Before I was accepted
as an ordinand on the Norwich Ordained Local Ministry Training Course I was
asked to read and compare two books on ordination. The following essay was the
result. Re-reading it over three years later I find little that I would want to
change so I reproduce it here exactly as I wrote it then.
The Nature of Priesthood
I am invited to reflect upon Michael
Ramsays The Christian Priest Today (1985) and Robin Greenwoods
Transforming Priesthood (1994) and, in particular, to consider the question,
are these presenting two fundamentally incompatible views of priesthood? The
way the question is framed seems to be inclined to the adoption of a binary
mindsetone which, increasingly, I find difficult to sustain. I therefore found
myself predisposed to discovering that Ramsay & Greenwood were offering two
facets of a polythetic (Needham) or family resemblance (Wittgenstein) approach
to classification (see Gross & Rayner 1985). My expectations were both confirmed
In his opening essay, Ramsay quotes A.
Graham (1968) as arguing that the priest has a representative role which
is made up of displaying, enabling and involving. But he
wants to go further, meeting it with the old doctrine that the ascended Christ
gives the gift of ordained priesthood and calls men to it. (1985:7) For Ramsay
the priest is firstly, the teacher and preacher, and as such he is
the man of theology. (The italicisation of theology is Ramsays
own; the emphasis on the definite article is mine. I suspect that both the
singularity and the masculinity were simultaneously deliberate and unconscious.)
However, the priest is to work in partnership with the laityby his deep study
he teaches them to be better witnesses and they teach him about the
Secondly, the priest is the minister of
reconciliationhe keeps alive the dimension of sin and forgiveness by his
ministry in Confession and Absolution and by preaching Gods reconciliation.
Thirdly, the priest is the man of prayer. Even though all Christians pray, the
priest has a special role; in him the prayers of the Church are focussed and
expressed in strength. Fourthly, he is the man of the Eucharist. He is more than
the peoples representative but also that, at the altar he is drawn to the
redemptive act itself.
Ramsay never attempts to define priesthood
or to articulate its ontology. Yet the sense is clear:
Priest : Laity :: Christ : Church
For instance, in
the chapter Man of Prayer Ramsay speaks of the continuing role of Jesus
as intercessor and continues, Now we can begin to see what is our role as men
of prayer, as priestly intercessors. (1985:14) . In the Priesthood: Jesus
and the People of God (written for the revised edition) he remarks that,
today the ordained priest is called to reflect the priesthood of Christ and to
serve the priesthood of the people of God
Robin Greenwood sets out a radical agenda:
a new view of priesthood rooted in a social trinitarian and eschatological
ecclesiology. After a review of influences on Anglican priesthood in the first
seventy years of the last century he turns to developing a model of the church
as a reflection of the relationship which is at the heart of the Trinity.
Drawing on the work of the Cappadocian Fathers he proposes an ecclesiology which
accepts the perichoresis (interpenetration) of the persons of Trinity as
a model for Christian living in community and communion (koinonia).
Priesthood, therefore, is inseparably
interconnected with the life of the whole baptized church membership.
(1994:141) It also, whether performed corporately or in dispersion, is central
to the Church (141). However, Theologically and practically, there is no truth
in the assertion that the increase of lay ministry diminishes the role or the
power of the clergy (144). Clergy power is to be non-dominational and There
is no difference between clergy and laity in the quality of their Christian
authority (146). Nevertheless, To be a priest is a calling to a unique
vocation (151, my emphasis). Ordained ministers should be encouraged to
understand the nature of their vital and unique authority in terms of
relatedness (152). The relational view of ministry outflanks debates about
the ontological nature of ordinationApart from a local church community, the
ordained minister is nothing and possesses nothing. (153)
What then is the priest? On page 156
Greenwood appears to propose a different relationship from Ramsay:
Priest : Laity :: Father : Trinity
of this relationship, though, are not fully explored. Indeed, The appropriate
balance of intimacy and remoteness between clergy and laity is complex and
necessarily flexible There has to be sufficient separation for some objectivity
in decision-making (Is this the way perichoresis works in the Trinity?) The
priest is to preside at the eucharist because it is the most natural thing for
them to do so (167). As parish priest in a given community, he or she has a
particular role as one who focuses and distributes blessing (169) and so on.
I find much that Ramsay writes profoundly
troubling and difficult. The notion that the priest is as Christ to the Church
sets him apart in ways that do not seem to reflect scripture. Yet his book did
not distress me when I read it. I think there are two reasonsfirstly, I have
been used to reading this kind of stuff for ages and I tend to filter some of it
out and to keep a constant stream of yes, but.. and on the other hand going
on in my mind as I read. Secondly, Ramsay has an avuncular kindliness and
gentleness of touch; he means well and does not want to offend. In the end,
though, I am left with an Orwellian conclusion: All Christians are equal but
some are more equal than others.
Greenwood is different. He sets out to
give a more inclusive view but I am unconvinced. Instead of transforming
priesthood he seems to me to be reconceptualising the status quo. I found
myself getting very angry during his book. The trinitarian ideas were not new to
meI read John Taylors Go-between God some years agoand their application to
ecclesiology seemed obvious. But in the end I felt that Greenwood bottles
outthere may well be pragmatic reasons for keeping the present parish priest
system but I dont think that they flow from his arguments. (I am also aware,
though, that some of my anger may come from experiences with a previous vicar
who often seemed to say one thing and do another and there were certainly times
when reading Greenwood that I was reminded of him.)
So, in answer to the question, yes, they
are offering different, if not incompatible, views of priesthood and yes, they
are also very much the same. Furthermore, neither are much help to a potential
ordained local minister since they are both underpinned by the charge/cure of
souls in a parish model. There is much more to explore here but rather than
pursuing the given question further I would like to end by briefly reflecting on
some of the personal questions which this exercise has engendered.
What will I have to call you? Father?
Reverend? asked a friend when we were talking about a possible future
ordination. Richard, I answered gaily but a brief moment of doubt and dread
flickered through my whole being. Will I still be Richard? I always ignore the
box which asks [Title: Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms/Dr/Rev]will I be able to in the future?
Is a parson a different person? Is
priesthood a role or an ontologically different state? Will I always be a priest
even when I am being a consultant or a lover or a father or a friend? Of course,
priesthood will inform my consultancy just as consultancy informs my parenthood.
But the others are roles I can, to some extent, put on or offis priesthood?
Perhaps part of the answer may lie in the
nature of personhood. Our personhood is co-created in relationship with others.
When relationships change, so does the person. So, when I change or deepen my
relationship with God I become a different person. And there also seems to be a
set-aside element in most characterisations of priesthood, even Greenwoods.
If the road to becoming a priest deepens a persons relationship with God and
simultaneously loosens his bonds with other people then he may indeed end up
with a different ontological status from the laity. I am unsure and unhappy at
thisit is something I need to explore much further (and presumably would,
Priesthood versus laity
A structuralist (e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1966,
Maranda 1972) view of priesthood would not attempt to define it in an
essentialist manner but rather to explore its syntagmatic and paradigmatic
relationships with other terms such as laity, bishop, dean, archdeacon, deacon, etc. It would seem that bishop, dean, archdeacon are members of the same paradigmatic set as priest,
while laity is in a syntagmatic relationship with it and deacon
may be in yet another, different, syntagmatic relationship with them both.
Yet I find this difficultsurely (as
Greenwood argues) laity should be in the same paradigmatic set as
priest. Whether Ramsay would have agreed is perhaps doubtfulI think he
would have said, Yes, but whereas Greenwood seems to be saying, Yes, and .
Somehow, in this context I want to simply say, Yes.
This is not to deny the distinctiveness of
priesthood but rather to express that a priest is different because of what he
does, not that he does because he is different. Of course, he has to be called,
fitted and enabled to do those things but why this should require a significant
ontological change (from one attractor basin to another as one might say from a
nonlinear dynamics perspective) I am not able to understand. Indeed, I dont
even understand if this is the Church of Englands prevailing view (de jure,
I mean; it obviously is de factodespite some wonderful exceptions,
several of whom I have been lucky and privileged to work with).
I was invited to use the daily office and
have found it to be a useful and edifying discipline (I use
and BCP Morning Prayer). But it has raised two further questions for me, both
related to the subject of this essaywhy use a corporate form individually and
why expect more of priest than laity?
We are told that liturgy is the ergos
of the laos but it didnt take long before it became hierurgy. Despite
many attempts to reclaim the streets, hierurgy is still probably the more
appropriate term. This may help to explain the paradox of requiring a priest to
say a corporate office on his ownwhat does it matter if there are no lay people
present? Of course, perhaps the parish priest should say the office daily in
church at advertised times so that others may attendbut few do. And what of
OLMs? This cannot be an option for someone like me who is often working away
during the week.
And this raises the second question: not
why should the clergy say the daily office (or something similar) but why do the
laity need not do so? Perhaps pragmatics have a part to play the full-time
parish priest has more time for such devotion. But does this apply to the OLM?
He may have no more time for structured personal devotion than any lay person
and less than many (the retired, for instance). I do not argue that he should
therefore be expected to spend less time but rather that we should reconsider
what is appropriate for the laity.
This feels like a shallow and
unsatisfactory piece of workattempting to be clever while lacking academic
rigour; full of half-baked questions and quarter-baked answers. Yet is has been
enormously valuable to me. It has surfaced some trains of thought which
previously had lain dormant and unarticulated. I believe that I can start to see
some of the roots of my previous reluctance to consider ordination and I believe
that I can begin to discern some of the future challenges ahead.
What comes out of this for me is an
nascent excitementa glimmer of an opportunity to share in the creation of a
third way form of ordination in which both priest and laity are truly
perichoretic and able to be members of the same paradigmatic set.
Graham, A. A. K. 1968. Should the Ordained Ministry now Disappear?,
Greenwood, Robin 1994. Transforming Priesthood: A New Theology of Mission
and Ministry, London: SPCK.
Gross, Jonathan & Rayner, Steve 1985. Measuring Culture: A Paradigm for
the Analysis of Social Organization, New York: Columbia University Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1966. The Savage Mind, London, Weidenfeld &
Maranda, Pierre (ed) 1972. Mythology: Selected Readings,
Ramsay, Michael 1985. The Christian Priest Today, revised edition,
Taylor, John 1975. The Go-Between God, London: SCM Press.