The traditional role of a priest was as a spiritual leader, upholder of morals, a focal point of community. But what is the point of a priest in a contemporary society? A voice of calm, a rock, help for the helpless? All these roles, says Dr Williams – and more
Christianity has, from the first, had complex ideas about priesthood. Priesthood works, classically, through the supervision of sacrifice, the processes by which peacemaking gifts are offered to the divine so that sacred order may be restored, so that the two registers of reality fit together again after the various sorts of rupture that make them jar. The Christian narrative announces that there is one moment in human history that so unites the different realities in relation to which human beings live that there is never again going to be a need for any 'priestly' mediation between them; all future crises of disjunction are foreseen and included in this event, and resolved with reference to it.
Priesthood is over and sacrifice is now unnecessary. That is what the Christian Gospel says, at first sight: Jesus has offered his life 'once, only once, and once for all', and the distinctive anxieties of religion are behind us forever. More specifically, this is what the Reformation reaffirmed, with some violence, in the belief that the Church had in effect reinstated a system of priesthood where none was needed, thus compromising the uniqueness of the action and suffering of Jesus in his Crucifixion.
But in fact this represents a damagingly limited reading of the Gospel. It is not that the categories of priesthood and sacrifice have been evacuated of meaning: they have been drastically re-imagined. It is true that the action of Christ on the Cross becomes the pivot of the whole of human history and so defines, once and for all, what priesthood is. Heaven and earth are reconciled, not by an anxious negotiation over what might count as an adequate propitiatory gift but by an act of self-displacement in which the ultimate source of sacred power declares itself free to restore any and every breakage of relationship, irrespective of how human beings try to mend things.
'Priesthood' as ex-ercised by Jesus incarnate and crucified is about the history of a life that moves towards one focal moment in which the divine relinquishes claims against humanity and the human accepts the full consequence of divine presence in a violent world. It is about the coincidence of two acts of self-displacement performed in and by one agent, divine and human at once.
To spell this out: in the Crucifixion of Jesus, God, by accepting the defeat of extreme dereliction and mortality, defines his love for the world as one that cannot enforce any claim, cannot triumphantly resist or overcome any rejection. The God who is seen on the Cross is one who refuses to defend his 'territory'. And he is present in this supremely paradoxical way in and through a human life that likewise refuses to defend its territory, a life in which God is free to pervade every moment, thought and action – a life surrendered to God. The Cross is what happens when there are no barriers between God and humanity; when what has been called the kenosis, the self-emptying, of both is at its most unreserved.
The effect of this, says the New Testament, is to create an open door between earth and heaven that no turn of events can ever again close. A place has been cleared where the act of God and human reality are allowed to beong together without rivalry or fear: the place where Jesus is. It is a place where human beings have only to be open to what is offered, and where God demands nothing and imposes nothing but simply abides in unceasing love, a love that can only be imagined in the human world and human language in terms of vulnerability. It is thus a place where human competition means nothing; where the admission of failure is not the end but the beginning; and from which no one is excluded in advance.
What has opened this place or doorway is the action of Jesus; and as something that reconnects alienated worlds, the sacred and the fallen, damaged or compromised, it can be spoken of as priestly in a way that no other action can ever again be priestly, since it marks the end of all anxiety about how reconciliation is to be achieved. In the sense that no person will ever now be a priest in the sense Jesus is, it is true that priesthood is over. But – and it is a massive qualification – what the New Testament says is that the effect of this priestly action is to bring the community united with Jesus into the place he occupies, so that they can be called 'priestly'.
The role of the community in the world is to inhabit the place where Jesus' priesthood has been exercised; their style of life, action and prayer becomes the channel by which priestliness is made accessible in the world. The Church, then, as the historical Body of the one High Priest, occupies the place where competition and violence are exposed as meaningless; the place where it is possible to fail and to let down defences.
The task of priesthood is now something that has to be witnessed to rather than performed independently; and it is a task committed to those who have come to be at home in the place marked out by Jesus. For human beings, priestliness is now bound up with faithfully occupying the area where divine and human action decisively overlap in Jesus, and making sure that the human world knows that there is such a place.
The Church as a human community and the actual physical places where it is regularly encountered provide the room for those aspects of human experience that will not fit anywhere else. The dimensions of humanity that are disadvantaged in the world, where what matters is managing relations that are always potentially threatening and patrolling territories that are always threatened – these are the dimensions that are accommodated in the life of the Church, in the territory that claims to be potentially everyone's.
And for the Church to make this credible and effective requires of it a rigorous collective self-displacement, a constant readiness to question itself as to how far it has yielded to the temptation of territorial anxiety. Not that it is a community or a set of practices that have no coherence and limits; rather that those limits are there to conserve the radical character of the welcome offered; because without the central commitment to the inseparable divine and human action that clears the space, none of this would really make sense. But the only kind of anxiety that is proper to the Church is what prompts careful self-scrutiny as to whether we have begun to take for granted the map offered by the contemporary world, a map in which there is finally no place free from rivalry and thus potential violence.
From the Church's point of view, the ordained ministry exists to remind the Church what it is, to tell it daily by the recital of the Word and the performance of the sacraments that it does not define its place for itself and by itself. The ordained ministry is there to witness to the nature of the space that God clears.
Priesthood in the Church of England is crucially to do with the service of the space cleared by God; with the holding open of a door into a place where a confused humanity is able to move slowly into the room made available, and understand that it is heard in all its variety, emotional turmoil and spiritual uncertainty.
We are so used to rejecting indignantly the idea that all clergy do is 'take services' that we are in some danger of forgetting that if they don't do this they are not doing what they are asked to do. For them to be servants of the space cleared by God, they must be at the service of the community's need to express its common gratitude in a shared language, in a time that is given up to this and nothing else. The traditional Anglican and Catholic obligation
to say the 'daily offices' is the tangible sign of the obligation to see to it that the community's worship happens in such a way and such a style that it declares something of the nature of the place Christians believe they occupy. To be a liturgist is not an optional extra for the priest. The priest keeps open the space human society needs by taking the responsibility for inviting the believing community back again and again into this space, so that the society around can see that it is still non-negotiably there.
Being a priest is not first about 'leadership'– although that is not an irrelevant concept if it is properly understood as identifying the differences that can and need to be made in a community, and seeing that they happen. It is not primarily about the role of organising and administering, but neither is it merely the role of what one Christian tradition calls a 'teaching elder'. The teaching, like the leadership, happens only as and when the priest has learned what it is to inhabit a place and to speak from that place into the community's life.
The lifelong commitment that has been regarded as a necessary aspect of priestliness in the Catholic and the mainstream Protestant tradition has to do with this awareness of being called first of all to live somewhere and to become a native of this place. The often confused exercise of the pastoral ministry in an established Church with an ambiguous history shows itself to be unexpectedly well equipped to witness to this insight about the place of Jesus as every place in the human world and no place in the human world: every place because there is no territory firmly marked in rivalry with others; no place because it cannot be mapped on to any plan that we can conceive.
The priest remains the celebrant of what will not fit anywhere else, in the name of a divine act that refuses all self-justification, all successful ways of managing the relation between divine and human.
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