priesthood of all believers vs ordained priesthood

I've been thinking a bit lately about what it is to be ordained (funny that) and I thought I would share with you a part of an essay I wrote, in which there is an initial discussion along these lines.

(particularly influenced by Chris Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown's discussion of priestly life in 'Being a Priest Today', and John Colwell's discussion of sacramental theology in 'Promise and Presence')


‘I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.’


......do we understand ordination as having a purely functional meaning or do we believe that an ontological meaning can also be applied? The nature of a minister is under much contention in our current context, when ministers are ordained, is their very being changed? And is this change part of their particular calling out from within the priesthood of all believers? Or is this ordination simply a recognition of the function that the minister satisfies for the people of God?

Firstly, I would wish to agree wholeheartedly with Chris Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown who say that ‘The matrix of possibilities for ministry is endless’! How true this statement is. The actual ‘what’ of ministry will depend on our context, our personalities and characters and those of our parishioners (for those of us in the Anglican context) or congregants (for those in the congregational context) In light of this, a solely functional understanding of ministry seems somewhat lacking.

Having said this, my colleagues who rail against an ontological understanding (for some very good reasons) would say that their function is less about what they do, in terms of programs and parish work, and more about being a ‘minister of the gospel’ whatever that entails. However, I would wish to draw them to the idea that this is still about being a ‘minister of the gospel’; that they would perhaps be better to understand the ministry of the gospel as the function for which our ontology has been transformed. If this is the case, then the dichotomy of function vs ontology, which has dogged the debate, is simply a false one. Nevertheless, I wish to hear the complaint that for too long the clergy have been seen as ‘above’ the laity, and this has led to a type of clericalism which we should, rightly, stand against.

I do not think, however, that the complaint against an ontological understanding of ministry can be fully upheld and I would suggest that we might trace it to a loss of understanding of the doctrine of election. A loss of understanding that has done untold damage on many levels - from a group denying salvation to those who disagree with some doctrinal point on the basis of the ‘we’re in and you’re out’ type of election theology, to the loss of any understanding that Abraham was the first elected human being, and his election was to be a blessing to all nations - neither a narrow understanding of election nor a jettisoning of the notion altogether are helpful or, I would suggest, correct, interpretations of the type of election God has in mind.

As with Abraham, election is always for the blessing of the others. Those elected are elected to serve and bring blessing. This was true of Abraham, it was true of Israel, it is true of the Church and it is true of those called to a particular type of priesthood from within the priesthood of all believers (a theology that I wholeheartedly affirm). The idea of a separated Christian ministry for which God calls and sets apart some is not an anathema to the priesthood of all believers, it is the catalyst of it! Better put, Christian ministers are ‘called to be holy so that others may be holy. They are to be enabling examples, activators as well as indicators of the Church’s true being and life. In sacramental language, they are not just signs of the priestly identity of the Church but effectual signs of its priestly life, catalysts as well as paradigms.’ The priestly life is something that all Christian believers are called to and God, in his abundant mercy, has again provided a creaturely means of grace towards this end.

And is this not the God we know? The God who continually uses creaturely elements as instruments of his grace? Whether that may be a person, a sunset or a piece of bread? It seems to me to be entirely congruous with this God that He would give us an ongoing means of grace to bring the Church to her ultimate goal. And the priestly life was always the call of the people of God; even in the Hebrew Scriptures Israel was called to be a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:6). Thus it does not follow that the priesthood of all believers negates a separated priestly ministry.

So, suggesting an ontological nature of the separated Christian ministry is not incongruous with the God who calls all to priestly life, who loves all and who wishes to bless all indiscriminately, it is not incongruous with the God who is not the God of exclusion but of universal love to all that he has made and who is seen to use his creation as instruments of his grace.

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