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)

‘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