cause of such a supernatural intervention. No more can the Church’s liturgical prayer, which brings about the sacramental presence of her Lord, be so arrogated to her apart from Christ. ‘For man hath no oblation more worthy nor any satisfaction greater for putting away of sins, than to offer himself to God purely and wholly, together with the oblation of the Body of Christ in the Mass and in receiving the communion’ (5).
Both Catholic and Reformed traditions ‘look to Jesus’ in the sense of deeply appreciating that access to God and intimacy with him is fully established in him alone. They also hold that it is ‘the abiding energy of Jesus Christ’ that empowers the Church’s mission.
At its best the emphasis on the Eucharist as sacrifice is faithful to the unique mediation of Christ given to allow the consecration and empowering of Christians as they unite their lives to his.
‘Look, Father, look on His anointed face, and only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace, our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim:
For lo! Between our sins and their reward we set the passion of Thy Son our Lord’ (W. Bright, Hymns Ancient and Modern).
Before his ascension Jesus promised the disciples ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17b). By looking to Jesus they will be drawn into the intimacy of the Son for the Father and the Father for the Son at the heart of the redemption. The ascended Christ is also the one who will empower for mission by his Spirit (Acts 1:8, Ephesians 4:8-12).
Empowering priesthood helps effect the continuation of Christ’s ministry, which draws people to intimacy with the Father and reaches out from the Father into the world. In a phrase of Austin Farrer, priests are ‘walking sacraments’. They exist to point with Christ to his twofold intention of ‘the glory of God and the salvation of the world’.
The choice of sinful human beings to be his representatives is ultimately his choice. Some may argue whether an individual can act ‘alter Christus’, as an ‘other Christ’, but when the argument against is pressed it ultimately conflicts with the dignity given to every Christian. ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (Matthew 10:40a). All Christians are inadequate representatives of their Lord. The fact that some are called as reminders to the whole body of the centrality of Christ is servant and not rival of that essential centrality.
It is reasonable to see empowerment in the Church as achievable through a dispersal of authority from priest to congregation. Yet in this ‘reasonable’ process it is very easy to lose the essential Christocentric focus and impetus, to which the apostolic ministry bears witness. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Matthew 28:18). ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21).
Empowering priesthood is priesthood pointing people to Jesus and to the intimacy he brings with God. The priest’s traditional role in eucharistic worship is to be a ‘walking sacrament’ of Jesus. His role, as was said of Fr. Raynes, is to draw people through his office as priest to Jesus Christ himself.
Unfortunately division over the nature of the Eucharist and the priesthood has led to something of a downplaying of the role of Christ with new emphasis upon the Trinity as a whole in contemporary reflections in these realms. Although Christian worship is addressed to the Trinity, the miracle of access to the Father is always the work of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ministerial priesthood serves to guarantee this centrality of Christ which establishes ‘a spiritual temple for God’s worship’ (Box.).
‘By ordination, a Christian becomes a sign of the ministry of Jesus Christ in his Church.’ (Max Thurian) If this is so, the question is one of renewing the sign and all that would obscure it. ‘We wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21).
In his influential writings Hans Von Balthasar presents precisely such a call, affirmative of the priest as sign of Christ, yet insistent on radical imitation of the Lord. Dermot Power interprets Balthasar's writing on the priesthood as inviting ‘an utter dependence on faith that allows the priest to live out of a sense of dependence on the power and presence of Christ, and not something less’. This ‘something less’ includes for Balthasar ‘dependence on intra-ecclesial status, power and an over-reliance on ministerial skills and professional competence… it is the criterion of where the ultimate security of the priesthood lies that is the crucial test of its authenticity. To be truly authentic, the priesthood must make itself defenceless to the nakedness of faith and to the absolute demand of the Gospel’ (6).
Looking to Jesus in this way takes the ordained ministry right back to its New Testament rooting it in the imitation and bearing of Christ. ‘For whenever I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10), words that resonate with the earlier teaching of St Paul in that letter. Here it is made clear that because the apostle's commission or office is of God, it is to be carried in all humility. ‘We have this treasure in clay jars’ (4:7) is teaching that can apply to any Christian but holds special force for those in the apostolic ministry.
An empowering priesthood helps people ‘(look) to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2) to gain energy from him. It is a ministry of prayer, word and sacrament, teaching and pastoral care that recalls the promise of the Lord himself. ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (John 12:32).
‘I sometimes put this question to myself’, wrote Ramsey. ‘Looking back to all the sermons I have preached in the past, say six months, what have they told the people about Christ or done to make Christ visible to them? Do they know more about Christ at the end of them?’ (2).
When lay people complained that they could not see the consecrated bread at Mass in the Middle Ages, they made the following entreaty: ‘Heave it higher, Sir Priest’. This is said to be the origin of the traditional elevation of the host and chalice still practised in the Church at the Eucharist. The practice has been debated, particularly with respect to the almost magical approach to the sacramental consecration it can cultivate. The instinct of the medieval laity however may not have been so far from that of St Philip's Greek companions who ‘wished to see Jesus’ (John 12:21).
Empowering priesthood makes the most of that empowering promise, ‘this is my body’, since it resonates with the very centre of Christian Faith in the self-giving of Jesus. ‘At the heart of our lives is the celebration of that moment of utter vulnerability and generosity, when Jesus took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples saying ‘Take and eat, this is my body, given to you.’ At the centre of the gospel is a moment of pure gift. This is where the caritas which is the life of God becomes most tangible. It is a generosity that our society finds hard to grasp, for our society is a market in which everything is bought and sold. What sense can it make of the God who shouts out ‘Come to me all who are thirsty and I will give you food without price’ (7).
The priest who blesses bread and wine in the name of the Lord continually draws the Church back to this mystery of God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ. ‘This is my body’. Here is the Gospel in four words, in presence and in power. Here is the faithfulness of God disclosed ‘unto death’. Christians are here recalled to the central truth of the Faith, the gift of Jesus Christ himself. It is a generosity that plants itself in all who see and welcome Jesus continuously present to his people particularly through the Eucharist.
The honouring of the sacramental presence of Jesus has its place, but that honouring should extend to the other ways in which he is made present through prayer, scripture and through the gathering of the congregation. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18:20) The late Ian Petit, a Benedictine Monk, talked of his own experience of lifting up the host at Mass facing the people. Originally taught to keep his eyes upon the consecrated bread, he explained how his own devotion came to have eyes for both the host and the people on the other side of it. For both it was true to say ‘this is my body’.
This study of the priesthood began with the call for renewed ‘horizons and visions of its meaning and truth’. It concludes by underlining the words of Jesus which interpret the ultimate horizon, words put on the lips of priests in particular. It is the self-giving of Jesus that both establishes and authenticates an empowering priesthood. By calling the Church back day by day to this mystery the ordained become a renewal gift of the ascended Christ. Where their own lives reflect this ‘downward mobility of God’ (Henri Nouwen), their priesthood is one that uplifts the Church.
‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus...’ (Hebrews 12:1-2a).
1. Churches Together in
2. Michael Ramsey The Christian Priest Today 1972
3. Gordon Kuhrt An Introduction to Christian Ministry 2000
4. General Synod Report 694 Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry 1986
5. Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) The Imitation of Christ
6. Dermot Power A Spiritual Theology of the Priesthood 1998
7. Timothy Radcliffe Sing a New Song 1999
A PRAYER FOR PRIESTS
you have chosen your priests from among us
and sent them out to proclaim your word
and to act in your name.
For so great a gift to your Church,
we give you praise and thanksgiving.
We ask you to fill them
with the fire of your love,
that their ministry may reveal
your presence in the Church.
Since they are earthen vessels,
we pray that your power
shine out through their weakness.
In their afflictions let them never be crushed;
in their doubts never despair;
in temptation never be destroyed;
in persecution never abandoned.
Inspire them through prayer to live each day
the mystery of your dying and rising.
In times of weakness send them your Spirit,
and help them to praise your heavenly Father
and pray for poor sinners.
By the same Holy Spirit
put your words on their lips
and your love in their hearts,
to bring good news to the poor
and healing to the brokenhearted.