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.