Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Do We Need Priests?

My blog-friend Elizabeth Kaeton asks a series of trouble-stirring questions over at her blog. Or at least they are trouble-stirring for me.

She observes the shortage of seminary-trained clergy in the Episcopal Church. She acknowledges that many Episcopal parishes are hard-pressed to afford the salary, housing, auto allowance, pension contribution, and health insurance of seminary trained priests. I agree. She is right to raise those questions.

We all know it is true that more and more Episcopal parishes cannot afford to hire a full-time, seminary-trained, experienced priest.

We are aware that many parishes are raising up bi-vocational, part-time priests from within their own midst … and not only in those dioceses and parishes that are formally embracing “Mutual Ministry.” I have two friends who are serving in such roles here in Missouri.

But Elizabeth goes further. She wonders:
Is ministry being redefined in our midst and the church is just catching up with it? Should we allow our present cultural financial crisis be the basis of the change for ecclesiology?
She wonders whether priests or trained laypeople should be allowed to administer all the sacraments – Eucharist included – and if not, why not? She wonders:
Is ministry being redefined in our midst and the church is just catching up with it? Should we allow our present cultural financial crisis be the basis of the change for ecclesiology?
She asks important questions, and she asks us to engage in dialogue.

I will confess that my reaction to her blogpost was part thoughtful and part visceral/reactionary. “Of course we need I priest,” I found myself screaming. But the reasonable tenor of Elizabeth’s post forced me to answer the question “Why?”

For some background on my thinking about my parish, I invite you to revisit this post from July 6. After the rector of this parish retired after 30+ years, our parish had to think deeply about the ministry of all the baptized, the ministry of the laity, and what we wanted in a priest. I would say that we had a “come to Jesus” period of confronting our roles as laypersons and trying to define what we needed in a priest that we could not do as laypersons. [Mind you, I intentionally say “needed” rather than “wanted” there.] Thanks be to God, we defined the role of priest in liturgical terms. We did not want a priest to be an overpaid sexton who would be sure the church was well heated or well-air-conditioned each Sunday. We did not need a priest to organize our ministry to the community. After an intentionally long and fruitful “interim priest” ministry, we knew what we wanted. We wanted a priest who would motivate us, empower us, and keep us rooted as we exercised our primary ministry, individually and as a community. And we knew that ministry to be primarily a ministry of the laity.

Here’s how I recall the vestry discussions as we framed our rector search and (eventually) decided whom to call to be our rector: We wanted a priest who was deeply, deeply formed in the Episcopal church … who was deeply rooted … and whose spirituality might be an inspiration and teaching model to the laity.

I believe that is what we received in the priest who accepted the call of our parish.

Since her arrival, lay ministry has increased. We have more outreach than we had before … and it is not dependent on her to organize or participate; lay people discover the needs and frame ministries. We have more lay preachers than we had before. [Actually, that’s an easy one. For we had no lay preachers before, and now we have at least four.] Lay pastoral ministry has exploded in very good ways, as we have come to learn that we are the church and it is primarily our responsibility to care for one another … with help and counsel (when needed) and support from our rector. But it’s not her job to organize it. It’s her job to inspire and inform it.

Perhaps it was Elizabeth’s intent to get us all to thinking – to stir things up – when she raised the question of whether deacons or laypeople could administer the Eucharist.

Here are my responses.

First, I go to the catechism and I ponder the four orders of ministry: laypeople, deacons, priests, and bishops.

It seems abundantly clear to me that laypeople are the core of Christ’s mission on earth. We are the most fundamental hands and feet of Christ in the world. We are the ones who are out there every day, in our diverse roles, speaking peace to a broken world, working to reconcile all persons to Christ. Best of all, we have total freedom in how we accomplish this. We are only under vows to Christ. We don’t have to get permission from our priest or bishop to exercise that ministry. We laypeople have the most marvelous freedom and latitude in our ministry.

Deacons exercise a wonderful ministry, but they are subject to their bishops. I know – and surely you do, too – deacons who have been constrained and limited by “admonitions” from their bishops.

Nonetheless, I look to the deacons of our church for models of servant ministry. The good ones inspire me to the free exercise of my lay ministry – a ministry much more free than our deacons can exercise.

To Elizabeth, I would say: Deacons were never intended to serve as ministers of the sacraments. It’s there in the Bible. Deacons were to minister to the poor, the widows, the orphans, the outcast. That is the ministry to which they have been called since the time of Jesus.

And what of priests? …. I tread lightly here, for tomes have been written on that topic. God knows, I’m not going to try to define their role in a measly blogpost. But this much I will say.

A while back, I had the honor of chairing the discernment committee of a man who felt called to the priesthood. Our committee, then our vestry and parish, then our diocesan bodies agreed. In the course of our discussions, he made an observation that has stuck with me: Priesthood is not about what one does; it is about who one is. A priest who gets caught up in doing rather than being is a priest who has gone off-track, I believe.

In my mere 14 years as an Episcopalian … blessed by the ministry of some marvelous priests, here are some things I observe.

§ Healthy and well-grounded priests are not defined by what they do, but by who and what they are. They are free to serve Christ wholly … and thus they inspire me to aspire to the same. … Of course, this means that we parishioners must set them free to do the work of a priest and not burden them with the roles of social director or sexton or parish life coordinator. We must give our priests leisure [in the classical sense] to be priests.
§ Good priests are transparent. It is not “all about them.” The good priests point us beyond ourselves and themselves. They serve as role models who point beyond themselves to Christ. Always toward Christ.
§ Healthy priests have the leisure to spend much time in prayer and reflection … and they yearn for that time. They yearn to be in the presence of God … rather than in a committee meeting.
§ Healthy priests – like Christ – want to make disciples. They yearn to equip the saints for ministry – for ministry to God and community, not to a cult of personality.

So I return to Elizabeth’s questions. Do I believe deacons or laypeople could or should celebrate the Eucharist? No, I most certainly do not! I believe deacons and laypeople are primarily called to minister in the world, to be the Body of Christ in the world. Mind you, like KirkE, I am attracted to the shiny, holy things. But I do not believe we are called or empowered to celebrate the Eucharist.

I believe priests are uniquely called into a transparent ministry that points beyond themselves, which makes them uniquely called to celebrate the Eucharist – that service in which the veil between heaven and earth is most thin.

I believe the orders of ministry are precisely that: ordered -- set apart for different ministries. To me, it seems that laypeople and deacons are ordained to minister to the world. And that priests are set apart to minister to and empower the church … and occasionally to speak prophetically to the world.

I think TEC is thinking/speaking in the wrong voice when our parishes speak about whether they can “afford” to hire a priest. If they are simply looking for someone who can speak “magic words” at the Eucharist, then perhaps they need to examine more closely the four orders of ministry.

I am reminded of the phrase I learned long ago from Mike Kinman, about a “theology of scarcity” versus a “theology of abundance.” Our parish of 140 ASA could have argued convincingly that we could not afford a full-time priest and all the financial obligations that came along with her. But we had moved to a place where we saw the difference between the priestly role and all the other roles, and we concluded that we valued that priestly role enough to support it financially. And so we hired a priest. And so we support her financially.

God willing, we are also supporting that priest -- and, more importantly, serving Christ and the Kingdom of God – by exercising all the other roles of ministry – especially the ministry of the laity – so that our parish can be the Body of Christ in this community.

Addendum: I’m not trained in seminary, nor even in EFM. I probably got the theology and terminology wrong here. This is just my lay-personly, too-verbose response to the thoughtful reflections Elizabeth offered.

20 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I am absolutely delighted to see this conversation extended to the wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful people who read your blog. I'll be checking back frequently to read their comments.

And, you're right. I'm just thinking out loud and asking provocative questions.

Thank you, Lisa.

7/20/2010 10:43 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks, Elizabeth.
As I hope you could hear, I'm not driving any theological stake in the ground here. I'm saying what I perceive, and inviting others to comment.

Y'know what? I really envy those who have had the hard-earned and expensive "luxury" of a seminary education. I envy that.

7/20/2010 11:02 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

My biggest concern would be that, raised in the Southern Baptist church, I've seen what happens when there is not a specially-educated, well-trained and specially-formed ecclesial leadership. "Brother" So-and-so may be a great feeling of togetherness, but they tend to be terribly inept at anything beyond impassioned preaching, presenting it to their congregation as "The Truth" just as surely as any dogmatically-correct version in hierarchical churches. Additionally, the lack of formation gives you a group who want structure, but lack the background education to resist domination - which is what led to the SBC's takeover by IRD forces.

The greater question would be why we tolerate such massive expense in the education of our priests. I, frankly, think education has become a rip-off, in terms of expense. Even if it hasn't, one has to wonder at how little subsidy there is from the people of the church - I wouldn't ask if priests are necessary, but is church, if it's no more important to us than that, if it's something we're happy to support . . . as long as it's cheap and non-intrusive?

7/20/2010 11:16 PM  
Blogger ROBERTA said...

I was intrigued by the questions raised in Elizabeth's post but I'm absolutely in awe of your response. You've given me fresh perspectives on the four orders of ministry. especially as to the role of deacons and how their call to serve under the authority of a bishop can and does "inspire" me to move forward in my own calling within the body of Christ. thank you for helping me think this through lisa!

7/20/2010 11:42 PM  
Blogger IT said...

From my naive perspective as a hanger on in a Cathedral community, I seem to know lots of deacons and priests seeking places.

but medical schools see the same issue: where their students are, is not necessarily where they are needed.

7/21/2010 12:45 AM  
Blogger MadPriest said...

I think we may be looking at this the wrong way round. A "priest" is somebody who offers a sacrifice at an altar. Therefore, anybody who offers that sacrifice with the permission of the temple authorities is, de facto, a priest. The real question is should we get rid of ordination to the priesthood?

7/21/2010 3:51 AM  
OpenID eighthsacrament said...

This is something I have thought about quite a bit lately as I go between what I believe is a call to the priesthood, my present status as a lay person, and my financial concerns about going to seminary.

On one hand I don't think bishop-ordained priests are "really" necessary for the sacraments, but on the other hand I do believe those are strongly part of my call - along with the calls to education and preaching, listening and visiting, working at reconciliation, etc - which I can do at present in some form. Incidentally, also being raised SBC, I have pretty much the same concerns as Mark about untrained pastors/preachers.

7/21/2010 6:23 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Lisa, you have laid this out quite eloquently, including admitting we are both magpies with the bright shiny holy objects, LOL.

In a sense, that is what you are saying your parish realized what you wanted in your priest--a living bright shiny holy object. Someone who teaches people how to pray and live and walk the path of Christ--not a meeting organizer. To be that bright shiny vessel that others aspire to be in their own call to God's service. To be a serious student of the Scriptures and be able to impart that knowledge with wisdom and inclusive-ness.

A seminary education (or its equivalent, in the case of diocesan-trained priests) is necessary for part of that, I believe, but only one part. Much like our beloved three legged stool upon which Anglicanism is based.

Likewise I think those called to the priesthood should display the three legs of scripture, tradition, and reason. Knowledge of and ability to share the wisdom of Scripture. An understanding of the canons of our church. A discerning heart and listening ear for pastoral guidance. I think we focus sometimes on the seminary part more than the other two legs of the stool sometimes, but it is an important part, nonetheless.

7/21/2010 6:36 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Mark, I agree heartily!

Have you not read here – have I not said – that I, too, am a Recovering Southern Baptist? I was there from my birth until I fled that church in the late 1970s, around the time of the IRD-engineered takeover by strident conservative theocrats. I spent about 15 years afterwards shunning any church … until the Episcopal Church found me in the mid-1990s.

YES, MARK! I too have seen those Baptist pastors who have some pastoral gifts, but who lack rigorous theological and liturgical education. … BTW, that is one of my concerns about TEC’s move toward “locally ordained” or Canon IX priests. It is one thing to be perceived as a “godly person” or a “godly leader.” It may be another thing altogether to be formed as a priest.

I’ve seen this in my own parish. We have had a couple of people whom the parish discerned to have priestly vocations. In a church like the Southern Baptists, those people would quickly have been “ordained.” Fortunately, TEC takes a more structured and rigorous approach. We require that the discernment occur not just in the parish, but in the diocese. Further, we require a level of theological education. I am glad that we do … even though I regret that it has slowed the move of these people to the priesthood to which I believed they were called.

Mark, I fully agree with your point about the expense of seminary education! Kids may come out of college and decide they want to be lawyers or engineers or whatever, and it’s fair to expect them to fund their own education. But when we in a parish support a person for ordination, that person is not going to benefit personally/financially. They are offering themselves to the whole church. For the most part, they are not going to return to their home parish if they receive seminary education and are ordained. I believe that the whole church should cover the cost of the education of anyone we approve out of a discernment process. … This is probably a wacky analogy, but here I go: When people in our communities sign up for military service, we don’t ask the community to support his/her military training. The U.S. recognizes a greater good, and the nation covers the cost of their training. … I wonder why it’s different in how The Episcopal Church considers the education/formation of those who offer themselves to be our priests and deacons. It seems to me that the whole church should fund the education of those who offer themselves up to serve the whole church.

7/21/2010 9:13 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you deeply, Roberta. I am grateful for your words.

I am honored to know some Episcopal deacons well. They have enriched my life and sense of ministry in the world.

But – as I mentioned lightly – I have something even better than the deacons. I don’t have to vow obedience to a bishop. As laypeople, we have the freedom to witness to the love of Christ as we best discern it. Mind you, I do occasionally ask my bishop for his counsel, and I frequently ask my priest for hers. But I am free to act as I discern best.

Of course, if we’re careful and spiritually attuned, it probably behooves us to be in close contact with our priest, bishop, or spiritual director. But we laypeople have a marvelous, delightful range of motion that those “under orders” – our deacons and priests – do not have.

7/21/2010 9:26 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Good point, IT. You remind me that we not only have a responsibility to exercise judgment in our discernment committees, but also to be realistic about placement after the discernment process.

I am reminded of a friend who was admitted to postulancy. But in that conversation with the bishop, the bishop asked if would be willing to serve in x city – a town in the back-end of beyond. My friend breathed deeply, then said, “Yes, if that is where I am needed.”

Not every ordained person can serve in their favorite town. But we must find a way for all our priests and deacons to earn a decent living, no matter what parish they are called to serve.

I don’t know how to make that happen. But I think it must happen.

7/21/2010 9:33 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

MadPriest, I am mindful that “Of course, I could be wrong.” But I disagree most strongly with your statement.

Given what you say, a dog who could learn the words of the Eucharist would be – ipso facto – a priest. I cannot believe that.

I remind you of what I have written earlier – about the difference between what a priest does and who a priest is. I don’t think priesthood can be reduced to what s/he does.

I believe priesthood is a vocation – about a whole manner of life, a manner of identity.

You seem to be defining priesthood functionally – about what the priest does.

If priesthood is merely about who gets to say the magic words at the altar, then I want no part of it. We could train cockatoos to say the magic words.

I believe the vocation of a priest is different and more. Knowing what a marvelous priest you are, I believe – or at least I hope – that you would agree with me.

No, I do not believe we should get rid of ordination to the priesthood. But I believe we should take that step more seriously. Just because someone loves Jesus and loves the shiny/holy things doesn’t mean s/he has a vocation to the priesthood.

Or so it seems to me. OCICBW!

7/21/2010 9:44 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Welcome, 8thSacrament – another “recovering Southern Baptist.” I didn’t realize we had that in common, too.

As you know, it’s not just about the imprimatur of the bishop. Our church has many layers of discernment, as you know well. A local discernment committee must meet long and talk deeply with the prospective priest/deacon. Then the vestry/parish must concur in seeing the person’s vocation. Then the diocesan body [Commission on Ministry & Standing Committee] must concur. Then the bishop makes the final decision.

Having walked with some friends through that long process, it sometimes drives me to distraction.

On the other hand, requiring those layers of discernment is what guards us against the wackos that can be made pastors in the Southern Baptist Church. And it guards us against those “pastors” who found those independent storefront congregations. We are an ordered church. We do not necessarily say “Amen” to those who hear a private call. I think that makes us stronger.

Read too what I said above about financing seminary education. I do not believe seminarians should fund their own education. If priests and deacons are to serve the whole church, then I believe the whole church should fund their education. …. I have written much in this thread about which I am uncertain. … But on the topic of funding seminary education, I am certain: If we call a person to ordained ministry for the whole church, then I believe the whole church should fund that person’s education.

7/21/2010 9:57 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

LOL, Kirkepiscatoid, my fellow magpie!

Yes, yes, yes, you got it! And you said it better than I about what I see/want in a priest.

While I believe that our clergy should have a rigorous academic education, I confront the reality that we have too few seminaries. If someone from my town wants to attend seminary, s/he must move hundreds of miles away. That seems unrealistic … especially if one has a family. I don’t know how to solve that problem.

Yes, you may be right that I am focusing too much on one or two legs of the “three-legged stool.” But I fear ordaining people merely because they seem to “love Jesus” unless they also have an understanding of our theology and tradition.

I never promised an answer, did I? [I sure hope not!]

I just continue to ask questions after Elizabeth’s post.

7/21/2010 10:05 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

I'm glad I came across, Lisa.

I'm not doing too well, right now, and wasn't sure if I was coherent!

I didn't remember that you were recovering SBC, but I felt pretty sure you were. We tend to know each other when we meet. ;)

7/21/2010 10:44 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes, Mark, you came across quite clearly. Moreover, I think I "heard" some of the subtext, since we share that SBC history.

I am sorry you're in a tough place, Mark. Can we help?

7/21/2010 11:06 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

No. It's just what it is. Thanks, though.

7/22/2010 12:56 AM  
Blogger MadPriest said...

My point is merely a semantic one. Those who wish to get rid of the priesthood cannot ever do so because at its most basic the priesthood is functionary. As soon as a member of the laity is given the job of presiding at the altar (by the Church) they become a priest.

7/22/2010 4:02 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yeah, Mark, I think I understand. Sometimes, the church breaks our hearts.

7/22/2010 9:36 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for the clarification, MadPriest. I am reminded of what we sometimes say around here: "You will know a priest when you see her/him." I dare say that if all the ordained priests in the world suddenly disappeared one Saturday, most of us would know whom we would call to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday.

7/22/2010 9:39 PM  

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