My post last week on whether ordination ‘makes you a priest’ provoked a good deal of discussion and debate. As part of that, I receive a long response from Simon Oliver, who is Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham. I got to know Simon when he was the highly respected head of department at Nottingham before his move a couple of years ago, and I am very grateful for his careful engagement, and taking the trouble to offer this response.
I found Ian’s post on ‘Ordination does not make you a priest’ interesting and provocative. There’s a fine line, however, between being provocative and being disingenuous. It makes certain claims for a very particular view of Anglicanism based on a selective and prejudicial reading of texts, paying very little attention to the breadth of the Anglican tradition. It’s a blog and intended to provoke thought and debate, but I’d like to offer another view of the matter.
First, the language of the ‘making of priests’ is a red herring and a relatively trivial issue. When a man and woman get married, are they made ‘wife’ and ‘husband’? It doesn’t seem obviously wrong to answer ‘yes’. Marriage is not a mere legal contract and, indeed, the husband and wife ‘become one flesh’ in such a way that there is something there—a unity—that was not there prior to the marriage. It does not erase the people who were there before the marriage, but gathers them up into something genuinely new. It fulfils a nature; it does not destroy it. So there is some precedent for the language of real change, fulfilment, newness and distinction in relation to the wider rites of the Church, in this case marriage. Crucially for Ian’s concerns, it’s a change that does not have to exclude or denigrate people who do not undergo that change, namely those who are unmarried. Indeed, one hopes the grace of marriage extends to the whole community, including those who are not married. I’m going to point out below that ordination involves admission to an order. When we admit people to orders, we often use the phrase ‘made an x’. For example, when someone is awarded an OBE, we might say ‘she was made an OBE’. This is perfectly natural language. That’s not to suggest that ordination is just like an honour conferred by the monarch or akin to joining a club; holy orders are conferred by God for ministry to his people and so have a different authority (see below) and confer a new ecclesial identity.
The real issue concerns whether the orders of bishop, priest and deacon constitute something really different to the laity beyond extra training and a ritualised commissioning. I suspect Ian is worried about the idea that ordination is an ‘ontological change’. The notion of ‘ontological change’ is far too metaphysically clumsy so I won’t address it head on; I would prefer the notion of a nature fulfilled by grace through a particular calling. That would be consistent with the Ordinal. But let’s return to what Ian writes:
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’.
First, the Church of England does ordain priests, and not in any equivocal fashion. The Ordinal, in its Collect and presentations, makes this perfectly clear. Candidates are presented with the words ‘Reverend Father in God, I present N to be ordained to the office of priest in the Church of God.’ The Church ordains by means of the Bishop calling down the Spirit and to suggest otherwise is sophistry. Secondly, Ian’s comment above is a caricature of priesthood in the Roman Catholic tradition. Indeed, for Thomas Aquinas there is only one true priest, Jesus Christ, and we participate in that priesthood in different ways, as lay or ordained. Of course, it is true that the notion of a mediatorial priesthood is theologically contentious, particularly in relation to sacrifice, but there are very different understandings of the nature of mediation within and without Anglicanism.
For many, for example, it involves the giving of ‘God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people’ in the form of sacraments, not the policing of gateways to God. It’s not about having a special access to God that is denied to others. So we do ordain priests and the BCP makes clear that this is part of the ordering of the Church. It’s not part of the management structure of the Church – a matter of expedience that could be dispensed with if Tesco comes up with a better structure that we can adopt – but part of what the Church is. The BCP makes clear that the Church has always had these orders (see the preface to the Ordinal) and therein lies its ecclesial legitimacy and unity in its continuity with the primitive Church through the historic episcopate and the ordering of bishops, priests and deacons. Of course the nomenclature in the apostolic age was fluid. It developed in the second and third centuries as the scriptural witness became clearer in relation to the liturgical practice of the Church under the Spirit’s guidance. My concern here, however, is with what counts as consonant with the breadth of Anglicanism.
Where can we go for a different Anglican view of this matter? Here’s a very important passage from an Anglican divine, Richard Hooker (1554-1600). The section is titled “Of the power given unto men to execute that heavenly office; of the gift of the holy Ghost in ordination; and whether conveniently the power of the order may be sought or sued for” and it comes from Book 5, chapter 77 of his ‘Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’. Hooker is a good mediator in this discussion because elsewhere he considers the use of the terms ‘priest’ and ‘presbyter’ and, whilst not ruling out the former, opts for the latter because it does not carry connotations of sacrifice as this was debated in the sixteenth century (V.78). The last two sentences of the following passage are the most important.
They are therefor ministers of God not only by waie of subordination as Princes and civil magistrates whose execution of judgment and justice the supreeme hand of divine providence doth uphold, but ministers of God as from whome theire authoritie is derived and not from men. For in that they are Christes embassedors and his laborers, who should give them theire commission but he whose most inward affaires they menage? Is not God alone the father of Spirites? Are not soules the purchase of Jesus Christ? What Angell in heaven could have said to man as our Lord did unto Peter ‘Feed my sheepe? Preach? Baptise? Doe this in remembrance of me? Whose sinnes yee reteine they are retained, and theire offences in heaven pardoned whose falts you shall on earth forgive?’…The power of the ministrie of God translateth out of darkness into glorie, it rayseth men from the earth and bringeth God him selfe down from heaven, by blessing visible elementes it maketh them invisible grace, it giveth dailie the holie Ghost, it hath to dispose of that flesh which was given for the life of the world and that blood which was powred out to redeeme soules…O wretched blindness if wee admire not so greate power…Ministeriall power is a mark of separation, because it severeth them that have it from other men that maketh them a special order consecrated unto the service of the most high in thinges wherewith others may not meddle. Theyre difference therefore from other men is in that they are a distinct order. (Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, V.77).
That’s a very high view of priestly (presbyteral) ordained ministry and it would be foolish to claim it is not an important aspect of the Anglican tradition. Hooker is clear that ordination is ‘indelible’ and ‘cannot be put off and on like a cloak’. Unlike commissioning, it cannot be repeated. Hooker’s is a view I’d want to gloss with other sources. There are overwhelming theological reasons grounded in scripture (particularly Leviticus and Hebrews) to preserve the language of sacrifice in relation to the Eucharist, properly understood as a living participation in Christ’s one sacrifice through which the royal priesthood of the Church is constituted. For present purposes, however, the point I’d like to stress is that the orders of bishop, priest/ presbyter and deacon are distinctive for Hooker in such a way that talk of ‘being made a priest’ by divine authority and grace makes perfect sense.
The problem with Ian’s argument is that it’s too modern. It assumes that real difference excludes. He makes the startling claim that:
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.
One does not want a hierarchy where some are closer to God or deemed better or more effective simply by virtue of ordination. The Church has never believed that – Augustine and the Donatist schism comes to mind. But neither is everyone really the same. What on earth are 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 all about? There’s real difference in Paul’s image of the body of Christ – a difference in what things are, not only in what they do. Ordinations are not commissioning services. They are the fulfilment of a nature by the calling down of the Spirit upon the baptised Christian who has been called to this order by and through the Church for the blessing of God’s people. As Hooker says, bishops, priests and deacons are distinct orders. There’s no point in trying to raise the crucial importance and distinction of lay ministry (which is beyond doubt) by denying the crucial importance and distinction of ordained ministry. That would end in a flattened Church that is too liberal – equality and freedom as uniformity. The Church is hierarchical, but much depends on its proper understanding of hierarchy. In the ecclesiology of a pre-Reformation thinker such as Nicholas of Cusa, it’s a hierarchy in which God is equally present to every part of the hierarchy, from layperson to deacon to LLM to priest to Archbishop.
There’s no humility in saying that, as a priest, I’m not significantly different to a layperson, I’ve just had the privilege of extra training to do a certain job. There is humility in accepting the distinction of the orders to which God calls us for the blessing of his people and the ordering of his Church. The priesthood ministers the sacramental gifts of God (baptism and Eucharist) that are the foundation of all Christian ministries and callings. They set free the other ministries of the Church; they don’t obliterate or exclude them. Along with the Word, the sacraments are foundational, hence we have ministerial orders to ensure and protect their administration. The Church makes its priests (or presbyters, if you prefer) by asking the Bishop to call down the Spirit. After the diaconal and priestly ordinations this year, the Church will receive a gift from God: some genuinely new ministers with indelible orders that do not depend on the worthiness or qualifications or training of the candidates, but on the grace of God. But it’s a grace given not simply for the individual who is ordained, but for the well being of God’s people. As Hooker says, ‘O wretched blindness if wee admire not so greate power.’
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