Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are "Priests" Priests?

In what sense are ordained clergy "priests"? 

The term is used by Anglicans, as well as Roman Catholics and eastern Orthodox Churches, to refer to ordained ministers, and in particular those in the order of presbyters.

In wider usage, a "priest" is a religious functionary and in particular someone who offers sacrifices. So "priest" is the word used to translate the Hebrew cohen, the Greek hiereus, and Latin sacerdos, all of which refer to those who offer sacrifices in the temples of their respective divinities.

However the English world "priest" is derived from the quite different Greek word presbyteros, meaning "elder" or presbyter.

In the NT writings there are Christians called presbyteroi or elders, as well as diakonoi - servants or deacons - and episkopoi - overseers or bishops - but no priests. Christ himself is referred to as a priest, and the whole Christian community is collectively called a "priesthood" but no individual is a "priest" as such.

The two ideas of "presbyter" and "priest" came to be conflated historically because presbyters became the normal leaders of the sacred meal of the Eucharist, which from a very early point was seen as a sacrifice. Although the English reformers of the 16th century who formed the Anglican ordinal were unsympathetic to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice, they left the term "priest" intact, both because it was universally known as a way of referring to ministers, and because its English etymology still allowed that different, more essentially "presbyteral", understanding.

Popularly now, "priest" seems to mean something else again, akin to "pastor". Anglican clergy of catholic leanings may understand their eucharistic ministry as part of their "priesthood", but are likely to place this within a more general notion of being a representative or mediating figure, in parish and pastoral relationships as much as anywhere else.

Something similar, or rather more problematic, occurs in the way Mars Hill Churches have appropriated the triplex munus, or three-fold office of prophet, priest and king, as a model for ministerial roles (see my earlier post here). Although they begin with the notion of priest as a mediator between God and humanity, this quickly devolves into an emphasis on pastoral care and relationships.

Just so we're clear about what "priesthood" centres on, here's a biblical view:
You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt-offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord. 
Priesthood is the messy business of sacrifice. Priests in the OT writings, from where the basic NT idea comes, are not involved in "pastoral care" as generally understood. When Jesus is presented as a priest in the New Testament writings, it is not as carer but as the one who offers sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews is the most famous and fundamental exposition of this idea.

Hebrews also presents the dilemma that underlies the classic debates about this terminology in Anglicanism. Jesus' own sacrifice is "once for all" (Heb 7:27 etc); the author of Hebrews is intent on drawing a contrast between the historic and imperfect sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple and the ideal/eternal offering made by Jesus the definitive High Priest. No more sacrifices (for sin, at least) are necessary.

On this basis the reformers were right to challenge the notion that the Eucharist was being offered as a sacrifice for sin. What they and their Catholic opponents (and perhaps Hebrews) all tended to assume, however, was that sacrifices were always about sin, expiation, or propitiation. But Leviticus prescribes various offerings, some which are gratuitous, and others for thanksgiving. And for that matter, other NT writings offer positive notions of ongoing sacrifice - not the cultus of the Temple (although the first Christians seem to have continued to relate to the Temple), but as living offerings (Rom 12:1), or of faith (Phil 2:12), or of praise (Heb 13:15), or of otherwise somehow spiritual but unspecified things (1 Pet 2:5).

Early Christians had no difficulty in seeing various forms of action as sacrifices in these senses, including fasting, charitable giving and the Eucharist itself. The earliest understandings of Eucharist as a sort of sacrifice, going back even to the second century, do not depend on it as a re-presentation of the death of Jesus, but as a fulfilment of the prophet Malachi's vision of a pure sacrifice offered throughout the world (Mal 1:11), as an act of thanksgiving (eucharistia) but not of expiation or propitiation.

The idea that a particular member of the Church is a "priest" of this eucharistic sacrifice is a slightly later development. Although some earlier writers make comparisons between Christian ministers and the Levitical priesthood, it is Cyprian of Carthage around 250 who first seems to call the minister of the sacrament literally a sacerdos, using the familiar Latin term that applied to traditional Roman cults. He was not referring to presbyters, but to bishops, since at that time the bishop was the usual presider at the eucharistic celebration. Only later again, with the growth of local congregations linked to a bishop but led by a presbyter, did the final shift take place: as minister of the eucharistic sacrifice, the presbyter was by implication a priest too.

So are "priests" priests? Certainly, in that all Christians are. However to label certain individuals as "priests" as opposed to others has to be done with caution. The only Christian priesthood(s) that can be seen in the NT writings themselves are those of Christ, and that of the Christians as a whole which derives from him. It is rare, in Churches of catholic tradition, to discern the sense that the priesthood of the faithful is more fundamental than that of individual ministers - but it is. On the other hand, it is hard to discern what Churches of protestant tradition understand priesthood now to be at all.

The extent to which presbyters are priests then seems to depend on two things. The first and most important is the way they represent the character of the whole Christian community to itself. They are priests, representing the priesthood of all; their priesthood is not the appropriation of what belongs to the whole Church, but its representative expression.

The second is the Eucharist. While Reformation-era polemics exclude seeing the Eucharist as a sacrifice, pointing to the Medieval distortions in which the Mass seemed to repeat the sacrifice of the cross, ancient Christians did see the Eucharist as a sacrifice, but in a different sense. Inhabiting a world of sacrificial ritual, it was entirely conceivable to them that their Eucharist was a sacrifice, neither violent not expiatory, but an act of thanks and praise - entirely in keeping with the NT writings notion of a "spiritual" sacrifice, despite its material form. Those responsible for leading all in this sacrifice were logically, even necessarily, priests. The resolution of this question is therefore bound up with an adequate understanding of the nature of the Eucharist itself.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Tanks and the Cinquecento: The Anglican Ordinariates, Three Years On

When the idea of an Anglican Ordinariate was announced in September 2009 in the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Times of London ran the headline "Vatican Parks Tanks on Rowan's Lawn". It seemed an apt image at the time, for all sorts of reasons: one was the spectacularly undiplomatic character of the act, which was opposed by some in the Vatican and by very senior English Roman Catholics; another was the personal affront to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose progressive leanings have never hidden a genuine admiration for the wider western catholic tradition of which his own Anglicanism is a part.

But the other implication of the image was one of a serious and lasting shift in power, a re-drawing of boundaries or movement of populations. Three years later it is more as though the Pope had, uninvited, sent over a Fiat cinquecento or two to pick up some stranded friends and their bags. As they leave the Lambeth Palace gates there is probably relief on both sides.

The agenda was ostensibly Christian unity; Anglicanorum Coetibus cited the Second Vatican Council's decree on ecumenism to the effect that "such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching the Gospel to every creature". The tanks were there to unify the Church.

The Personal Ordinariates established this year in the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia have in fact been important mostly to individuals - a few thousand in total world-wide, a mixture of high-Church conservatives who found themselves ill-at-ease in Anglican Churches that now ordained women, and others of similar mind who had already left Anglicanism to form splinter groups driven by the same issue. A structure that provides them with a happier ecclesial home can be welcomed, even by those who differ from them. 

However the stated aim of the Ordinariates, to accommodate whole groups of Anglicans who might come together as existing communities or structures with Anglican patrimony in tow, and thus to promote unity, is a failure. In just a few cases---ostensibly including one in Melbourne--congregations have moved en bloc; generally the new parishes of the Ordinariates will be precisely that, new bodies made up of disaffected individual Anglicans from various communities, gathered afresh around re-ordained clergy. The Anglican parishes from which they came and even the "Traditional Anglican Communion" itself remain, the structures of disunity as evident as ever, with a few extra cuts and bruises to boot.

As for Anglican patrimony, embodied in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it remains to be seen how much this really becomes part of the life of the Ordinariates. Anglicans of high-Church leanings had often abandoned that eucharistic liturgy for theological reasons, even before Anglicanism's own version of Vatican II's aggiornamento, and were often using more or less the whole Roman Rite. When Anglicanorum Coetibus was issued, one bishop in the Church of England quipped that the likely departers would have to go out and buy copies of the BCP so as to have a patrimony to take with them.

So statistically at least, the impact of the departures on Anglicanism itself is minimal; Anglicans have more serious things to worry about than the outbound trickle of remaining opponents of women's ordination. By implication, Roman Catholics might have even less reason to notice the new arrivals, given the scale involved. 

Yet the appearance of a decent handful of new clergy not imported from far afield may be more significant. So far at least, the Ordinariates are more about these than about parishes or groups of lay people. The departing clergy now have some prospect of pursuing their vocations with more support and encouragement than they will recently have felt in an Anglicanism where they were a shrinking minority. There have been costs to them - one will be somehow reconciling the immediate past of their sacramental ministries in Anglican orders, pursued even while publicly preparing to join and accept re-ordination in a body which still does not recognise that they had ever had any orders or sacraments at all. This is not quite Newman's profound journey of conscience. 

There must also be some curiosity about future clergy; the fact that the Ordinariates can accept married men as candidates for ordination, for instance, could be of wider significance for a Roman Catholicism struggling to identify local vocations in English-speaking countries. 

The unpromising future of ecumenism itself has been underscored by this story, not mitigated by it. Agencies such as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity do continue to work with Anglican bodies on bilateral dialogues, and many Anglican and Roman Catholic individuals and communities find their ways to bear common witness. Yet the fact of the Ordinariates suggest that the real position of the Vatican on Christian unity is about absorption rather than convergence; the tanks, not the talks.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meseret Defar and the Feast of the Assumption


As she ran through the finish line of the women’s 5000m final last week at the London Olympics, Ethiopian runner Meseret Defar did two things; she began to cry, and she reached under her runner’s bib to produce a printed cloth icon of the Virgin and Child, which she variously held out to the cameras, kissed, and placed over her own face.

The icon was very similar to this one, a modern and slightly sentimental version of a traditional type called by western Christians Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and by eastern Christians like Defar herself the Theotokos of the Passion (Theotokos meaning God-bearer or Mother of God).

Defar’s action generated a certain amount of interest in social media, partly because its televised broadcast was perplexing to some. This use of an image, and even an object, was obviously confronting to many, even independently of the reference to a particular set of beliefs.

According to at least one report, the NBC broadcast in the USA did not show these shots at all during its live feed, being embarrassed or perplexed by them; of course US TV is actually covered with religious content, and when a winning athlete does less embarrassingly-material things like point to the sky, it raises no eyebrows. Generic and bodiless religiosity "out there" is easier to take than a material image, and Christianity in particular is often assumed to be something too "spiritual" and refined to be stuck into a faintly embarrassing place on a black woman’s body.

In Ethiopian circles the reaction was, perhaps predictably, rather different. The Twitterverse revealed that Defar’s action fanned the embers of an ongoing theological debate among Ethiopian orthodox Christians about the Virgin Mary herself. Traditionally these and their close brethren, the Egyptian or Coptic Orthodox Church, have differed from Roman Catholics in not accepting the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the idea that she herself was miraculously conceived without sin. More recently however, under western influence, some have been inclined to claim this doctrine as their own.

Today on the Feast of the Assumption, as it has traditionally been known in the West, we are commemorating the end of Mary's life, not its beginning. This has also been interpreted different in East and West; eastern Christians know this as the "Dormition" or falling-asleep of Mary, and acknowledge her physical death more clearly. Anglicans hold various views on these questions, and the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that these beliefs are dogmas to be held by all is a point of serious division.

For all these differences, one of the things that devotion to the Virgin Mary reminds us of is the material, physical character of Christian faith.

Arguments about the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception are not simple; more important perhaps than the answers are the questions they raise. In considering how Mary’s body began and how it ended, what lies squarely in the middle - between conception and dormition, and between the theological possibilities - is the fact of her body.

Patriarch of Defar's Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, wrote his doctoral thesis at Princeton on the topic of the Feast of the Assumption. In it Paulos speaks representatively of that physical reality:
It is through her flesh, her blood, her maternity, that our Lord and savior shares in our humanity.
In this body – in its more than faintly embarrassing places – the incarnation becomes a reality. Images of it can have their drawbacks, but are useful – they remind us that faith is not only about the invisible and inward, but about the physical and material world into which the Word comes as flesh. Icons of Mary point to this – but we all, in our own bodies, like that of a passionate and determined athlete last week, have the capacity we reveal glimpses of what is true about ourselves, and the world, and God.

[From a sermon given at the Chapel of Trinity College on the Feast of Mary, Mother of the Lord, August 15 2012]