Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 August 2015 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 August 2015

Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie

Six weeks ago, when we began our journey through Hebrews at Evensong, I mentioned that one theme of the letter, Christ understood as ‘our great High Priest’, had led the sixteenth century reformers to draw back from using the language of priesthood of ordained ministry. I suggested then that countering that error should be the subject of another sermon, so here goes.

Christian priesthood is a vast topic, and may well be less interesting to you than to me. But as Hebrews takes the High Priesthood of Christ as its major topic any consideration of the letter leads this way.

The core question for the church as we have developed it is the disjunction between Catholic teaching about ordained or ‘official’ ministerial priesthood (belonging to the institutional, ordered Church) and what is called ‘charismatic’ or ‘prophetic’ ministry (roughly ‘spontaneous church’, at least in its self-appraisal).

Luther retained official ordained ministry, though shying away from priestly terminology; the subsequent more radical reformation often rejected official ministry completely, certainly wanting nothing suggestive of priesthood, on the basis of a theology which derives from Luther and goes under the title of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. This speaks of all the baptized as priestly and relies heavily on Hebrews.

The phrase ‘priesthood of all believers’ has a complicated history. It is not found in scripture, and Luther himself did not use it. He certainly taught that there was no essential difference between laity and clergy in the Church and that is the plain sense of the phrase. This is where the Church of England is definitely not a classical protestant church, because even Cranmer in his most radical mode failed to remove priesthood from our Church.

Hebrews and verses in 1 Peter which are the mainstay of this argument, are about this sense of the whole people of God as priestly, as involved in the new  ‘priestly’ calling in which we all share through our common baptism. This is the new understanding of infectious holiness and purity about which I was talking 6 weeks ago: in Hebrews the distinctions between clean and unclean and between people and priestly caste are removed by Christ.

But this does not cancel the need for official priesthood in the Church. Even though the system of official ministry inherited from the Middle Ages was often corrupt, the reformed theory of a supposedly ‘biblical’ or scriptural ministry was (and is) fatally flawed because it ignores the way the Bible came about, in service to a Church which was already going about its Eucharistic business.

At the heart of this error is a dearly-held protestant narrative of decadence: the decadence of the early church from a supposed first-generation golden age of charismatic enthusiasm. But, as Dom Gregory Dix observed sixty years ago, what we find in the New Testament is a variety of ministerial activities rather than any system of church order: so there is no contradiction. And we remember that by the time the New Testament was written down, and more significantly, by the time it was codified in the form we have received (431 at the earliest) official priesthood had been up and running for decades: the activity of Eucharist, not reading a book, was the defining action of the Church.

For the first Christians the Church was inseparable from the Eucharist (and the pastoral work it implies). This Eucharistic core required, almost immediately, an official ministry which is recognizable to us. There is good early evidence of it. So why did this need to be a priesthood? Because Christians also very quickly understood the Eucharist to be a new sacrifice: intimately related to and actually articulating the unique and defining sacrifice of Christ on the cross, it is a sacrificial action; by definition, sacrifices are presided over by priests.

To reformulate that, no priest, no sacrifice. The Eucharist makes the church and needs a priesthood to serve it (service being the correct category). Why not then, as the reformers suggested, dispense with this sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist and ‘go back’ to a simple Bible Christianity with everyone in their own individual and personal relationship with Jesus? The answer is simple: there never was such a thing. We may make a church like that if we want, but we cannot pretend that version of the church existed in the first Christian centuries. It is an innovation of the reformation era, founded on misunderstanding and wishful thinking.

In the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection, in the period described in Acts (coterminous with Paul’s ministry), there was already a priesthood, that of the Temple. Christian worship, we are told in Acts, was offered in addition and parallel to that worship [2.46]. But once the Temple was destroyed (in 70AD) and Christians and Jews went their separate ways it became unproblematic to develop a ministerial priesthood in Christianity. All of this happened very quickly, probably before the end of the first century [Didache 14; Clement below]; certainly centuries before the formation of the canon of scripture, the doctrines of the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ, and the adoption of the creeds.

Raymond Brown, the great RC commentator on John, observes that there are two preconditions for the development of a Christian priesthood. First, Christianity needed to identify itself as a religious body distinct from Judaism, with or without the Temple. Second,

‘Christianity had to have a sacrifice at which a priesthood could preside. This second condition was fulfilled when the Eucharist was seen as an unbloody sacrifice replacing the bloody sacrifices no longer offered in the now-destroyed Temple.’ 

Priest and Bishop, 18f.

Clement of Rome (who died in 99) writes of bishops ‘making the offerings’ (a purely sacrificial terminology in Greek) (1 Clement 44.4) and describes the offering in explicitly priestly terms (40.4f.). Brown notes:

‘Thus the Christian terminology of Eucharistic sacrifice and of priesthood begin to be used side by side, frequently contrasted with their rejected priestly counterparts. Just after the end of the second century Tertullian [(De Baptismo 17)] can speak of the bishop as summus sacerdos and Hippolytus of Rome [(Apostolic Tradition III.5)] can refer to the “high priestly spirit” of the bishop.’

Brown, Priest and Bishop 19

Clement also first uses the term ‘layman’ (λαÏŠκὸς ἄνθρωπος) clearly demarcating ordained and non-ordained in the offering of the sacrifice (not in any other way). Again, this is 330 years before there was a Christian bible.

The official or ordained priesthood and the Eucharist are an inseparable and interdependent development of Christian doctrinal practice. They are ‘first order’ matters in Christianity, because they sustained and nourished, indeed created, the Church while she was working out what scripture was and how to describe what the faith meant.

So the Eucharist should be, properly understood, our one still point as Christians, beyond all doctrinal controversy and division. Christian unity probably requires that we stop thinking of it as a boundary marker and begin afresh sharing it and experiencing it together.