In the week that Stephen Cottrell is confirmed as Archbishop of York, Andrew Atherstone reviews the archbishop’s latest book, On Priesthood (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020).
There is no shortage of paperbacks about Anglican ministry, and about Christian leadership more broadly, flowing from the printing presses at a rapid rate. Several of our bishops have such a volume to their credit, almost an episcopal rite of passage, but in this succinct set of meditations Stephen Cottrell takes us back to an earlier text—the Anglican Ordinal, the authorized liturgy for ordaining new ministers. It is a brilliant strategy, because there is no better handbook for Anglican ministry than the Ordinal, full of wisdom drawn by Archbishop Cranmer from the pages of the Bible. Cottrell has served already for 16 years as bishop, in Reading and Chelmsford, so hundreds of ordinands and clergy have come under his oversight. These chapters began as addresses to priests (i.e. presbyters) on the eve of their ordinations, and still bear that flavour of personal advice and exhortation from a senior pastor to the new recruits.
Cottrell is a gifted and energetic communicator, on the platform and with his pen. His book is thoughtful, provocative, and down-to-earth. There is much here to warm our hearts. The central chapters expound the five main biblical metaphors in the Ordinal—servants, shepherds, messengers, watchmen (which Cottrell updates to ‘sentinels’), and stewards. That evocative phrase “messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord” has been announced over every person ordained in the Church of England for the last 450 years! Cottrell celebrates these “richly biblical images”, behind each of which lies “a vast and fascinating scriptural landscape” (20, 26). He rightly notes that they are “foundational and distinctive for any Anglican understanding of ordained ministry” (23).
The expositions radiate a joyful confidence, with a lyrical, poetic flourish. In a wonderful summation, Cottrell defines ordination as “a fresh anointing of the Spirit for the purposes of God that are bigger and wilder and more profligate than we could possibly imagine” (47). His gifts as an evangelist shine through, and his passion to get alongside people and serve them. He protests against the Anglican habit of turning “pastoral ministry” into something insipid, “as if to be pastoral was just about keeping people happy and being nice to them” (49-50). In contrast, Cottrell encourages a ministry which is not afraid to speak boldly, even bluntly. “There is no place for reticence when it comes to really good news”, he declares; “We need to sing of its tremendous beauty. We need to explain its veracity and its uncomfortable challenges. We need to commend its efficacy” (70-1). Echoing Paul’s charge to Timothy (1 Timothy 4), he exhorts his ordinands to prioritize evangelism: “share and tell the wonderful story of Jesus Christ … proclaim the message” (81). The minister’s duty is to call people to repentance, to “a turned-around life”:
What the Christian faith offers is a whole new way of inhabiting the world and a whole new way of relating to God and a whole new way of being human…We enter it not through our hard work or our imagined goodness, but by turning and embracing what God offers us in Christ. (62).
Cottrell laments that the neglect of catechesis in recent years has left the Church of England “biblically and theologically undernourished” (76). He warns that for clergy to be trustworthy they must faithfully pass on the gospel they have received (111). Also woven throughout are frequent calls to grow in our love for God through a disciplined pattern of personal daily prayer, and to rely always on God’s strength in our ministerial weakness, building on Cottrell’s earlier book, Hit the Ground Kneeling: Seeing Leadership Differently (2009). Ordained ministry can be “exacting and exhilarating” (4), but he speaks of it with delight. It is a manifesto which deserves a wide readership.
There are, however, some surprising lacunae and imbalances in Cottrell’s expositions which deserve fuller critique. Two, in particular, concern feeding and protecting the sheep.
Feeding the sheep
One major lacuna is the responsibility to feed the flock with the Word of God. In his description of priestly duties, Cottrell focuses very strongly and repeatedly on the liturgical functions of declaring absolution, presiding at the eucharist, and blessing God’s people. This trio, he declares, are “the most precious things of the gospel itself” (119). In his own personal experience, presiding at the eucharist has become “a bedrock and a lifeline” for his spirituality (141), but he then universalizes that experience for all Anglican clergy. Indeed, we learn that there are “just as many evangelicals as catholics” who find that when presiding at the eucharist their “vocation to ordained ministry makes the most sense. It sums up all that priests are called to be … It is the glory of the priesthood to preside at the Eucharist” (72-3). I don’t know where all these evangelicals are hiding, but I am yet to meet them! This is undiluted Anglo-Catholicism.
In Chelmsford diocese, Cottrell has recently introduced a new practice at ordination, where the priests are now symbolically given bread and wine (sometimes with chalice and paten), which they then place on the ‘altar’, in an imitation of Roman ordination rites (111-2). The point is hammered home by On Priesthood’s front cover design, which portrays a chalice and broken loaf of bread. This emphasis is out of step with classic Anglicanism, and pushes us back towards a medieval world. Chalice and paten were deliberately and decisively dropped from our Anglican ordination liturgies as long ago as 1552, replaced by the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the symbolic gift to the new clergy. Of course, gospel word and gospel sacrament belong together, but the problem as evidenced in these expositions is that priestly liturgical functions can too easily eclipse the ministry of the word.
In Cottrell’s addresses, the spiritual power and authority of Scripture is muted. Clergy in their private devotions must spend time “brooding upon the Scriptures” (40). We must test all our assumptions and conclusions “against the yardstick of Scripture and the accumulated wisdom of tradition” (103). We must dress up the gospel of Jesus Christ “in nothing but the simple truths and daunting challenges of the Scriptures” (138). These are heartening affirmations, but we missed any sense of the beauty and wonder and glory of the Bible as the words of eternal life, its supreme authority for the Church today, and its central place as the heartbeat of ordained ministry. We hear nothing of the Bible as the Holy Spirit’s instrument to convert people to faith in Christ, to bring assurance of salvation, to transform our characters, to create mature congregations.
Cottrell’s purple passages are reserved for speaking of the sacraments not the Scriptures. In one place, he argues that the eucharist was fixed in the Church “a couple of centuries before the canon of Scripture … had even been thought about” (111). In another place, he teaches that because the Word of God has been made flesh in Jesus Christ, ministers of the gospel “must not turn it back into a word” (69). But the gospel, by definition, is good news announced with words and written in words, revealed to us in the God-breathed Scriptures which are powerfully used by the Holy Spirit to make us “wise unto salvation” through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-17). The Bible is “God’s Word written”, as our Anglican formularies remind us (Article 20). Every time we hear Scripture read, we proclaim, “This is the Word of the Lord”. The Scriptures are therefore the minister’s vade mecum, the tool of our trade, often to be open, not only in the pulpit but in all our pastoral care. This is God’s method for growing the church, and the way that the sheep are fed and properly nourished.
Throughout the New Testament, the apostles’ primary emphasis is word ministry. It is particularly striking that the Pastoral Epistles—Paul’s instructions to two novice bishops, Timothy and Titus—are silent about the eucharist and instead provide detailed apostolic criteria for ordinands to be people of godly character who are able to teach the Scriptures. The Anglican Ordinal gets that balance right, but it is skewed in these expositions. Perhaps Hodder & Stoughton would commission a sequel from Archbishop Cottrell containing a future set of ordination addresses in York diocese on the Pastoral Epistles. It would make a stimulating companion volume.
Protecting the sheep
Another major lacuna is the responsibility to protect the flock. Cottrell suggests that because every congregation comes under the oversight of a bishop, this gives us assurance that the local expression of church is part of the universal Church of Jesus Christ, “built on the apostles” (19). Unfortunately, this gives us no assurance at all. As the Anglican formularies again remind us, many historic churches have erred from the Christian faith (Article 19). They may have had serried ranks of bishops, all canonically ordained, but that was not enough to protect them from shipwreck. Apostolic succession in Anglican terms does not mean a tactile line of bishops laying hands on heads, but rather those who continue to preach the apostolic gospel of the New Testament. It is a sad fact that almost all the heresies which have eroded the Church of England over the centuries have been introduced by its ordained leaders.
We missed, therefore, the call of the Ordinal for clergy and bishops to protect their flocks. In his exposition of the shepherd, Cottrell rightly reminds us that David rescued lambs from the mouths of lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-35). But what are those lions and bears in the contemporary church? His chapter is headed with Paul’s glorious parting words to the Ephesian elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and over the flock” (Acts 20:28). But in the very next verse, Paul explains that “after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert …” (Acts 20:29-31). We would love to hear how these words apply to us today and how, in practice, Anglican clergy should take them to heart.
Likewise, in Cottrell’s exposition of the sentinel, we hear a good amount about joyfully proclaiming the arrival of good news, but not the watchman’s obligation to warn when the citadel is in danger from advancing armies or destructive fires. The Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel took these protective duties seriously, and Anglican sentinels must do likewise. Indeed, it is laid out explicitly in our ordination promises. In the classic words of the Book of Common Prayer, priests and bishops guarantee that they are “ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word”. In the Common Worship Ordinal, priests promise to “defend the people against error” that they might “flourish in the faith”, and bishops promise “to refute error and hand on entire the faith that is entrusted” to them. Proclaiming the gospel and banishing error are both essential aspects of pastoral care. We cannot have one without the other if the flock is to thrive.
The joyful Archbishop
Stephen Cottrell understands the need “to speak winningly” (77), something he models throughout this book. His infectious love for people is evident, speaking from the heart. His best writing is autobiographical. In a deeply moving closing chapter—the standout highlight of the collection—Cottrell reflects with vulnerability on his sense of desolation and fruitlessness in his early ministry. He is realistic that all clergy will experience periods of deep despair and darkness, but knows personally that sense of compulsion to carry the cross of Christ, not as a willing volunteer but more often, like Simon of Cyrene, as a pressed recruit. Nevertheless, the keynote of these addresses is not despair but joy. Cottrell is one of the Church of England’s great optimists. “Joy”, “joyful”, “joyfully” are his favourite words and they come bubbling through page after page. He delights in engaging with ordinary people in the rough and tumble of parish life and pastoral encounter, and speaks confidently and compassionately of the ability of Jesus to bring “life to the full” (John 10:10).
There are many prayers for our bishops written in the Ordinal. Here is an excellent one, in the old language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which reminds us both of “glad tidings” and of “everlasting joy”. It deserves to be prayed on many occasions for all our bishops, and especially for Stephen Cottrell as he takes up his new responsibilities at York:
Almighty God, and most merciful Father, who of thine infinite goodness hast given thine only and dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, to be our redeemer, and the author of everlasting life; who, after that he had made perfect our redemption by his death, and was ascended into heaven, poured down his gifts abundantly upon men, making some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and doctors, to the edifying and making perfect his Church; grant, we beseech thee, to this thy servant such grace, that he may evermore be ready to spread abroad thy gospel, the glad tidings of reconciliation with thee; and use the authority given him, not to destruction, but to salvation; not to hurt, but to help: so that as a wise and faithful servant, giving to thy family their portion in due season, he may at last be received into everlasting joy; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who, with thee and the Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen
Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and author of The Anglican Ordinal: Gospel Priorities for Church of England Ministry (Latimer Trust, 2020)
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