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Does Ministerial Priesthood have a Future?

The Most Reverend Dr Peter Carnley, AO
Anglican Archbishop of Perth and Primate of Australia
Preached in St Martin's Church, Hawksburn: 11th July, 2001

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Tonight the focus is on ministerial priesthood. None of the founding fathers of the Oxford Movement were bishops. Though, in the next generation, Oxford Movement clergy gradually became bishops, and other bishops also quickly joined them, at first the leaders of the catholic revival in the Church of England were not bishops, but priests: John Keble and company.

In this focus on the contribution of those ordained to ministerial priesthood we are involved in something that runs contrary to the mood of the prevailing ecclesial culture. For, without a doubt, we live in the age of the ministry of the laity. We talk a lot these days, about 'total ministry', the ministry of the whole people of God, with every individual having a God-given gift which is to be brought to the building up of the community of faith and the work of ministry in the world. The Church, as it is often said these days, 'is not a community gathered around a minister, but a ministering community'. Gone are the days when the ordained priest was a one man band who led an otherwise passive community.

While this emphasis on the ministry of the whole people of God is undoubtedly a good thing, its downside is that we have tended, perhaps unwittingly, to downplay the importance of the ordained ministry, and even to blur the boundaries between the respective roles of the ordained and those of lay people. Indeed, I wonder if in fact we are not beginning to experience a minor crisis of identity amongst those ordained to ministerial priesthood as a result.

These days the traditional pastoral role of the parish priest has to a large extent been usurped by secular social worker, by welfare officer, by local school teacher, by psychologist, psychiatrist, trained counsellor, secular marriage celebrant, and even by the talk-back disc jockey. Somehow there are fewer and fewer functions that fall exclusively and uniquely within the job description of a priest. And I suppose this may be one reason why distinctive clerical dress is no longer so evident on our streets and in public places as it once was. These days ordained clergy tend to become anonymous as they blend more and more into the community. Indeed, there are some places where distinctive clerical dress has even disappeared from the sanctuary! I find myself wondering if all this is a kind of liberal accommodation to the ways of the world; or is it just symptomatic of a loss of nerve? Certainly, the distinctive place of clergy in society is no longer so clearly defined as it once was.

The contemporary debate, driven mainly by elements within the Diocese of Sydney, to allow lay presidency of the eucharist appears to be of a piece with this general trend, but with one important rider: According to these proposals, the ordained will continue to preside both in a pastoral and liturgical sense as shepherds and overseers of the flock. They will preside in a seamless way both over the general life of the community and over its worship, but at one stage remove insofar as they would not actually be present at eucharists delegated by them to lay people.

As I understand it, that is why some Sydney folk prefer the term 'lay administration' to 'lay presidency'; those ordained to ministerial priesthood will still continue to preside over the life and worship of the community according to this plan and will still retain an authoritative role as the leaders of parish communities. The seamless pastoral and liturgical responsibility of oversight assigned to them at ordination as shepherds of the flock is acknowledged. They will thus exercise 'headship' in the form of leadership and control, and therefore retain the general oversight or presidency of the life and worship of the community, while allowing lay people actually to administer the sacrament, hence 'lay administration'.

Given the radical and far reaching nature of these particular proposals in the context of a more wide ranging tendency to whittle away functions that were formerly unique to priesthood, one cannot help wondering what the future may hold for ministerial priesthood if this were to happen. Will there really be any functions unique to ministerial priesthood, or will the ordained slip into much more of a managerial role, as the person who happens to have made his or her way to the top of the heap, exercising leadership and control in the Christian community, but otherwise exercising a ministry in no essential way different from that of any other of its baptised members?

So, given all this, what future is there for ministerial priesthood?

I want to make three basic points.

1. The first is, that the New Testament idea of the priesthood of the whole people of God undoubtedly informs much of the contemporary egalitarian push to allow lay people to preside at eucharists. The term 'priest' is not used of the Christian leader in the New Testament. It comes to be used by derivation from the High Priestly ministry of Christ himself, whose ministry is shared in the world by the priestly people of God as a whole.

However, it is just as certain that there never was a time when the Church did not have specifically authorised ministers. The Church was never an undifferentiated community of believers without a clearly authorised ministry. In apostolic times the Church's ministry was, in a sense, co-terminous with its founding, for the very ones who shared the Last Supper with the Lord on Maundy Thursday and who were mandated to continue to make remembrance of him with loaf and cup, were the very ones who three days later were commissioned to minister as witnesses to the resurrection, with a mandate to go into all the world proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom. From the start the Church always had a mandated ministry of Sacrament and Word.

This apostolic ministry is prior to the Church insofar as the Church comes to be around the ministry of Word and Sacrament. By contrast with the ministry of the whole people of God in the world, the ordained are specifically authorised by ordination to minister to the community of faith as shepherds of the flock. Because this too is a share in the ministry of Christ, the Great High priest and shepherd of our souls, it is understandable why the early Church came to use the title 'priest' also of its ordained leaders. It is not insignificant that the Anglican Reformers continued to use the same term, consistently resisting the theologically neutral alternative 'presbyter' or 'elder' right through the Reformation and into the 1662 Prayer Book of seventeenth century.

In any event, it is wrong to say that the Church is not a community gathered around a minister but a ministering community; in fact it is both. It is a community gathered around a minister, insofar as it is gathered by the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and by the continuing general ministry of pastoral care and oversight. We do not have to deny this in insisting that the Church is also a ministering community in the world. In advocating 'total ministry' we do ourselves no service by overlooking or devaluing the distinct and unique gathering role of the priest as shepherd of the flock.

This means that those set apart by prayer with the laying on of hands have a ministry that is different in kind from the priesthood they exercise together with lay people as the priesthood of all faithful people. The priesthood of all people is a ministry exercised by the whole Church in the world, the ministry of representing God to the world and praying to God for the world. The unique ministry of those admitted by ordination to ministerial priesthood is a ministry in and to the community of faith, the seamless pastoral and liturgical ministry of leadership, involving responsibility for and oversight of the community.

2. The second point I want to make is that ordination is always effected by predecessors in the same office. As far as we can see this always has been so. Within the lifetime of the apostles presbyters were appointed by the apostles and hands were laid on them; in 1 Timothy 4.14 presbyters lay hands on presbyters, and after the death of the last apostle this authorising process seems to have passed to the presiding chief shepherd or bishop who now inherits the apostolic responsibility. To this day bishops consecrate bishops, the college of priests joins the bishop in ordaining priests.

Though the Church as a whole assents to ordinations, and though ordinations take place within the context of the community gathered for worship, ordination is effected at the hands of predecessors in the same office. One thing that seems to be implied by this standing practice is that the setting apart or separation effected by the outward sign of the laying on of hands with prayer is not just a setting apart from the world, but in a sense a pastoral distancing of an individual from the Church for the Church so to speak. Those ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament are not just expected to speak what the Church wishes to hear; the Word of God must be on their lips. Ministry comes not from the community but from Christ. In this sense ordained ministry is not thrown up by the Church, but is a gift to the Church. They must speak not just for the Church but, in the name of Christ to it, reminding it of its origin in Christ and taking responsibility for its formation as the Body of Christ, by seeking to ensure that its life always conforms to the norms and values of the Gospel.

This clinches the truth that the ministry of those ordained to ministerial priesthood is not just a kind of intensification, focused in its leadership, of the priesthood of the whole community; it is not derived from the community as a kind of social contract; rather it is different in kind from the priesthood of all believers. As the Final Report of ARCIC says quite explicitly in reference to the ordained ministry, it is 'not an extension of the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit.' (para 13).

3. The third and final point I want to make is this: The particular shepherding responsibility of those ordained to ministerial priesthood is to keep the community true to its calling, to remind it of its origin in Christ, to form it as the Body of Christ, and to ensure that its life in the world conforms to the marks of his suffering and passion, and so to prepare it for its ministry of lowly service in the world.

But, if the work of ordained leadership is a seamless one of pastoral and liturgical oversight, this means that we should anticipate this to happen in worship as much as in day to day pastoral work. The work of reminding the Church of its origin in Christ and of its intimate relation to Christ, and of calling it to sustain and renew its identity as the Body of Christ, and of building it up as the Body of Christ, happens both in the general life of the Church and in its gatherings for worship.

It is exactly at this point that we can see why it is appropriate that those ordained to ministerial priesthood should preside immediately and directly at the eucharist and inappropriate for lay people to do so. The reason is this: The priestly absolution following the general confession, and the priestly blessing of the people at the end of the eucharist are really not essential elements of any eucharist. But the Great Thanksgiving or anaphora most certainly is. This prayer of blessing is the second element of the fourfold action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing, which Our Lord himself commanded to be done in remembrance of him. The prayer of blessing is the verbal centre of the eucharist.

Now, it is this prayer in which thanksgiving is offered to God for creation and redemption, and in which the Church commemorates and brings to remembrance the death and resurrection of Christ and is itself reminded of its unique identity as the Body of Christ. Moreover, it is in the course of the prayer of thanksgiving over loaf and cup, culminating in communion, which is received 'by faith with thanksgiving' that the community is not just reminded of something but actually formed and renewed as the Body of Christ. At this point pastoral oversight and liturgical oversight coincide: the pastoral work of the ordained becomes a liturgical work and the liturgical becomes the pastoral.

That is perhaps the single most important and compelling reason why it is appropriate that those ordained to this distinctive ministry in the life of the Church of overseeing the formation of the Church as the Body of Christ do actually lead the Great Thanksgiving. It is the central prayer in which, culminating in communion, the community is formed as the Body of Christ. And, given the seamlessness of the ministry of pastoral and liturgical oversight, this is why it is appropriate for those authorised by ordination for this distinct ministry to lead the reciting of it. To do otherwise would be to perpetrate the symbolic nonsense of saying one thing and doing another.

The very seamlessness of pastoral and liturgical oversight, which is admitted even by the proponents of lay presidency, is what dictates the appropriateness of those ordained to this specific ministry actually leading and saying the Great Thanksgiving.

In celebrating the great priests of the catholic tradition and giving thanks for their contribution to the life of our Church, we can affirm with confidence that there is indeed a unique role for ministerial priesthood which is both pastoral and liturgical. That is exactly what those ordained to ministerial priesthood are set apart for, by prayer with the laying on of hands, and authorised to do in ministry to, and for, the community. It belongs to 'a different realm of the gifts of the Spirit'. There is therefore without doubt, an inalienable future for ministerial priesthood. We do well to celebrate it. May many more be called to it.


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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