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.