John Hunwicke replies to Bishop Colin Buchanan insisting upon the Catholic understanding of the priesthood as a matter of both-and not either-or

One of the advantages of Colin Buchanan’s incisive and entertaining piece – the maestro has clearly lost none of his flair – in the February New Directions is that it does give a fair insight into what Catholics do not understand about Protestants, and vice versa. Thus Protestants will cheerfully say that Jesus Christ is the only Priest: and then disconcertingly add that all Christians are priests. And that Christ’s Sacrifice is the only sacrifice in a world emptied of all other sacrifice: and then remark that, of course, all Christians offer a sacrifice of praise or a responsive sacrifice.

Old misunderstandings

Doubtless the higher Protestant scholasticism has its ways of resolving such oppositions; Protestantism has been around for nearly half a millennium now and has had ample time to refine and put into place its explanations. Catholics, however, tend to be simple souls and these answers are not immediately obvious to us.

What Catholics need to understand – and here Buchanan helps us – is that there are things about our religion which they do not understand. Such as: how Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was full, perfect and complete, and yet the Mass is a sacrifice; and how Christ can be the one priest, and yet the world seems to be crawling with…priests. I will try to offer an explanation or two, not in the hope of convincing Buchanan, but at least of facilitating fraternal understanding.

The key to our approach is to be found in the core concept of Pauline theology: the idea of our incorporation into Christ so that we become en Chris-toi. Thus we believe that Our Lord is the only begotten Son of the Father; yet we believe that it is proper to call all Christians Sons of God.

Incorporation into Christ

St Paul explains this by adding ‘for as many of you as were baptized into Christ [eis suggests movement: we are transferring into him] have put on Christ…for you are all one en Christoi’. All humans are not automatically, as the liberals love to suggest, Sons of God; it is through our baptismal incorporation into Christ that we can cry Abba’ or utter the Our Father.

To express his meaning, St Paul coins new Greek compound words with syn- at the front, rather as if we made up English words with co- at their beginnings. They enable him to say that we are co-crucified and co-die with Christ and are co-buried with him so that we can co-live with him. And he makes it clear that it is in Baptism that this happens.

So Baptism is not a piece of theatre nor a dramatic pretence, nor the blessing of a baby or a demonstration of faith; as I recall having read somewhere, it is an effectual sign of grace, so that, in the view of the Church of England, an ‘infant’ can have it said of him, immediately after his Baptism, that he is regenerate and is received as God’s own child and is made a partaker in the death of the Lord.

But Christ was killed, and was buried, in first-century Palestine. Those are historical facts. And that Death, that Burial, are not repeatable. They are truly Once For All. When little Johnny is baptized, he does not go back to the procurator-ship of Pontius Pilatus, in some sort of Tardis, to die with Christ on that hill; nor is Christ brought down to earth to be crucified and buried anew and his blood poured out anew. But in the power of God his creative generosity is matched by his recreative, redemptive generosity.

Reality of sacraments

The Death of Christ, his Crucified Passion, in the mysterious wonder of Divine Love is made available, not just to be remembered as we recall the Battle of Hastings, but to be entered into by every single son of Adam and daughter of Eve that he created in any and every moment of the times that he created in all the places that he created. And so, without time travel, each of the redeemed is crucified with Christ and buried with him so that, risen with him, they may live with him for ever. Truly, and not in pantomime.

It is in the framework of such a theology, where the sacraments offer us reality and not pretence, and where the saving reality of Christ is not something locked up within the covers of history books, where the saving Then of gospel narrative is made the Now of redemption, through all the times and places God sets us in, that we understand the Mystery of the Eucharist. It gives a context to the fact that St Paul sees the Eucharist as the precise equivalent of the pagan sacrifices in which offerings are made to a divinity and, as an integral part of the rite, the worshippers share a communion meal.

The Jewish expert on first-century Judaism and Christian origins, Jacob Neusner, has written movingly about Christ’s evident intention, in the Eucharist, to replace the offerings of the Torah with his new oblation, Table for Table, Sacrifice for Sacrifice. Christ’s one oblation of himself once offered is set truly in our midst – not simply portrayed as it might be at Oberammergau or in an altarpiece by Rubens – and, as ARCIC put it, we enter into his movement of self-offering to the everlasting Father. In reality and not pretence.

And – yes – Christ is the one priest; there is no other. But as we are incorporated into the One Son, so humans are given a participation in the one priesthood of that one priest, to each one of us differently according to the measure of the gift of Christ for the building up of the one body. It seems to us wholly appropriate to speak of Ministerial Priesthood.

I don’t expect Buchanan to agree, but it would be good if he could understand. And I will offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for him; although I cannot guarantee that it will be in a rite he would like. Indeed, it will almost certainly contain a reference to Melchizedek.