Ordination does not make you a priest

This is the time of year when ordinations happen, traditionally on the weekend nearest to the festival remembering Peter (‘Petertide’ which fell yesterday) which is either the last weekend of June or the first weekend of July. (It would be much better if this happened in September, but that is the subject for another post.)

As a result, there are social media posts aplenty in which people express their excitement, anxiety and anticipation at this great change in their lives and what it means. And there is no surprise that, for many, this is a moment of enormous significance and emotion. For many people getting ordained, they have gone through a process of great personal upheaval which has affected both themselves and their friends and family. They will often have given up a job they loved; they might have made financial sacrifices; they will have moved from a context in which they were confident, recognised and affirmed to involve themselves in a process where they felt seriously de-skilled. They have taken what might have felt to be a very risky step, since during the process of training they are in a kind of limbo; the recommendation they received, and on the basis of which they left employment and moved house, was not a recommendation to be ordained, but a recommendation to be trained, and there is always the possibility that ordination will not happen, or at least not immediately, and they are then caught between certainties. Ordination is therefore a moment of great relief that uncertainty has come to an end. And ordination marks authorisation and admission into an order of ministry which the Church does not easily grant and which is not easily relinquished.

So how do we express all the relief after all the anxiety? Very commonly, it is in the language of ‘being made a priest’ or ‘being priested.’ But this is not what the Church of England believes, at least not according to its liturgy. I have argued elsewhere that the C of E doesn’t ordain ‘priests’—at least, not in the sense that the Old Testament, Roman Catholics and most others religions use the word ‘priest’, since priests in these contexts usually have unique access to the divine which is not available to non-priests, and they offer sacrifices on behalf of others that ordinary people are not able to offer. The C of E believes neither of these things, and the ordination service itself says it is about ‘priests also called presbyters.’ The language within the service is not about ‘creating’ priests, but about calling and commissioning within the calling of the whole of God’s people.

God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.

One of the most striking (and I think for outsiders most puzzling) moments of the service is the point of ordination itself, which is easy to miss, since there is no moment at which the bishop says ‘I ordain you’. This is sharp contrast to the sacrament of baptism, where the minister does say ‘I baptise you’, not least because ordination is not, for Anglicans, a sacrament. There is no inner and spiritual change for which the action is an outward and visible sign. Instead, the Spirit of God is invoked to equip this person for the ministry to which he or she is called.

Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant N
for the office and work of a priest in your Church.

(Even a brief comparison with the Roman Catholic rite shows how different the two rites are.)

So why do people ending up using language of ‘being made a priest’ and ‘priesting’ when this is some way from the language actually used in the Church? Why, year after year, did I observe people with an otherwise ‘low church’ view of ministry and ordination, get incredibly exciting about dressing up when the vestments companies visited college to measure them up for cassocks and clerical shirts?

A good part of the answer lies in the social and psychological significance of rites and rituals involved in the whole process. Even in our modern and postmodern culture, we dress up for special events (think high school prom, or weddings) and we dress up special people. When you wear a dog collar, you notice immediately how people treat you differently, whether you like it or not. But this is about social and personal psychology, not theology, and we need to recognise the difference, and not jump to theological conclusions about psychological phenomena.

And in this area (as in others) it is vital that we spot the difference. If the language of ‘being made a priest’ establishes the sense of fundamental difference between what I was and what I am now, what does that do to my previous experience as a lay person? And what does it then do to the status and significance of lay people who have not experienced this change? The language of ‘priesting’ buys into a sense of the stratification of humanity into different categories; it inhibits the ministry of lay people, it puts unreasonable pressures and expectations on clergy, and it is not biblical, not Anglican, and not helpful.

For those being ordained (last weekend or next) I pray for you and wish you every blessing. This is a hugely important moment for you, and it is significant for the church and other Christians, since we need good teachers and great leaders. But please don’t use the language of ‘priesting’ or ‘being made a priest’ to express the changes you are experiencing. You are not being made a priest at your ordination; as the ordination liturgy itself makes very clear, that already happened at your baptism.

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16 thoughts on “Ordination does not make you a priest”

  1. This point about stratification was reinforced by the comment of one of the new deacons in Salisbury. He needed a faculty to be ordained because of his age, and he said that in ordaining him, the church is saying that whatever your age, background or experience, you can play a part in the mission of God.

    Apparently lay people don’t have a part to play in the mission of God.

      • I believe that to be a complete misunderstanding of what was said. I know that particular deacon and can assure you that he would not have meant what you have surmised in any way, shape or form. In my experience he is completely affirming of the ministry of lay people and would be very upset to hear that his comment had been interpreted in such a way.

  2. Most people look a bit blank when you say ordained; so I usually said “Revved up”, with a grin, of course. Bit more seriously, thought it was the church recognising something the good Lord had initiated.

  3. Ha ha, Ian, being your usual mischievous self. I believe I am a priest, but I don’t know many catholic Anglicans who would really talk about being “made a priest”. I was ordained a priest, and in that sense it was my “priesting”, more descriptive than theological perhaps. It’s part of God’s ordering of things so the “ordained” might highlight the truth that all the Baptised are a kingdom of priests. Though arguably all who are believers (but might not have got baptised) are too – oo… oo fun. I’ll leave that one to theologians.

    I was deaconed 35 years ago but am no more a servant than any other Xn, and yet ordered to serve. I was priested 34 years ago and am no more a priest than the rest of the Church,and yet I am. I’ve been walked all over enough to know I’m a Preist, a road, a bridge, a connection. But it’s the body of Christ that is the Priest, so different people have different tasks, and mine – and yours if you will be faithful to it – is to be a Priest. Evangelicals, base their Gospel on Descartes rather than Scripture (Evangelical theology is ego centric to an extreme degree only matched by certain liberal theologies!) Thus they cannot cope with paradox and differentiation. Real Christianity is untidy. Theology’s task is not to tidy it up but remember where everything is.

    In the end you are both right and wrong. But as you love to do, have set up another Aunty Sally to knock down. But what do you make of the Ordinal’s injunction “be thou a faithful DISPENSER of the Word of God, and OF HIS HOLY SACRAMENTS”? (my emphases) I find such mechanical language rather difficult, do you?

  4. ‘Real Christianity is untidy. Theology’s task is not to tidy it up but remember where everything is.’ fabulous line, I might have to use that.

  5. Doesn’t using the language of “priest” and “ordination” rather encourage this type of thinking? I’d quite like to see people having hands laid on them for a job rather than in general. I increasingly like the new churches’ “elder” system….though some of them could do with more theological training.

  6. I really find it hard to get too worked up about this debate, but isn’t the claim that there’s something unAnglican about the language of ordained priesthood somewhat undermined by the BCP’s provision for ‘The Form and Manner of Ordering of Priests’, which states that the candidates are to be received this day ‘unto the holy office of Priesthood’?

  7. At a fairly recent Diaconate Ordination service, the Priest that had had the primary responsibility of preparing the Ordinands described it this way; “Ordination is an earthly celebration of an event that was Ordained in Heaven.”. or words to that effect. And my Ordaining Bishop susicntly commented that ordination does not elevate us, but calls us into a deeper commitment of serving The Body of Christ. Worldly “flow chart” works from the top down. In God’s economy, the pyramid is upside down. The higher we seem to go, the more servanthood we acquire.

  8. Ian, I am part of a very “Anglo-Catholic” Diocese within the Anglican Church of North America. They very much believe in the ontological change during ordination and they most certainly think someone has been made a priest. I’m wondering if there are divergences between different bishops and dioceses in England.

  9. Ian – I’m puzzled by your reluctance to say that someone is “being made a priest [or presbyter]”. If we talk of, say, Teresa May being “made Prime Minister”, or Nigel Farage being “made leader of UKIP” (again), I don’t think we ever imagine that this being “made” is a sacramental act, involving some invisible, inner, spiritual transformation. So why can’t someone be “made” a presbyter in exactly the same way?

  10. Ontologically nothing happened when I was ‘made a Priest’. I remained the same person I was before I was ordained. Practically (and pragmatically) everything changed at my Ordination; my vocation was recognised by my peers; my calling was discerned to be of God; my skills and talents were encouraged to be used in the service of Christ and pastorally I was considered to be a competent leader of people; I was given responsibility and authority in the Church under God by my Bishop; I was expected to be faithful in prayer and a source of wisdom and learning; I was to lead by example and be honest about my limitations; I was to be a faithful disciple, servant, ‘Priest’.

    At the same time, I am a faithful husband, loving father, devoted friend and trustworthy colleague. Ontologically, nothing happened when I was ‘made a Priest’, but I love my job, feel immensely privileged to be ordained – and yes I was ‘changed’.

  11. very good blog. I had a discussion with my then tutor, I’m on a lay readers course, on this issue. She took the opposite view to yours aligning CofE priests with The Hebrew Bible priests and Catholic priests. It is good to see the wording of the service to reinforce my understanding of scripture. Thank you again!

  12. Clergy laity distinction is good if we understand it as a part of the Disciple to Apostle process. Currently almost the entire Anglican Communion faithful can be admitted to the priesthood barring a few qualifications. So why should we still be bickering over ordination. We should move on. The more Bishops, Presbyters or Priests and Deacons the better for all of us. Why? Simply because Canon Law can then discipline more of us and we would be committed to ministry as a way of life and work.
    Anyone eligible to be a cleric should be formed and ordained and more people should be encouraged to discern clerical vocations. Frankly being communities of clergy and clergy in formation as well as laity in discernment will be better for most of our Parishes than this toxic mix of anti-clericalism and clericalism. The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few!


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