Christopher Trundle presents some reflections on the human and divine aspects of Anglican orders

In the month or so following ordinations and consecrations it seems right to consider the place of something which can sometimes seem almost too obvious a part of our patrimony to merit attention – Anglican Orders.

This is, of course, not an uncontroversial subject at the moment, and while I do not really intend to enter the theological or ecumenical debate, I present here some of the words of our Anglican forebears on the subject, and hope to explore something of the human and divine aspects of our orders.

Dignity and duty

‘Out of this Chartre of the Priesthood may be plainly gathered both the Dignity thereof, and the Duty: The Dignity, in that a Priest may do that which Christ did, and by his auctority, and as his Viceregent. The Duty in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for Doctrine and Life.’

So wrote George Herbert in the first chapter of The Country Parson. These words of Herbert immediately suggest a tension in priesthood: where the balance of the divine (the Dignity) and human (the Duty) lies. Both are, of course, crucial to any understanding of ordination, for to place excessive emphasis either on that which is entrusted by God at the hands of the Bishop or on one’s frail humanity can easily lead to an imbalance (‘Father knows best’ versus ‘The priest is nothing more than a normal bloke’).

This question concerned Henry Manning, who addressed it most notably in his enduring work The EternalPriesthood, but also much earlier in one of his sermons: ‘We magnify our office, not to exalt ourselves, but to abase; for it is ever seen that they who lay the least stress on the commission, lay the most on the person; and they that esteem lightly of the derived authority of Christ’s ministers, exalt personal qualifications, intellectual or spiritual, into credentials of their ministerial office. ‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels’, fragile, and vile, formed of the dust, and to the dust returning, ‘that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (a sermon preached at Chichester Cathedral, The English Church; Its Succession and Witness for Christ, July 1835). For Manning, as for countless others throughout history, the juxtaposition of the awesome responsibility committed to the ordained and the frailty of those who receive ordination is incredibly powerful.

Human potential and frailty

But when inspired by the Holy Spirit, humanity has extraordinary potential, as W.H. Auden puts it in his text for Walton’s anthem, The Twelve: Without arms or charm of culture, persons of no importance from an unimportant Province, they did as the Spirit bid, went forth into a joyless world of swords and rhetoric to bring it joy.

It is, of course, God’s action in the Church and not our own which enables the ministry of the priestly people of God, and it is all the more humbling to realize that he chooses the frail and weak to do his bidding.

Similarly, Bl. John Henry Newman vividly recalls Mattins the morning after his ordination in 1824: ‘I made one more attempt to read and could not. I went on sobbing, while he read, to the end. O the evil of my heart, so vile, and so proud. How I behave to him! ‘For ever’, words never to be recalled.

I have the responsibility of souls on me to the day of my death… What a blessed day was yesterday. I was not sensible of it at the time – it will never come again’

(Autobiographical Writings, ed H. Tristam, London, 1956, p. 201)