Over the summer I enjoyed reading Graham Tomlin’s recent book The Widening Circle: priesthood as God’s way of blessing the world. Graham has just moved from being Principal of St Mellitus College in London, which has been seen as the pioneer of the new pattern of ‘contextual’ ordination training, to become Bishop of Kensington. I had just heard Graham speak at a New Wine seminar of which I was host, and the book is marked by the same clear teaching style that Graham presents in person. He offers an interesting mix of theological reflection and reference to primary sources, and the whole book is set out as a kind of thought experiment, in which he advances a tentative thesis. It gives the book a sense of gentle clarity—but is the thesis really persuasive?
His thesis is this: that God’s way of dealing with the world is through an intermediary agent, and that agent somehow ‘participates’ in both parties for whom he or she is acting as intermediary. We often use the language of ‘priesthood’ for such an intermediary, and if this is the case, then ‘ministerial priesthood’ is just one example among many of God’s way dealing with the world. Tomlin sets out the appeal of this: in a Church often divided on this issue, finding language that could be shared by both Protestant and Catholic would be ‘a prize indeed.’
The Introduction sets out the issues around the word ‘priest’, and in particular the paradox that, in some circles, the term represents the apogee of spirituality, whilst for others it represents the worst abuses of the Church as institution. He connects the idea of priesthood with election in the OT, and observes the shape of Jesus’ priesthood in terms of descent and ascent, which the frames the next couple of chapters. Here, as in several places, I was surprised that no mention was made of an obvious biblical text which illustrated this—in this case, Phil 2. I am not sure if this is just the sign of someone focussed on biblical studies reading something written by a systematic theologian.
Chapter 1 takes the first of these movements—the downward—and explores the incarnation largely through the Letter to the Hebrews. Along the way, Tomlin gives us a nice primer in Christology with references to a number of the Fathers, but also advances his thesis:
Christ is priest because he is the Mediator—the one who binds together both humanity and divinity in one. The incarnate Son is not a third party who reconciles humanity and God. Instead, Christ’s mediation between God and humanity is dependent on his sharing the full nature of both.
The logic here reminded me a little of Anselm’s in Cur Deus Homo? though used with a different controlling metaphor. Tomlin then draws on Calvin and Torrance (in a characteristic knitting together of the early church, Reformers, and contemporary theologians) to illustrate the importance of this.
Chapter 2 then moves on to the second movement, of ‘ascent’. I was slightly puzzled as to why the crucifixion belonged here, rather than in ‘descent’ as Paul has it—a slightly inexplicable Johannine moment (since John sees the cross as ‘glory’ and not ‘abandonment’). Tomlin again explores Jesus as priest through Hebrews—though, curiously, the OT priests are in fact not proper priests since they don’t ‘participate’ in God. From Calvin on crucifixion, Tomlin moves to Pannenberg to help us see the significance of the resurrection. (Barth might excite our passions, but it is Pannenberg who clears our minds.) The resurrection establishes and confirms the priesthood of Christ, since it confirms God’s verdict on his life and his claims, and shows him to be one with the Father.
The third chapter takes a historical turn, and traces the way that the early church started to adopt priestly language (hiereus in Greek, sacerdos in Latin)—and the way that the Reformers rather brutally rejected this. I am seriously tempted to say that all ordinands ought to read, learn and inwardly digest the quotations here (pp 57–63).
The move that Luther makes is not so much to apply the idea of priesthood to the laity, but effectively to deny the distinction between the clergy and the laity altogether…
For Calvin, as for Luther, the word ‘priest’ is appropriate, not for a special caste within the Church, but for all Christians…The basic fact is that the New Testament does only speak of two main types of priesthood: the priesthood of Christ, and the priestly character and calling of the Church. There is no mention of the word hiereus in relation to Christian ministers—a whole range of other words are used (presbuteros, diakonos, episkopos, apostolos, etc) but not hiereus.
Christ remains the only true High Priest. We do not have any priesthood that is outside of his. Any other priesthood held by the church, humanity or Christian ministers is a sharing in Christ’s priesthood, a way in which his priesthood is exercised in the world.
In setting out the issue so clearly, Tomlin sets himself an ambitious goal in seeking to reclaim the term ‘priest’ for ministry in a Reformed context.
He does this by taking a step back, and looking (in chapter 4) at the priesthood of humanity in creation: we were made to mediate God to the created world, to help perfect the world, and to offer it in praise to God. Here we come to another great virtue of this text—Tomlin’s willingness to admit where his case is weak or has critics. Thus he cites Richard Bauckham, who criticises this kind of approach as part of the ‘anthropocentric fantasy that God relates to the rest of creation only via humans.’ More persuasive is chapter 5, where Tomlin focusses on the priestly role of the people of God in the world. Here he uses the ‘mediate, perfect, offer’ paradigm to good effect, and in the section on evangelism I sensed he was at his most comfortable, making this significant observation:
One of the very few places in the New Testament where priestly activity is explicitly carried out by the Church or by Christians is a reference not to the Eucharist, nor even to blessing or absolution, but to evangelism…Evangelism is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most priestly acts of the Church.
The church that fails to engage with this priestly activity, the church that forgets the centrality of evangelism has forgotten its true calling, to be the means whereby Christ makes his priestly offering to God of people ransomed, healed and forgiven.
If chapter 5 is the strongest, then chapter 6 is the weakest. Here Tomlin tries to argue for a distinct, ‘priestly’ role for clergy, and it is notable that as he does so, he is not able to lean on Scripture or Reformed theologians in the way that he has previously. Indeed, some of what he says here is fighting against what he has said previously, and he has two particular problems.
The first is in the language of ministry in the NT that he has previously highlighted. As Robert Banks points out (in Paul’s Idea of Community) Paul takes a radically different view of God’s people from both Jewish and pagan religious ideas:
Paul’s dissolution of traditional distinctions: between priest and laity
Within the church, distinctions between priest and layman, mediatorial and common service, cultic ritual and secular activity, do not and cannot exist…
Between officials and ordinary members
Paul rejects the idea of certain members of the community possessing formal rights and powers…
Between holy men and common people
Paul has no place in his view of community for the traditional distinctions between its members along cultic, official or religious lines… (chapter 13)
This is not suggesting that Paul’s thinking about church organisation was undeveloped, and needed filling out in the post-apostolic era—quite the contrary. These things were the hallmark of the work of the Spirit, recreating a new humanity after the pattern of Jesus’s life and ministry—and it is one resulting precisely from the reconfiguration of priesthood by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If we borrow Tom Wright’s paradigm of new covenant and new creation—understanding the church as both the renewal of Israel and the renewal of creation—then the priesthood of the people of God both renews the priesthood of humanity and reforms the priesthood of Israel. Neither of these allows the development of a priestly ‘caste.’
The second thing that Tomlin is fighting against here is the language of the Church of England itself. Although it uses the word ‘priest’ with reference to clergy, it does so in a highly qualified way, and one that doesn’t allow for the common understanding of a priestly caste with a distinctive mediatorial role in line with other religious traditions. It is the ‘ministerial’ priesthood; in parts of the Anglican Communion the term presbyter is preferred. In Communion, the person leading is the ‘president’ and not the celebrant or priest. He or she stands at a table, not an altar—the word occurs nowhere in authorised Church of England liturgy. In the Roman Mass, the people pray ‘May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands’; such language is simply not possible for us in the Church of England. In signing off Common Worship, Synod explicitly rejected any language of ‘offering’, so that the Eucharistic Prayers talk only of the gifts ‘we bring before you’ (Prayers B, E and G). If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the language of ‘offering’ being side-stepped.
All this is because Cranmer took the understanding of ‘priest’ back to its etymological origin—it is a contraction of ‘presbyter’—by pulling the church back to NT understandings of ministry. Communion now focuses not so much on what the president is doing, but on how the people are receiving (see Colin Buchanan, What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?). It is striking that those who wish for a more distinct, sacerdotal understanding of ordained ministry must look to other liturgies (the rejected 1928 Prayer Book, or the Roman Missal) for support; the Church of England’s liturgy as it is simply does not give them what they need.
It is worth reflecting on whether we need to recover a ‘priestly’ understanding of ministry. I can quite understand Tomlin’s desire to reform (or restrain?) some of the contemporary language of leadership, as he aims to do in the final chapter. But my reading of contemporary reflections on the church is that a greater need is for both ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ to have a larger vision of the priestly ministry of the whole people of God. In this book, Tomlin offers a good deal of material which supports that task admirably—and some clear, substantial theology which provides much food for thought.
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