Does Ministerial Priesthood have a Future?
The Most Reverend Dr Peter Carnley, AO
Anglican Archbishop of Perth and Primate of Australia
Preached in St Martin's Church, Hawksburn: 11th July, 2001
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Tonight the focus is on ministerial priesthood. None of the founding fathers
of the Oxford Movement were bishops. Though, in the next generation, Oxford
Movement clergy gradually became bishops, and other bishops also quickly
joined them, at first the leaders of the catholic revival in the Church of
England were not bishops, but priests: John Keble and company.
In this focus on the contribution of those ordained to ministerial
priesthood we are involved in something that runs contrary to the mood of the
prevailing ecclesial culture. For, without a doubt, we live in the age of the
ministry of the laity. We talk a lot these days, about 'total ministry', the
ministry of the whole people of God, with every individual having a God-given
gift which is to be brought to the building up of the community of faith and
the work of ministry in the world. The Church, as it is often said these days,
'is not a community gathered around a minister, but a ministering community'.
Gone are the days when the ordained priest was a one man band who led an
otherwise passive community.
While this emphasis on the ministry of the whole people of God is
undoubtedly a good thing, its downside is that we have tended, perhaps
unwittingly, to downplay the importance of the ordained ministry, and even to
blur the boundaries between the respective roles of the ordained and those of
lay people. Indeed, I wonder if in fact we are not beginning to experience a
minor crisis of identity amongst those ordained to ministerial priesthood as
These days the traditional pastoral role of the parish priest has to a
large extent been usurped by secular social worker, by welfare officer, by
local school teacher, by psychologist, psychiatrist, trained counsellor,
secular marriage celebrant, and even by the talk-back disc jockey. Somehow
there are fewer and fewer functions that fall exclusively and uniquely within
the job description of a priest. And I suppose this may be one reason why
distinctive clerical dress is no longer so evident on our streets and in public
places as it once was. These days ordained clergy tend to become anonymous as
they blend more and more into the community. Indeed, there are some places
where distinctive clerical dress has even disappeared from the sanctuary! I
find myself wondering if all this is a kind of liberal accommodation to the
ways of the world; or is it just symptomatic of a loss of nerve? Certainly,
the distinctive place of clergy in society is no longer so clearly defined as
it once was.
The contemporary debate, driven mainly by elements within the Diocese of
Sydney, to allow lay presidency of the eucharist appears to be of a piece with
this general trend, but with one important rider: According to these proposals,
the ordained will continue to preside both in a pastoral and liturgical sense
as shepherds and overseers of the flock. They will preside in a seamless way
both over the general life of the community and over its worship, but at one
stage remove insofar as they would not actually be present at eucharists
delegated by them to lay people.
As I understand it, that is why some Sydney folk prefer the term 'lay
administration' to 'lay presidency'; those ordained to ministerial priesthood
will still continue to preside over the life and worship of the community
according to this plan and will still retain an authoritative role as the
leaders of parish communities. The seamless pastoral and liturgical
responsibility of oversight assigned to them at ordination as shepherds of
the flock is acknowledged. They will thus exercise 'headship' in the form of
leadership and control, and therefore retain the general oversight or
presidency of the life and worship of the community, while allowing lay
people actually to administer the sacrament, hence 'lay administration'.
Given the radical and far reaching nature of these particular proposals
in the context of a more wide ranging tendency to whittle away functions that
were formerly unique to priesthood, one cannot help wondering what the future
may hold for ministerial priesthood if this were to happen. Will there really
be any functions unique to ministerial priesthood, or will the ordained slip
into much more of a managerial role, as the person who happens to have made
his or her way to the top of the heap, exercising leadership and control in
the Christian community, but otherwise exercising a ministry in no essential
way different from that of any other of its baptised members?
So, given all this, what future is there for ministerial priesthood?
I want to make three basic points.
1. The first is, that the New Testament idea of the priesthood of the whole
people of God undoubtedly informs much of the contemporary egalitarian push to
allow lay people to preside at eucharists. The term 'priest' is not used of the
Christian leader in the New Testament. It comes to be used by derivation from
the High Priestly ministry of Christ himself, whose ministry is shared in the
world by the priestly people of God as a whole.
However, it is just as certain that there never was a time when the Church
did not have specifically authorised ministers. The Church was never an
undifferentiated community of believers without a clearly authorised ministry.
In apostolic times the Church's ministry was, in a sense, co-terminous with its
founding, for the very ones who shared the Last Supper with the Lord on Maundy
Thursday and who were mandated to continue to make remembrance of him with
loaf and cup, were the very ones who three days later were commissioned to
minister as witnesses to the resurrection, with a mandate to go into all the
world proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom. From the start the Church
always had a mandated ministry of Sacrament and Word.
This apostolic ministry is prior to the Church insofar as the Church comes
to be around the ministry of Word and Sacrament. By contrast with the ministry
of the whole people of God in the world, the ordained are specifically
authorised by ordination to minister to the community of faith as shepherds
of the flock. Because this too is a share in the ministry of Christ, the Great
High priest and shepherd of our souls, it is understandable why the early
Church came to use the title 'priest' also of its ordained leaders. It is not
insignificant that the Anglican Reformers continued to use the same term,
consistently resisting the theologically neutral alternative 'presbyter' or
'elder' right through the Reformation and into the 1662 Prayer Book of
In any event, it is wrong to say that the Church is not a community
gathered around a minister but a ministering community; in fact it is both.
It is a community gathered around a minister, insofar as it is gathered by the
ministry of Word and Sacrament, and by the continuing general ministry of
pastoral care and oversight. We do not have to deny this in insisting that the
Church is also a ministering community in the world. In advocating 'total
ministry' we do ourselves no service by overlooking or devaluing the distinct
and unique gathering role of the priest as shepherd of the flock.
This means that those set apart by prayer with the laying on of hands have
a ministry that is different in kind from the priesthood they exercise together
with lay people as the priesthood of all faithful people. The priesthood of
all people is a ministry exercised by the whole Church in the world, the
ministry of representing God to the world and praying to God for the world.
The unique ministry of those admitted by ordination to ministerial priesthood
is a ministry in and to the community of faith, the seamless pastoral and
liturgical ministry of leadership, involving responsibility for and oversight
of the community.
2. The second point I want to make is that ordination is always effected by
predecessors in the same office. As far as we can see this always has been so.
Within the lifetime of the apostles presbyters were appointed by the apostles
and hands were laid on them; in 1 Timothy 4.14 presbyters lay hands on
presbyters, and after the death of the last apostle this authorising process
seems to have passed to the presiding chief shepherd or bishop who now
inherits the apostolic responsibility. To this day bishops consecrate bishops,
the college of priests joins the bishop in ordaining priests.
Though the Church as a whole assents to ordinations, and though ordinations
take place within the context of the community gathered for worship, ordination
is effected at the hands of predecessors in the same office. One thing that
seems to be implied by this standing practice is that the setting apart or
separation effected by the outward sign of the laying on of hands with prayer
is not just a setting apart from the world, but in a sense a pastoral
distancing of an individual from the Church for the Church so to speak. Those
ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament are not just expected to speak
what the Church wishes to hear; the Word of God must be on their lips. Ministry
comes not from the community but from Christ. In this sense ordained ministry
is not thrown up by the Church, but is a gift to the Church. They must speak
not just for the Church but, in the name of Christ to it, reminding it of its
origin in Christ and taking responsibility for its formation as the Body of
Christ, by seeking to ensure that its life always conforms to the norms and
values of the Gospel.
This clinches the truth that the ministry of those ordained to ministerial
priesthood is not just a kind of intensification, focused in its leadership,
of the priesthood of the whole community; it is not derived from the community
as a kind of social contract; rather it is different in kind from the
priesthood of all believers. As the Final Report of ARCIC says quite
explicitly in reference to the ordained ministry, it is 'not an extension of
the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of
the Spirit.' (para 13).
3. The third and final point I want to make is this: The particular
shepherding responsibility of those ordained to ministerial priesthood is to
keep the community true to its calling, to remind it of its origin in Christ,
to form it as the Body of Christ, and to ensure that its life in the world
conforms to the marks of his suffering and passion, and so to prepare it for
its ministry of lowly service in the world.
But, if the work of ordained leadership is a seamless one of pastoral and
liturgical oversight, this means that we should anticipate this to happen in
worship as much as in day to day pastoral work. The work of reminding the
Church of its origin in Christ and of its intimate relation to Christ, and of
calling it to sustain and renew its identity as the Body of Christ, and of
building it up as the Body of Christ, happens both in the general life of the
Church and in its gatherings for worship.
It is exactly at this point that we can see why it is appropriate that those
ordained to ministerial priesthood should preside immediately and directly at
the eucharist and inappropriate for lay people to do so. The reason is this:
The priestly absolution following the general confession, and the priestly blessing of the people at the end of the eucharist are really not essential
elements of any eucharist. But the Great Thanksgiving or anaphora most
certainly is. This prayer of blessing is the second element of the fourfold
action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing, which Our Lord himself
commanded to be done in remembrance of him. The prayer of blessing is the
verbal centre of the eucharist.
Now, it is this prayer in which thanksgiving is offered to God for creation
and redemption, and in which the Church commemorates and brings to remembrance
the death and resurrection of Christ and is itself reminded of its unique
identity as the Body of Christ. Moreover, it is in the course of the prayer of
thanksgiving over loaf and cup, culminating in communion, which is received
'by faith with thanksgiving' that the community is not just reminded of
something but actually formed and renewed as the Body of Christ. At this point
pastoral oversight and liturgical oversight coincide: the pastoral work of the
ordained becomes a liturgical work and the liturgical becomes the pastoral.
That is perhaps the single most important and compelling reason why it is
appropriate that those ordained to this distinctive ministry in the life of
the Church of overseeing the formation of the Church as the Body of Christ do
actually lead the Great Thanksgiving. It is the central prayer in which,
culminating in communion, the community is formed as the Body of Christ. And,
given the seamlessness of the ministry of pastoral and liturgical oversight,
this is why it is appropriate for those authorised by ordination for this
distinct ministry to lead the reciting of it. To do otherwise would be to
perpetrate the symbolic nonsense of saying one thing and doing another.
The very seamlessness of pastoral and liturgical oversight, which is
admitted even by the proponents of lay presidency, is what dictates the
appropriateness of those ordained to this specific ministry actually leading
and saying the Great Thanksgiving.
In celebrating the great priests of the catholic tradition and giving
thanks for their contribution to the life of our Church, we can affirm with
confidence that there is indeed a unique role for ministerial priesthood
which is both pastoral and liturgical. That is exactly what those ordained
to ministerial priesthood are set apart for, by prayer with the laying on of
hands, and authorised to do in ministry to, and for, the community. It belongs
to 'a different realm of the gifts of the Spirit'. There is therefore without
doubt, an inalienable future for ministerial priesthood. We do well to
celebrate it. May many more be called to it.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.