On the Role of Priests

Ash Wednesday is a tricky day for me.  Not because I dislike the theological underpinnings of it.  In fact, I think it is quite important that Christians take time to ponder both our own mortality and the need to repent, that is, to change direction and live for God and God’s Kingdom.  Heck, I push for Rite I in Lent for precisely this reason (We’ve turned Rite I, Prayer I into Rite II language in a reverse reading of the rubric on page 14).  No, my struggle with Ash Wednesday has always been about the liturgy.  I’ve worked through some of it this week, developing further my thoughts on the role of the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, reflecting on the strong language of the Collect, and digging deeper into this whole Ashes to Go phenomenon thanks to smart posts by Susan, Scott, and Mike who wrote “For those passionately debating whether “Ashes to Go” is good or bad: Something doesn’t have to be “all good” or “all bad.” Like most things, ATG has benefits and drawbacks. Chill.”

This practice has lead me through the vast majority of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, and today I find myself at the end and the Prayer of Absolution that can be offered only by a Bishop or Priest,

“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins.  He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.

“Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.” (BCP, 269)

The emergent, egalitarian in me always cringes a little bit at this prayer, and the rubric which follows that says that deacons and lay readers should stay kneeling and substitute these words, “Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.  Amen.” (BCP, 80).  On this holy day, like so many others, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of parishes around the country that do not have the liberty to employ a full-time, ordained person at Diocesan minimums, health insurance, and 18% pension.  As I’ve said myriad times before, since 1979 we’ve told these parishes and missions that they aren’t “real churches” because they can’t partake in the principal act of Christian worship (BCP, 13), the Holy Eucharist, with regularity.  We’ve legislated out of the realm of possibility even lay staff with our most recent changes in denominational health plans and lay pensions, and the dagger, it would seem to me, is that on Ash Wednesday, these congregations are not permitted to hear the beautiful words of promise that, like the prophecies of the Old Testament, bring to a close the call to repentance in our Ash Wednesday Liturgy.

I’m a little extra sensitive to this whole topic today, and lo and behold, I got a text from my friend, John, who told me about today’s Diane Rehm Show (something I have now listened to once) where, in the second hour, she interviewed Gary Wills, author of “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition.”  (You can listen to it here)  While I think his question is worthwhile, I have lots of problems with Mr. Wills’ line of argument, which includes:

  • There is no mention of priests in the New Testament outside of The Letter to the Hebrews.  He flat out refused to accept that “presbyteroi” (elder) infers the same meaning in places like Acts 15, calling it, “a [Roman] Catholic distortion, not a real translation.”  I’d like to ask him who decides what is a “real translation” of a 2,000 year old text.
  • The pretense of the Eucharist (on Colbert he called it a “fake”) is the Church’s way of securing power in the priesthood and the hierarchy.  That is to say, if only priests can turn bread and wine into body and blood (which he argues is “impossible”), downgrades the rest of the body of Christ (by this he means lay people and maybe deacons because bishops and the Pope are all priests, after all).  He goes on to add that he objects to “the idea that the priest is the sole conduct of grace… only the priest can forgive sins…”  Here, I’m stuck because I don’t know Roman Catholic doctrine well enough to argue the point, but in my tradition, priests do not forgive sins, but rather, “declare and pronounce” pardon, as is mentioned in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy referenced above.
  • That after he used his “magic wand to disassemble the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church” it would look like his vision, “Those who wish to teach, can; those who wish to preach, can; those who wish to offer healing ministries, can.”  I’m all for the priesthood of all believers, but I would argue (and Wills says himself elsewhere that he agrees with me) that teaching and preaching are very different than healing and other ministries.  While Wills doesn’t like dogma, he does seem to believe in doctrine, that there are some things that are true and some that aren’t, and somebody needs to be trained in the difference.

The reality of it is, I’m sitting behind a desk in my office at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, looking at two ordination certificates with wax seals and a M.Div diploma, wearing a clerical collar, preparing to preach at a third Ash Wednesday Liturgy in about 90 minutes.  I am deeply tied into the hierarchy of my own tradition, while I stand within and attempt to say, “this isn’t exactly the way it was meant to be.”  I’ll never be able to agree with Mr. Wills, if for no other reason than my pension depends on it, but I applaud him for asking these questions.

Does the Church need priests, presbyters, elders, or pastors?  I think so, but that doesn’t necessarily require me also to believe that lay people are subservient hacks.  Instead, I see my role as a priest as that of a pastor or shepherd: teaching, preaching, admonishing, and motivating the lay ministers of the Church who are called by God to build his Kingdom.  I think we can live somewhere in between Mr. Wills’ thesis and the abuses of power he challenges.  But then again, that’s probably why I’m an Anglican.



5 thoughts on “On the Role of Priests

  1. Good post. Listening to Diane Rehm now. (Why am I not surprised that she looks exactly like I thought she would after hearing her voice?) I am preaching today as well, and I pull heavily from our conversation about Eucharist on AW or not. I’m going to wait for one last time preaching before I post the sermon, but I want to say thanks for helping shape it.

    Regarding priests, I taught a Sunday school class on blessing the other day. Although I’m still a little cloudy on a theology of blessing, I think certain people are set aside by the community of faith for a particular purpose, and that, because of the recognized selection and authority that comes with it, such persons become able to do things that, were others to do them, wouldn’t be recognized as legitimate. That’s a long way of saying that, until we change the selection/ordination process, it doesn’t matter what we want. We’re too steeped in the current system to recognize the authority of those outside it.

  2. Thank you for these thoughts Steve. Does the Church need priests, presbyters, elders, or pastors? Absolutely. But Wills’ argument today specifically denounced the need for ordained ministry and the divisiveness among the Body when certain people are charged with Holy Orders (the major ones) and others are not. Although I haven’t read Wills’ book (and won’t) I’d bet on a substantial portion of his material being lifted from the history and opinions of the Roman Catholic church, and quite a smaller portion being dedicated to us lowly Anglicans.

    I’ve struggled with this question quite a bit in my life. Growing up I relied heavily on the need of a full-time clergy in my Church with a father for a… Father. When was he dad? When was he my priest? What changed in him in Ordination? I imagine you had similar thoughts before and after your ordination. Now i’m Steve. Now i’m +Steve. What changed?

    I’m not going to lie it intrigues me. What would it feel like to read the rites, raise the bread, and hold the mystery right in my hands?! My guess… is it wouldn’t feel any different. It’d be as mysterious there, as it is on the other side of the railing. But I don’t believe that makes it less important that those hands are ordained.

    At some point, I started thinking about what I was seeing a bit differently. And when TKT became FRTKT to break the bread I started thinking about his hands that touched the hands that touched the hands… that touched the hands that broke the first bread. I believe the priest is significant because I believe in the importance of Apostolic Succession. Absolution, Blessing, Consecration… I just feel uncomfortable when I’ve been witness to laity “performing” these tasks.

    But as for the division of power in the church between clergy and laity, there are as many priests that set themselves above laypeople as there are laypeople that put priests on a platform. I think everybody should know a priest like their brother, or even hear one tell a joke you wouldn’t repeat to your mother. I think y’all need that kind of fellowship as much (and even more so) as the rest of us (laity).

    • John, you last paragraph raises, I think, the crux of Wills argument, though your version is much more cogent and contains much less intentionally inflammatory rhetoric. As you well know, and as the Monsignor tried to argue on the radio show, priests are still people. When we are placed on a pedestal, we tend to fall because we’re human, and because we’re human our heads tend to swell. One think I appreciate about The Episcopal Church, is that I get to have a wife who walks with me through all of this and reminds me, sometimes by the minute, that I’m not the person the hype would lead me to believe. At the end of the day, I’m still Steve, a struggling disciple, albeit a theologically trained one.

      The larger issue for me, as it relates to leadership, is the simple fact that organizations need someone who wakes up everyday thinking about them. If the Church were to become a volunteer organization, it would eventually cease to exist because it would inevitably get set on the back burner or fall through the cracks or whatever your metaphor of choice is for “I’ll deal with that later.” Someone has to have in mind that Sunday comes every week and the community of the faithful will gather for prayer, song, and study. Every major Christian denomination has decided that the best way to do that is through ordained leadership, following after the Jewish tradition of the Levitical Priesthood. Whether we call them priests (archeries) or elders (presbyteroi), the task is the same: baptize, preach, and teach.

      Thanks again for sharing this broadcast with me, it really made for a thought-filled Ash Wednesday afternoon.

  3. Pingback: Your sins are forgiven | Draughting Theology

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