Arthur Middleton on Michael Ramsey’s call for priests to be ‘devout, learned and useful’, inspired by I Timothy

Devout, Learned and Useful Clergy’ is the title of a Durham Address by Michael Ramsey. For him it was a lifelong concern. In The Christian Priest Today he wrote: ‘the priest is the teacher and preacher, and as such he is the man of theology. He is pledged to be a dedicated student of theology; and his study need not be vast in extent but it will be deep in its integrity, not in order that he may be erudite but in order that he may be simple. It is those whose studies are shallow who are confused and confusing. The Church’s hold upon the faith requires those who in theology are ‘learned’, concentrated, dedicated, and deep.’

‘Take heed to thyself’

His inspiration was scriptural, I Timothy 4.16: ‘Take heed to thyself: that is devoutness. Take heed to the teaching: that is the call to learning. Thou shalt save them that hear thee: that is to be useful – towards the greatest ends.’

He sees the devout man as one who has become disciplined in religious practice, a man of God so proficient in the art of prayer that it is evident that he walks with God and thereby makes God real to others. ‘Take heed to thyself’ means confronting one’s idols and failures that become visible in the presence of our Maker who sees below the idols and failures to the heart’s genuine longing for him. This ‘taking heed to thyself’ must be a deliberate and regular exercise.

Like St Anselm and St Gregory the Great Bishop Michael saw the essential foundation of his priestly life as a discipline of prayer. Like Gregory he saw the disqualification of the pastoral office being the neglect of things within because of a preoccupation with external things and the converse, being occupied solely with internal matters so that the flock becomes neglected.

Searching and reflection

He sees a learned clergy not in the sense of amassing ‘stores of factual knowledge or pursuing original research and investigation’. ‘But he is called to be learned in the sense of being one who constantly wins fresh knowledge and fresh understanding of the Faith which he teaches.’

Every priest can be learned through constant searching and reflection that stimulates the mind and imagination into a quickened grasp and sense of wonder before these mysteries. This will happen if we make friends with great biblical expositors, teachers of Christian doctrine, and by feeding on the classics of Christian spirituality.

To be a ‘useful clergy’ requires ministering in a disposition of humility. St Paul used the word ‘useful’ of one of his helpers and God uses whatever we do if it bears the mark of humility. The object of our usefulness is to ‘save them that hear thee.’

‘Often you will be knowing the joy of seeing men and women and children whose feet have been set, through your ministry, in the ways of God. But often also you will find times of frustration, baffling and mysterious; and in those times when you can see and feel no signs of usefulness or its fruits you will know in faith, from your nearness to your Lord, that what you are and what you do are being used by him in his love and wisdom.’

Servants of God

As devout, learned and useful priests, our inspiration will come from our Master’s glorifying of the Father, his consecration to the truth the Father committed to him, and the thirty years of hidden life and three years of public ministry that ended in the desolation of Calvary and the joy of Easter. There, as Jeremy Taylor said, is our Great Exemplar, for ‘where I am, there also shall my servant be.’ ‘He who serves me will honour my Father.’ As Bishop Michael put it in The Christian Priest Today: ‘Are we then beginning to commend ourselves? It is impossible for us to commend priesthood as something in itself’, and attempts to do so by propaganda court failure. Yet ‘as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way’ if our consciousness is not of our own status but of Christ whose commission we hold and of the people we serve in his name.’