“I just don’t understand why he needs to be commissioned again!”
I still vividly remember the conversation, 25 years ago, between my then boss and a congregational member of a large evangelical parish church. It took place as people were beginning to arrive for a service to ordain new priests, the curate of that large parish included. To be clear, my then boss and the lay person concerned knew each other well and were warm and friendly. But the line that’s stayed with me was “I just don’t understand why he needs to be commissioned again… he was ‘done’ last year, why does he need to be ‘done’ again?”
What is a priest..?
Well, within the Church of England, there is the “official” answer as set out in the Ordinal, and the reality of how priesthood is perceived across the spectrum of the Church. That’s made more complicated because there are other questions inherent in what appears to be one straightforward question.
Firstly there is the ‘what is a priest’? Secondly there is ‘what does a priest do’? That’s a fair enough qualitative enquirery – what is the nature of priesthood, and how is that vocation lived out – how and where do we see what that life is?
That’s made more complicated though in the holding of an office. So, we could also ask, ‘what is a curate, what does a curate do‘? and ”what is a vicar, what does a vicar do‘?
In other words, there is a dichotomy between what I am (a deacon and a priest) and what I do (in my case a Team Rector – I could as easily have put Rector, Vicar or with some limitations ‘post with Incumbent status’). Between my ‘ontological state’ (being a priest) and my ‘legal state’ (being an Incumbent) there is a delicious interplay, and scope for great confusion. For to be an Incumbent, I need to be a priest; but much of what I am and do as an Incumbent, does not require me to be a priest in order to do that work.
Ok. This is all beginning to sound a bit esoteric, but stick with me.
There is a game, an exercise I run with groups which simply asks: “List all the things your Vicar does each month”. It normally produces a very long list from Administration to Zesting lemons. I then ask the participants what, from their own lists, must the Vicar be a priest to do. Inevitably this causes some confusion, but eventually we get it down to two things:
- Celebrate the Eucharist
- Absolve sins
There is normally some silence at this point and a lot of questions.
Now, there is a sense in which, of course I’m cheating. Ecclesiastical Law, Church polity and practice mean that there are some other things which in general you have to be a priest in order to do – but they, in and of themselves are not a function of priesthood, rather they are a consequence of holding an office which can only be held by someone who is in priestly orders. But, in general, the two ‘actions’ above are the essentials of priesthood.
At the heart of the life of an Incumbent (Parish Priest, Team Rector, Rector, Vicar etc) is this dichotomoy between the ‘essential’ priestly life – the ‘Spiritualities’ of the office of Priesthood and everything else – the ‘temporalities’ of the office of Incumbency.
How this polarity is related, and how just as importantly it is viewed, is a crucial question today.
So back to where I started.
For some within the Church of England, and again I grossly simplify, ordination is little more than a granting of a permission to (extend the) ministry (in general of the baptized) as a form of ‘specialized leadership’. In this view, ordination as a ‘prize giving’ ceremony in which the ‘candidate’ graduates from ministry school and is given their contract of employment as an ‘assistant branch manager’ in the business. Ordination in this sense marks someone out, but no more so than giving them a new and important title and status which others can recognize as a ‘badge’ of their seniority in the organization. They are little more than a brand new first rung ‘manager’ of lay people, a sort of church warden with a dog collar.
So one can see why when someone has been ‘commissioned’ as a Deacon, it can be confusing that they need to be ‘re-comissioned’ as a priest, when its not really going to make much difference to their status as ‘assistant branch manager’. They’ll still be leading what they were before, they’ll still be not-quite-the-boss. The only thing is they’ve now got an extra star that says they can ‘do communion’.
My point is: at this extreme, ordination is about the temporalities. It is a gateway to learn more about how to ‘do’ the temporal activities and a recognition of a form of promotion to do these tasks. It is centered on acquiring leadership skills and exercising them within the structure of the place where they minister. It should then, surely, be open to anyone who has ‘qualified’ by passing the right courses and who’s jumped the right hurdles. It is no more than a job.
I may well be being a tad unfair. But another true life example might help demonstrate this ‘polarity of temporality’.
At a day for Incumbents at a theological training establishment (no names, no pack drill), a member of staff recounted their journey to ordination. They had been running the Sunday School – but no one, including the Vicar, really took this, or them, seriously. So this particular person decided that if they were ordained, they and their ministry would be taken much more seriously. And so they got ordained.
The room of clergy went very quiet. “So,” I asked. “If you had been taken seriously as the Sunday School leader, you wouldn’t have got ordained then, is that what you’re saying?” “Oh, yes, absolutely – there would’ve been no need” was the reply, without any trace of irony.
At the other end of the scale (and in all honesty) is a place I’m far more familiar with. In the extreme of tendency towards ‘the polarity of spiritualities’, ordination, especially for those to be ordained to the priesthood is wholly about the ontological nature conferred and its efficacy for the celebration of the Eucharist. In this scenario, ordination, and indeed formation for ordination is very much concerned with the preparation for and realization of an indelible character which when imparted in the grace of ordination finds its actualization in the celebration of mass and in the absolution of penitents.
Here, this is not about leadership per se, rather it is about a vocational self-oblation in which the individual is conformed to Christ’s own ministerial priesthood. In being conformed to this sharing in the self-offering of Christ himself, and in the leadership proper of the cultic celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice which makes that oblation present to the people of God, the priest is themselves a living sacrament. Hence Austin Farrar’s memorable description of the priest as ‘a walking sacrament’.
In this mode of polarity, the priestly life and formation for that life is wholly about the spiritualities. For it is here that priestly life is to be located. Through this conformation to Christ, the priest also, by virtue of sacramentally sharing in Christ’s own priesthood, is charged with service. So, the grace of ordination imparts a double nature: to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice (and the attendant related place as the provider of absolution in relation to the Eucharistic banquet – restoring the penitent to the Eucharistic community) and the incorporation of the Johannine command to service. The priest stands in persona Christi as a sacramentally generated alter Christus.
Seen in this mode, the Vicar is all about the ‘religious’ bits – the spiritualities. That’s what they have been prepared for. And surely that’s what he should do! After all, can’t we just find another volunteer from among those nice people in the congregation to take care of the temporalities – the drains and the roof and the pesky organist. Surely?
Now, I hope you can see where I’m going with this.
I’m certain that incumbency, and therefore inter alia priesthood, isn’t about one polarity or the other. It is ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. Indeed, I’d go further by saying that to focus on one, to the exclusion of the other impoverishes the office holder and the preist. And there’s the rub. How to hold the spiritualities and temporalities in balance. How do we live with this creative tension?
For the commensurate danger is that operating at only either pole is dangerous, not just for the individual concerned, but for the Church as a whole.
It can be tempting for a parish priest to want to exist only at the ‘spiritualities’ pole of the scale. If only liturgy and the liturgical things were all I had to bother about. But the danger is that if I don’t attend to the finances, there’ll be no bread and wine, nor any nice tat to wear. And if I don’t attend to the building, then I might really have to say mass in the car park. And if the safeguarding, contracts of employment, insurance, communications etc don’t get done properly then there’ll be real trouble down the line.
Of course, if all I do is manage the staff, the finances, the legalities and the building, then there’s every danger than what I’ll become is a glorified bank, facilities, events and general worship manager with a sideline in vaguely religious social work. If I wanted to be a mutli-national branch manager, then there’s a whole lot better places I could have had far more training to be a ‘successful’ branch manager. Heavens, just imagine how then I could have built my customer base, engaging clients in an immersive experience through which they would develop brand loyalty, upsiding the potentiality for growth across the marketplace! Simples innit?
That is, of course the dilemma and problem I think we face as a church today. Spiritualities or temporalities of priesthood? Local Branch Manager or walking sacrament? Management Leadership or servant-leader? No wonder there were howls of protest at the publication of the Greene Report.
For at one pole (temporality) is the inherent sense that surely anyone could do most of this stuff (and indeed they can) so if only we can crack how to let non-ordained people celebrate mass, then we’ll have this all wrapped up and be far more successful. Every member ministry! Or if we can equally shift the clergy into a better collaborative management mode (and structure) surely we’ll have this evangelisation malarkey sown up. Numbers up – profits up! We wouldn’t need ordination then at all – just some strong leaders. [After all, you can become the Bishop of X without having to actually be a Bishop]. Lay rectors everywhere, rejoice – your time has come!
At the other pole (spiritualities) is the inherent sense that if only we just ‘say another mass’ and get a few more people to make their confessions, it’ll all be ok. And if we can crack how to get those pesky lay people to do everything else, we can spend more time leafing through the vestment catalogues! Heavens – every member ministry – no! Let’s abolish the damned PCC… Father knows best! If only we did live in the 18th century again, it would be all so much simpler (and why can’t the state fund all our buildings, so I can get on with the really important stuff). And if the building is nicer and the liturgy is nicer / more transcendent / more proper – then that’ll have them queuing up to come in, won’t it?
Or perhaps there is a balance to be had? Spiritualities and temporalities. That would of course mean we need to learn to do both and do them well.
Mission, reform and renewal (or is it renewal and reform now?) and much of our hand-wringing today is, I think, routed in a perpetual debate about the nature of priesthood and the overlying questions that then stem from that about Incumbency.
How can we ‘let priests be priests’ in a way which adequately balances the responsibilities we’re given? How can we best, or better resource that? What strengths and weaknesses does our formation and training generate? What are the skills I need to acquire to manage the temporalities which add to, rather than detract from the spiritualities of my office, and vice-versa?
How can we rightly involve the laity, but in a way which isn’t dishonest, dupes or simply dumps on them? How these poles of spiritualities and temporalities are lived, led and managed, and by whom, it seems to me, is so often at the root of power struggles in parishes. If both our theological training (of priests and lay people) and practical training (of priests and lay people) were clearer, surely this might help our life of worship and mission?