Friday, October 13, 2006

"Being A Priest Today" -- A Book Review

Being A Priest Today - Christopher Cocksworth, Rosalind Brown (Norwich, England: 2002, New Ed. 2006. Canterbury Press)

A Book Review

For the last thirty years or so I have been listening to all sorts of explanations and arguments about the priesthood, most of which have seemed minimalist or sometimes just plain wrong. During this period my own understanding of the vocation in which I have spent virtually my entire adult life has developed and matured, usually in fits and starts, and it is in this process of what I hope is healthy growing that I have become ever more uncomfortable about the claims and notions that I hear.

What is refreshing about Being A Priest Today, is that the authors, a man and a woman, both priests and theological educators in the Church of England, is that it starts out with an ontological understanding of the nature of the presbyterial role rather than dealing with function or status. It begins with the God who has called the whole church into its priestly witness with the wider world God has made, a task within which the order of priests plays a particular part, although to quote Rowan Williams "there is no one way of being a priest" (Page 4).

Too much of what I have read and heard about the ordained has either focused on the functions of leadership and the how-to of undertaking them, or it has majored on sociological variables like rights, and whether this particular group is represented within the rolls of the ordained in the life of the church. I have been on a Commission On Ministry and year after year have listened to people implying that because they are who they are they have some kind of right to be ordained, rather than approaching this task with the utmost fear and trembling.

In true postmodern style the priesthood is so often seen as a place of power, and therefore it is vital that "we" (whoever "we" happen to be) have a seat at the table in the palaces of power. To think of the priesthood in this way is sheer bunkem. Cocksworth and Brown do not even bother to address these misperceptions of what priesthood is. This is not a contentious, argumentative work, rather these two set out with gentleness, clarity, and precision to present a far fuller and richer picture of this task to which some of us have been drawn by God, drawing upon Scripture and the richness of the Christian tradition. "Our calling into Christ is simultaneously a calling into Christ's messianic ministry, his service" (Page 5).

Being A Priest Today is a book that needs to be read with care, it is not something you can rattle through in an hour or two, and it is even dangerous trying to scan passages that look less significant because you can be sure that you will miss some of the treasures that lie buried deep within what is being said. Certainly, anyone who cherishes the misconception that priesthood is about power will have been forced to surrender such an idea by the end of the opening chapter. If you fail to do this, then you miss the point of the book in its entirety.

The authors tell us, "There is only one Christian priesthood, and that is the priesthood of Christ, the priest into whose ministry we are gathered through baptism and by faith, and in whose life human identity is perfected," (Page 9)and this priesthood is focused on the perfect sacrifice Christ has made for us, and just as he is one whose life was lived entirely for others, so is that the reality with the ordained who are presbyters in the priestly community.

The opening chapter, which is the key to all that follows, revolves around a masterly unpacking of Paul's charge to the leaders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20. As I went through this exposition I circled the words about priestly ministry that seemed the most significant: "teaching... protecting... faithful evangelistic preaching... catechetical teaching... care of the Church... the towel a symbol of authority... tears... the mantle of suffering" (Pages 12-13).
If the Body of Christ has been called into being by the Holy Spirit, priests are to function as men and women radically dependent upon the workings of that same Spirit. It is not only an office that shapes the church's life by what it says and how it instructs, but it is one that is called by that self-same Spirit into a life of prayer and of holiness "that will be an example to the Church" (Page 21).

Today such holiness sounds a radical (almost innovative) idea, but not only do Cocksworth and Brown back it up from 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20, but also from the charge to the presbyter in the 2nd Century Canons of Hippolytus, but also from the bishop's charge in the contemporary Roman rite for ordination of priests. It is this call to holiness that, as far as I can see, is then filled out in the remainder of the book, beginning with the fact that the priesthood is a call to being for the Other and being for God.

The priesthood is about being for worship, the Word, and prayer. It is about living holy lives, being agents of reconciliation, and as men and women of blessing. Each of these chapters is chock full of substance and challenge, and my copy of the book that I read on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in a 767 over it, is as marked up with underlinings and marginal notes as any book that I possess.

There are sweet quotes like, "Our vocation is to combine a passion for God's living word with a joy in living in God's world" (Page 84), or "Polishing and perfecting the saints, ourselves included, is a lifelong vocation to holiness" (Page 153).

Living in the midst of the angst that is the Episcopal Church, and watching beloved brothers and sisters tearing apart, and tearing one another apart, I found myself particularly challenged by the chapter "Being for Reconciliation." God, we are told, would stop at nothing to reconcile us to himself, and we as those who preside at the Eucharist, the rite, as it were, of reconciliation, have a special responsibility for this ministry both in the church and beyond.

If our task is to minister to those seeking reconciliation to God, hearing confessions and pronouncing absolutions, then this has profound implications for the way we as clergy live our lives amidst so much division and bitterness. The church should be the body which, by its own determination to be reconciled with one another, shows forth what God's purpose is for all people -- yet how far we are from that reality. "The tendrils of reconciliation run widely and intricately throughout God's world, the tap root is the reconciliation of God in Christ who is our peace. We who are reconciled to God ourselves are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation" (Page 179).

Yet the reconciliating power of the Gospel is not some lowest common denominator kind of thing, sentimental mushiness, or brushing differences under the rug that is so often presented as reconciliation, rather it is something that cannot and does not contrive to sidestep the Cross, God's supreme reconcilatory act. Reconciliation is painful for all involved, including the reconciler.

The truth is, and this bubbled through this whole book, there is a tremendous amount of suffering and pain that are part and parcel of the priesthood -- because the Christ we follow is one whose life was shaped by suffering and pain. And so it is that we our sent out in mission -- which is the burden of the final chapter of the book.

Drs. Cocksworth and Brown use a plenitude of resources to make their case from the Apostolic Fathers, Henri Nouwen, and Dallas Willard to liturgical rites from around the world and a richness of traditions. They quote John Donne, George Herbert, Michael Ramsey, Richard Baxter, and John of the Cross, as well as John Wimber, Oswald Chambers, Eugene Peterson, Julian of Norwich, and Barbara Brown Taylor. The text is enriched by the delightful poems and hymns of Rosalind Brown. This is not a book with a party flavor or a narrow bias, and neither is it one that is for the faint-hearted.

If you are a priest and you read this book, be ready for your presuppositions and practice of your vocation to be changed, as well as any sense of satisfaction that you might have with your own sanctification. If you are a layperson reading this book, then not only will it raise the bar for your own discipleship, but it will help you to challenge (graciously, I hope) your own clergy in the exercise of their ministry among you.


Old and grey-headed said...

Thanks for the review. I've ordered the book (be aware that there is an 'old' edition out there).
Years ago I learned to think about what we do with our lives in three ways:
Job--what we do to get sustenance and
desires met==$$
Career--how we mark the trajectory of our life through adulthood.
Vocation--what we are called to be.
I spent 12 years as a parish priest, 16years 'outside' the church [with an MSW and working as a therapist](but celebrating in priestless congregations two to four times a month) and eight years
as an ecclesiastical bureaucrat.
Now, 12 years into disability/retirement, I value those years 'outside' the church
as being the times when I learned the most about being a priest.

It appalls me to see how often the job and career aspects of being ordained overwhelm the vocational

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