At the age of twenty-six I became an elder. Not an elder in age, of course, but I was ordained to be an elder in the church. Elder in the Greek of the early church is πρεσβύτερος or presbuteros. This Greek word has come down to us over the past twenty centuries via Latin, Old Germanic, and Old English as priest (yeah, really). Now, I had been ordained a deacon in the church (the word means “servant”) a little less than a year before (June 1988), but from years before I felt that I was called to be a priest, a call that was confirmed when the Most Reverend John Bothwell, Archbishop of Niagara and Metropolitan of Ontario, ordained me as such in April of 1989. I did try to persuade the Archbishop to ordain me directly to the priesthood, but the tradition and practice of the church for the past fourteen hundred years required that I pass through a transitional stage as a deacon.
I think of these things as tomorrow, May 29, 2016, my friends Selinde Krayenhoff and Craig Hiebert are to be ordained to the presbyterate (i.e. the priesthood). As well, Gillian Hoyer and Matthew Brown will be ordained as transitional deacons, with the expectation that, as I was, and as Selinde and Craig are to be, they will be ordained priests after some six months to a year. Then there are the three individuals who will be ordained as deacons, sometimes called “permanent deacons” or “vocational deacons”, or as I like to call them “real deacons”. They are Bill Poppy, Marg Misener, and Patrick Sibley (Marg has just completed an eleven month internship with us at St. Matthias, Victoria – a great person!). While it is not impossible that these three might someday be ordained as priests or even as bishop, the expectation is that they will remain as deacons and serve as such for the rest of their lives.
In theory, deacons, priests, and bishops, the three orders of ministry, are all ordained to different ministry. The bishop is the leader of Christians in a geographic area, with oversight of the ordained and lay in the parishes and ministries of the places. Deacons are called to be servants, with a special concern for the poor and marginalized – a first century version of a social worker re-imagined for the present day. The role of priests, however, is more confused and debatable.
Priests are usually thought of as ministers in parishes, and this paradigm drives many of the models below. However, I’ve known priests outside of parishes – as academics, as administrators (I was one for almost ten years), and in very active retirement, in secular employment, and even in unemployment. The way in which priests live out their callings is manifold and various. That said, amongst the models of what priests are supposed to be are:
Priest as deacon: Sometimes priests never stop acting as deacons, being focused on social action, the poor, the elderly, and the disadvantaged.
Priest as extension of the Bishop: In theory, all priests act vicariously on behalf of the bishop, and accept and receive her or his direction. A parish priest, when the bishop shows up on a Sunday, doesn’t have much to do – the bishop presides at the Eucharist, preaches, baptises, and so forth. However, once the Bishop leaves, the priest is back in the leadership role. A special case is when a priest is appointed the Commissary for the Bishop, when she or he is out of the Diocese. Then the priest, on behalf of the Bishop, can appoint clergy, remove them as necessary, intervene in crises in parishes and programs, and generally exercise episcopal oversight until the “boss” shows up. A Commissary is generally reactive and hopes not to have to do much of anything, whereas a Bishop clearly can act proactively and is expected to take the initiative, but sometimes commissaries do need to act in the absence of the bishop.
Priest as Preacher: This is the Reformation ideal of what a minister should be – someone learned in the scriptures, adept at public speaking, and brilliant in applying the lessons of scripture to the present day. This model usually assumes that the primary event is the Sunday service and the priest is preaching to the assembled community, almost all of whom are Christian already, if not necessarily very pious.
Priest as Evangelist:This is a more modern variation on the model of the priest as preacher, which is grounded in Evangelicalism, and the belief that the great mass of the people need to be converted from nominal Christianity, other faiths, or no faith at all. This involves not just preaching, but a variety of methods to reach out and make disciples.
Priest as Sacerdos or Hieretic Priest: Sometimes the emphasis is upon the liturgical action of the priest, presiding at the Lord’s Supper and officiating at a variety of sacramental acts and offices. This is a popular model in high church or Anglo-Catholic circles, and has come to the fore since the ’70s when the Eucharist became the regular Sunday service. It tends to separate the clergy from the laity, de-emphasise the priesthood of all believers and identify the priesthood of the presbyterate with the priesthood of Jesus.
Priest as Educator: Quite apart from clergy in academia, many clergy working in parishes see themselves as educators, seeking to impart knowledge to others or facilitating continuing education for the people.
Priest as Pastor/Counsellor: This was a big one in the ’80s, the idea that we were just like clinical psychologists, counselling people with addictions, troubled marriages, and other personal issues. Think Lucy van Pelt with a collar.
Priest as the Holy Man or Holy Woman: This has variations – sometimes we are the repository for prayer and mediation, and at our best we empower others on their spiritual journey. Sometimes we are the local shamans. At worst, we are pious on behalf of the people – because they do not pray or think good thoughts, the clergy do it for others.
Priest as CEO: This model was popular in the ’90s and continues to be today, where the priest is the leader of an organization (usually a parish) and is responsible for planning, building a team, being an entrepreneur, communicating the mission, and evaluating the methods. The unstated goal is “Build us a mega-church”.
There are probably some models that I haven’t identified, but as you might imagine no one person can possibly live up to all of these ideals, although many clergy have burnt themselves out trying to do so. While we might be trained in a plethora of things, most priests are good at only a few of them, and we will typically play to our strengths, which can sometimes be problematic and disappointing.
There are a couple of key things that I try to keep in mind as I live out my call.
The first is that my primordial call is the baptismal one. Anything I do as an ordained priest grows out of the priesthood of all believers. If I provide leadership in a parish or ministry of the church, it’s not so much because the Bishop tells me to, but because that comes out of the responsibility of all the baptised for that area of work. I have just been set aside in particular to help deal with it. My understanding of ordination is that it is a bottom-up thing, not top-down. Even the bishop, when she or he lays hands on an ordinand, does so on behalf of all the baptised, not simply on his or her own authority.
The second thing is that as the baptised we are seeking to be icons of Jesus. Having been created in the image of God, which the Orthodox understand as the Word of God which was made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, we are recreated in that image in baptism, a re-creation which begins in the death and resurrection of Jesus and is described mystically in the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21-22. As a priest I seek to be Christ-like in empowering the people of God to be disciples. As an “elder” I am called to help show the way.
I can never remember the date of my ordinations. But I do remember the date I was baptised – December 23, 1962. My hope and prayer for all those being ordained tomorrow is that they will be recalled back to their baptismal calling even as they are set aside for particular ministries, and that they may find their way to serve and lead like Christ, to the glory of God.