Vocation – What is the calling of a priest in the Church of England today?

Let us start with ‘vocation’. Who calls, and who is called? The Lord calls. He calls us. Along with all creation, he calls us into existence, and we have our existence just because God calls us. The Lord calls man, and in calling him, gives him his life. He calls each of us, and calls us to life with him and in communion with all others. The Lord continues to call until, at last, we hear and respond. As we hear and reply, we discover how to live well, and live well together. Not to hear the call of God, to confuse it with the voices of other powers with their political demands, is to live against the grain of creation and so to create difficulties not otherwise there. But we may reply to God’s call, and do so with thankfulness, with curiosity, and with our own demands. Having heard him, we may respond to him and make our requests and the Lord hears our call and receives our prayers and thanksgiving. The Son has heard the call of the Father, and made our reply to him, and so in Christ the conversation between God and man is underway.

The Lord calls and gathers together those who hear him. He creates the community that hears him. This gathering is the Church, the first instalment of creation brought into communion and conversation with God. The Church is that part of the world, enabled to hear God, and so it is the pioneer, discovering the path which all humanity may travel. The Church is the calling – the vocation – of God made audible in the world, for the world’s sake. The calling of the priest combines two issues. Let’s deal with them separately first, and then bring them together again.

This first issue is the calling, and the baptism, of the Christian. You are called, and called to be a witness of God. The Lord calls you to enter his communion and share his joy. He invites and commands, and you can and must accept and follow. And yet, inexplicably, you can refuse to hear, and walk away and give ourselves away to other gods and lords who will do us no good. We have this freedom. Nevertheless the Lord calls – and all human life and all creation is this summons and invitation to his hospitability. Your vocation is to be a Christian – there is no higher office than this.

The second issue is whether the Church is able to recognise and acknowledge this or that individual’s gifts and contribution. Are other Christians able to see in us the person shaped by Christ and the gifts of the Spirit? Christian life is discipleship, which is to say it is lived under a discipline, in which Christians defer to other Christians, and look for those Christians who can make disciples of us. We subordinate ourselves to Christ, and Christ subordinates us to particular exemplary Christians. So we look to Christians we know personally, here and now, for models. And we look to Christians we know of, but have not met, from other parts of the world and from other earlier times. Some of the Christians we have to learn from lived lives of exemplary discipleship in times so much more violent than our own, so that, paradoxically, we are hoping to learn to be Christ-like from people who appear much rougher than ourselves.

First a church, here and now, in Britain in 2015, must acknowledge that it needs the individuals who will help it hear the whole Christian tradition and take on all the practices of Christian discipleship. It must acknowledge that it needs to receive what the Great Church wants to give us, and it needs to mine those resources, bring them out and set them to work. If it doesn’t have those individuals, with those gifts, it must find them, for the contemporary church cannot do without them. It must not flinch from whatever uncomfortable news the disciple brings. It needs to hear this visitor from outside. So the church of here and now must be ready to hear what the Great Church has to say to it, in encouragement and warning. The church must look for rebuke as well as affirmation. As part of this readiness, it must understand the mandate of the priest, and the limits of that mandate. The priest is not substitute or replacement for the congregation. He or she is not entertainer, and Christians are not consumers of the priest’s entertainment services. He or she is the gift of all Christians of all times and places to us, Christians here in this particular place, time and circumstances. The priest must serve this particular congregation by being the embodiment of the whole Catholic Church in that place. They are the Great Church in one person.

The mandate of the priest is primarily the worship of God. When St Benedict said that ‘nothing comes before the work of God’ (Rule 43), he meant that the liturgy has priority over all else. Our whole duty is worship of God, and the particular calling of that priest is to ensure that this is so, that the worship is carried out truly, fully, properly.

The priest serves the community of the church and the community of the world primarily by leading the right worship of God.  Our service of God is our worship of God, and rejection of every other ‘god’, and this is our service to our neighbour and to our community. This is the best we can do for our fellow man. Not to offer this worship of God for him is a failure of neighbourliness and of compassion.

Next, we must have a look at the relationship of the individual Christian and of the Christian community. How does the one Christian relate to the many Christians of his or her congregation? How is this relationship revealed in Christian worship?  Then we can bring these issues of the calling of the Christian, and the calling of the individual Christian to be a priest, back together again.

There are two aspects to the Church – one is the priest and the other is the congregation. Neither is the church without the other. When one is not present, neither is the other.  Normally if you have two halves, and one is taken away, you still have a half. But this is not how it is in the case of the congregation and the priest. Without both halves, you have none. The Church in is made up of the people of this parish at this point in time, as they gather around this visitor, who comes to them from outside, from the universal Church of all times and all places. He is the universal and they are the local; together they make the universal Church in this place and time.

In Church, one person stands before us in the sanctuary, while many of us sit in the nave. But this is only one half of the picture. For every time that the congregation gathers for a church service the priest is the presence of Christ to this gathering, and since Christ is always present (and they are inseparable from him), he is the presence of the whole communion of saints. The priest is the presence of all Christians of all previous generations, from the twenty-first century all the way back to the first century, and indeed back further through the prophets and patriarchs of Israel. We may see this company in the images in the sanctuary and in the windows where Christ is framed by sets of disciples and adorers, by the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament.  In the large company of figures portrayed in stone above the entrance to Exeter Cathedral, Christ in glory is surrounded all of whom reflect him, each representing perhaps some particular gift or aspect of his rule and they look to him. Christ is never without his glory. He not only considers our forebears part of his glory but, unaccountably, he considers us part of his glory too.

All these saints make themselves present here in the figure of the one man who stands before us. So we can say that there are more people in the sanctuary than there are in the nave, albeit only present to us in faith and through the medium of Scripture, psalms, hymns and these images. There is not only one, man or woman, at the front of the Church, but an uncountable multitude. They are calling us and ushering us into their assembly, and so into the presence of God.  The Holy Spirit brings us into this company in which we can hear and answer the call of God. This means that Christians cannot think of themselves simply as individuals, as our contemporaries do, threatened by the presence of others, who must always safeguard their identity by separating ourselves from whatever community claims them. Without a Christian understanding of the go-between work of the Holy Spirit we can only see the priest as an individual, define him in opposition to the congregation and so identify endless tensions between the two.

Our difficulties with the concept of priesthood stem from the temptation to assume that individual and  community are opposites, so more stress on the individual comes at the expense of the community, or that  community (congregational, religious) issues can bury the individual priest. So the priest is encouraged to consider their priesthood exercised apart from the congregation and inevitably above the congregation. Simultaneously, the priest is encouraged to downplay his or her own leadership. Both trends result from a thin account of the church, and on this individualistic conception the priest is set up to fail. Are we training priests to adopt an inadequate account of the interrelation of people and priest, and are we looking for ordination candidates who don’t notice this – at least until they are in ministry?

Vocation again

We see our neighbours struggling, confused and helpless. It would be merciless not to go to their aid with the resources intended for them. The whole apostolic church, the Church across the centuries, has passed down to us all that we need to be rich, well-resourced Christians, fully able to pass on to our contemporaries what they need in order to live hopefully. We have to use and teach all the tools and weapons, gifts and fruits of the Spirit which the contemporary church needs and which the Great Church gives us. The church here and now must ordain whoever seems to bring the gifts of the Great Church. When we are looking for new candidates to the priesthood, we must look out for those who bring to the Church what it has forgotten and fallen out of use, and do not simply repeat whatever our contemporary  communities are saying to themselves.  So we do not want to become ordained into a conception of priesthood that neglects or distorts the ministry (and priestly ministry) of the people of God as a whole.

Servanthood and leadership are two halves of one whole. So we live in two modes, simultaneously, on the way of glory and the way of the cross, resurrection experienced now through this passion. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God…did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. (Phil 2). Or as Luther: ‘I shall set down the following two propositions… A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all…’ (Freedom of a Christian). So then, two statuses, simultaneously.

Christians are exemplary; they are servants, models and leaders.  They lead public lives, for their neighbours see and judge them and so judge Christ, whose witness they either pass on faithfully or betray.  We must express everything with care, because any statement, left unqualified is likely to become a troublesome overstatement, but yet we must speak out as clearly as we can; risk and the possibility of hurt cannot be avoided, and the risk of offence is fundamental to the gospel of the cross.

So each twenty-first century assembly of Christians is bound to those which came before it and of those who will come after it. It must subordinate itself to the elders and apostles in order to serve the generations to come. How does it do this? It celebrates other Christians, the saints, in the calendar, so on different days of the year we are reminded of our predecessors in the faith who faced struggles similar to ours. If brought face to face with them we might find them confrontational and hard to take, a bitter lesson. Christians are not simply like ourselves; they are not simply nice. They include those who withstood and who comforted their churches with a discipline that may seem brutal to us. But we cannot do without them. They are that communion of saints – that holy communion – into which we have been called. God has called us to join them, and in baptism we have joined them and now belong to them.