Saturday, February 02, 2008

Going Out On A Limb

Looking at the comment boxes for the last few posts, especially the post where I reference Bradley Nassif's interview, it seems that the nature and the practice of the priesthood as well as the character of men we ordain to the priesthood are topics of more than passing interest. This of course is as it should be—we should exercise great care and concern over those who we put in positions of authority in the Church.

I think we can all agree that Nassif's statement about some Orthodox clergy not having a living relationship with Jesus Christ is shocking. It is that and more. The real question, whatever might be the inadequacies of how he expressed himself, is this: Is he correct? Is it possible to become a priest in the Orthodox Church and NOT have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

Even a cursory reading of the disciplinary canons that pertain to the clergy would suggest that, yes, it is possible for a man to be ordained and have no real relationship with Jesus Christ. It is also possible for a man, after he is ordained, to lose that relationship.

Some have sought ordination out of pride or ambition. While I hope less common today, it was not unheard of for a man to become a priest because his dad was a priest. Still others come to holy orders in an attempt to overcome a deep inner void or lack of a sense of their own personal self-worth.

None of these necessarily preclude the man becoming not only a good priest, but even a saint. As with marriage, the man most grow into the office he receives at ordination. I hope that, after almost 23 years of marriage, I am a better husband to my wife then when we were first married. Likewise I hope that, after 11 years, I am a better priest then when I was first ordained.

In marriage and in ministry growth is not simply a matter of learning new things—though there is plenty of that in both. There is also a necessary purification of heart and an ever deepening understanding and appreciation of that to which Christ has called me. For this reason even the best of beginnings must be transcended, moving as we do in our spiritual life from "glory to glory."

A bad beginning then does not necessarily mean a bad ending.

At the same time, so much of what we do not simply as clergy, and even more fundamentally as Christians, necessarily flows out of both divine grace ("that makes up that which is lacking"), and our own character. Yes, there is the example of Balaam's ass (Num 22.1-35). Or if you prefer there is response given to the Pharisees who demand that Jesus silence His support that, "I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out." (Luke 19:40). So yes, through asses and stones, the Gospel can be proclaimed.

But this is not the whole of the story.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that the Gospel can be proclaimed with great profit by those motive by "envy and strife" and "selfish ambition" with the hope of "to add affliction." And "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice" (see for example, Phil 1.12-18). Great profit? Yes, but not for the unrepentant preaching who clings to his darker motives and allows them, often by neglect, to blot out the Light of Christ.

St Paul says the Church at Philippi:

Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation,
and that from God. For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me (vv. 27-30).

The Apostle enjoins us to bring our lives into conformity with the Gospel. Again, the proclamation of the Gospel is not dependent on human character. Failure to grasp this was the downfall of the Donatists. But my salvation is very much dependent on my character.

While certainly no one who has posted on this blog has done so, to remain indifferent to brother or sister in Christ who we know cannot remain chaste, or sober, or be trusted with money or children or something told in confidence is, at a minimum, irresponsible. More likely it is cruel since, even if they hurt no one else, they are hurting themselves.

I cannot prevent simple human failure in myself, much less others. Nor can I prevent grievous human sinfulness. Any attempt on my part to do so is not only doomed to failure, it is also very likely a sin on my part. Why? Because sin is the misuse of our freedom. I cannot in any absolute sense prevent you from sinning unless I curtail in some way your freedom.

But if prevention in the absolute sense is impossible, what is left?

My response.

Thinking a bit more deeply about Nassif's words, as well as the universally insightful comments offered in the comment box, the concern that each priest has a living relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, is a moral and practical imperative because we love our spiritual fathers the clergy. Clergy will fail, even with the best of intention and education. How they, and we, respond to that failure will largely be determined by quality of the spiritual lives and character of those concerned.

If we fail to place the living, vibrant relationship of each member of the Church at the center of all we do then when the inevitable failures, in our clergy and in ourselves, happen, what resources do we really have?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Print this post