Christopher Phillips on the role of the priest as an agent of reconciliation
Thomas Aquinas wrote of the priest as a mediator between God and Man, in that `he gives divine things to the people, and again in that he offers the people’s prayers to God and in some sense makes reparation to God for the people’s sins’. Some would argue that this model of priesthood is unhelpful because it places something, or someone, in the way of a relationship between God and Man. Why shouldI confess my sins to a priest, for example, when I can do so directly to God and am assured that I will receive his forgiveness? This is of course entirely correct, but as we have seen in countless situations throughout history, the use of mediation facilitates relationships.
As someone who is not a member of the General Synod, I cannot speak from direct experience, but it does seem that the process of facilitated conversations since the collapse of the previous legislation has led to a subsequent increase in the level of trust between those in favour of, and those opposed to, the admission of women to the Episcopate. This example of mediation in action perhaps demonstrates that it is possible to bring people to a point where they may never be able to agree but that a degree of reconciliation is possible that without mediation, would arguably have far weaker foundations.
The mediator par excellence
In the case of sacramental confession to a priest, the penitent is often enabled to experience the grace of absolution in a much more powerful, focused way. Confession, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer testified, is the renewal of the joy of baptism; and it is here, just as at the altar, that we see the priest as the mediator par excellence: he absolves the penitent on behalf of the Church who has appointed him to exercise the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to the Apostles by Christ (John 20.21-3).
As a new priest, I feel strongly this sense of calling to be an agent for reconciliation, both in the Church and in the world. The weeks leading up to ordination day have reminded me quite how much all of us, lay and ordained, depend on the prayers and support of others to remain faithful to our calling. In the wake of the vote in Synod we will all need to work to support one another. We must also commit to working together with those with whom we disagree, in order (as Fr Philip North said in his speech to Synod) to `win the peace’. I for one am committed to living the priestly life, confidently and publicly proclaiming Christ’s victory over the forces of chaos and division. Who is with me? ND