What is a priest?
I’ve recently noticed on the Anglican blogs I read more frequent references to “lay presidency” and “diaconal presidency” at the Eucharist. Such ideas strike me as completely daft, and remind me of why I quit the Anglican Church 25 years ago.
So why, if I’m no longer Anglican, do I blog about such things? It certainly doesn’t bother me, because it no longer affects me, and it makes little difference to my life what Anglicans ultimately decide about such things. I’ve been debating with myself whether to write a blog post on it or not. It’s not that I hope to influence Anglicans to do one thing rather than another. I suppose at one level my interest is academic. My academic field of study is missiology, and so I am interested in the way that ministry in the church affects mission and vice versa. Also, I cannot deny that my experience as an Anglican, and especially in training self-supporting priests and deacons in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, helped to shape my understanding of ministry in the church, and thus helped, if indirectly, to lead me to Orthodoxy. And I also believe that whereas the Orthodox understanding of ministry in the church is theologically sound, the practical application of it has often been a hindrance to mission. So I think it could be quite useful to “think aloud” about it in my blog.
So, to go back to the beginning, why do I think “lay presidency” and “diaconal presidency” are daft?
They are daft because they seem to assume the interchangeability of ministries in the church. Think of a different field — a Formula I racing team. It’s a pretty good example of what St Paul is talking about when he compares the church to a body, with each of the parts of the body having a different function. Most of what you see on TV is one member of the team, the driver. The driver gets pole position or some other position. The winning drivers appear on the podium at the end of the race and squirt each other with champagne. But occasionally during the race, during the pit stops, you catch glimpses of other members of the team — the guy who handles the refuelling, the guys who change the wheels, the guys who jack the car up so the others can change the wheels. And even less frequently you catch glimpses of other people behind the scenes. There’s the team manager, people who monitor the car’s performance and track conditions on computers, and so on. And then there are the ones you never see — the people who arrange the logistics — that spares are available when needed, and those who arrange to transport the whole kit and caboodle to the next race venue.
But what if the driver ate something that disagreed with him at lunch, and had to make a pit stop to puke? Do they say “Oh, let the guy who jacks the car up drive, and let the guy who changes the left rear wheel handle the jack.” Not likely. As St Paul puts it (1 Cor 12:14-18):
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
But now hath God set the members each one of them in the body, even as it pleased him.
St Paul was not talking about a Formula I team, but of the church, and if the analogy applies to a Formula I racing team, how much more does it apply to the church?
In my Anglican days, as Director of Training for Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, one of my duties was to attend the annual meeting of the Provincial Department of Theological Education. This gathered diocesan trainers, representatives of the theological seminaries and an episcopal chairman, and they would discuss for 3-4 days at a residential conference. And almost invariably, at the beginning of the meeting, someone would say something like, “Before we can decide about training for the ministry, we have to be clear on what a priest is.” And out would come the newsprint and the felt-tipped pens, and someone would write at the top of a sheet, “What is a priest?” and the rest of the meeting would be devoted to brainstorming that, and writing down what was said on the newsprint. At one such meeting I asked “Didn’t anyone save the newsprint from last time? Can’t we just put that up and move on?” and there were glares and exasperated snorts at such a suggestion of a departure from the established ritual, for such it was.
The question itself was interesting. It was always, “What is a priest?” Never “What is a deacon?” or “What is an evangelist?” or “What is a prophet?” (there is more about deacons at Deacons and diaconate | Khanya). Behind it lay the assumption of a “one-man band” model of ministry. The priest did everything, and of course needed to be trained to do everything. And at some point the representatives of the theological seminaries would get edgy, and one of them would say something like, “There are only 24 hours in the day, and the curriculum is pretty crowded as it is. We can’t just keep adding things without taking something away. If we cut the lunch break to 15 minutes and drop New Testament II we might be able to squeeze in Marxism and Bookkeeping, but not all the other things on the list.”
Oh, and if any Pentecostals are reading this and you have managed to get this far without being bored out of your skull, don’t me smug because you don’t have priests, or think you believe in the “priesthood of all believers”. Just ask yourself “What is a pastor?” Because a one-man band pastor is really no different from a one-man band priest, and bears as little relation to the New Testament.
Imagine if the Formula I team was just the driver, and there was no pit crew, never mind all the others, the mechanics, the logistics people and all the rest. But when they discussed “What is a priest?” the assumption seemed to be that the priesthood was the ministry.
And all this talk of “lay presidency” and “diaconal presidency” seems to be just the other side of the coin. After loading the priest with all the ministries of the whole team, they now want to take the one ministry that is actually characteristic of a priest and give that to everyone else. It’s as if, in the Formula I team, the Driver changes the wheels, watches the computers, makes the tea, and organises the spares, but anyone else does the actual driving. Inverting a distorted idea of ministry doesn’t take away the distortions. If a deacon (or anyone else for that matter) can preside at the celebration of the eucharist, why not ordain them as priests? If my bishop told me that he wanted me, as a deacon, to preside at the Eucharist, I’d be seriously annoyed. If I thought God was calling me to preside at the Eucharist, I would seek ordination as a priest. That is what a priest does.
So I really wonder why so many Anglicans seem to want to have so many unordained priests floating around. Why not just ordain them? And if you are going to have lots and lots of unordained priests, why bother to have ordained ones? What are they for?
I suspect that the real reason is clericalism and pride. There are not enough priests to preside at all the eucharists that need people to preside at them, but if you have too many priests, it would lower the prestige of “the” ministry, which depends on its scarcity value. So “lay presidency” is just a manifestation of the old Anglican disease of pluralism, where, in the 18th century, a priest could be Rector of several parishes, and thus be entitled to the tithes and the titles of all of them, but couldn’t be in all those place at once on a Sunday, so employed a poorly-paid assistant curate to do the actual work. As Roland Allen once put it, the chief obstacle to “voluntary clergy”is the jealousy of the present clergy for their position.
Something similar happened in some Anglican parishes during the height of the charismatic renewal about 30 years ago. In those parishes they read in the New Testament about “elders”, so they appointed “elders”, but never bothered to ask the bishop to ordain them. But I don’t think they ever expected them to preside at the eucharist either. So there were two “half-ideas” floating around. There was talk in some places of “self-supporting priests” and there was talk in other places of “elders”, but nobody seemed to connect the two and see that they were precisely the same thing. If these “elders” had been ordained by the bishop, and also presided at the eucharist, there would have been the self-supporting priests, and Roland Allen’s vision might have been fulfilled.
I once spoke about this at a clergy conference in the Anglican diocese of Natal, and was attacked by two priests (of the Evangelical persuasion), who encouraged the appointment of unordained elders in their parishes. They simply did not believe me when I said that the word “priest” means “elder”, and that in the church “elders” and “priests” were the same thing. The English word “priest” is a contraction of the Greek presviteros, and in the New Testament the “elders” were presbyters, or priests. John Milton, who favoured the congregational form of church government, and disliked the presbyterian form introduced by Cromwell & Co, knew the difference, and said “New presbyter is but old priest writ large”.
Some Evangelicals make much of the doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” (not a biblical term, by the way) and believe that there should not be an order of ministry called “priests” because all believers are priests. But ask them if they believe in the “eldership of all believers” and why there should therefore not be elders in the church, and they become less certain. The problem is that in English Bibles the Greek word “presviteros” is translated as “elder” rather than as “priest”, and the English word “priest” is used to translate another Greek word, “ierefs”, and while there is a connection between priest as in presviteros and priest as in ierefs, it is different from what many people seem to imagine.
And in all the discussions about “What is a priest?” that took place is a preliminary to training for “the” ministry, there were two fatal errors or omissions, first, that the priest is primarily an elder, and secondly that the ministry of a priest is not “the” ministry, but one ministry among many.
It used to be the case that in many places Orthodox priests had little specialised academic theological training. Academic theologians were mostly lay people, and in many places still are. But now, especially in the West, the idea seems to be gaining ground among the Orthodox that there is a need for “an educated clergy”, and so the same disease that I noticed among the Anglicans seems to be taking root among the Orthodox as well.
What training does a priest need?
Primarily training as a worship leader, and especially presiding at the Divine Liturgy, with all that that implies. The priest is the link between the parish and the wider church — the priest is ordained by the bishop, and cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy without the Antimension from the bishop. The priest commemorates the bishop in the Liturgy (and, in the Preparation service, the bishop who ordained him). The qualifications of elders in the New Testament are primarily moral rather than academic, though the bishop, especially, should have enough knowledge of doctrine to be able to convict gainsayers (Titus 1:9).
Another interesting thing is that in the New Testament the elders (ie priests) of the church are always plural. St Paul calls to him the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:17), Titus is urged to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5) and when Christians are sick they should call for the priests of the church to anoint them (James 5:14). This is recognised in the Orthodox service of anointing of the sick, which, if done properly, as St Mark taught us when he brought the gospel to Africa in the first century, requires seven priests and seven deacons for its performance.
Academic theology has its place, but not every priest needs to be an academic theologian, and academic theologians do not need to be priests.
And if priests are not the ministry, but one ministry among many, what about the others, and how should they be trained? And, if people are to be trained for those ministries, we also need to ask what they are.
Ralph Winter, the Presbyterian missiolgist who died a couple of years ago, used to refer to two different kinds of ministry in the church, which he called Modality and Sodality. Those fancy names don’t tell us very much, but he believed that the Modality ministries were those that belonged to the local church, which was a community of people of all ages, and a great variety of different people. The Sodality was a more selective community; it was itinerant rather than local, and required particular skills, calling, or training. The Modality ministries, those of the local church, included the ministries of bishops, priests and deacons. The Sodality ministries included monks (who needed a monastic calling in addition to their call to be Christians), missionaries, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor/teachers and so on.
The Methodist movement, which grew up in the Church of England in the 18th century, was originally an example of a Sodality ministry. Early Methodists were members of the Church of England, so they went for the sacraments to their local Anglican parish church, but the Methodist Society, as a kind of ginger group within the church, had its own local preachers, and also had itinerant pastor/teachers who travelled in a circuit to a group of Methodist Societies to exhort, encourage and teach them. So the ministry of Methodist ministers was quite different from that of Anglican priests. It was, to use Winter’s terms, a Sodality ministry rather than a Modality ministry.
But when the Methodists broke from the Anglicans, the Anglicans no longer provided the sacraments, so Methodist ministers gradually came more and more to resemble Anglican priests, and tended to settle down in one place, and the “itinerant” part of it became no more than a nostalgic longing for a vanished past.
Conversely, in places like Zululand, Anglican priests became more like the original Methodist ministers. The priest would settle in a place and built up a mission centre (sometimes called a mission station) with a church, a school, and sometimes a clinic or hospital). Evangelists, paid and unpaid, took the gospel to the surrounding countryside and formed Christian congregations, which were called “outstations”. And the priest, like the early Methodist ministers, would itinerate to the outstations, for preaching, teaching and the sacraments. Contrary to St Paul’s instructions to Titus, they did not appoint elders (priests) in every place, but rather catechists, who were authorised to preach and teach (which they were often ill-qualified to do) but not to administer the sacraments (which they could probably have been taught to do quite easily). One catechist preached every Sunday on the working of the steam engine, which he had read about in a book.
An Anglican evangelist in Sekhukhuniland had an itinerant ministry preaching the gospel, and within a short time had planted about 30 new congregations, after which it stopped growing. Why? Because he was ordained a priest (the only one) and had a complex itinerary for visiting those congregations for the Eucharist, and so he had no time to go to new places. He had become a Mass nomad. But if, as St Paul instructed Titus, he had appointed elders in every place where he had planted a church, that problem would not have arisen. He, or someone else, could have visited them like the original Methodist ministers, as itinerant pastor/teachers, to encourage and teach them, though with a less demanding schedule and being able to spend more quality time in each place, without the need to rush off somewhere else for Mass.
Among the early Methodists, people like John Wesley were itinerant evangelists just like the Anglican one in Sekhukhuniland, but they were able to avoid the problems in Sekhukhuniland, at least for a while, because there was already a network of Anglican parish churches. The Orthodox Church too had its John Wesley. St Cosmas the Aetolian was a contemporary of John Wesley, and had a similar itinerant evangelistic ministry in the Balkans. Under Ottoman Turkish rule most Orthodox Christians were ignorant of the Christian faith, and St Cosmas went from village to village, and would erect a cross and preach in the open air, just as Wesley did.
So what is a priest?
A priest is an elder and an elder is a priest. But priesthood (eldership) is not “the” ministry. It is one of many ministies in the church, but one of the central aspects of the ministry of priests is “presiding at the eucharist”.