(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.