According to internet slang.com a BAP could be “Soft bread roll” or “Breast” or “Black American Princess”. But if for you BAP sounds like a cross between a visit to the Big Brother House and a job for life interview this blog post is for you. For BAP comes to be a very important term for many would-be CoE priests – it stands for Bishop’s Advisory Panel – a three day residential recruitment process – and if you’ve been through one recently I’d love to collect your comments below.
Many an Ordinand will insist (after BAP): ‘I don’t want to be called a priest’
In particular I want to give some pointers to the question ‘what is a priest?’ or ‘why do you feel called to be a priest?’ For many exploring ordination this word is a HUGE stumbling block. If your vicar was hard to distinguish from the rest of the congregation with an open-collared, just call me “Norman/Sharon” approach, you’re inevitably starting from a very different place to the candidates who have been used to Mother Norma or Father Trev or more middle of the road types like Canon Talkslow or the Reverend Procrastinate.
If you’ve spent most of the time being led by a Norman or a Sharon it’s probably likely that the word priest was discussed in your church more as a term to be avoided than one to celebrate when applied to one individual. So you’re heading to your BAP desperately trying to work out now how you justify a term that you’ve been taught flies against the ancient and crucial doctrine of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ – which if you went to a particularly active sort of church doctrine was probably abbreviated to ‘all involved’ or in a youth/student church to the doctrine of ‘everybody gets to play’. The idea that one person is needed to mediate between others and God is likely to be anathema to you. The old testament priests are no longer needed to make sacrifices because Jesus has done that hasn’t he? and have I mentioned that everyone gets to play?
So you may be pondering how are you on the one hand going to blag your way past the assessors, or on the other hand, if you’re a bit more humble (definitely recommended for everyone’s sake), what can you learn from this funny tradition that wants you to be called a priest? Is it possible to pursue this term without compromising your integrity and having to cross your fingers behind your back?
It seems to me that there are two perfectly reasonable approaches to take. One requires that you have read your bible a bit and the other probably needs about half a theology degree to get your head round:
The Ponsonby Priest
Simon Ponsonby, ‘Pastor of Theology’ (aka one of the priests at St Aldate’s Oxford and preaching supremo) picks up the topic autobiographically in his talk An Ordinary Priest. In this talk he makes the simple point that there is one main reference in New Testament to an individual (apart from Christ) exercising ‘priestly ministry’ and so this makes an apt starting point. It comes in Romans 15.
14 I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. 15 Yet I have written to you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
17 Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. 18 I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – 19 by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. 20 It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.
You’ll notice a few things from the passage immediately: The congregations in Rome all got to play! They are competent to instruct each other, and show great signs of Christian maturity (goodness and knowledge together). So why do they need the priestly ministry Paul intends to bring through writing to them at all?
He says he needs to write boldly because that is the grace/gift he has been given – to be a minister. The minister’s passion is that everyone is made acceptable to God and made holy (sanctified) by the Holy Spirit. How does the minister keep going on this? His answer is that the minister can does this by fulfilling the priestly role. And what is that role? It is proclaiming the Gospel – a Gospel that leads people to obey God. His priestly modus operandi is to point to Christ, to break new ground where people do not yet know Christ, to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit and to see signs and wonders displayed. He is bold where people need life changing instruction and his expectation is that his ministry will lead to radically transformed lives who are obedient to God, and acceptable to God. This priestly ministry is then an apostolic, church planting, preaching, teaching , pastoral, whole life disciple making agenda. It sounds pretty exciting. It’s the apostolic preacher type who has a priestly ministry. If you feel called to something similar then it is not a big jump to define yourself as a priest.
If that all sounds a little bit specialist and beyond you, you may like to fasten your theological seat belts and try and get your head around the principal of St Mellitus’ way into the subject. Graham Tomlin is a great priest and theologian with a love of the reformation period (Sixteenth Century – Martin Luther/John Calvin etc).
For Graham it all boils down to ‘The Priesthood of Christ’, joy and up to three different priestly callings you can have – as a human being, as a part of the church and as an ordained minister. Hang in there…it will all make sense!
God created the world for JOY! His and creation’s… We are ultimately here to enable JOY…the way that we contribute to that is called priesthood – Priesthood is when God chooses a part of the whole in order to bring a blessing (joy) on the whole… For example, early in the Old Testament in Exodus 19: Israel are chosen as a part of the nations in order that they might be a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Why? in order that they may be a light and a blessing to all the nations… a few are chosen for the sake of the many.
Graham does a quick historical run through the thoughts of John Calvin – about Christ being a Priest (‘the priesthood of Christ’!) and Karl Barth (Twentieth Century very important theologian). It is because Christ is a priest that we can be saved says Calvin, and Christ the priest is the one who chooses us to follow him, says Barth.
Christ the Priest
So everything starts with Christ… even if you want to understand the Old Testament priesthood you need to begin with Jesus. If you look at the book of Hebrews you will find that the ancient priest Melchezidek who blessed Abraham was modelled on Christ – and this was hundreds of years before Aaron, the levitical priests and the law of Moses came along, let alone the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. So if you want to work out what a priest is before/after Christ you need to look first to Christ the Priest.
Christ as Priest in the Book of Hebrews:
In Hebrews Christ the Priest brings God to us…. and then brings us to God… he descends (incarnation/cross) and ascends (resurrection/ascension)
Christ does three things as true high priest:
- Mediates – exactly like God & exactly like us in Hebrews.
- Perfects – he is made perfect through suffering – makes human nature perfect & then perfects us…
- Offers – takes a perfect human life and offers it back as worship – and through a single offering perfects for all time those whom he makes a sacrifice for.
Therefore – a priest mediates, perfects and offers… because it is simply joining in with what Christ does.
But here’s the big questions: If Christ is one true mediator and sacrifice is there any room for other priests?
This may be where your personal anathema to ‘priest’ comes from too! Luther: on ministry: critiques whether we should be known as priests as the main function of ministry is ministry of the word. Preaching, baptising, bread and wine, absolution, sacrifice of ourselves and bodies, praying for others – these are all the ‘ministry of the word’ and all Christian people are called to this. So all Christians are priests – made by baptism not ordination – yet he reserves some functions for those called apart for the sake of order… don’t distract from priesthood of church by talking about ministers as priests..
Calvin: emphasises Christ is true mediator – no need for human mediator. Don’t distract from priesthood of Christ by calling ministers priests.
Luther: What Luther is talking about is different to what we here with our individualistic ears and culture. Christ’s priesthood is mediated through each other not directly to individual. Priesthood of all believers as phrase was first used in the 19 Century not in the reformation 16 Century. For Luther it didn’t mean I am an individual and don’t need everyone else… rather we do need each other! We need someone to do these things – we are interdependent on each other.
Calvin: One of his big emphasises is our participation in Christ – in our union with Christ gifts are given to us. We get to participate in Christ as sons of God – adopted ones. This makes us free.
But Christ is the one and only Son. How can we be sons too? Yet we do participate as sons and can call ourselves sons… we share in the sonship – not by nature (like Christ) but by grace and adoption. So we can participate in sonship without compromising his unique sonship.
In the same way we share in Christ’s priesthood without compromising his unique priesthood.
This is after all what the priesthood of church does…
Christ is the one true high priest… he descends and ascends. He becomes a part of humanity and a part of creation so he can bless the whole of humanity and the whole of creation.
So the priesthood is Christ’s but there are up to three ways that we are invited to share in that priesthood:
There are three ways that we can be a part to bless the whole – through mediating, perfecting and offering.
- priesthood of humanity: – so the human race is a part of creation set apart to bless the whole.
- Mediating: Genesis 1 – we are called to bear divine image but Genesis 2: we are summoned out of mud!
- Perfect: Genesis 2/3: take the world and work it – make art, make things work etc… care and protect… bring order and beauty.
- Offer as worship: genesis 4 – offer first fruits back to God. (cf Rom 12:1-2 offer your bodies as living worship). We do this on behalf of all of creation. Humans express praise of all nature to God (Multmann quote). We voice the silent praise of creation.
Yet we often don’t mediate but abuse; don’t perfect but harm; don’t offer but abuse.
So how does humanity regain its priestly role:
2. Priesthood of church… The Church is chosen out of whole human race to enable the whole of humanity to be all that it is called to be as the priests of creation…
- Church as mediating: it is earthy and human, yet also called out of and divine (the body of Christ). It is called out to be a blessing.
- Church as perfecting: intercession: 1 Timothy 2: Church urged to pray! Join in Christ’s prayer – he is the true pray-er. It is one of primary roles by which we are called to be a blessing. Bless we are called to be a blessing in the community. Can do this ontologically (just by being there) and functionally (do acts of kindness). Evangelism perfect people by calling them to be restored to Christ. Romans 15:16… is all about evangelism. Evangelism is one of the primary priestly duties…
- Church as offering…. We do evangelism to make gentiles an acceptable offering to God. James Torrence: worship is the joining in of the Son’s worship to the Father through the spirit
3. Minister as priest in the pattern of Christ.
Her/his ’s role then is to enable the church as a whole to be edified that it might fulfil it’s priestly duties towards the rest of humanity: a priestly minister will mediate, perfect and make an offering.
- We mediate between God and church. We are ordinary lay people, flawed, doubting etc. baptism is the basic calling that makes us a priesthood.
We are deeply lay, Christian and ordinary, yet also called out of church to be a blessing to whole church – order, enable, minister word and sacrament around Christ himself.
- We are perfectors, – present them perfect. – care, leadership, direction, spiritual formation.
perfectors: ‘Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’ Jesus Mt 28:19
- we are called to offer the church back to God – colossians 1:24-29
we need priests to let the church fulfil its priestly calling to enable humanity to fulfil its priestly calling to enable Christ to fully fulfil his priestly calling…
So, says Graham, you’re already priestly in your humanity, your baptism into the church and by calling through your servant ministry. You join in Christ’s priesthood – it’s all his and his gift to share. Keep your various priestly ministries in good balance and you’ll be a joy bringing blessing to creation, humanity and to the church as you mediate, offer and perfect just as Christ did.
To read Graham Tomlin in full check out :
Many of the other books on priesthood will give you some more nuts and bolts on what a vicar’s job is like (see this poem for a brilliant overview of what ministry can feel like) But whether you choose the Tomlin Theology or the Ponsonby Priest there’s two ways at least of engaging with the terminology.
If you’re interested in finding out more about ordination visit: call waiting.org.uk
And for some recent experiences of the process check out: deanroberts.net