As the time for ordinations approaches, Christopher Smith reflects on the mantle of the priesthood.
The sixth Anglo-Catholic Congress took place in London in July 1948, having been originally planned for 1940. The Friday mass was sung at St Alban’s Holborn, in the ruins of the bombed-out Butterfield building. There was a deep desire to get back to business after the war, and the Congress took as its themes those of the Lambeth Conference of that year, derived from the Chicago Quadrilateral: our unity derived from the Bible, the creeds, the ministry and the sacraments. Ironic, isn’t it, that the bringing together of those themes should have had its origin in the American Episcopal Church. I sneaked a look at the website of today’s Diocese of Chicago: their bishop, Jeffrey Lee, had been off to preach at the commissioning of the new Bishop of Indianapolis. She’s called Jennifer, and ‘She will love you, challenge you, tell you the truth as she sees it and invite you to tell it as you do’.
At the sixth Anglo-Catholic Congress, truth was truth, rather than something to be determined by the messenger. Among others, Michael Ramsey and Gabriel Hebert spoke on the bible, Freddy Hood spoke on the creeds, Robert Mortimer and Eric Mascall on the sacraments. Under the title ‘ministry’, Gregory Dix spoke on ‘the apostolic ministry to and in the Church of God’, and Arthur Couratin spoke on the origins of episcopal and priestly ministry. The bishop derives his powers and duties ‘from his mixed historical past’, said Fr Couratin. ‘As elder he teaches and governs. As shepherd and high priest he is the principal celebrant of the eucharist… As apostolic man he is the official witness to the gospel and guardian of the faith’. Something for any vacant see to chew on as it looks for a new bishop. Jennifer, meanwhile, ‘knows her artisanal, wood-oven-baked, 30-year-old-sour-dough-cultured bread from her grass-fed, cows-milk, natural-rennet, washed-rind cheese’. Thank heavens.
‘Once the hand is laid on the plough’, says Jesus, ‘no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Why the plough? Perhaps you remember Elijah’s summons of Elisha in the first book of the Kings. The mantle, which Elisha will inherit when it falls upon him as Elijah is being assumed into heaven, makes its first appearance here, as Elijah calls him by casting his mantle upon him. And by the time St Luke is writing the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear what authority comes with that mantle.
The Church of England today is obsessed by models of leadership and management. What was Elijah’s leadership style, do you think? And was Elisha an innovator? What of Jesus himself? Did he have a collaborative leadership style or a forcing one? Did he do ‘high affirmation’ or ‘low affirmation’? Oh dear… we can begin to see what nonsense it is in a Christian context, yet go to any diocesan conference nowadays, and there it all is, prefaced by ‘unconscious bias training’.
Surely, we have something more to say to the future priests of our movement. At the ordination of my current curate, the preacher, Fr Robin Ward, made an important point about how all Christian priesthood is in truth the priesthood of Jesus Christ: there is no human priesthood, however well-intentioned, that can offer to God the worship which is his due. The creature is entirely dependent on his creator, and there is no priesthood except that given to us by God himself. ‘God will himself provide the lamb for the burnt offering’, as Abraham said. And, without wishing in any way to diminish the role of all Christians in the priesthood of Jesus, in the ministerial priesthood, all that guff about ‘leadership’ and ‘leadership styles’ pales into insignificance beside the priest’s sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb for the burnt offering and the altar of sacrifice, as well as the shepherd of souls.
The ordination rite is rich, and full of phrases which stay with a priest throughout his ministry: ‘The treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. It is to him that you will render account for your stewardship of his people.’ ‘Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.’ And the priest is the pastor of souls precisely because he is the one who brings the needs of the people of God to the altar, and brings God himself, in the sacraments, to the people. He is the pastor because he is the priest, and the visible, sacramental ministry to which he is called informs and characterizes his less visible, pastoral ministry. There is a worry among some clergy that half of what they do in the course of their day could be done more effectively by social workers, teachers and so on, but that misses the point about why we do those things, and in whose name. That’s what makes the difference to the way they are received – or indeed rejected! To pastor a flock is literally to find it pasture: to feed it, to nourish it.
‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Daunting though it may be, that is the life of those upon whom the mantle of priesthood has fallen. Another of the contributors on ‘ministry’ to the 1948 Congress was K.D. Mackenzie, who by then had retired as Bishop of Brechin. He declined to ‘waste time in rebutting the idea of a clergyman which would make him a kind of employee, appointed and paid to provide acceptable services and give expert advice… Primarily he is the representative, however inadequate, of the Church universal, and therefore… the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to him responsible’. Tell that to your diocesan conference.