Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Priesthood of All Believers

I've never been much enthused about the Reformation. While the Roman Church of its day was full of abuses (as it and others are still today), which needed correcting, a whole lot of the mystery of faith and the corporal aspects of Christian life seem to have been tossed out, with dull literalism, anti-sacramentalism, and individualism taking their place, enthroned on pulpits rather than bishop's chairs.

Yet I'm beginning to see more and more of value in the extent to which the Protestant view attacked the notion of priesthood and the Magisterium that governs it as the keepers of holy mysteries, indeed, of the keys to the kingdom itself. Looking upon recent events in the Episcopal Church and the Christmas ceremonies in the Vatican, I'm struck by how important it is that the laity understand and appreciate that they are, indeed, living members of the body of Christ. As such, they need to strive to be mature in faith and witness, not act as children ever in need of instruction and oversight or as young or old delighting in the cult of personality, goggling, fawning, and destroying those they place in the limelight.

Earlier this month, Fr. Matthew Hopkins wrote with regard to this passage from the Archibishop of Canterbury's Advent Letter,
the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself
At best, that fragment of a sentence should read
the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which interprets God in and with the community of believers and continually forms and re-forms that community itself.
The Archbishop completely objectifies, makes passive, “the community of believers,” which, for this Anglican, is about as far from Anglicanism as one can get.
(Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, December 15, 2007).

In other words, even with regards to understanding and interpreting Scripture, the laity has an active, vital role to play as part of the larger community of believers.

This doesn't necessarily mean congregationalism in the usual Protestant sense, but it does mean that the clergy is not the sole repository for and guardians of the faith, the kind that was "once delivered" and must be jealously kept under glass, free from air or light or human touch.

It also means, I think, that sooner or later we all, Protestants and Catholics alike, need to let go of our notion that clergy are somehow supposed to be some sort of species of the semi-divine or at least measured in those terms. So many of us want clergy to be somehow better than the average person, not simply accountable for misconduct, as we all must be, but somehow radiating holiness or, at the very least, at all times striving to do so, while at the same time being our friends, neighbors, mother and father figures, and the teachers and preachers who tell all those in our lives and in our worlds who displease us that they should behave differently, prophets and advocates of all of our own personal agendas.

The problem, as I see it, is not simply the occasional "toxic" congregation, where these attitudes take the form of a group dynamic that can be very harmful to all involved, institutionally and personally. The problem is the extent to which those, both the sometimes believers in the pews and the skeptics and non-believers on the outside, expect moral and spiritual super-performance from the paid professionals, either as consumerists, who want return for our money (those of us who invest) or simply as frail human beings who would like to believe that if only we tried harder -- as those who have taken religious vows presumably are or should be doing -- we would be living in the City on the Hill or whatever our vision is of living the holy life here on earth.

Those of us who are Christians, especially those of a more Catholic bent, want our pastors and priests to be iconic in some special and distinct way -- not just iconic in the sense that all who seek to follow Christ hope to reveal a glimmer of the face of the divine imaged in all of us humans, but as humans whom we expect to re-present themselves as Christ himself, to not just follow or serve the Good Shepherd, but to act as though they are Him. This is dangerous, not only in relations with clergy, but in what it means in how we think of ourselves as non-clergy. Always looking up to clergy to lead -- although many lead well -- all too often leaves us waiting for directions, for mission "strategies," for planned evangelism (i.e. marketing), for community-building, for building-building, etc. It keeps us from taking action, living full lives in Christ as not just as individuals, seeking our personal salvation, but as his corporate Body here on earth, we, the people, the one holy and apostolic Church, lay and ordained alike. Priests have important roles to play in celebrating the sacraments, administering resources for mission and worship, facilitating and focusing the community's efforts at providing Christian fellowship and service to the wider community, but we, too, have important and vital roles to play in teaching, preaching, ministering, and, on occasion, even prophesying.

There is so much work to do for Christ, as individuals and communities, that we cannot afford to just sit in the pews or even bring the dishes to the pot-lucks. What brings me the most hope of late is seeing laypersons in the Episcopal Church reach across parishes and dioceses, across miles and nations, to each other. But if we are to do more such good work, I think we have to start at home, as well, seeing every single one of us as vital parts of the whole. We need to stop conceiving of ourselves and acting as communities around ministers but instead work at becoming ministering communities. We need to stop the busyness of putting our priests on pedestals, sometimes tearing them down, only to look for new ones to raise up to replace them, and instead plant all of our feet firmly on the ground, everyone working together to imitate and serve Christ.

As I recently heard in an ordination sermon:
We need to remember that it is baptismal ministry that is primary and basic to the life of the Church, and it is only when and where clergy and laity both believe and embrace that truth that the mission of the Church can be advanced. Those of us who are ordained, while exercising ministries that are essential to the Church’s life, do so to support and empower the ministry of the all the baptized, the vast majority of whom are lay people. Without you, our ministries have neither context nor purpose.

* * * *

This priesthood belongs to the whole Body of the Faithful; it is the priesthood shared by all the baptized.

And what do we have to offer? In and of ourselves, whether lay or ordained, all that we have is the widow’s mite. We have our own limited and fallible humanity— imperfect and broken, flawed in so many ways, prone to making stupid and idiotic mistakes, seemingly unable to offer the perfection that God has the right to expect. But the incredibly Good News of the Gospel is that this is precisely what God wants. God wants the imperfect, broken and flawed human beings that we are, to reach out to the world, because each and every human being on the face of the earth is made of the same stuff, experiences the same challenges, and must deal with the same flaws.

It’s all symbolized in the widow’s mite— it seems like so little. But it’s not the amount that’s the focus here. It is our willingness to offer who and what we are and have. That is our call; and that is how we exercise our priesthood.
Not just to clergy, but the call of the priesthood to all believers. Each of us, with our own mite to offer.


Rowan The Dog said...

This is great Kaldy. Martin Luther said that whoever had crawled out of the waters of baptism had been consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.

I don't think we'll ever get the clergy off their high-horse until we remove from them the exclusive right to administer the sacraments and demand some basic job competencies. Clergy is the only job I know of where, after you are ordained, you never have to exhibit any further competency.

I don't think it'll happen in my lifetime but soon, sooner than people think, we'll have a clergy-free church and it will at long last BE The Church.

Rowan The Dog said...

Uh...just so everyone is clear, that last post was from my guardian, Lindy. Unfortunately, we share a Google account which sometimes makes it difficult. Especially when we disagree. I want to go on record as not really caring. I just want to play and have fun.



klady said...

Thanks, Rowan and Lindy. Some days I'm pretty much split myself -- ready to tear the whole structure down and not caring other than having a nice warm bed and a bowl full of dinner.

Unfortunately, I think it is human nature that precludes any real solution to the problem of institutionalized religion. Getting rid of the offices of pope, bishop, and priest has its merits, but inevitably it leaves a power vacuum that someone or someones will step into. When I rant and rave about TEC, the ACC, and the Vatican, I also have to stop and recall Garrison Keillor's accounts of his youth raised in the kind of church that met in people's homes. He recalls it with both affection and discomfort, and it is telling that he has landed in TEC (somewhere buried in Elizabeth Kaeton's blog is an essay he wrote this fall about it -- not the first, but one that seemed to get it right, the sanctuary of the formal liturgy and the weariness that we may take there in light of both personal histories and church histories). His background was not quite as horrific or stultifying as other more fundamentalist groups, but it was bad enough for him. Add to that view that of the crazier ones, many local, independent, congregational churches, in which someone almost inevitably steps into the limelight, controls the finances, etc., and it's off and running, with or without popes, bishops, or priests. Religion seems to always bring out the toxic elements of humanity, with only rare glimpses of the divine. Or such is my jaded view of it all.

As a practical matter, it may be that TEC churches will have fewer and fewer full-time professional clergy except for a few suburban parishes where there's both money and the will to keep it going. There are many small congregations in our diocese on the verge of losing their priests and buildings due to financial circumstances that really have little to do with the "unpleasantedness." It strikes me as so sad when people who want and need some kind of sacramental worship cannot have it because of the absence of ordained clergy (though I realize there's something to be said for the old practice of once-monthly Communion -- sometimes it means more that way). I don't much care about the rules and regulations, in themselves, but I also resist the notion that anyone can do it -- celebrate the Eucharist (even clergy who nowadays have very little knowledge of liturgical practices and their historic meanings). Yet, well theoretically anyone can baptize, marry, etc., so I suppose it really shouldn't matter. Dunno.

Rowan The Dog said...

Well, things are changing one way or the other. I don't have any answers, just full of big ideas. It won't all get sorted out in my lifetime but I intend to be somewhere looking on.