The Priesthood


“We exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge which ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”

(from the Bishop’s Exhortation in “The Ordering of Priests”, BCP 1662)

GOD, who dost ever hallow and protect thy Church; Raise up therein, through thy Spirit, good and faithful stewards of the mysteries of Christ, that by their ministry and example thy people may abide in thy favour and be guided in the way of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

(from “The Litany for Ordinations”, BCP 1928 PECUSA)

There is of course only one priest, one mediator between God and humanity, our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5, Heb 3-10). As the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, our high priest continues forever, and is “holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens,” and has “once for all” offered himself on the Cross as the sacrifice for our sins; and now “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord” (Heb 7:23-8:7). Thomas Cranmer draws deeply on these Scriptures in the Prayer Book Order for Holy Communion when he declares that when Christ suffered “death upon the Cross for our redemption,” he made there “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” 

Even though the Anglican tradition is clear that it is Christ alone who has made the sacrifice, and that “we are unworthy to offer any sacrifice,” Cranmer’s prayer of consecration nevertheless clearly indicates the entire congregation is to participate in Christ’s sacrifice by offering up “our selves, our souls, and our bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” unto the Father, thus transforming our entire being into a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” So the priesthood of Christ has been given as the common, spiritual vocation of every member of his Body (Ex 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:5).

Given the priesthood of Christ, and by extension the priesthood of all believers who are called by Christ to participate in the offering of himself “once for all”, what then is the role of the person standing at the altar, who looks and acts priestly, who does seemingly priestly things, all the while uttering prayers that proclaim the priesthood of Christ and of all the faithful in him? Inasmuch as the liturgy denies that it is a sacrifice by pointing to the real sacrifice, the priest too embraces the fact that he or she is in fact not a priest in a special or elitist sense, but is an enduring and fitting symbol of the priesthood to which Christ calls all the faithful. The ordained priest provides the form of that which is signified, all the while denying his or her own individualistic claims to that priesthood. As Bishop Sumner writes, “All this is done to the service of the One who is the real and only Priest, who redefines, fulfills, and ends all priesthood in himself. The minister at the table is a counter-sign that works by its own displacement, by becoming a great finger stretched away from oneself and toward the dying Jesus at the center of the Church’s life” (Being Salt, 25).

Bishop Sumner further develops this understanding of the symbolic role of the priest in the midst of the congregation by drawing our attention to Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5.13). Here Christ clearly means the church as a whole is to preserve the words and will of Christ, and it thereby possesses a distinct zest or flavor in comparison with the outside world, making the church noticeable and attractive. But as Bishop Sumner explains, at their ordination priests take up the identity they already possess as Christians, and become “salt” in a new, indelibly symbolic way. As our bishop writes,

Saltiness as Jesus commands it defies the contrast between being and function. It is clearly something they are to be, and yet to be salt inherently implies rendering certain services for another… salt does these by what it is for them. The metaphor and the dominical saying on which it is founded seem well to suit the concept of being a “sign for,” which takes into itself both sides of the being/doing dichotomy. (Being Salt, 101)

Hearing and being obedient to our Lord’s call to “be salt” as a priest implies that one is a priest of Christ; “being salt” in turn implies that the priest is salt for the Church, and by extension, the world. This involves renouncing our own personal claims to represent the Church to itself, and finding that those of us who have been ordained are only able to be ourselves inasmuch as our entire being points to Christ. Through their symbolic life, then, priests are used by Christ to maintain the ‘saline levels’ of his body, the Church.

So what do priests do? One commonly hears ordained ministry described as leadership in the church and it most certainly is that. But it is also much more than that, as we have just seen. The vocation to the priesthood is a distinct and narrow calling which participates in the ministry of the Apostles, inasmuch as they themselves share in the ministry of Christ. Perhaps the pithiest summation of the Apostolic ministry is Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians, which contains a rich discussion of the nature of true apostolic leadership in the life of the Body. He says of their ministry, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1). Paul goes to great pains to point out that his ministry originated with God and not any human being; and that it is Christ he preaches, not himself. Those sharing in Paul’s apostolic ministry as ordained presbyters serve Christ their master, and they are stewards, i.e. preservers and dispensers, of the Word of God and the Sacraments. So in addition to identifying with the priestly identity of Christ, any genuine priestly vocation will express itself primarily in terms of service to Christ through proclamation of the Gospel and in the administration of the sacraments.

Maintaining this vocation over the course of a lifetime is difficult. The life of a priest is both glorious and humbling: one minute the priest is being used by God to transform someone’s life; the next, he finds himself unable to resolve a dispute amongst the members of his vestry over the parish landscaping. One minute she’s immersed in the glories of Scripture and theological reflection; the next, she’s working in the rain to help fix a leak in the church roof late on a Saturday night. Common stressors of priestly ministry usually involve time, money, and conflicts over influence in the parish. All these kinds of challenges can be addressed through common-sense solutions and prudent self-care; but true and profound priestly burnout tends to come from a sense of meaninglessness, a loss of purpose. We prevent this only through a return to a more thorough understanding of what the priesthood is, to recapture the essence of the vocation. It is thus vitally important that the process of discernment be incisive and careful, and that priestly formation be both rigorous and heart-felt. To this end we require serious study of the priesthood at the start, so that everyone is clear on just what it is we’re discerning together. Take to heart all we’ve said here, and read several of the resources laid out in the following bibliography, beginning of course with those texts labeled “Essential Reading.” If the right foundations are laid, the likelihood of a rewarding and successful lifelong ministry increases dramatically.