Benedicta Ward SLG on an important new study of Christian Priesthood


Robin Ward

Continuum, 161pp, pbk

978 0826499080, £14.99

In this new and insightful book, Robin Ward examines the tradition of understanding priesthood as integral to the practice of Christianity. This is a topic much discussed today and he avoids the pitfalls of polemic with great adroitness. He begins with the importance of religion as related to the cardinal virtue of justice which orientates the moral life towards the vision of God. He then discusses in turn the sacramental structure of Christian living, the centrality of sacrifice for worship, the character which ordination conveys, the authentic way in which religion is represented in liturgy, and the sacramental nature of Christian prayer and penitence.

In this challenging and relevant study, there is one factor which might obscure its immediate availability for some and that is the short cuts of jargon which at times interrupt the author’s otherwise admirable prose. ‘Cult’ is perhaps the most confusing word to use so frequently and it is often linked with obscuring rather than clarifying adjectives.

Apart from this small caveat, On Christian Priesthood provides a sane counter-balance to Justin Lewis-Anthony’s provocatively if misguidedly entitled book If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry. Dr Ward affirms rather than kills Herbert, by placing him within the context of basic texts from the early Church as well from as Aquinas and Newman, and modern theologians such as Yannaras, Haring and Zizioulas. A section central to this study are the pages which take into account also the work of Richard Hooker, the greatest theologian of the Anglican communion.

Dr Ward is equally engaged with ‘re-thinking priestly ministry’ for today’s Church, which he knows well by long experience of teaching and caring for twenty-first-century ordinands. He does this by taking into account the serious and plain tradition of prayer and service which is associated above all with George Herbert.

Dr Ward writes as an able historian but above all as a man of prayer, experienced in pastoral care as well as theological training of those called by God to become priests. The author has no illusions about the personal goodness of those called to be ordained – indeed how could it be otherwise for the head of a college of ordinands? As Herbert says, echoing a long tradition which includes Anselm of Canterbury:

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest :
Poor priest! thus am I drest.

It is not the personal right living or right thinking of an individual which makes a Christian priest who is then separated out from others. The character of Christ, present in the ordained in a particular way within the whole body of Christ, is expressed vividly when Dr Ward writes of ‘the turning of both priest and people together towards the east as…an act…in which the mystical body of the Lord is realized through an offering… orientated towards the transcendent.’ Thus, Dr Ward proposes an objective and corporate aspect to the life and ministry of the Christian priest, as well as stressing the great responsibility they have in giving an account of themselves. In his final chapter penitence is therefore stressed within the objective value of the sacraments. Christian prayer is also placed within the context of liturgy, which is described as releasing the assembly of believers from individualism into freedom. This is not to see Christian priesthood as a kind of Hindu priestly caste, nor as an ideological fantasy of the past; it is, rather, a firm underlining of that which was prayed for at the Coronation of the Queen, that she should have, here and now, today, ‘a pious, learned and useful clergy.’ Ward’s understanding of Christian priesthood is perhaps summed up in his last chapter when he discusses the role of the priest in sacramental confession, the centrality of the presence of Christ within the process being stressed: ‘Through the virtue of penitence the Christian is enabled to turn from sin and make amends for it through sorrow and reparation; when this penitence is given a sacramental character through the act of absolution, it becomes a repentance which receives through restored communion a moral and sacral solidarity with the life of the whole church and so lives infused with all the merits of the one who is her Head.’

The underlying theme of this book is the centrality of prayer and the presence of Christ in the whole Church, within which the priest finds his true place. To quote Herbert again:

So holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my dear Breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come, people ; Aaron’s drest. ND