Bishop Andrew Burnham reflects on vocations to the sacred ministry within the Church of England in the present uncertainties and the nature of the priesthood to which young men are called
At a vocations conference at St Stephen’s House last autumn, I attempted to talk to enquirers about how to discern a call to ordination amidst the uncertainty of the times in which we live. It was not a formal talk but a question and answer session, and it was clear that the issue of uncertainty was not far from everyone’s mind. Those who remember 1992 will remember that, amongst traditionalists, there was a marked decline in vocations at that time, a decline from which we have partly, though never wholly, recovered.
In part, parish priests were demoralized and, in their anger and disillusionment, not fostering a sense of calling. In part, no doubt, those who were wondering about ordination felt that it was now a distinctly uncertain enterprise upon which to embark. Compounded with these factors was the general decline in Christian faith and practice throughout the West – despite the decade of evangelism, and the growth of volunteerism – with more and more candidates for ordination to the non-stipendiary ministry.
I fear that, to some extent at least, the deliberations of the General Synod in July 2005 and February 2006, paving the way for legislation to admit women to the episcopate, have recapitulated something of the sense of demoralization of twelve or so years ago. It may be helpful, then, to say something both about the Church in which we live and the context and meaning of God’s call.
There have been many unsettled times in the history of the Church and God’s call, though it is to be discerned by the Church, should not be surely at the mercy of ecclesiastical politics. At this point it is worth a reminder that a sense of God’s call is only part of the process. No one has a human right to ordination and an authentic vocation is one which is both felt by the individual and confirmed by the assent of the Church.
Theology of priesthood
There is often something of a false distinction drawn between ontology and function – called to ‘be’ a priest and called to ‘do’ the work of a priest. The one is sometimes thought of as a Catholic emphasis and the other an Evangelical one. There is no such dichotomy. Every Christian vocation is a vocation to discipleship, to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and that has profound consequences for our ‘being’ and for what we ‘do.’
There are different theologies of priesthood, of course, and one of our difficulties, as recently recognized by Fr Timothy Radcliffe op, is that we are no longer entirely sure what a priest is. ‘What does it mean to be a priest?’ he writes. ‘I cannot think of any theological study that has yet offered me a profoundly satisfying understanding of the priesthood.’
From the theological foothills I would make this observation. There is no simple answer to what the priesthood is about, just as there is no one simple version of the doctrine of the Atonement, and the reasons for the complexity are not unrelated. What Catholics believe – and it is the Catholic priesthood to which our ordinands are called – is that the ministerial priesthood is intimately bound up with the offering of the Holy Eucharist, the offering made by Christ the Great High Priest, who enfolds us in his priesthood just as the Eucharist we celebrate is enfolded in the Paschal mystery.
I say that it is the Catholic priesthood to which our ordinands are called: the Ordinals of the Church of England have always made the claim that ordinations are in and for ‘the Church of God’ – that is, in and for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – and not for a particular religious denomination. It is for exactly this reason that some of us have not accepted the authority of the Church of England unilaterally to extend such ordinations to women. To make a decision of that sort against the urgent advice of the ancient churches is to act as a denomination for a denomination rather than as the Church Catholic for the Church Catholic.
To be sure, ordination is also a local business: a priest serves as the deputy of the bishop, a deacon as a bishop’s assistant. There is a difference between being ordained and having a licence to minister, just as there is a difference between being a driver in the sense of being able to drive and being a driver in the sense of working as a bus driver, a taxi driver, or driving for a firm of hauliers.
Is it possible to live out the Catholic priesthood in the Church of England of the present? That is to put the question in its sharpest way. It is a question which, for traditional Catholics, is particularly acute. The answer is surely yes. One of the consequences of the long and continuing controversy over the ordination of women as priests and now as bishops is that Church of England people are much more aware of the concept of priesthood than they once were, and that can only be a good thing.
As we have seen, it is the Catholic priesthood which the Church of England, in its successive ordination rites, has always claimed to be maintaining and handing on. That intention fulfils the doctrine of sacramental intention – not a doctrine which is terribly demanding, given that it is designed to give assurance to the sacramental acts of the Church of every age and place, and of every level of education and understanding.
The Church of England has become, if anything, ever more careful of its Ordinal. The 1662 Ordinal was more nuanced than the 1550 and 1552 versions and there has been considerable ecumenical consultation and sensitivity about the Ordinal of the Alternative Service Book 1980 and the Common Worship Ordinal just being published. If there is a problem it is that, by admitting women to ordination, the Church of England has moved away from a sense of sharing in the historic, apostolic ministry and moved towards a more functional, Reformed understanding of ministry. I say ‘towards’ because those who have warmly accepted the ordination of women usually protest that they are maintaining continuity with the historic, apostolic ministry.
When I myself was pondering the state of things a dozen years ago, I remember being much helped by the reminder of Fr George Austin, then Archdeacon of York, that God does not call his priests to minister in an ideal Church or at an ideal time in the life of the Church. He calls us to minister in the Church as it is and the Church as it is now.
When we feel sorry for ourselves, we do well to remember that as the churches in the East of Europe emerged from communist thraldom – churches which had known persecution far beyond the petty discriminations experienced through archidiaconal skulduggery in the Church of England – they experienced a fecundity of vocation.
Leaving aside the ordination of women – though that has been the particular catalyst for us – the Catholic movement in the last twelve years has been richly blessed by a new coherence, a new sense of common purpose, a new sense of radical discipleship and a new understanding of what it might mean to be a Catholic in the Church of England. We have been sad about those who have not come with us on this pilgrimage, sorry for those who have not been able to join us as fully as they would themselves like to have done, but, all in all, blessed nonetheless. Many of our parishes are amongst the liveliest, growing parishes – though, to be truthful, many are not. There is a work to do and it is work for Catholic priests and laity.
There are some ‘what ifs’ about. ‘What if we have women bishops?’ ‘What if there is no proper provision for us?’ I think we do have to admit that the point could come – may well come – when it is no longer possible to live the Catholic life in the Church of England. Two things here.
One is that if we are called to be deacons, priests and bishops in the Church of God, that is not to say that we are necessarily called permanently to work in the Church of England (nor indeed that any other communion may discern and accept the calling we think we have received). The Way of the Cross is not a broad road but a steep and rugged path.
The second is that the Church of England is not going imminently to disintegrate like some bouncy castle where the plug has been pulled. We shall not be seeing the floor, walls and ceiling collapse as we vainly try to keep jumping up and down. There are congregations – there will long be congregations – which are trying to live the Catholic life, and they will continue to need pastoring, and such pastoring remains an honourable calling for us even at a time of disintegration.
In short, those who want ‘a job for life,’ and all the comfort that that suggests, are looking in the wrong place if they look at the priesthood. The call to follow a young man who apparently came to a sticky end after a promising start is not a call to a job for life or to a high level of security. What God is calling us to – every baptized person – is the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Within that calling he is also calling young men to the Catholic priesthood and, I believe, still calling young men to the Catholic priesthood as practised in the Church of England, for the care and salvation of souls.