John Twiselton offers some thoughts about the priesthood at the dawn of the Third Christian Millennium

GOD CREATED the priest; and the devil, in revenge, created the clergy.’ It can be true. Someone related to me impressions of the priests they had seen at work in a large Church in London over many years. ‘I see them going one of two ways’, he said. ‘Either they grow grand and self-important like the building or they grow servant hearts in gratitude for the privilege of their appointment.’

For priests to be instrumental in empowering the body of Christ they need to capture such a vision of service and instrumentality. Believing in the ministerial priesthood is very different to believing in oneself as a priest. It is rather the opposite. We are ‘pygmies in giant’s armour’ in Austin Farrer’s memorable phrase.

In Christianity there is one priest who ‘arms’ mortal instruments. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come into the world to bind humankind and all that is to himself and to make a perfect offering to God. His mission is served by a ministerial priesthood having ‘a particular sacramental relationship with Christ as High Priest’ (ARCIC Elucidations, No 12). Whilst all the baptised can act ‘in the person of Christ’, those who are ordained to the priesthood are called to do so in an unique manner.


In his volume Elucidations the late Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes of ‘The Priest I Want’. There are some telling word pictures of the clergy. First the self-important priest – ‘stupid, crafty, busy and imposing. He wants to be heard, he rushes to get on the media. He lies like mildew on the fields of the Church today.’ Then there is the self-forgetful priest – ‘become so unimportant to himself that for him only God still counts. Who he himself is, is no longer of any concern to him’. To Balthasar, ministerial priesthood is supremely ‘sacred ministry’ without presumption, modeled on the self-surrender of Jesus and the self-giving of St. Paul.

A priest is called ‘to be on the Godward side of human situations’. Michael Ramsey goes on to quote Hooker: ‘the power of the Ministry of God …raiseth men from the earth, and bringeth God himself down from heaven’. This ‘raising’ is intrinsic to both the office and the spirituality of the priest.

For the Church to be experienced more as the Church of God, it needs priests who can raise people in awe towards the mystery of God’s being, love and holiness. ‘Great indeed is the mystery of our religion.’ (1 Tim 3:16)


In Jesus there is to be found the perfect combination of three qualities so dispersed in a broken world – love, truth and power. These qualities in the life of God are reflected in the triple office of Jesus shared with his Church – that of priest, prophet and king or shepherd.

There is something dismaying about a priest who holds contempt for his people. Lack of love in the Church is a major flaw and sign of her human inadequacy. Because her members are chosen for her and do not choose themselves or one another, finding the love to build an effective Christian community is an essential priority to be addressed by her leaders.

In his high priestly prayer, Jesus pleads for unity among his disciples ‘so that the world may believe’ (John 17:21). Over twenty centuries those in holy orders have served this unity basic to mission, albeit inadequately, so that by the visible unity of Christians there might be a sign or sacrament of unity for humankind.

‘By all means have your special friends’, wrote Monsignor Knox in his book On the Priestly Life. ‘Only be sure of one thing – be sure that everybody in the parish is your special friend as well!’ Building unity in the local Church can be a very costly business for priests.


The prophetic aspect of the ministerial priesthood runs alongside the priestly and pastoral elements as sure as love, truth and power are to be found in Jesus.

Church growth surveys show that growing Churches are those that have attained a loving atmosphere open to the challenge of Christ’s teaching and the empowering of his Spirit. Such Churches tend to have a leadership combining these qualities intrinsic to Jesus Christ in being friendly, principled and enthusiastic.

The renewal of the priesthood requires a recovery of confidence in the teaching office of the priest. Priests need to be reminded that ‘they have their orders’ as a divine gift and calling. With the bishops the ministerial priesthood shepherds, teaches and leads worship under clear authority handed down from the Founder of Christianity himself. At the same time ‘to have convincing authority (they) must share the journeys of people, enter their fears, be touched by their disappointments, their questions, their failures and doubts’ (Timothy Radcliffe).

‘Convincing authority’ in a priest or bishop links to a costly involvement with God’s people. More profoundly, it links to their own ‘conviction’ as persons called to be ‘convincing’ in what they teach. As with Moses and the burning bush, there needs to be a ‘fire’ that set things going. Moses’ mission was actually kindled by fire, by an encounter with God, cloaked in awe and mystery. Empowering priesthood cannot be ‘fired’ without the sort of humility bred from personal encounter with the mystery who is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Good priests reduce unemployment in the Church. They see their task under Christ not just in terms of caring for their congregations but also in helping their congregations employ more of their caring gifts. ‘The task of the ordained ministry is not simply to minister to the congregation but to create and direct a ministering congregation through the detection, development and deployment of God-given resources’ (Eddie Gibbs).

If priests are ‘celebrants’ of the Eucharist, that privilege brings with it the responsibility of generating a community of ‘prayerful celebration’. If they are preachers and prophets, it is to invigorate a witnessing community. Their pastoral role, as in ministry to the sick, is likewise one that releases pastoral gifts of service to be directed towards the work of God. It is more and more evident from studies made that new life and growth is associated with a ‘devolution’ of pastoral care. The traditional model of the local Church with its priest near to being ‘Chaplain’ to the membership is giving way to a more participative and dynamic model.

Making space for lay ministries requires an investment of time by the clergy to help their development. This creates more pressure and potential stress upon priests since time spent with Church members equipping them has to be subtracted from time spent by the priest in the wider community.


How do priests make space for themselves? How can they avoid being overwhelmed by the endless expectations upon them? How can they help the capturing of vision which will give the focus and direction needed in their parish?

One of the consequences of a more functional approach to the priesthood has been loss of emphasis on recollection as the clue to empowering. Sometimes the pressures on the ordained extend them so far outside and beyond their inner life that it can appear that ‘no one is at home’ within them.

‘Are you tired? Burned out in religion? Come to me get away with me and you will recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly’ (Matt 11: 28-30 from The Message).

Monsignor Ronald Knox in his book On the Priestly Life has a clever definition of idleness. ‘Idleness is not doing nothing; it means giving priority, always, to the things which interest and leaving our other duties to queue up.’ In other words the clue to priestly zeal is developing such an interest in the things of God that our priorities are sifted accordingly. We reach the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ by deepening our attention upon the Lord himself.

Empowering priesthood is priesthood with such an ‘unforced’ quality motivated by grace.


‘The possibility of winning new Christians from a milieu which has become unChristian is the sole living and convincing evidence that, even today, Christianity still has a real chance for the future…it means more to win one new Christian from what we may call neo-paganism, than to keep ten ‘old Christians” (Karl Rahner)

Empowering priesthood catalyses ministries that invite transformation and not just the serving of need. Where a congregation is privileged to encounter such transformations there is a ripple effect renewing faith expectancy. ‘I covet for every Christian, whether he be one of the clergy or of the laity, that from time to time he may have the privilege of being at hand when God breaks into someone’s soul. It freshens, deepens and beautifies with an all-pervading warmth the whole of our ministry.’ (Bryan Green)

At the same time priests have the balancing task of challenging over simple views of transformation. On occasion people have been led to overplay the role of spiritual experience to the detriment of the virtues of obedience and perseverance.

There is a cautionary story of St. Seraphim of Sarov being asked why it is that some people seem to get the Holy Spirit more than others. ‘Just determination’ was his answer.

Though virtues like determination cannot earn salvation, they dispose people towards Christ in an ongoing way. It appears that the Lord is more interested in the firmness of our desire for him than in anything else about us. The faithfulness and determination of priests can in itself do much to inspire these essential qualities in the membership of their Churches.


‘(Ordained) ministry is priestly because through it God makes present to his people the work of Jesus Christ, the mediator who brings humanity to God.’ (1986 General Synod Report)

In many ways the recovery of an empowering priesthood is linked to the recovering of the centrality of Jesus in the Church today and the momentum he gives. ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ (John 20:21)

Michael Ramsey speaks of the inspiration to be drawn by priests from dwelling on the person of Jesus who blends ‘authority and self-effacement, severity and tenderness, loneliness and involvement in humanity, ceaseless energy and rest and calm in the midst of it’. ‘Teach them not only the Real Presence in the Eucharist but about Christ whose presence it is…Your own ministration will need again and again to be made alive by your own realization of Christ’.

True empowerment relies on the power of Christ ‘who has became a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent but through the power of an indestructible life’ (Heb 7:16). It is the energy and self-giving of Jesus that both establishes and authenticates an empowering priesthood.

‘This is my body, given for you’ he says to us of himself and of the heart of God. By calling the Church back day by day to this mystery the ordained become a renewal gift of the ascended Christ. Where their own lives reflect this generosity, their priesthood becomes something that both uplifts and empowers the Church.

John Twisleton, presently Missioner in the Edmonton Area of London Diocese, is shortly to become Adviser for Mission and Renewal in Chichester Diocese. His book ‘Empowering Priesthood’ is due for publication later this year.