Gary Waddington reflects on priesthood and incumbency

I still vividly remember a conversation, when I was a pastoral assistant 25 years ago, between my incumbent and a member of the congregation of a large evangelical church. It took place as people were beginning to arrive for a service of ordination, and the assistant curate of that large parish was among the deacons to be ordained to the priesthood. To be clear, my incumbent and the person concerned knew each other well, and were warm and friendly. But the line that stayed with me was: ‘I just don’t understand why he needs to be commissioned again. He was done last year, so why does he need to be done again?’

This begs a question: ‘What is a priest?’ Within the Church of England, there is the ‘official’ answer as set out in the Ordinal, and the reality of how priesthood is perceived across the spectrum of the Church. That is made more complicated because there are other questions inherent in what appears to be one straightforward question.

There is, for example: ‘What does a priest do?’ That’s a fair enough qualitative enquiry: what is the nature of priesthood; how is that vocation lived out; and how and where do we see what that life is? That is made more complicated, though, in the holding of an office: there is a dichotomy between what I am – a deacon and a priest – and what I do. I am a Team Rector, and between my ontological state of being a priest and my legal state of being an incumbent there is a delicious interplay, and scope for great confusion. To be an incumbent requires me to be a priest; but much of what I am and do as an incumbent does not.

An exercise I often run with groups simply asks people to ‘list all the things your Vicar does each month.’ It normally produces a very long list, from Administration to Zesting lemons. I then ask the participants what, from their own lists, the Vicar must be a priest to do. Inevitably this causes some confusion, but eventually we get it down to two things: to celebrate the Eucharist; and to absolve sins. There is normally some silence at this point, followed by many questions.

Of course, Ecclesiastical Law, Church polity, and practice mean that there are some other things that in general an incumbent has to be a priest in order to do; but they, in and of themselves, are not a function of priesthood – rather they are a consequence of holding an office which can only be held by someone who is in priestly orders. But, in general, the two ‘actions’ above are the essentials of sacramental priesthood.

For some within the Church of England, ordination is little more than a granting of permission to exercise some kind of specialized leadership in the wider community. It can be confusing, then, when a candidate needs to be ‘recommissioned’ as a priest, when it is not really going to make much difference to their status. They’ll still be leading what they were before; and they’ll still be not be the boss. The only thing is they’ve now got an extra star that says they can ‘do communion.’

The other end of the spectrum is a place with which I’m far more familiar, as will be most readers of New Directions. Ordination for those to be ordained to the priesthood is wholly about the ontological nature conferred, and its efficacy for the celebration of the Eucharist. In this scenario, ordination, and indeed formation for ordination, is very much concerned with the preparation for and realization of an indelible character which, when imparted in the grace of ordination, finds its actualization at the altar and in the confessional.

This is not about leadership in and of itself – rather it is about a vocational self-oblation in which the individual is conformed to Christ’s own ministerial priesthood. In being conformed to this sharing in the self-offering of Christ himself, and in the leadership proper to the cultic celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice which makes that oblation present to the people of God, the priest is himself a living sacrament – a “walking sacrament”, as Austin Farrer put it.

It is here that priestly life is to be located. Through this conformation to Christ, the priest also – by virtue of sharing sacramentally in Christ’s own priesthood – is charged with service. So the grace of ordination imparts a double nature: to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice (and the attendant related place as the provider of absolution in relation to the Eucharistic banquet – restoring the penitent to the Eucharistic community), and to live out the command to service that we find in St John’s Gospel. The priest, then, stands in persona Christi: he is a sacramentally generated alter Christus.

Seen in this way, the Vicar is all about the ‘religious’ bits: that’s what he has been prepared for, and that’s surely what he should do. After all, couldn’t he just find another volunteer from among the congregation to take care of the drains, and the roof, and the organ? I’m certain, however, that incumbency – and therefore also priesthood – isn’t about one polarity or the other. It is ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or.’ Indeed, I’d go further by saying that to focus on one, to the exclusion of the other, impoverishes the office-holder and the priest. There’s the rub: how to hold the spiritual and temporal dimensions in balance, and how to live with this creative tension? The commensurate danger is that operating at only either pole is dangerous – not just for the individual concerned, but for the Church as a whole.

It can be tempting for a parish priest to want to exist only at the spiritual pole of the scale – as if the celebration of the sacraments were all he had to worry about. But if he doesn’t attend to the finances then there will be no bread and wine to offer; nor worthy vestments in which to offer it. If he doesn’t attend to the building, then he might end up having to say mass in the car park. And if matters of safeguarding, contracts of employment, insurance, and communications don’t get dealt with properly, then there will be real trouble down the line.

But if all a parish priest does is manage the staff, the finances, the legalities, and the building, then there’s every danger that what he’ll become is a glorified facilities-manager with a side line in vaguely religious social work. If I had wanted to be a branch manager in a multinational company, then there are many places where I could have had far better training than theological college.

This is the dilemma we face as a church today: are priests local branch managers, or walking sacraments? Is the priesthood to be modelled on resource management, or servant leadership? No wonder there were howls of protest at the publication of the Green Report.

At one pole is the inherent sense that surely anyone can do most of this stuff – so if we can only crack how to let nonordained people celebrate mass, then we’ll have this all wrapped up. We wouldn’t need ordination then at all – just some strong leaders. At the other is the inherent sense that if only we just say another mass, pace Father Ted, and get a few more people to make their confessions, it’ll all be ok.

How can we let priests be priests in a way that adequately balances the responsibilities they are given, and how can we best provide for that? There is a balance to be struck between the spiritual and the temporal aspects of priestly ministry in today’s Church. We need to find ways of helping priests to learn to do both aspects, and to do both well.

The Revd Gary Waddington is Team Rector of St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate, and a member of the General Synod.