Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Which Come First: Office Or Character?

Reading through the most excellent comments on an earlier post on "closed source" and "open source" models of ministry I note, not all together happily I hasten to add, the prominence of the priest and his role in making or breaking the parish. I do not wish to minimize the importance of the priest--far from it in fact. But I do have a few thoughts that might help us, or at least me, come to a bit of clarity about the relationship between the priest and the parish.

First, and both Chrys and S-P have alluded to this, there is the question of the priest's character. In the usual order of things, which is to say how we do things today, we trust the man because he is a priest. It is the fact of his ordination to priesthood that causes us to think and speak about the priest as trustworthy and a leader.

But this I think is exactly backwards.

We do not, or at least ought not, trust a man because he is a priest. Rather he is a priest because we trust him. Likewise the priest's leadership role in the worship of God is his precisely because he has, or should have, demonstrated his able to lead the parish in the other areas of the Christian life. Let me explain.

Historically men were ordained to the priesthood not to serve parishes, but to counsel the bishop. It was the bishop's responsibility to stand at the head of the community and lead the People of God in offering praise and sacrifice to God. When the Church gathered, all the orders of the Church, laity, deacons and priests, each in their own place (thus "orders") stood together with the bishop around the Holy Altar. The priests stood closer to the Holy Altar and the bishop during the Liturgy as a reflection of his unique role in the Church.

This role was three-fold: First, in the early Church priests were the wise elders (presbyter, is Greek for elder) who served as counselors to the bishop. Second, by virtue of their demonstrated wisdom and mature counsel, presbyters assisted the bishop as governors of the Holy Church of Christ (the diocese). Third and finally, these wise counselors and experienced governors were also teachers who expounded the Word of God with power and authority (it is noteworthy that St John Chrysostom came to prominence as a preacher will still a priest in Antioch.

Before all else the ministry of the presbyter is to counsel, govern and teach. It is only as a consequence of his fulfilling these obligation that a man would be entrusted to lead the Church of Christ in offering praise and sacrifice to God the Father in the absence of the bishop.

While I am not in anyway opposed to the professionalizing of the clergy, it is important to keep in mind that the office as priest is first and foremost about character and virtue and not professional skills (no matter how important). This means that the priest must demonstrate that he is to be trusted not simply in a general sense, but specifically in his ability to serve as counselor, governor and teacher for the Church. The witness of a priest is first and foremost a personal witness and then, only secondarily, a reflection of skills.

This means that, to borrow a phrase from my young ministry days, the priest must "earn the right to be heard.' Usually factors such as seminary education and subsequent ordination will get the man the benefit of the doubt since most of us respect education and the office of the priest. But these factors while important, and in the case of ordination essential, they are nevertheless external to the man and so external to his character and his personal relationship to the Church.

In our conversations about the priesthood we (laity and clergy alike) tend reduce the office to liturgy, so closely do we identify the priest with his parochial liturgical duties. For many priests and parishes this reduction of the priest to his liturgical duties is the preferred state of affairs.

Doing this however is harmful both for the priest and the parish.

Even when the model is not priest/spiritual, on the one hand, and laity/business, on the other, is a bad idea. The narrow identification of the parish priest with his liturgical role does not encourage the priest to grow and develop pastorally and professionally, much less personally. If all that I'm expected to do as the priest, if all I want to do as the priest, is to celebrate the services, then I will very quickly stagnate. Whether I find myself serving a parish with an active or minimal liturgical life doesn't really matter. In either case I am left with a rather large void in my life that I will try and fill with something other than the development of the non-liturgical gifts God has given me.

For some that means more services. One real consequence, or at least temptation, is that the priest begins to confuse his liturgical function with who is really is. In this case the goal of the priest is to be confirmed in his liturgically based identity. When this happens the priest is likely to ignore, or worse, resent, anyone or anything that distracts him from his liturgical obligations.

Or, if liturgy isn't all that important to the parish and no one has much non-liturgical use for priest, he'll try and find other interests, typically social, to fill the void. Whether these social interests are ecclesiastical or secular doesn't matter. With his social life becomes more and more important, as committee work and dinners become evermore fill his day, the priest is subject to petty vanities.

In either case the priest suffers. And with the priest, the whole Church, the diocese and the parish, also suffer; we suffer because we lose the gifts that the man brought to the priesthood. And we lose as well because, following the example of the priest, we begin to identify our own spiritual life with either an extensive cycle of liturgical services, or an unending round of social activities. And this assume that, unlike the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, we simply don't walk away limiting our participation in the Church to baptisms, weddings and funerals.

So what is the way out?

It is a return to the primacy of character. Not simply the character of the priest, but of each and every single person in the parish. The problems, the temptations, and failures facing the priest are not his alone. They are common to the whole human family and especially to the Church.

To overcome all this, requires leadership and providing this is the first challenge of the priest. His character is tested by how well he is willing to place the riches of the Tradition, and the real power of his office, to the work of transforming lives.

For good or ill, the priest leads by example. Either he leads the parish to salvation or leaves them in stagnation. To lead them to salvation however requires that he place himself on the line, that he understand that his office buys him only a polite "hello" and a moment of time.

After that, what he does is dependent on divine grace and his own creativity.

But that I will leave for another time.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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