Nature of Priesthood

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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 Ramsay’s The Christian Priest Today (1985) and Robin Greenwood’s 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 mindset—one 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 and confounded.

Michael Ramsay

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 Ramsay’s 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 laity—by his deep study he teaches them to be better witnesses and they teach him about the “contemporary world”.

Secondly, the priest is the minister of reconciliation—he keeps alive the dimension of sin and forgiveness by his ministry in Confession and Absolution and by preaching God’s 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 people’s 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

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 ordination—“Apart 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

The implications 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.

My response

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 reasons—firstly, 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 me—I read John Taylor’s “Go-between God” some years ago—and their application to ecclesiology seemed obvious. But in the end I felt that Greenwood ‘bottles out’—there may well be pragmatic reasons for keeping the present ‘parish priest’ system but I don’t 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 off—is 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 Greenwood’s. If the road to becoming a priest deepens a person’s 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 this—it is something I need to explore much further (and presumably would, during training).

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 difficult—surely (as Greenwood argues) laity should be in the same paradigmatic set as priest. Whether Ramsay would have agreed is perhaps doubtful—I 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 don’t even understand if this is the Church of England’s prevailing view (de jure, I mean; it obviously is de facto—despite 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 essay—why 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 didn’t 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 own—what 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 attend—but 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 work—attempting 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 excitement—a 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?”, Theology, June.

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 & Nicholson.

Maranda, Pierre (ed) 1972. Mythology: Selected Readings, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Ramsay, Michael 1985. The Christian Priest Today, revised edition, London: SPCK.

Taylor, John 1975. The Go-Between God, London: SCM Press.

Richard Seel, 2001.

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