As I walked through the Bourke Street mall last week, I ran into a member of my congregation. She was with a friend. We stopped to talk and she introduced me: ‘This is my priest!’ she said with a smile.
It’s not often I’m referred to as a priest, but whenever I am I have the same internal reaction. I want to correct. I want to set the record straight. ‘Oh, I’m not a priest!’ I want to say. I’ve learned that in situations like this, this response does nothing but confuse, so I don’t. But I want to.
I’d like to think my reaction is purely theological, the priesthood-of-all-believers flag that we Baptists hoist at every opportunity: yes, I am a priest, but aren’t we all?? That’s certainly true, but I have to be honest: my negative response has much more to do with wanting to be clear about what I’m not than embracing what I am.
I am not a Catholic to start with! I don’t wear a white collar and you can’t call me Father. I’m not a servant of some monolithic, out-dated and discriminating institution. And I am certainly not one of those priests that hides some deviant sexual behaviour in the closet. Most importantly, I am not different. I’m just like you … really!
The trouble is, I am all those things. I may not be Catholic with a collar to prove it, but I am part of the same Christian community and I’ve been set apart to play a particular role in its life and ministry. I am a servant of an ancient and endlessly discriminating institution. I am a sexual being as broken as anyone else, trying to live respectfully with my own body and the bodies of others. And I am different–uniquely gifted, scarred and flawed. I am all those things, and whether I like the title or not, I am a priest.
I have always found Alexander Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World an inspiring read. Schmemann is an Orthodox theologian and has a way of confronting some presuppositions about his own tradition while also challenging the expression of faith and ministry in others. At one point, writing about the nature of priestly ministry, he says this:
“For centuries the clerical state was exalted as virtually a ‘supernatural’ one, and there is a slight connotation of mystical awe when a man says: ‘People should respect the clergy.’ And if someday a science which has long been overdue—pastoral pathology—is taught in the seminaries, its first discovery might be that some ‘clerical vocations’ are in fact rooted in the morbid desire for that ‘supernatural respect,’ especially when the chances of a natural one are slim. Our secular world ‘respects’ clergy as its ‘respects’ cemeteries: both are needed, both are sacred, both are out of life. But what both clericalism and secularism—the former being, in fact, the natural father of the later—have made us forget is that to be a priest is from a profound point of view the most natural thing in the world. Man was created priest of the world, the one who offers the world to God in a sacrifice of love and praise, and who, through the eternal eucharist, bestows the divine love upon the world.”
‘To be a priest is the most natural thing in the world.’ I like that. While this Divine call to priestliness is mystical indeed, it is not a state distant or removed from real life. It is the expression of our calling to and with the world.