Why be a priest?

E-mails have been sent around with a link to Was Philip North right? – five years on. The person running the Ordinariate Expats blog simply asks for opinions. In the exchange of e-mails, it is all taken as an affront to the Ordinariate. Such is not my intention in my own article of today, but rather to look more deeply as a priest who is totally non-stipendiary and without an established ministry (like a Church of England parish).

Philip North is Bishop of Burnley and represents the Forward in Faith optic, that of having nothing to do with female bishops. I won’t go into the controversy surrounding his consecration in York Minster last February. I wish him well in his ministry and assume the best in his intentions.

The important element in this discussion, for me, is the very reason and justification of the priesthood in a historic era that is not exactly favourable to churches and institutional Christianity.

I can well understand the idea of recognising that the Constantinian Church is on its last legs, but that one should try to keep going what can be kept going. If something is still there, why destroy it? If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it! For a clergyman who has had a career in the Church of England, depending on it for his livelihood and stability as a person and father of a family, it is natural that he would baulk at the prospect of going to the Ordinariate or becoming non-stipendiary. Life is hard, and I would not judge anyone for not throwing up everything he has – unless he is really convinced in his conscience that this is what God is calling him to do.

The perspective is completely different from me as an ACC priest. I am non-stipendiary and have nothing to lose by being a priest where I am. Outside my priestly character, my life is exactly that of the laity. I have no perks, no privileges. I share the common lot of humanity. I eke out a living as a translator. The work is very irregular and I have no prospects of a good pension.

Bishop North’s appeal to the pastoral dimension is cogent from his perspective. From mine, it would seem to be like a millionaire patting himself on the back for getting on in life without financial problems. However, the branch he is sitting on is getting shorter and shorter – for as long as the next saw cut is not between himself and the tree trunk…

It is the old dilemma between the Church as an enclave of the devout or the service offered to the people, however lukewarm they are in spiritual terms – the Church of the Martyrs and the Constantinian Church.

It is pastoral responsibility for communities rather than gathered congregations.

This would explain the tendency of many churches and clerics to turn their attention from spiritual and religious concerns to secular social and cultural work. They will spend £300,000 on a meeting to discuss environmental concerns. The same sum would buy and restore a modest church building for the ACC. Where is the common ground?

The Ordinariate is better off financially than we are in the ACC, even though they seem to share our “sociology” as groups of the devout and fully committed. Their clergy seem not to have to take secular employment. Some have their retirement pensions and others are paid something by their congregations and the RC hierarchy.

It would be rash to judge Bishop North for being a “mercenary”. I will not do so. However, I do note that his judgement on what justifies a priest and the Church is totally detached from the reality of most of us, and even that of his own Church – increasingly so.

What justification is there for priests, when all the secular concerns in our society have no need for the Church? The Welfare State surely suffices… The Church is no longer even the patron of culture and the arts. All the Church can do is communicate God and accompany mankind is his spiritual quest – nothing or very little else. There may be occasions when a priest is called on in some kind of humanitarian situation, and he would not refuse help, but such occasions are rare.

If being an Ordinariate priest “can offer priests only a diminished ministry, for the majority of us a part-time or voluntary ministry, and for all of us a ministry that lacks the opportunities, the depth and the riches of what we know at present. And for laypeople, I’m not sure what it offers at all“, then I cringe to think what the good Bishop would think of the extremely marginal ACC!

Living here in France, I never receive the slightest enquiry about my church services. I could try knocking on doors and peddling the “clockwork toys”, and would simply make myself unpopular in the village. I could imagine them saying, “If I don’t believe in the true (RC) church, why should I believe in yours?” We in the ACC only have a ministry to those who voluntarily and consciously make a decision to come to us. That is painful for the priest who has acquired as much in terms of professional knowledge and skills as a teacher, but whose services are simply unwelcome in our materialistic society.

Why be a priest? That is the existential question that comes through Bishop North’s arguments as well as the existence of us marginal clergy. It would be tempting to arrive at the conclusion that we should cease to be marginal: apply to the Roman Catholic Church, and if they won’t accept us as priests, go as laymen. But, then, there are the consequences to assume. Where do you worship? To what extent do you get involved? Would it not be best to go full circle and give up Christianity as something that is just not viable in our time and the changes our world is going through? To many of us, it would be a form of suicide.

My time in the RC Church taught me that priests do the Lord’s work in many ways, and not only in the classical parish situation. Many priests are teachers, some are Roman bureaucrats. Others are monks and others still lead contemplative lives without being formally monks attached to an abbey. I have seen priests cut off from any prospect of ministry or justification for their existence. They die – or they find God in the emptiness and hopelessness. That is my own situation. I fulfil the canonical requirements for being a priest in the Church – being under a Bishop who is himself in communion with a Provincial Synod and college of bishops. Apart from that, all I can do is say Mass and Office and write this blog. Apart from that, I work and go sailing, and do what I can to keep my wife happy.

I live in trepidation, wondering if I have buried my talents and if would be judged for being a bad servant. On the other hand, how can one make an investment of one, two or five Talents if the banks and Stock Exchange are closed? Or if I have nothing to invest? The agonised thinking becomes circular and has to stop somewhere.

We do need to rethink our vocation as priests if we are to remain faithful to the sacramental character within us. I believe I would be harshly judged for abandoning it. Few of us are called to parish life, and even fewer of us to formal monastic life. The best we can do is mix with ordinary people and try to be a “leaven in the desert” in the best way possible. We learn to cast clericalism aside to live the priesthood of Christ to the full in our souls and our lives. Such a notion truly brings us back to roots and basics.

Perhaps in such a way, we are of greater service to the people and the world than if we were Established Church clerics. That to me has become the justification and meaning of the priestly vocation.

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11 Responses to Why be a priest?

  1. I should be grateful if you could give me an insight into the eMails which are circulating. Thank you.

    David Murphy (the author of the Philip North blogpost)
    davidmurphy at gmx . de

      • ed pacht says:

        I’ve been reading this email interchange. though I’ve not participated. Without precisely judging Bp North, I do find myself made uncomfortable, actually a bit appalled by the weight put upon such things as money, buildings, and prestige. It seems that Christians of all stripes have been blinded by the prince of this world into valuing numbers and money and financial stability over the hard way of the Cross. True success is not measured by such material factors, but by faithfulness to a Lord and a Gospel often out of accord with the ‘wisdom’ of the world. If we aren’t ready to lay aside earthly benefits and comforts and to take up our cross and follow Him, we put ourselves in the position of that rich young ruler who could not let go and thus sadly turned and walked away. I’m afraid those comments made me shiver. I’d rather hear the verse of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” that goes (in part) like this:
        Let goods and kindred go,
        This mortal life also;
        The body they may kill;
        God’s truth abideth still.
        His Kingdom is forever.

      • We put ourselves in the position of that rich young ruler who could not let go and thus sadly turned and walked away.

        I have heard an interesting interpretation of this one. The young man boasted that he observed the Commandments perfectly, so Christ would have made this extremely radical requirement in reaction to the young man’s pride – “Had you been humbler about your shortcomings in observing the Commandments, that is all that would have been required, because we all have progress to make“. Many have given up everything, and that is the primitive Franciscan vocation. It would be truly wonderful not to have to own anything, but to have enough of everyone’s trust to have the use of what we need. It works in monasteries but not in secular life. I don’t think we are all called to this vocation of radical poverty, though I am often tempted to “off-the-grid” life and take my chances with providence. There is a balance between radical poverty and the realism most of us have to live with.

  2. ed pacht says:

    Agreed. I think His point was not that we just up and divest ourselves of everything, but that we be willing to do so if and when that is what faithfulness requires. I love beautiful buildings and rich trappings, and truly wish that every priest could be full time, but when that becomes more important than faithfulness, it has to go — thus the glorious company of the martyrs.

  3. Stephen K says:

    The best we can do is mix with ordinary people and try to be a “leaven in the desert” in the best way possible. We learn to cast clericalism aside to live the priesthood of Christ to the full in our souls and our lives. Such a notion truly brings us back to roots and basics.

    Father, as a general principle, these words seem to me to be unsurpassable. The mistake is in thinking, so I believe, that Christian priesthood needs ritual sacrifice, vestments and temples. Rather, the sacrifice to be made is the imitatory sacrifice of brotherly and sisterly love once made by the Perfect Brother on Calvary, and memorialised in the agape of Eucharist. At every moment of life, so to speak, a Christian has a choice of loving or not. To choose the former is to accept the “new covenant”, to join in with the offering of Jesus on the cross.

    A form developed for the eucharistic memorial; a theology accompanied it, both invested with contemporaneous cultural symbols and meanings which were solidified and passed on. You are a participant in and recipient of these cultural and theological forms at a time when their authenticity, their contemporary effectiveness or even coherence, are widely called into question, subjected to scrutiny and rejected. If I may be permitted to “personalise” the thing called “Christianity” for the purpose, I suggest that Christianity is going through one of those epochal phases when, from the force of its own dynamism and from the force of others outside, it is re-examining itself and reforming itself. At times this reform or re-examination appears cataclysmic – although the result or outcome cannot be clearly seen – and in other ways, if we try to follow the threads of the changes to their sources, we can trace the lines back through centuries of history so that we can see a continuity and coherence in them.

    Perhaps part of the problem is the meaning we have traditionally given to “priest”. Though it derives from ‘presbyteros’ which is a different meaning to ‘hiereus” [i.e.’sacerdos’], the word has always referred to the latter concept – the holy one, the sacrificer, the holy-maker. From a very early time it seems, there has been a priestly caste, distinct from the baptised. But its antiquity appears to confirm its cultural origins and connexions with both pagan and Jewish models. Having a ‘permanent’ priestly caste is very pagan, very Jewish. It is that concept which is under strain in these times, again partly through the widening cracks of the traditional institutional paradigm and the theology or ecclesiology long used to underpin it. Inevitably, it must cause a re-think of the precise nature or purpose of anything called priesthood in the Christian Way. It may even have implications for the number of “sacraments” or how we understand them.

    In one sense it sounds like a repeat of the Protestant reformation of the 16th century. But I think it may be a more significant version of it, if that is so. I read the other day something to the effect that up till now, the way Protestants handled ‘dissent’ was to result in new sects or local churches outside the fold; the way Roman Catholicism handled ‘dissent’ was to establish new religious orders within its fold.

    From my perspective, Father, you actually exemplify, perhaps in a way that has not fully occurred to you, a very authentic expression of Christian, as opposed to ‘established’ or ‘pagan’, priesthood: you are ‘priesting’ equally whether you celebrate the rite of Mass or blog or provide leaven to your neighbours and contribute to the happiness of the woman you love. Your ordination and your commissioning within the ACC did not make you ‘holy’ or a ‘holy-maker’ but was rather a particular call to ‘holiness’ and ‘holy-making’, which is what you do, or clearly try to do, in your daily life.

    Christians are called to do no less on the strength of their baptism and confirmation, with the exception that we are not called or authorised to consecrate the Eucharistic offerings. However, we are called to the agape that is the fruit of the Eucharistic memorial that is exemplified, in traditional terms, by the death of Jesus on Calvary.

    All I say, is keep up the good work, the ‘holy-making’, and your hope in your faith. Many of the establishments and cultural paradigms we have grown up with or inherited may indeed have had their day indefinitely or require some re-casting, but your expression as a Christian priest, seen afresh, seems to me to be as relevant as ever.

    • One doesn’t need to be “by law established” to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick nor those in prison… Various people, ordinary people, set up charities and projects to address these issues, offer themselves as volunteers and go through the requisite screenings and protocols etc.; a non-CofE or RC cleric can do the same. Religious freedom as current defined and supported in the EU and the UN permits anyone to dress, worship and behave as their religious belief requires – thus “non-establishment” clergy can go about expressing their vocation without fear of being apprehended as an imposter if they are clear about who they “are not” denominationally.

      It’s also possible to support oneself or be supported to live a vocational apostolic life, with a little effort either on ones own part and/or with some support from one’s faithful (if one has some). Thus it is possible to look like a priest, live like a priest, witness as a priest and minister as a priest without the perks and privileges and material provisions of larger institutions… Just as the apostles and pastors of the early church did before Constantine!

      All it takes is faith, hope and love and a sufficient appreciation of the evangelical counsels to accept the hardships or limitations of any accidental constraints. Personally I’ve found it helpful to be open about my ministry ecumenically, joining the local Churches Together group, partnering and volunteering with time, talent, knowledge or support (moral/practical/material) various projects and ministries and otherwise generally “doing what it says” on the “proverbial tin” i.e. saying Mass (publicly i.e. advertising, using public locations), dressing, behaving and conversing as a priest. It does help to be determined, be “hands on”, have a “can do” and “get stuck in” attitude.

      It also requires resilience, i.e. not to give up in response to any negativity from wherever it comes, most often from clergy – sometimes even one’s own colleagues! If one is true to the vocation one has received and if it be the Lord’s desire, obstacles can be overridden and negatives changed into positives. Patience too is a great help – often both The Lord and others don’t always respond as expediently nor often quite as one would hope… Much of this is as true for “established” clergy however as it is for others!

      • Stephen K says:

        I think yours is also a very positive, wise and encouraging post, Metropolitan Jerome, with much salutary to reflect upon.

    • ed pacht says:

      …and much of what +Jerome has to say is as applicable to the priestly calling of the layperson. It is a vocation as all-pervasive and demanding as that of the ordained ministry. We are called, at every point of our daily life to be icons of Christ in the midst of the world – perhaps to be for the unbelievers in our life, as it is said, “the only Jesus they are able to see.” We fail to measure up, but it is the life to which every Christian is called.

      I don’t mean being constantly ‘religious’ — that can be annoying in the extreme — but being mindful of God in every ‘secular’ moment. Buildings, salaries, and the like may be helpful, but they are far from the essence of the spiritual Christian life, or of priesthood, whether ordained or not.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yet again, dear ed, you express the essence of what I wanted to say, so much better.

      • I am very encouraged by the way this thread is going. My first reaction to Bishop North was to think of the attitude of clerics and nobles at the eve of the French Revolution: a glaring discrepancy between their thoughts and the reality. He seems to think that being a Church of England cleric gives him “responsibility” over the whole community, be they Muslims, atheists, people who are not interested in church, whatever. In the old days, the local Vicar had social standing, and many people went to see him with their problems, even if they weren’t churchgoers. Now, the traditional figure of the priest is discredited like in France ever since the Revolution.

        Were the only way to be a priest being the “right stuff” for bureaucratic selection committees and the like, then I have other things to do in life. I have only once and for a short time worked for a big company – as an assembly line worker. If the Church is to be all management and bureaucracy, then it will do well to run out of money and die! The Church is something else.

        We are not “responsible” for anyone. I would prefer the expression “being open to”. We are members of society like anyone else. I like the expression used by the Norbertine Canons – “ready for any good work”. I used to traipse around in a cassock, at the supermarket, the bank, the ironmongery shop, everywhere. I suppose it depends on how you wear it. It demands a certain type of conduct down to the way you avoid looking at people too intently and walking in a slow and graceful way. That used to be the speciality of the Sulpicians, and I got a good dose of it at Gricigliano. After many years of only wearing the cassock “on duty”, I can see how ridiculous it can become. There are occasions when I wear a clerical suit, but it is quite bourgeois compared with my more casual way of life. Ultimately, I am aware of how the popular (unemployed, marginal, working, artists and crafts people) classes have been alienated from parish life for a very long time. In France, most of the clergy come from well-to-do (business, military, the professions) families. I have come to see “being an icon of Christ” as something different from appearance and fashion.

        One thing that will make a difference is being someone whose fundamental values are something other than money, sex, power, competition and political ideology. If people think we are not eying them up as our next “meal”, it might occur to them that there is something different, without ulterior motive, full of kindness, compassion and care. The old art of being a gentleman is something that has become rare, and I don’t mean dressing up for a London club – but being aware of what is going on around us, that people exist.

        We are also called to care for our world, not spending thousands on meetings to yak-yak yada-yada, but enter into communion with nature and set an example.

        I admire Archbishop Jerome for his work in Brighton and positive approach to the community. I look forward to the post-Constantinian era, when priests and churches will survive and thrive on their own merit. My own Bishop’s approach is exactly the same. It is a question of vocation – and resilience.

        I am not exactly a spring chicken in this game!

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