Arthur Middleton reflects on the nature of Priesthood today

GLADSTONE AT THE END OF the 19th century said that the task of the priest had become much more difficult than it had ever been. Today it has worsened rather than improved, in a Church that is divided and in a culture where God has been pushed out of many lives and is not given the opportunity to influence scores of others. In fact there is a rising generation in this country who do not know God because of a general decay of religion.

The number of those who profess themselves unbelievers increases and with their numbers their zeal. At the same time there is a kind of thinking in the Church that wants to reduce the priest to a mere functionary, a managing director, where administration rather than doctrine and worship are to determine the form of the Church. The evil of the Church is the doing of Church work in a spirit of business, something to be got through. The only way to avoid this is for the priest to be instant in prayer. If he is not, he will lose that touch of the supernatural without which he has no right to be a priest at all.

This touch of the supernatural is vitally necessary in the priest today, when there is so much death, despair and destruction about. In her essay on Julian of Norwich, Sister Anna Maria Reynolds OP depicts a Universal Congress of Skunks, presided over by the Supervisor of Devils, the Super-Skunk. The main item on the agenda is how to transform the Church into a perfect sacrament of pessimism. The strategy is to let Christians get away with anything so long as they destroy hope. In 1974 when the late Leslie Newbigin returned home after 40 years in India he was shocked by the lack of hope evident in this country, which was such a contrast to the hope he found in India in the midst of such atrocious conditions. Julian’s hope rested on something outside herself. She wrote, “The remedy is that Our Lord is with us, keeping us and leading us into the fullness of joy; for our Lord intends this to be an endless joy, that he who will be our bliss when we are there (heaven) will be our protector while we are here, our way and our heaven in true love and trust.”

The Divine Presence

Bishop Lightfoot, formerly of Durham, said that the life of one of his predecessors, Bishop Butler, was dominated by this consciousness of a divine presence at a time when there was a similar decay in religion. In his enthronement sermon Lightfoot quotes from Butler’s last charge to the clergy of Durham. Here he is urging his clergy to yield themselves up to the full influence of the divine presence, and endeavour to raise up in the hearts of their people such a sense of God that reverence, love, gratitude, hope, trust and obedience will become an habitual way of living. For Bishop Butler and his kind the priest can never be reduced to a manager.

Gregory Nazianzen described the priest as a healer of men which is much more difficult than being a leader and is what is meant by the cure of souls, and the medicine of souls is more subtle than that of bodies. The Incarnation is the medicine of the soul, undoing the Fall and bringing man to the Tree of Life, and the office of a priest is to administer this medicine in the sacraments, which Richard Hooker tells us is the means wherein this medicine is given. The Church’s note must be a supernatural note which distinguishes incarnation from immanence, redemption from evolution, the Kingdom of God from mere spiritual process… “The Saviour of the world was not made or moulded by the world; and the world knew, and still knows in Him a presence that must be either obeyed or destroyed. He always looked down on the world He had to save. He always viewed it from God’s side, and in God’s interest. He always stood for God against the men he would save”. [P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind pp 79ff]

The priest comes in this same spirit of reconciliation, not as an obscurantist, but wearing the intelligible vestments of living faith, divine but positive, ministering in Word and Sacrament that which is humanity’s hope and salvation, the divine energy in which he lives with Christ in the Father through the Holy Spirit, identified but not accommodated to the world Christ seeks to save. His vision will be Trinitarian, his theology a theology to be preached and therefore with a practical purpose, nothing less than to participate in this divine life Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit, for this is salvation and makes us godlike.

The priest is entrusted with the spiritual guidance of his people who are gathered to give themselves to the collective quest for God. He becomes responsible for them and will make his mark on them, forming them according to the pattern of his own spiritual life. He is the teacher and guide, for the edification, the building-up of the Body of Christ, enabling people to see what happened to them when they were born again through water and the Spirit. We are to introduce our people into the life of the Church which is salvation, that they may grasp its meaning, its contents and purpose, to taste and see how good the Lord is. First taste, then see, that is, understand. It is edification in the knowledge of the love of God, growth into the divine likeness. A priest is the God-bearer or Christ-bearer, a living Eucharist of the divine presence, bringing a sympathetic ear and a compassionate heart in which people find God’s consolation, understanding and love. He brings more than professional help and skills. He brings the loving kindness, goodness and friendship of God, that will bind up the broken-hearted and bring release to those that are captive in the variety of today’s prisons.


It can never be a comfortable life-style because it brings spiritual warfare and suffering for the priest as he identifies with those who suffer, and shares the frustrations, anger, and incomprehensibility of that suffering in what it does to those who suffer. The priest shares in these struggles of his suffering people, the uncertainties it brings, the sense of divine abandonment it induces, and the loneliness caused.

Many people experience Gethsemane moments but eventually are able to say “Not mine, but Thine”, even when consciousness of that divine presence must have felt as if it had been wiped out. They have the transfigured marks of their Gethsemane on them. To that extent such people know the depths of the human heart when it rejoices, admires or loves, the heart in its agonies of suffering, failure and emptiness. As priests uphold their people in prayer, so their people are to uphold them with prayer and love, for he cannot work without his people. For it is only as a priest understands in his own life the secret of “Not mine, but Thine”, that he will lead his people through those Gethsemane moments into the joy of Resurrection and Transfiguration. As John Keble wrote:

What is this silent might,
Making our darkness light,
New wine our waters,
Heavenly blood our wine?
Christ with His Mother dear,
And all his saints is here,
And where they dwell is heaven,
And what they touch divine.

(Lyra Innocentium – Christ fills All Things)


People wonder what made such people like Fr. Lowder, Fr. Mackonochie, Fr. Stanton and those great slum priests such effective evangelists ? It was not in-service training on a diocesan course on evangelism. It was the touch of the divine in that union of human lives with God in the way of holiness, fundamental to the life of the Church and in the life of every priest and pastor. This is what gives to priestly ministry its supreme and special value. People saw in these great priests a self-sacrifice, devotion, and dedication that issues from men whose hearts God has touched. We don’t want advisers to advisers to advisers who have never done the job – we want priests like this, and if the vacant parishes of England could be filled with such priests the Church’s mission would go forward overnight.

Bishop Paget of Oxford wrote this:-

“A man’s gifts may lack opportunity, his efforts may be misunderstood and resisted; but the spiritual power of a consecrated will needs no opportunity, and can enter where the doors are shut. By no fault of a man’s own, his gifts may suggest to some the thoughts of criticism, comparison, competition; his self consecration can do no harm in this way. Of gifts some are best for long distances, some for objects close at hand or in direct contact; but personal holiness, determining, refining, characterising everything that a man says or does, will tell alike on those he may not know even by name, and on those who see him in the constant intimacy of his home..” (The Hallowing of Work)

The Eucharist

All this we gather up when in the Eucharist priest and people together come to concelebrate. Here the ladder Jacob saw only as a dream becomes for us a reality, the medicine that cures our souls. It is as Julian says, “… Our Lord with us, keeping us and leading us into the fullness of joy…our way and our heaven…”, the divine presence that dominated Bishop Butler’s life. For the bread which is taken, blessed, broken and shared out, is Christ, who is that ladder linking heaven and earth and on which angels ascend and descend. The place in which we celebrate becomes our Bethlehem, a house of bread in which we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the living and the departed – those whom it is so easy to think are not with us. Here they stand with all the others urging us on as we take this bread of heaven and share with them in the life of the world to come. Here, that divine presence is able to make its home in us through the Not mine but Thine of the Son who shed his blood for us. In that bread we partake of salvation, the very likeness of God, who transforms and transfigures us into that very likeness by His divine nature in which we now live through the Son, in the life He lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit, ascribing to Him who has brought us thus far, all honour, might, majesty and power now and for ever.

A Living Example

Times have changed since George Herbert (1593-1633), but the principle and spirit in which he ministered as a priest remains an inspiration and model for all priests. At his Induction he resolved, “… above all, I will be sure to live well, because the virtuous life of a Clergyman, is the most powerful eloquence to persuade all that see it, to reverence and love, and at least, to desire to live like him. And this I will do, because 1 know we live in an Age that hath more need of good examples, than precepts…” In The Country Parson he describes the priest as Christ’s deputy, literally a vicar, for the winning of people back to God. The dignity of a priest lies in “that a priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority, and as his vicegerent; the duty, in that a priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for doctrine and life.” Priesthood is not a convenient, historically conditioned form of Church organisation, but is rooted in the Incarnation, in the priesthood and mission of Christ himself. Herbert’s view of priesthood was ontological or non-functionalist, and is determined by what a priest is, rather than what he does. Priesthood is for ever and does not cease when a priest cannot carry out that priestly ministry.

In Herbert’s time many people were disillusioned with priests and questioned the theological foundations of priesthood. Herbert thought like Hooker, Andrewes and Laud, among whom were many fine priests, whose ministries resisted the replacement of the catholic priesthood in the Church of England by a Presbyterian model. Their convictions, faithfulness and dedication, saved the Anglican priesthood from dissolution and by their own example they re-asserted its theological foundations, admitting at the same time that people had lost sight of the ideal through a shortage of living examples. Herbert was concerned that the priest live unblameably; ” … and that the dignifi’d Clergy especially, … would … take all occasions to express a visible humility and charity in their lives; for this would force a love and imitation, …This… would be a cure for the wickedness and growing Atheism of our Age. …till this be done by us, and done in earnest, let no man expect a reformation of the manners of the Laity: for ’tis not learning, but this only, that must do it; and till then, the fault must lye at our doors.”

Herbert’s life integrated prayer, study, teaching and pastoral care, embodying his understanding of the priest as a man of God, a teacher and pastor.

The Priest Today

The task of a priest, in some respects, may be different today, but the principles upon which Herbert built his life as a priest are of universal application. It is best summed up by seeing it as a balance between diakonia and doulos. In service to his people, diakonia, there was always that deep relationship with God from whom everything emanated and to whom everything was offered. That relationship with God is best described by the word slave or doulos, for to be a slave meant to be possessed utterly by another, with no claims, no rights, no earnings, no independent status of one’s own, and the other who thus possesses a man is God. The priest is Christ’s slave, and Christ himself took the form of a slave and became obedient to death. So the priest in serving human needs lives a Godward life, possessed by God and witnessing that only when lives are utterly possessed by God do they find their true freedom.

This is the priest’s message in today’s world in a Post-Renaissance humanism, whose defect lies in what Maritain describes as an anthropocentric concept of man and culture. He uses the term to describe man shut up in himself and separated from Nature, Grace and God. “And for human life, for the concrete movement of history, this means real and serious amputations. prayer, evangelical virtues, supra-rational truths, sense of sin and of grace and of the Gospel’s beatitudes, the necessity for self-sacrifice and ascetic discipline, for contemplation, for the means of the Cross – all this has either been stuck between parentheses or finally denied.” Here the ‘vertuous’ life of the priest must continue to speak in a culture that devalues our full humanity.
Arthur Middleton is Rector of Bolden in the diocese of Durham and tutor at St. Chad’s College, Durham