Three posts on clergy life (2) – “If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him”

Sam’s long post on clergy workload raises many issues familiar to ordained Anglican clergy, especially those who are incumbents. His interlocutor, Mad Priest, tends to chastise Sam for working long hours doing things that, as a priest, he’s not supposed to be doing. However, I felt that Mad Priest’s criticism of Sam’s approach tended to sound a little over-comfortable to me. I’m prepared to believe that Mad Priest enjoys doing his ministry, geared by the three things he believes he is told to do by the Ordinal: preside, teach, visit. But I cannot believe that he’s doing this as an incumbent, and if so, he’s either got a very well-paid personal assistant, or is quietly generating administrative chaos for any other church, agency or individual who has to engage with him or his church. There seems to be something slightly docetic about this approach. Although Mad Priest is clearly passionate and sincere in his approach, I feel it’s more about getting something to fit around his boundaries which he’s laid out beforehand, irrespective of what the needs of the situation actually are. Brave, but is it right?

My other reservation about Mad Priest’s comments on Sam’s ministry is that he seems to have a benchmark called ‘Priest’ which seems to be the bottom line for him. This seems to me to be arbitrary and should be called into question. In so doing, this raises a whole area of other general comments about the job I find myself doing.

The strength about the word ‘Priest’, in describing the minister of a church, is that it doesn’t stipulate a particular activity. It is a highly flexible word, rooted in the Greek word for ‘elder’, implying someone in a community who has both authority and responsibility. If we take it in its more cultic sense, then ‘priests’ who are ordained can only justify such a title by reference to the priesthood of the whole people of God, which is derived from Jesus Christ’s ministry. Then, there is again the reference to the Ordinal. Although it forms part of the Anglican ‘deposit of faith’, the Ordinal is not holy writ. Ordinals, like all liturgy, are conservative documents, which need to be interpreted in particular contexts before their exact meaning becomes clear. They are certainly not a job description. Perhaps I am shaped in this through being a member of the Liturgical Commission which helped draft the present contemporary language Ordinal in the Church of England. The very act of composition was a matter of debate in which different viewpoints over the three-fold ministry, each with their different emphasis, struggled to affect the exact wording of the draft text.

I have three observations:

First, the word ‘Priest’ is a dicey one, because it is a religious community archetype. Many people think they know what a priest is, what priests are for, what priests should spend their time doing. The word attracts all sorts of infantile expectations, normally to do with nurturing wish-fulfillment. This is further compounded by some of the words and titles used to address priests, especially ‘Father’!

Second, even if we did know for sure what the ‘job description’ of a priest was, there’s a further question of why this should not change to suit different circumstances and contexts. In the Church Times this week, there are loads of job adverts for priests. However, the expectations and demands of those jobs vary enormously from rural/urban, rich/poor, single-parish/multiple-parish, liberal/conservative. Most clergy vacancies will these days include job descriptions. Those job descriptions will vary hugely.

Third, the ministry of the whole Church precedes the common use of the word ‘priest’. What is original is the basic understanding of what a disciple is, and the call to the Church to make disciples in every age. Our archetypes of ‘priest’ are shaped in the main by a mythology of the Church of England Parish which goes back to the time when most parishes were populated rural neighbourhoods, where everyone was notionally Christian, and where everyone knew everyone and knew their place. This social landscape has disappeared, yet the archetypes and the mythology remain alive in the consciousness of the Church of England.

I find myself going back to the original ‘presbyters’, who were called ‘Elders’ because they naturally occupied the role of responsible, accountable, public leaders of a community. That community was called to continue Jesus’ mission by following him, proclaiming the Good News and making disciples. If such ‘priests’ exist today, then it is surely to do something similar, not least in a situation which has become highly missional. In short, it is much easier to see a link between the original word for priest, ‘Elder’, and a leader of a community with an apostolic mission. It’s much harder to see such a causal link to the person who kept up an ecclesiastical status quo through routine pastoral care, teaching and presiding at eucharists.

The transition from one mode of priesthood to another is difficult for the Church to negotiate. It is even harder on priests themselves, who have to live with the competing pressures of the demands of the present moment, the apostolic call towards effective proclamation and disciple-making, and the old pastoral archetypes of Christian England, with their implied methodology. Perhaps this is why Sam finds great healing and help in the saying, ‘If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him.’


John Richardson 05/02/07 - 3:29 pm

I share your reservations about “Mad Priest’s” approach, though I’m sure he’s making it work in his context. It is a great help to me to recognize that I share my task with as many ‘priests’ as I have people in the congregations.

In our present English context, I think this leads to two ways I am viewed: the more people are ‘outside’ the church community, the more they view me as the ‘priest’. The more people are ‘inside’ the community, the more they view me as the ‘leader’.

I just have to learn to work both roles.

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