Welcome text

A space to reflect on Christian theology, spirituality, and ministry within the Church of England

Sunday, 24 June 2012

What will change? Reflections on the eve of priesting

Out of the Silent Land...
I've just emerged out of silence at the end of a four day priesting retreat. It's been a good time for me - but then silent retreats always are. I'm one of those people who revels in silence and in regular, monastic patterns of prayer, and the return to talking once more is a bit of a shock. This time, too, I really needed that space and silence, because later today I will be ordained priest.

The big question, the one that's been following me around as I read and prayed and reflected over these last four days is, 'what will change?' 'What will happen next?' This time last year I was ordained deacon. That was a tremendous change, and one that I expected. So many things were changing at once. I was leaving a tight-knit college community after two years, I was starting work in a parish, I was moving house, and I was taking on a new role, one easily identified by the strange new clerical collar that I had agreed with my training incumbent I would be wearing at all times while 'on duty'. I was anticipating that being identified as a clergy person and being seen in that light would be the biggest difference. My theology of ministerial priesthood has never been particularly high - the concept of an ontological change occurring at the moment of the laying on of hands doesn't really make sense to me unless it's framed in terms of self-understanding and social identity. But both of those things are real, and the change, the experience of being in that new position, the experience of that new way of life did indeed feel significant and true at the deepest levels.

So my question is, will this new level of ordination be something else again? From a social identity perspective, it's not such a dramatic difference. Even within the church congregation whom I serve, few enough people know the difference between a deacon and a priest. My new status will be known only through the new things I'll be able to do - presiding at the Eucharist, blessing and declaring God's forgiveness. Outside the immediate church community even fewer will know or care about the new meaning of the 'dog collar' around my neck. Perhaps that's as well. It's enough that I'm recognised as a represent of the church and Lord I serve, and any other distinctions are small enough to be insignificant.

But will it feel different to me? Will I be different?

Ordination Roles
Generally, and in simple terms, the three layers of ordination in the Anglican Church are viewed as encompassing different roles: the deacon's role is one of service, of care and concern for others; the priest's role is one of proclamation, through word and sacrament; and finally the bishop's role is one of oversight, of guiding and correcting those in one's charge.

The thing is, those roles naturally blend together in the experience of everyday life and ministry. Working in a parish, even as a curate and not an incumbent, all those different roles come together. In a parish, clergy serve, they proclaim, and in due time, they exercise oversight over the many volunteer groups that have to operate together to make a church function. I've not been doing much oversight in the past year, but I've certainly been doing my fair share of serving and proclaiming! Indeed, even in terms of the sacraments, I've already been involved. I won't get into a discussion about what might constitute a sacrament - time for that later! - but whether we believe there's two or five or seven or no end of sacraments, I have already been privileged to take a role in one of them. Over the last year I've baptised enough children to put me well into double figures.

So what is the change?

It seems to me that the move from deacon to priest will involve two major changes.

1. New Proclamation
First is that the proclamation I've been doing - speaking about God's word with various study groups, in conversations and of course in regular preaching - will now be extended. Instead of being purely word-focused, it will now take in proclamation of a different sort - in the form of presiding at the Eucharist, declaring God's forgiveness, and pronouncing God's blessing.

From where I'm sitting at the moment, the fact that I will be able to, at last, preside at a service of Holy Communion, is by far the greatest of these. As always in the Church of England, what we think actually happens at a Eucharist varies hugely from congregation to congregation, and if we're honest, from individual to individual within each of those congregations. What do I think goes on? Well, the most important thing to say is that I believe the Eucharist is a mystery. No, a Mystery, with a capital M. We don't know what exactly happens. We're not supposed to. At a Eucharist, God reaches out to us, fulfilling his promises through Jesus, and somehow in that moment we are closer to him than we might ever normally be in the course of this life.

Ok, so that's the big thing out of the way. If, however, you really pushed me on the details, I would positively affirm that Christ is absolutely really present in that space, and that God has chosen that means especially to reach out to us, and for us to reach out to him. Celebrating Holy Communion makes for a 'thin' space and time, when the boundaries between earth and heaven draw much closer together, and enable us to glimpse beyond. That said, I don't think that Christ is especially in the bread and wine more than he's in the space and the people, and for me, the whole service: the gathering, the hearing and expounding of the Word, the remembering and reliving the Last Supper and Christ's passion and sacrifice, the offering of our own selves as we receive God's life... these all together constitute the experience I spoke about above. It is not a matter of a single prayer or a single set of words that enable us as a whole congregation to draw that specially near to our Lord.

So the new proclamation there is of Christ's real presence - a great and wonderful new thing.

At the same time, I will be able to do two other things I've wanted to do ever since I first heard God's call - I'll be able to pronounce blessing and forgiveness. These two things are the heart of the Gospel, and finally being able to declare with authority that God's boundless forgiveness and love is extended to those around me will be amazing. These too are forms of proclamation - and as a priest, I will be able to make those proclamations with the authority of the Spirit and the Church behind me.

2. New Authority
Which gets me onto the second major change. Authority. As a deacon, I've had a certain amount of authority behind me. The words I speak from the pulpit (or lectern, or chancel steps or wherever) have the weight of authority. When I pray with people I'm visiting, or lead a service of the Word, I'm doing so with the backing of the Church.

But now, as a priest, that authority gets much more. I'm trusted to be following God's will to the extent that I can pronounce forgiveness and blessing and consecration. I will have been prayed for, and had hands laid upon me, joining me to the run of my apostolic forbears right back to Peter, which means that I will be publicly acknowledged to be someone chosen and anointed by God to do this particular work of his.

Even as I write those words I can barely get my head around them. I mean... wow.

And that authority will make people see me differently, and will make me see myself differently. How could it not?

Functional or Ontological?
So will I change? Or is it just about me being able to do new things?

Well, I'm afraid I'm going to hedge. I will certainly be doing new things. And that will certainly change me as a person. As people we are never set in stone - we change through experiences and years. These new experiences will change me.

How I'll be changed though... I just don't know. My incumbent tells me that the change is palpable once one has a chance to settle into it. I believe him. What it'll feel like though... only the experienc will show me.

So, as I head out now, dressed in my clericals, cassock and surplice and stole in my hands, please pray for me, and for my brothers and sisters to be ordained with me, and I guess I'll let you know how it goes!


  1. It will certainly change how your friends see you, this doesn't mean that we will like you less, trust you less or ask for your advice less.. It just means that you are different. I wish I could put it into words, but maybe it's just a feeling. Your a priest and that makes you different.

  2. It's a strange thing, isn't it Julie? I know what you mean - I can't nail down what the difference is in how I feel in myself, but there is definitely something new going on. I wonder how much your Catholic roots mean that you're more tuned into the differences of being a priest? In Anglicanism one sometimes gets the feeling that it only makes a difference to a very few. Or perhaps we just don't talk about it enough!