Priests as “agents of the Spirit”

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Fr_Simon_-_Version_2Last month our Chaplain Sr Josephine and Co-ordinating Fellow Fr Simon Cuff both attended a conference on ‘Priesthood in a great world city’. On the opening night, Sr Josephine offered her reflections on priesthood from a Roman Catholic religious perspective. Fr Simon reflects on what he learned about priesthood in London and what impact the ordained priesthood has on the ‘priesthood’ and ‘praxis’ of all believers.

What is the point of a priest? This might well be a question many Christians have asked themselves, as much out of frustration at a member of the clergy if not out of theological concerns that the ordained priesthood draws attention away from the eternal priesthood of Christ ‘our great high priest’. One of the questions set by the Bishop whose clergy made up the attendees of the conference exploring ‘Priesthood in a great world city’, Priests and Deacons of the Church of England ministering in the great world city of London, of which the Anglican diocese of London is a part, was: what might a unitive rediscovery of priesthood – truly catholic, truly evangelical, truly Anglican look like?

Whilst it would almost certainly take more than a week to answer this question – if an answer exists! The week’s shared reflection, opened by Sr Josephine, provided the contours and building blocks of any answer, the foundations of a ‘unitive rediscovery of priesthood’ throughout God’s Church.

The very notion of an ordained priesthood remains difficult for many Christians. Yet throughout the week, it became apparent that across denominational boundaries there is an increasing convergence that ministry is more than the sum of its functional parts. Dr David Muir suggested that there was an increasing appreciation of the distinctiveness of the orders of priest and other ordained persons within the free and charismatic traditions.

This is another reminder that many of the theological questions which gave rise to our denominational landscape are precisely that – old questions of the past. The oecumenical movement – for which many obituaries have been written – has borne fruit in a shared willingness to find common ground, if available, and to avoid partition and schism along the lines of old debates or second-order issues. We can now all more or less agree that the presentation of the Catholic understanding of the Mass as an unnecessary replay of the Cross is an untrue and unhelpful caricature, as much as we can recognise the presence of Jesus in a service of Holy Communion whilst admitting a reluctance in condemning others for not wishing to put into words explicitly how this is so.

On newer ‘wedge issues’ too, which may have led to schism in the Church’s past, there has been a convergence, or at least growth, in understanding and acceptance of alternate but equally held and theologically defensible points of view.

A theme of the conference reflected in both the address of the Rev’d Dr Emma Ineson and the Bishop of London was the coming of the future Church – living in the present as the Church of the future. Dr Ineson reminded us that ordained priests stand as ambassadors of a King who is not yet recognised, and the Holy Spirit comes into the present to call the Church of the future into being. This Bishop of London reflected this theme – calling us to look forward to the united Church of the future rather than longing for the myth of a united Christendom of the past. In this task, the priesthood of all believers plays a part, and the priesthood of the ordained, a unique role. In this too, the Church of England’s discovery of a model of diversity in communion may play an important part – allowing real differences to exist alongside shared communion and recognition of ministry with commitment to mutual flourishing as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

Other speakers helped to build on this call of the Bishop of the London and Dr Ineson to bring the future Church into being in the present. Dr Muir presented the building blocks of a Church which truly represents the ethnic diversity of our community, building a welcoming and diverse Church which enables people of all races and ethnicities to realise they have a place and a role in building the future Church and building up the body of Christ.

The Rev’d Prof Graham Ward reminded us of the cultural appreciation for Christ that exists already and dormant outside the Church. He reminded us too of the human longing for transcendence which was met in the past by the Church with glorious architecture and colossal cathedrals and is met in the present by the glittering lights and design of rampant consumerism and the towering lights of a global city. He challenged us Priests to build the Church of the future which met this human need, and resurrect the dormant Christ in our society.

This is all well and good, we might think, but how? How do we work with the Spirit to bring the Church of the future into being? How do we develop from the priesthood of all believers an ordained priesthood that is reflective of the ethnic and racial diversity of those believers? How do we resurrect the dormant notions of Christ in our society and meet the longings for transcendence in those outside the Church?

Sr Josephine’s address at the beginning of our week laid out an answer to many of these questions. She challenged us to belong to a Church and a priesthood which does all of these things by becoming a Church and a priesthood happy to dwell in the margins of the Church and the World. She reminded us of the calling of the ordained priesthood to spend time with the poor and the outcast within the Church, as well as the poor and the outcast outside the Church, to discern what the Spirit is already doing ahead of us – and in doing so to meet the Spirit bringing the Church of the future into being.

Priests are called to be the agents of change in the priesthood of all believers to enable those believers to better live out that priesthood in which we all, as Christians, share. Priests, as ministers of the Gospel, are called consistently to refocus the priesthood of all believers toward the priesthood of Christ – to turn the attention of their fellow Christians and those outside Church toward God and toward their neighbours. Priests are called to love their fellow human beings to inspire that love of God and love of neighbour. To do this Priests need tools: the tools of priestly prayer and spirituality and an ability to discern the work of the Spirit in the world; the tools of community organising to listen to the needs of our communities and in listening to find ways to develop those within and outside the Church to meet them, from the simplest need for food to the deepest need for transcendence; and the tools given to us in our ordination – to remain true to our ordination vows as Priests, which as Anglicans and in a tradition different from her own, Sr Josephine reminded us is spelled out in our tradition in our ordinal:

 to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.’

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