Wednesday, May 17, 2006

True Priests

Exodus 19:3-8
Psalm 15
Matthew 16:24-27

[Given at EDS in Cambridge the week before Barbara Harris was consecrated]

The conditions for priesthood given us in today's readings are radical and written in code:

If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, says God, you shall be holy as I am holy, a kingdom of priests who mirror my self-outpouring life. That is to say, if you speak the truth from your heart, if you have no guile, if you do not heap contempt in scrambling for status, if you do not give merely in hope of gain

These conditions are summed up in the dreadful words, If you lose your life you will find it.

But the promises are radical, too.

There are some who will not taste death until they see God.

A lot of us come to the institution thinking it will crack this code for us. The institution temporizes, teaches us management and liturgical skills, or maybe tells us, there, there, don't let it worry you, it's an eschatological metaphor.

A lot of us go to seminary or to religious orders or to our pastors because we sense there is something in these words vital to life. Sadly, encounters with the churches' teachers mostly give us a foretaste of the kingdom of church politics.

Priesthood is not something you get as a prize for having survived three years of classes and pastoral training, GOE's, curacy and the diaconate. Whatever we do or mean these days by laying on of hands in ordination, it is certainly not recognition of the radical priesthood to which the radical conditions in today's readings point, the priesthood shown us in the humility of Christ, in the wounds of Christ, the priesthood that is bestowed only when we are willing to be transformed and transfigured by grace in our very being. No matter what our romantic or power-oriented theological fantasies tell us, fantasies that make claims on the past that scholarship no longer supports, becoming a member of the clergy club where concerns about status and control are too often uppermost may be the best way to lose authentic priesthood.

Let's look more closely at these scriptural conditions and their implications:

That there are conditions for priesthood at all means first that priesthood is contingent on covenant, contingent on hearing the voice who has heard our cries of despair, contingent on the willing openness that breaks through the closed system we have created from our own thoughts and ways in a desperate struggle for illusory security. Thus the first implication of these conditions is that we must be still and wait on God in the dark so that we may receive the divine wisdom that is given only in unknowing into which we enter when we have the humility to realize the limitations of our own resources, our perceptions and theologizing.

Listening and stillness are not for narcissistic and cosmetic fixing-up of our selves so that we may watch our selves being admired by others, but rather the willingness to be dismembered in prayer, in the silence of God, for the sake of creation, so that we know our wounds as those of the wounded God in resurrection, and that these same wounds are the wounds of those around us.

Thus we cannot speak of my priesthood but must rather speak of priesthood contingent on community, on right relationship between solitude and community, on creating space for the silence of God in community. From this deep listening comes the discernment of right action as opposed to the often heedless and hurtful action we undertake in the name of ministry in order to tell ourselves that we are doing good, and by which we create illusory self-image.

If we are to be priests we must speak the truth of these wounds. It is the priesthood of being we seek -- God does not say, you shall function as priests, but be priests, a reflection of I AM, or, better translated, I WILL BE FOR YOU, of which the function of ministry may or may not be the right action in a particular moment, a discernment we can make only in the silence of God. We must speak the truth of these wounds and never be ashamed of them as we fix our eyes ever more surely away from our selves towards the self-outpouring Love whose life we bear and hunger to manifest, the humble Love whose life pours through our wounds, transfiguring them.

As our gaze becomes focused on the wounded God, we are given self-forgetfulness, a self-forgetfulness that relinquishes all strategies, ignores contempt, gives without counting the cost, gives up life itself -- or what we mistook for life, the self-aggrandizing urges that whisper excitedly to us of the collar, the rep from Whippell's, the vestments, the personally designed liturgy, the people flocking to us in ever-greater numbers. Such fantasies, which all too often we force on others in order to give our lust for control and self-inflation a ghastly pseudo-reality, are not life, they are death, a death that is cursed, for they distract our gaze from the self-outpouring love of God and entice us to worship our own pitiful superegos, which confine us to our illusions and our nightmares.

If we are willing to lose this pseudo-life -- and who wants it? Certainly not the people who are the church, the nation of priests, ordained or not, who hungrily seek the gaze of God -- if we are willing to give up this shadow-world as we dwell in still-prayer, we will be so found in God that self-reflection becomes no longer desirable or even available. In still-prayer we discern the true and humble priesthood that is Christ's, whose life we seek to incarnate, which is the willingness to go to the heart of pain to find new life, hope, joy and love. This priesthood transfigures and anoints, and from it issues the true and humble ministry that enables the communion of all creation in the wounds of the God we continue to ask to be broken for us, so that we might be whole.


Blogger Country Parson said...

I think this is a very important piece of writing and deserves discussion, not only in seminaries but across the whole Church, in parishes and in diocesan offices. To be sure, the three-fold ministry is something that defines Anglicanism as part of one of the traditional streams in Christianity. But I do believe that we too often let it get away from us and to take on a life that it ought not to have. The reflection given here, and other things that Maggie Ross has written on priesthood (see, for example Pillars of Flame), are not only timely but carry a certain urgency.
As we look at our three-fold ministry of deacons, priests and bishops, it is all to easy to forget that in the New Testament the term “priest” is applied in three ways only: a) to the Judaic priesthood (mainly in the Gospels), to Christ (see the Letter to the Hebrews), and to the whole company of believers (in 1 Peter and in Revelation). When the “middle order” is referred to, the term “elders” is used. From this use of the term “priest” in the New Testament, we conclude that Christ is a new kind of High Priest, and that being members of Christ we all share in the priestly (as well as the kingly) nature of Christ.
Of course the term “the priesthood of all believers” has been around for a long time, though I have often heard it applied in a somewhat dismissive way, as if it were a mere shadow of the “ontological” (or “real”) priesthood represented by the ordained. But after long reflection I have come to understand that the relationship is the other way round: the ordained priest carries a sacramental image of the priesthood that is shared by all the baptized, and is thus the shadow (or in terms of the BCP Catechism, the outward and visible sign). As for “ontological priesthood”, I search Holy Scripture for this term in vain, and conclude that it has been added on as a philosophical concept to shore up a notion of the structure of power within the organization. As I see it, “ontological priesthood” entices the ordained person away from the very community from which his or her office draws its substance. True enough, one may argue that the priest derives his or her official substance directly from God through the bishop. But this very feudal image ignores everything St Paul has taught about the Body of Christ, and assumes that God works apart from his Body in calling and commissioning leaders and teachers in the Church.
When the ordained person can stop hanging onto his or her own “priesthood” (with its prerogatives and aspirations), and can go with the kenotic flow, then – interestingly – the sacramental relation works. In this context, the role of the ordained ceases to be the shoring up their own authority and the maintaining of boundaries, and instead becomes a process in which (to borrow and re-apply Socrates’ term) one is a midwife to priesthood. When the priesthood of Christ is born within the Church, then the Body itself is renewed and flourishes.

12:25 pm, May 24, 2006  

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