Michael Bowie urges the CofE not to overlook the existence of a priestly character


And the man who broke the bread and said the ‘thanksgiving’ over the ‘cup of blessing’ had in him all the possibilities of a priest’ (Dom Gregory Dix).

The meaning of priesthood in the Church of God matters. Because it does not appear fully formed on the pages of the New Testament it has been the subject of argument for most of Christian history, especially when viewed in the distorting mirrors of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation where, rightly, it was seen as a game-changer. In response, the English instinct for pragmatism and compromise has confected a ministerial fudge, with Catholic and Protestant lobbyists shouting from the margins to assert the ‘true’ character of the Church of England. But the Catholic credentials of our priesthood (and therefore of our Church) are more secure than mere polemic suggests. The ‘character’ (using that word now with particular meaning) of our priesthood is crucial to who we are.

An organic process

As Dix reminds us, the development of priesthood was an organic process, a process of evolution, which reaches beyond the New Testament into the origins and esse of the Church. Participants in evolution rarely see a need to record it exactly. It is simply what they do (or even who they are). Fifteen hundred years later the Reformation and Counter-Reformation caused and codified some artificial shifts in the understanding of ministerial priesthood which have bequeathed some difficult pressure-points between different traditions.

One of these pressure-points is an argument about ministerial priesthood as ontology (being) or function (doing) and the question of whether there is a ‘priestly character’, a permanent change effected by ordination in the person ordained. Many recent books about priesthood see this argument as an irrelevant embarrassment which is best glossed over quickly (e.g. Cocksworth and Brown, Being A Priest Today, 5). But a failure to address this question has caused a corrosive uncertainty in our Church.


Integrating life and faith

Splitting the priestly self from the personal self is a psychologically dubious activity, with destructive results: clergy need to integrate faith and life even more urgently than other Christians because, whether we like it or not, we are received as personifying the faith. As Austin Farrer put it, our calling is to be ‘walking sacraments’.

Such splitting is theologically mistaken, an unintended consequence of past arguments. We may bridge (and not ignore) the perceived boundary between ‘official’ and ‘charismatic’ ministry by looking again at the ‘giftedness’ of orders. The ‘gifted’ and essential uniqueness of priestly ministry reflects (in the sense of Hebrews 1.3) the specificity of the Christian faith, as expressed by the Church. Sacramentality is at the core of that communication. If Orders are ‘gift’ (grace) then the functionality of orders (institutional ministry as alleged to be distinct from ‘prophetic’ ministry) expresses an essential ‘being in’ orders.

If we accept that, as with all sacraments, Orders are simply ‘given’, that deacon, priest or bishop neither achieves nor merits the gift, then the ordained person and the sacraments administered by that ordained person are the incontestable DNA of the life of the Christian community. Our sense of insecurity on this point as traditional Anglicans has long damaged our mission; the resulting weakness is now bearing fruit in a loss of nerve about formation. We urgently need a coherent consensus about what is ‘formed’ by priestly formation if we are to expose and avoid the banality and rootlessness of managerial and (allegedly) strategic leadership into which we are drifting.



It is easy to demonstrate (pace Colin Buchanan and one or two others) that Anglicanism has always, in practice, assumed a theology of indelible priestly character and ontological priesthood. We have articulated it in our (sparse) doctrinal statements. More significantly, taking our cue from Cyprian, we do not re-ordain presbyters who have left Anglicanism and later returned, nor do we re-ordain those ordained in various other Ecclesial communities which share what the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’ calls ‘the historic episcopate’. Article 26 insists on the validity of ordained ministry regardless of the failings of individual ministers. Richard Hooker writes of orders as having ‘a kind of mark or character and acknowledged to be indelible’ (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5.77.2). Our Canons assert indelibility (C1.2), as did ARCIC I, adopted by Lambeth 1988. Most Roman Catholics who have thought about it acknowledge that Saepius Officio, the Archbishops’ answer to Leo XIII, carried the argument (and in better Latin).

This is old ground, but we appear at present to be led and governed by people who are busily abandoning or forgetting it. Yet this detail is undoubtedly constitutive of the Church to which we all belong. Orders, and their sacramental objectivity, matter because they situate us firmly within the fullness of the Apostolic faith as an essentially Eucharistic community (which significantly predates the biblical Canon). The Church ‘is like’ this. Our polity has always included some who do not acknowledge it; sometimes they have even been among our bishops. But we need to be more confident and less neurotic about God’s gift of the Church. The very giftedness of orders and sacraments means that they hold their value even when misunderstood. Perhaps it remains our task to remind the Church of England of that afresh, as we have been doing since 1833, and to demonstrate the truth of it in the conscientious and usually unglamorous parochial ministry which priest and people share.