Praying For England edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley

(London: Continuum, 2008)

What is it to be a christian priest in a secular society?  What do we do and why?  Is there still a public role for priests once religion has been privatized and marginalized?  These are the highly existential questions of this book and they feature prominently, and somewhat painfully, in my own life as mother-priest-daughter-sister-sociologist-writer-theologian-melbournian.  In the introduction Sarah Coakley describes this as a recovery of the ‘liminal sensibility’ of ministry.  “The representational ‘invisibility’ of priesthood in a secular society thus can, paradoxically, be its true strength” (p4).

The book includes chapters from Stephen Cherry on being the Representative God Person in a community tragedy; Peter Wilcox on the parallels between Priest and Footfall Fan; Samuel Wells on Godly Play; Edmund Newry on Presence in Funeral Ministry; Jessica Martin on paying Attention when life is hard (an incredibly moving chapter); Andrew Shanks on owning up to our past, present and future with honesty (fantastic!); Grace Davies on vicarious ‘debate’; and a final theological reflection from Rowan Williams (erudite as ever).

I am grateful for this book.  There are elements to it which have challenged me, because I don’t see myself being good at some of the public roles of  priestly ‘representation’ presented in some of these stories of ‘traditional’ parish roles.  And yet, if I translate the theological purpose or identity into the context of my own mixed-up set of relationships, that dissolve the boundaries between public and private, I’m very comfortable.  As a priest born into the evangelical family, I fear we reacted too severely to ‘ontological theories’ of ordination that we missed the basic Christian characteristics of incarnational living which has a particular expression in priesthood.  We embody the gospel of Christ for those with whom we cross paths, we live it not just teach it.

I think coming to terms with the embodied nature of priesthood has been a particular journey for me as a woman.  The more comfortable I have become with my own femininity, the less propositional my notions of priestly ministry have become and the more integrated with myself as a whole person.  This fits with my image of the womb as a definitional image for the feminine – drawing the world into ourselves to love and live from our inner place.

Jessica Martin writes about the struggle to hold onto her priestly vocation when most of life is absorbed with the trauma of loving a daughter suffering from drug addiction.  I wish more stories like this were told but instead we keep secrets and lose the benefit of the insights which struggle brings.  Priests are always human beings first, with responsibilities as humans and christians, that must not be neglected if one’s priestly ministry is to be effective.  The damage done by priests who have refused to address their own inner needs or illnesses are too well known.  We need to shake the human ego out of the priesthood and let the Spirit of God preside.

Rowan Williams never ceases to inspire me and I was so humbled by his words about sacrifice being at the heart of the priestly life.  He also talks about wonderful God opportunities in liminality (which could have gone into my liminality essay if I’d had another month plus an extra 2,000 words to include a section on vocation):

“So where the priestly people are to be found is where there is a certain kind of space for human beings, a space that does not belong to any sub-section of the human race, but – because it is first the space cleared by God – is understood as a space where humanity as such is welcome.  It is not defended against anyone; it exists because of the defencelessness of God in the crucified Jesus.  Those who occupy it are not charged with marking it out as a territory sharply defined over against territory that is the property of others; they are to sustain it as a welcoming place.”

What a hard lesson this is – that just when we feel like life is not working properly and we don’t quite ‘fit’ – that is the very best opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, to love God, and to love our neighbour standing right there with us in the shit, whoever they turn out to be.

This book has helped me clarify the purpose, plans and passions of the reddresstheology project (not just the blog – the whole ‘ministry’ of theology as spiritual exercise and spiritual gift to the church).  I have no desire to be an academic, I’m a priest.  My concern is for the spiritual and wholistic growth of individuals and the church.  My passion is to see people come alive with the spirit of Christ at work within them.  That’s good to know about myself:  I write to move people in the depths of their being and hope that God will use that to draw them towards Godself.

Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All by L. William Countryman

(Morehouse Publishing: PA, 1999)

I picked this book up three times before I conceded a need to persist with it.  Its not that it is difficult to read, but rather at first take it seemed, how can a say,  ‘a little way out’!  This is the difficulty with dealing with the metaphysical!  Language only ever faultingly testifies to the inner reality of human experience, let alone the transcendent realities of God and the Universe.

Countryman argues that humanity shares a ‘universal human priesthood’.  Every human has the capacity to encounter and then pass on something of transcendent significance.  He uses the imagery of a ‘border country’ – a place still in the everyday, but close enough to the mysteries of life beyond the everyday that one catches glimpses of existence over the border.  It is not possible to manufacture knowledge of the transcendent, but it is possible to nurture exposure trips to the uncomfortable climate of borderland where we might be more likely to encounter it.  It is the place where we discover our own finitude and our incontrovertible interconnectedness.  This experience of humanity under-girds the priestly ministry of  the church, both the whole people of God as the priesthood of all believers, and the sacramental ministry of ordained priests.  Countryman has some wonderful descriptions and advice about the nature of ordained ministry, its training and selection which resonated with me strongly.

I continue to struggle with Countryman’s choice of the language of ‘priesthood of all humanity’, but I do understand why he’s chosen it.  He wants to emphasise the human capacity for deep connection with each other in relation to the Mysteries of Life.  For the unlikely stranger showing us the true meaning of Love; the rescue-hero stories from New Zealand and Japan inspiring us with  Goodness; even in a negative sense, the charlatan evangelist revealing our deepest human Longings.  All these individuals are mediating knowledge, either consciously or unconsciously, of something beyond themselves.

In the theological categories I was schooled in, this is Creation Theology – “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20)   Yet there is something more subtle as well, which I think is evidenced in the bible’s Wisdom Tradition:  “By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place” (Proverbs 3:19).  This Eternal Wisdom is built into the very nature of the universe and publicly declares her voice, “Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square” (Proverbs 1:20).  I imagine it as God’s gift to the universe as I gift skills for living to my children, that they might  develop a maturity through which they can manage their own pathway through life.  Such Wisdom requires human humility – “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) –  which ultimately leads the willing spirit to Christ:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength… It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:27-30)

It is relation to Christ where Countryman’s vision of priesthood finally made sense to me.  For it is the priestly ministry of Christ on which all of (Christian) Life turns.  Christ does little more than present his own knowledge and intimacy with the Divine for the benefit and learning of others – it’s the boundless magnitude of the Son of Man’s relationship with the Transcendent (i.e. Christ was God at one and the same time as being Human) that sets him apart from other human beings and equips him with the power to transforms all Existence.  Maybe this is what is captured in Hebrews:  Jesus’ perfect priesthood is dependent on both his own sinlessness and his capacity to identify with our weaknesses that he might intercede for us.

“What made Jesus’ priesthood perfect was its authenticity and clarity.  Jesus’ life was so filled with Truth and so open the the Holy that it admitted no falsehood and no dimming of its transparency to God.  It becomes a kind of touchstone by which our own authenticity and clarity may be gauged…  It becomes the priesthood that counsels us in our deepest encounter with the Holy” (p,62)

Called to Minister: Vocational Discernment in the Contemporary Church edited by Tom Frame

(Barton Books; Canberra, 2009)

This volume by members of the St Mark’s National Theological Centre community, was written to speak to a fairly widespread confusion about the roles and calls of ministry in today’s church.  As such, it is a book I would be happy to give to intellectually oriented individuals if they were trying to discern their own ‘vocation’ – where they fitted in God’s economy and in the church.  This is largely because the writers speak so confidently of the underlying objectives of ministry – to equip the saints for the the building up of the church – and the work of the whole church – to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world.   Personally, I think it would be a fantastic outcome for the church if 9 out of 10 people who read this book were inspired to embrace non-ordained contexts in which to fulfill their commitment to Jesus, which is not out of the question given the inspiring chapters on the priesthood of all believers (by Heather Thompson) and the vocation of the laity (by Bruce Kaye).  I would also happily make this book prescribed reading for all those involved in institutional settings of ordained vocational discernment and training – most particularly because of such an inspiring couple of chapters on distinctive diaconal ministry (by Peter Pocock and a personal reflection by Peter Rose) which we would do well to recover.  Sadly lacking is an chapter on episcopal ministry.

Favourite quote?  From Sarah Bachelard on ‘Spiritual Maturity and Ministerial Obligation’:

The robustness of our faith, however, does not primarily relate to the fervour of our conviction or the inflexibility of our orthodoxy.  It is much more about the depth at which we inhabit the truths of the gospel, discovering how they transform our lives in concrete ways – how we relate to time and the material world, the freedom we have to befriend those who are unwanted and despised, the joy and the peace with which we are enabled to contemplate our death and the frustration of our ambition.  The gospel is an invitation into a new way of living, a new way of experiencing the world and its limits.”

‘The Laity’ by Fredrica Harris Thompsett

Chapter in Stephen Sykes & John Booty, The Study of Anglicanism (SPCK/Fortress Press; London, 1988, pp 245-260)

I’ve begun thinking about ‘vocations’ and discovering this great Anglican emphasis on ‘the vocation of the laity’ which is really just jargon for ‘being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world’.  What’s great however, is the reminder that, unless a Christian is ‘called’, equipped, well suited and set apart for ‘ministry’ in the church, the focus for everyday Christian endeavour is NOT in the church but in the ‘world’. Why do we insist on tying up our church’s time and energy with running ‘church’ programs?  It stifles Christian witness and work for justice and love of neighbour and also contributes to the dualist exaggeration of ‘us and them’.

“In theology reminiscent of William Temple, Simone Weil wrote that ‘the pursuit of truth must never be separated from the love of persons’.  An ethical, everyday Christian spirituality that might carry us into the future would do well to pay attention to traditional Anglican perspectives on laity.  Thus, for example, the theology of humanity would be socially grounded, enlivened with the incarnational legacy of responsible belonging to God; worship and prayer would be accessible to all regardless of education or social location; educational resources would be expansive, shaped by listening to those with whom we learn; and a spirited ecumenically-minded Church in mission would be willing to explore unknown areas with persons of divine perspectives, faiths, and nationalities.  Through participation in such a Church, Anglican laity would continue to find extraordinary significance in the ordinary and know that truth reveals itself in patterns of human events, in collective testimonies old and new.” p258

Christopher Cocksworth & Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity

(Canterbury Pres; UK, 2nd Ed 2006)

I read this book quickly while searching for an Ordination gift for a friend.  I am definitely going to have to buy another copy and take it away on retreat sometime to ponder and pray over!  The authors cover the root, shape and fruit of priestly life and, as the title suggests, launches from the ‘being’ aspects of ministry to explore the ‘doing’.  Returning to the basics in this way increased my capacity to explore how I might imaginatively and genuinely express my calling to anglican priesthood in the time and place which I live.   It’s a book which is theologically sophisticated – drawing extensively from the bible, church fathers (east and west) and christian wisdom from diverse traditions.  Yet it reads like devotional literature and I found myself inspired, spiritually nurtured and excited about being me.

Stephen Pickard, Theological Foundations for Collaborative Ministry

(Ashgate: United Kingdom: 2009)

In Theological Foundations for Collaborative Ministry, Stephen Pickard suggests we need to refocus our theological attention on Baptism as the undergirding principle by which all Christians are called to ministry.  Quoting Robert Hannaford , he argues for a firmly defined nuance:  “Baptism does not… so much bestow a ministerial calling as call someone into the ministerial community of the Church” (page 17).  A Trinitarian framework for examining Spiritual Gifting and Vocational Calling draws us into a balance between an Episcopalian framework for the ordering of ministry, and a Priesthood of all Believers framework for acknowledging the dynamic and diverse spiritual gifting of (for) the Church.  Rediscovering the relational basis for Ordained Ministry draws us beyond the current tendency towards an ecclesiology driven by managerial institutionalism, just as an emphasis on Trinitarian theology has reoriented our understanding of Doctrine and Worship in recent years.  “And there does seem to be a consensus that the clues, if not the answers, to some of the most intractable issues to do with the ministries of the Church lie buried in the riches of a dynamic Christian Trinitarianism” (page 43).  Pickard’s thesis is well argued, thoroughly evidenced and clearly elucidated in the implications for ecumenicalism and episcopacy.

I have been waiting to read this book for a long time – that is, it directs me to theological ways ahead on some really important issues for the Church and it’s Ministers (lay and ordained).  Extending the application of a relational Trinitarian theology as it has been rediscovered in recent years to both Ecclesiology and Ministry is a natural step forward in contemporary theological discussions, and indeed, seems blindingly obvious in hindsight.   “My ministry is called forth by the ministries of others.  The ministries animate each other.  There are no autonomous and self-perpetuating ministries.  Our life is not only hid in Christ, but our ministries are hid in Christ and in each other” (page 229).