Deacon’s Essay

Here in St Albans we get to write an essay before being ordained priest / presbyter / big pastoral cheese (delete as applicable). For those who are interested this was mine. Some of you might find it interesting, others pretentious waffle. Whatever. Enjoy.
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The curious thing in the Evangelical world is that there are very few books on ordination. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any books on what ordained people should do – our bookshelves are literally heaving with tomes on mission and pastoral practice even once we’ve removed everything written by Michael Green. But amongst all these books on the functional nature of Christian leadership there is a curious absence of reflection on the ontological nature of the Christian minister.

One of the first books I read on Christian (and particularly Anglican) ministry was Michael Green’s “Freed to Serve” and if I’m honest (and also if I’m name dropping Michael happens to be a good friend after spending two years in the study next door to him, drinking his coffee and fixing his PCs) it was unsatisfying. There was a large emphasis on the functional nature of ministry, on what ministers did and how they did it, and very little on who they were and how they were that. And the dissatisfaction with the functional perspective didn’t stop there, as many of those books practically poured scorn on any ontological perspective on leadership. Leaders / Presbyters weren’t, they did.

And then I got a hold of Ramsey’s “The Christian Priest Today” and followed that with Guiver et al’s “The Fire and the Clay” and (hold your Evangelical mouth if you have one in a position of shock) even sprinkled it with a hint of Rowan Williams’ two essays on Vocation in “Open to Judgement”. In particular, this curious little line:

“It’s very important, for instance, to remember that in the Old Testament calling and creating are closely associated … so in the most basic sense of all, God’s call is the call to be.”

which seemed to me to sum up a huge part of my entire life, because, 5 minutes after becoming a Christian at a Vineyard Church in Manchester in May 1994, I knew this is what I would end up doing, because this was what God has always planned for my life ever since he cast an eye over my father and my mother and thought “now I’ve got an idea”.

I want to take Ramsey’s four answers to the question he raises himself in the chapter “Why the Priest?” and ask what they mean for myself today. That’s why I’ve given this essay the title I have, because I’m curious whether a model of thinking about priesthood produced over 30 years ago is still pertinent to a man born after it was written and who has grown up and nurtured a relationship with Jesus in somewhat a different environment to that Ramsey was writing into.

Teacher and Preacher

The thing that I have probably enjoyed the most as a deacon is the role of teaching, both in a formal Sunday setting but also in everyday informality. Theology and thinking about God has always been at the heart of my spirituality and so I can always find myself available with a complicated answer to a simple question. Perhaps this wasn’t quite what Ramsey hand in mind….

But what has become striking to me is that it is a true servant task to dedicate one’s self to studying and contemplating Scripture and then learning how to articulate truth to a listenership that, at 11 o’clock in the morning isn’t interested in deep theological debates on the hypostatic union and would far rather be contemplating the luncheon union of meat and vegetables. But if the role of the priest is to somehow make Christ present to all, then this is perhaps one of the most vital of Christian ministries, for Christ makes himself known chiefly through revelation, of his personal self and through his written, living Word. Perhaps the greatest danger a minister can fall into is when he preaches from outside that synthetic relationship, when one’s sermon is written more from one’s daily life then from the revealed life of God’s action in the world, or vice-versa.

More than that though, our role is not just to teach and build-up by our own actions, but also to enable every member of our community to engage with and learn from God’s revelation. We not only preach and study but we also educate so others may study (and preach). Perhaps the defining moment of the Reformation was less Luther’s rediscovery of the doctrine of God’s Sovereignty and more his translation of the Bible into German, for that allowed everybody to make that discovery of God’s sovereignty for themselves. Yes, one’s relationship with Christ is the hallmark of discipleship, but Scripture provides reliable guidelines for one’s deceitful heart. It is truly to be a servant to enable someone to be liberated from a reliance upon hearing preaching; it is truly priestly to allow someone to discover Christ in the Scriptures.

How one goes about that of course is where the challenge lies for the 21st century. I am as yet unconvinced that the emergent “Mission-Shaped” church is the correct final solution. If you looked at our evening services in Ware you might want to label what we do as “emergent”, but in some senses we are as far from Brian McClaren as one can be. I am concerned that in our rush to engage with a post-modern culture we are in danger of creating a post-modern faith. What I am starting to see from my engagement with tradition is that priests are rather called to be pre-modern. We somehow represent a truth that is never relative but always culturally applicable. It is the rootedness in the “same” whilst expressing it in the “different today and tomorrow” that is the correct understanding of the call to preach the word.

One more thing needs to be said at this point. If the role of the priest is to present Christ then increasingly his role is to reveal and combat heresy wherever it is found. To allow false teaching to continue is to damage and wound the listener’s ability to engage with Christ, for a false representation of Christ drives one away from true relationship. Banishing erroneous doctrine is not just a job for bishops, it must be a priestly task. There can be differing “words” in the Church where we highlight relative aspects of the Gospel message, but differing words CANNOT mean contradictory ones. If as Ramsey is I believe correct in saying that “Crucifixion-Resurrection was the core of the history with which the early Church was concerned” then priests who deny that the same physical body that was crucified was also resurrected physically are not in any sense of the meaning “preaching the word”.

Reconciliation

This is of course one area of priestly ministry which the deaconate initially seems to miss. Added to this is the struggle for one from an Evangelical background as to whether a priest/presbyter can in any sense absolve, though having taken many funerals over the past year I am starting to see how the role of the minister in this regard actually functions.

Funerals are strange affairs. It has been very rare this year to be involved in a funeral service for anybody I have known prior to the call from the undertaker. That means therefore that though there is a sense of a personal relationship with the family of the deceased from the visit(s) prior to the service, one is normally a stranger to the crowd assembled in the crematorium chapel. And here perhaps is the mystery of representing Christ beginning to make itself apparent, for in one’s relative anonymity is a freedom to represent something that you are not. When I am praying the prayer of commendation over a coffin I am simply presenting what the Christian truth is, that all who die in the faith of Christ live forever in him. I plead God’s mercy, not that my prayers, whether as lay person, deacon or priest are in any sense more efficacious then another’s prayer, but rather that I represent something beyond myself. Standing in robes that have been worn by others before and will be worn afterwards by others (not my specific robes of course – let the reader understand) I become a living witness to an eternal truth that is then somehow incarnate in the room. As one instinctively wary of somatic liturgical expression, having suffered a turn-off from God as a teenager through this very thing, I know begin to see that as I move away from the coffin to commit the deceased into God’s hands the very steps I take back from the coffin are not just mine, they are suddenly everybody’s in the room. With five or six simple steps I carry the emotional and relational steps of everybody in the room. As the curtain closes I am suddenly once again representing Christ, for my words carry no physical body, nor could they ever add an ounce of righteousness to the deceased, but they bear the simple message from the Father that our lives lie in his hand. I am at once with the congregation in walking their sorrow and with God in speaking his love – somehow they both meet in me.

My life, I have seen more clearly this year, is to bring man and woman to God and God to man and woman. This is not an easy task but neither is it difficult for in truth if I am close to God and close to my neighbour then they are both close. There is a curious dynamic here, for this is not dissimilar to the life of every single Christian, to share Christ’s reconciliation with an unsaved world that is still the object of God’s wrath. It is also raises questions as to whether there is any ontological difference between layity, deacons and priests. Is there a transformation of person that happens at ordination that enables reconciliation and the mediation of grace to take place? Our Roman brothers (and some of our Anglo-Catholic colleagues for that matter) might say yes, but I am starting to see that ordination to the priesthood is far less about ontological transformation and perhaps more to do with ontological recognition.

Let me explain what I mean. Do we honestly believe, from a Scriptural argument, that there is any particular reason why, in my situation today, if I used the language of “you” in a prayer of absolution instead of “us” (which is our custom in Ware for all service leaders whether Reader, Deacon or Priest) that God’s forgiveness is in any way more or less efficacious? Indeed, is God’s forgiveness in any sense dependent upon my presence regardless of the form of words? We would of course say no, but then why do we have public absolution in a services of worship, even ones as un-liturgical as one can get away with inside Common Worship?

I think the answer lies in the status of the one pronouncing absolution, not so much in efficacious authority but rather in representational authority. When Cranmer made sure that all ministers were theologically educated he did so less to revive the Oxbridge academic gown industry and far more to ensure that when the minister speaks of forgiveness he understands what is meant by God’s grace. This is not a vocabulary of magic language that will perform sanctification simply by the reading of a script by a specific person who has had hands laid upon him. Rather they are the symbols of truth spoken by one who sings the same song that others have sung for the past 2000 years. He agrees with those who have stood their before as to what sin is, he agrees with them how that sin has been paid for, he agrees with them how that payment is to be taken to oneself. My old DDO in London said to me “remember, you are as much called by the church as you are called by God”. He didn’t mean of course that God could call somebody but the church had to agree with the Divine’s assessment!! Rather, the church remains today, however fractured, the embodied representation of the spiritual body of believers on the planet. We are everyone of us who have been saved the vessels for the ministry of reconciliation, but those of who are called to be “priests” in the body of the royal priesthood somehow become the locus of the work of all Christians to be Christ in the world. Is that work sacerdotal? I flee from such an understanding as much as I flee from an east facing Eucharist. Is it priestly? Undoubtedly.

Somehow, in my over-sized jeans and baggy t-shirt (mainly to disguise the paunch I regret) I represent and reconcile. I am who I am – you will never catch me wearing a black clerical, for I am not yesterday’s deacon or priest. But, if on Monday I pass in the street the person who on Sunday came to church for the baptism of a friend’s daughter, and if he sees me dressed as he is, I am reconciling. When I do school assemblies in jeans, a hoodie and a clerical shirt underneath, I am saying to the mother in the back row who’s Father I buried the week before, “I am ordinary like you – there is nothing in my relationship with God that is not possible for you – I hold no special power or particular ability”. I do love this simple observation in Guiver et al’s “The Fire and the Clay”:

“Priests in Britain today are not identical to their Victorian counterparts, still less to George Herbert or the Priests of the early church … The challenge for each age is to discover how in those particular circumstances priesthood can flourish, as a vocation to live so as to make Christ present to his people, and so as to offer a public example of the Christian calling. If priesthood is less than this – if it is no more than an example, or is reduced to a set of jobs that anyone can do, and cease to do, or if it becomes an excuse for the creation of a self-centred coterie – then the whole body of Christ will suffer.”

I heartily agree with the first section, and find a struggle with the second that provokes within a curious sensation. The radical, liberationist (I choose my words here carefully and deliberately) inside me cries that it is possible for anybody to do what I do, for anybody to hear the call of God and become a living sacrifice representing the same New Testament priesthood of every other Christian. But I think I am objecting to what I wish to Evangelically hear and not what Guiver et al are actually saying, for they are reaching at the mystery of ministry that Williams also grasps in his essays on vocation, namely that all Christians are called to reconcile, but that I as (hopefully) a priest am also called to reconcile. It is everybody’s generic vocation as a Christian, but it is, as Peter, my particular vocation worked out within the structured life of the church. I can’t give you a better answer then that – ask me again in a decade.

Prayer

“Do not all Christians pray? ” asks Ramsey. Well yes they do but what does it mean for me? I am tempted to quote Evagrius (“Pray? You are a theologian. You do not pray? You are not a theologian”) apart from the fact that he was condemned as a heretic. But then that has never stopped us appealing to Origen has it?

For myself my prayer life is quite intellectual. My daily pattern normally takes the form of meeting with staff in the Parish at nine, reading the lectionary readings and then praying together for our needs and the needs of the parish and wider world. I then return home and at some point during the day specifically read three or four blogs, one of which, “The Way of the Fathers” is a Roman/Anglo-C perspective and the others are from a Reformed background. I then begin to think…

My devotional life is essentially theologically contemplating God and his work and bringing that which I discover back to God in worship. I have recognised that this is not simply the escape of an intellectual mind from the real work of relating to God, but rather it is the way God has designed me to be. Take for example this morning (August 22nd) – under the title “The Queenship of Mary” (one allows oneself a less than subtle Evangelical cough at this point) is a paragraph or two that contains within it the simple observation “In his Three Sermons on the Dormition of the Virgin, St. John imagines King David, who danced before the Ark of the Covenant, dancing as Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, arrives in heaven.” This is another provocation to my musing on the hypostatic union since preaching on the subject (but without the words “hypostatic” or “union”) at the Midnight Eucharist last Christmas. I am led to contemplate again why Mary is called “theotokos”. Is this less to do with who she is and more to do with who she is carrying? If so is it actually un-heretical to venerate (but please none of this dulia / latria nonsense thankyou Rome) Mary? In doing so are we declaring the mystery of the incarnation? Can I praise God simple by reciting the Kontakion of the Triumph of Orthodoxy? What about printing it off and pasting it on my wall?

Of course, all I am doing this morning is rerunning the Second Council of Nicaea in the privacy of my study, but in doing so I am engaging in prayer without ever putting my hands together or closing my eyes. If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then am I doing that by discovering more of what is true about him and finding delight in it? Is this prayer? Naturally, because the Holy Spirit is illuminating my understanding of the nature of God as he contributes to the conversation in my head. This is not just intellectual process, this is revelation and dialogue, dialogue with God and dialogue with Christians down the ages.

Perhaps I am after all a contemplative? I must consider this more….

I think therefore that the prayer life of a priest is not simply intercession as Ramsey appears to imply (though I may be reading him wrong) but more to do with an ongoing dialogue with God. But that surely is the call of every Christian, to develop day by day their relationship with the divine. Is it that to somehow exercise one’s vocation and to be the somatic bridge as I describe above (though I think the word “bridge” here is unhelpful) requires an ongoing growth of one’s relationship with God?

As much as I am called to bring others to God I am called to bring myself to God, day after day. Prayer is the discovering of definition within the indefined, whether in my life, the life of others or the life of God. It is not good enough to simply accept darkness, whether moral, spiritual or epistemological – God is truth and our prayer is a journey into that truth. Sometimes the truth is clearly known, sometimes it is known simply in the rejection of falsity (Athanasian Creed anyone?), sometimes it is known in the recognition of a cloud of unknowing. This may be of particular pertinence to me as one who recognises himself as specifically having the charisms of a teacher/pastor, to be one who craves truth and God equally (for they are in some sense ultimately the same thing for what is constructed but untrue is in rebellion against the divine) but who recognises that sometimes what he wants is not attainable. But I wrestle – “Let God be true and this man today a little closer to the truth of who God is and what he is doing around me”.

Eucharist

This is not an essay on the theology of the Eucharist, but one must have one in order to understand the relationship of the priest to the sacrament at the heart of Christian worship. In that light it is fair to point out that I have NEVER been an active participant in a more Catholic form of Eucharistic worship. I have never been a deacon, a sub-deacon or any other role in a “high” church celebration. My theology here is definitely more Cranmer than Newman, but it might be more Luther than Cranmer. As a Deacon I have simply distributed with others what has been “consecrated” in my sight as in the sight of others. As one preparing to be ordained priest though I have sat and thought, wondered and also perspired, as for this Evangelical the transition from bystander to celebrant is not a slope but a step.

It strikes me that I am not a Puritan, that is to say that Zwingli is obviously wrong about the Eucharist and Calvin probably (though on other things he is spot-on). It strikes me with alarm some Antipodean dioceses that contemplate the introduction of lay celebration. Why? Because the Eucharist is the shared feast and is celebrated by all. Give me an Eastern Epiclesis any day of the week thank you. But given that it is a shared feast and a shared liturgy, why is the importance of the man (or woman, though I am still undecided on this) at the front so important?

It cannot be that the priest has power to consecrate and transform and that someone else doesn’t. As Anglicans we reject the Thomist understanding of the work in the elements because, like Luther, we realise that Aquinas is trying to explain something that simply hasn’t been explained. Jesus said “This is my Body” and left it there. But even if we take a middle path with Cranmer that the correct reception of the sacrament is the place of the spiritual work, that there is no change in substance, we are still left asking why do we need a chap in a white collar to say the prayer? I think this links somehow to what I was trying to describe above in the section on reconciliation, that the priest somehow is the locus of the body of the church. When the Priest stands behind the table, looking at everyone in front of him looking at him, he somehow identifies with them all. He is a sinner. They are sinners. He is one who is saved, they are (God willing) ones who are saved. The sacrifice on the cross was for him; the sacrifice was for them. He knows this, they know this and it is in this understanding that he represents the body, for they all know (or at least they should have an inkling) that he has been called to live the same life they have, but visually and publicly. When the priest breaks the bread the whole ekklesia breaks the bread, not just there at that time but for the past 2000 years. It is the very fact that there is a public, ordained recognition that the man “up front” is the same as those who face him that makes him different, whether we have personally known that man for years or just walked in off the street.

The Priest Tomorrow?

Perhaps this is what I am grasping at. I am the same as any other member of my congregation. They are the same as me, but somehow in the public recognition of that the priest becomes more than somebody else. This will be as true on Saturday the 23rd September as it will be on Monday the 25th, but on the Sunday inbetween somehow that truth of similarity will be publicly recognised and that will make me different.

That truth will be the same whether I wear a clerical shirt or a hooded top, indeed it is so because I can wear a clerical shirt or a hooded top. Sometimes, in a crematorium for example, the shirt will accentuate the recognition of “similar difference”. Increasingly in other environments in the 21st century it might harm it, with a pair of baggy jeans being far more a sign of priesthood then a collar. Perhaps it is different for differently same people – my ministry amongst some people much older than myself is sometimes harmed by casual dress and sometimes enhanced.

Is the priesthood that I am called to different than those who were ordained twenty, thirty or forty years ago? No, but perhaps the way it is expressed is and even that will continue to change. I preach in Christ’s name, but increasingly to many who don’t know Christ, we reconcile in Christ’s name but increasingly to those who don’t recognise their need for reconciliation. I pray in Christ’s name, but increasingly for those who don’t recognise the need for it. And finally, I, a sinner like the rest, remember and share the sacrifice of Christ for myself and others, and in doing so understand that I am one with those who I live with where God has placed me. And perhaps that’s all that priesthood really is.

  • Glenn

    Hi Peter,
    I am currently an Associate Pastor at an Anglican Church in Auckland New Zealand. I am about to be ordained this Nov and have to write a deacons essay also.

    I Just wanted you to know that I am wrestling with many of the issues you have mentioned in your essay. I also am from an Evangelical perspective and believe that the authority of Scripture should shape our belief and practice – tradition is a bonus as long as it reinforces this. So much am I of this mould that the very word “Priest” I find hard to swallow as in the minds of many it denies or at least confuses the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. You capture it well: we are all priests and there is only one mediator between God and Man Viz Jesus Christ.
    Indeed if it were not for the words “or Presbyter” in our prayer book I doubt I would even be seeking ordination. I see my self as a teaching elder of the faith – and thus enjoyed the beginning of your article.

    I found the last part of your article particularly helpful too – this “similar difference” you mention gives me much to think about and I need to meditate more on it. can you suggest any where I can find more on this?

    I also struggle with the consecration of the elements – so much so that I fear if I let my current view be known – they may not let me in. Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”
    and that was it! – did he intend that only the Apostles do it? or only those appointed by them ? I think that Scripture encourages us that if I can bow my head at a bus stop and receive the risen Christ by faith, and thus enter into life eternal there and then, then I can also remember what He has done for me with the simplicity of bread and wine with other believers at the same bus stop – even if the Bishop has never met me. your thoughts ?

    This does not negate the power or importance of the public Eucharist which I love – (salvation must be confessed publicly too) but I merely ask the question as you seem to “what is it that actually consecrates the elements?” at this point – for me- it is the same way we access salvation, healing, and the gifts of God’s Spirit viz through faith in Christ – is it not my faith and attitude (my remembering) that makes the bread more than bread in that moment? where can I read more on this ?

    (I often wonder if “do this” was also referring to the passover and it’s reinterpretation as well as the practice of remembering him collectively)

    I found your comments about the representational role of the “priest” very helpful – and at this point my personal view is that I can see no problem with lay presidency as long as that representation is clear to all – I think lay presidency portrays God’s intention more clearly “all who believe are welcome. I would love to know your thoughts here.

    You have opened many more topics to my consideration, and I am grateful, any suggestions on where to begin my theological musings ?

    Thanks for your honesty and your commitment to Scripture
    I’ll keep wearing my hoodie too
    Glenn