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March 05, 2006

What does a priest do?

I have just completed a paper on the role of a priest in the modern church. It has certainly been interesting, but it has also been a challenge. The challenge has been to write, in only two thousand words, a summary of the role. The problem with that is that the role is so huge and so wide that it is almsot impossible to achieve.

The task required the use of a limited range of source books, yet even here, the first thing that became clear was the consensus also contained a divergence of opinion in the sense that the individual authors all brought their own perspective of particular aspects. I started before Christmas, and have only just finished the reading, digesting and finally putting my own thoughts on paper.

If you want to read these they are in the extended post below.

Job or Vocation?
In a secular world there is a temptation, indeed a deep perception among many, sadly including some churchgoers, that the “Vicar” is simply a matter of someone choosing to enter that role as a form of employment. Few in today’s society understand the concept of feeling a “call” to perform a particular role or function, and fewer still would associate such a call with their chosen careers or professions.

Sadly, many today see the Vicar, Rector or Priest in Charge as the person who “manages” the local Parish Church, wears some strange outfits on occasions and is “on call” for funerals, marriages and baptisms when required. It is equally true to say that, as the perceived status of the Church has declined, in line with the decline in practicing faith and attendance at public worship, so the value of someone’s feeling a need to spend time in prayer or at worship is also no longer perceived as either necessary or good by those outside the Church. There is equally a feeling that it is an anachronism, a symbol of a dying faith, useful on occasions, but not particularly profitable or practical.

This misunderstanding ignores the fact that the role is a scriptural one in the sense that it follows on from a long tradition of God calling people out to be His especial servants, to act as leaders in worship, as “pray-ers”, as absolvers, as reconcilers and as theologians (Ramsey. M; The Christian Priest Today). This theme is the principle thrust of Brown and Cocksworth’s work as they expand this stating that the priest is for Worship, the Word, Prayer, Reconciliation, Holiness and Blessing. Unfortunately, in today’s world, this is often forgotten amidst the demands of legal duties, “managing” the Parish resources and the ministries of the laity.

Clearly, such a person is not found in a Job Centre (although he or she might be if God is calling them and they hear the call!), but is called out by God and once satisfied that the call is a call to the ordained ministry, must then be prepared to put this to the test, to undergo training and to accept the discipline that it requires. As Brown and Cocksworth’s treatise clearly shows, the priestly role is a vocation, and a very demanding one.

Called out of the congregation

Clearly the “Call” and the response is likely to be almost as individual as the people called. As the Gospel says, “Many are called; few are chosen”, and if for no other reason each “call” needs to be tested to determine the ministry and the gifts the individual brings or offers. Since the priest is called to be a leader or “elder” in the congregation – presbyteroi may be translated to mean either – it follows that this person must also be in possession of the qualities to be a minister, reconciler, healer (in the spiritual sense) and leader.
In one sense, as Brown and Cocksworth point out, the one called is one “called out of the congregation, to become the parent of the congregation”. This would certainly appear to be the understanding attached to this process of “calling” and of “ordination” in the surviving examples of ordination ritual from the Early Church. It is still very much the understanding of the modern church, in that the priest is one who has accepted God’s call to undertake a role which calls for acceptance of a role which requires the person to live as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, able to reconcile factions, provide absolution, interpret the Word of God, bring comfort to the sick, the dying and the bereaved.

The ordination rite of Hyppolytus makes the relationship between priest and people clear in the declaration required of the people in response to the question: “Do you choose …. “ and the congregation is required to respond with the words “We choose him!” In this model the “Presbyter” needs the people in order to be a presbyter, and the people likewise need the presbyter in order to be the people of God.

Leader, disciple and living the Word

The book “Ministry in Three Dimensions” (Steven Croft: Ministry in three dimensions; 2005 Darton, Longman and Todd) describes the ordained ministry as “Charismatic”, thereby suggesting that it is an outgoing and empowering ministry of the Spirit. This is not to suggest that the priestly ministry is recognised by it’s being engaged in some of the more extreme expressions of worship associated with the term (in recent years) “Charismatic, but rather that it is a ministry enabled, lead and driven by the Holy Spirit throughout. It is in the charismatic expression of the spirit that the priest, deacon and Bishop all exercise the ministry of Christ in the congregations.

The ancient understanding of the role of the “Presbyteroi”, the Diakonia and the Episcope was that these were individuals “called out of their congregations by the Holy Spirit” to exercise leadership, demonstrate Holiness and to be teachers and livers of the Word of God. It is in this spirit that St Paul writes to the Ephesians saying that though he suffers from some un-named infirmity, the Holy Spirit uses that very infirmity to demonstrate God’s power. Likewise he writes to Timothy saying that he should rely on the Spirit to sustain and strengthen him for the task of ministry. Those called are, according to Brown and Cocksworth, called to:

• Be for the “other”,
• To be for God,
• To be for discipleship,
• To be lead worship,
• To preside at the Eucharist,
• To be for the Word,
• To be messengers of the Word,
• To listen to the “world”,
• To be men and women of prayer, and
• To reap the fruits of holiness.

There is, however, a secular dimension which intrudes upon this, in that the modern priest is also responsible for a number of legally imposed duties which include the running of the parish in a manner that ensures it’s solvency!

Examining the somewhat crude “list” above in a little more detail, one soon discovers that the modern priest is, in common with his historic counterpart in the early church’s presbyters, a person who must fulfil a number of interdependent and yet, sometimes contradictory roles. He or she must be a conciliator, a worshipper and a leader of worship, a bringer of absolution and a penitent, a bringer of the Word, and it’s upholder. As Ramsey says in “The Christian Priest Today” (Ramsey M: The Christian Priest Today; 1985 SPCK, London.) the priest is called to be both the preacher of the Gospel truth and the ready ear of the penitent for whom absolution should be given.

It is clear that, in order to preach and to teach the word of God in the modern world, indeed, in order to make it relevant to the receivers of that word, the priest must interact with the lives and the world in which his hearers live. They cannot be divorced from the reality of the lives of those to whom he or she is called to minister. Thus too, in preaching the word of God to a congregation it must draw upon the realities of their lives, yet retain the essence and the hope to which God calls us.

Leadership and discipleship are uneasy partners, yet there are times when the disciple must be the leader. In the case of the priest, their discipleship is to Christ and his Earthly representation in the Church, Apostolic and Catholick. Yet, in their own Parish, it is the priest who is charged with the Cure of Souls and is by both calling and statute the “leader” of the Parish.

Spiritual dimensions

Above all, the priest is called to be “the man (or woman) of prayer” in the community. In this they need to be diligent, to use the resources available to them and to encourage others by their own example. Prayer may be achieved in several ways as Ramsey, Dewar, Donovan and Brown and Cocksworth remind us. It is present in action as well as thought, and again needs to be a reflection of the realities of those prayed for.

St Paul reminds us frequently that the Spirit imparts many gifts to different individuals and within any congregation this soon becomes apparent as these are discerned and exercised on behalf of others. It falls to the priest to assist all those given to his or her care, to develop these and to “grow in the Spirit”. Thus, the priest is an “enabler” as well as a “leader” in the congregation. This must surely be one of the most rewarding and frustrating aspects of priestly ministry, in that while some are eager to grow spiritually, others hold back out of fear, uncertainty or simply because, comfortable where they are, they do not wish to grow.

It is in exercising the ministry of reconciliation that the priest’s true test may arise, for, in any community, there will always be jealousies, tensions and disagreements. In holding these together and in steering them towards a harmony there are many pitfalls, yet, in the fullness of the Spirit and in exercising what Brown and Cocksworth refer to as the “Fruits of the Spirit”, much may be achieved in bringing people together. In some sense this is related to the “People of prayer” calling since reconciliation involves a great deal of prayer, empathy and understanding.

As a person of prayer the priest is called to pray in several ways, including the Daily Offices, the Special Offices, The Eucharist, in private prayer and in action. The liturgy provides a framework for public prayer, but even private prayer needs structure and a certain amount of direction. Thanksgiving, praise, intercession are all part of the cycle of prayer the priest is called to exercise daily, yet, simply visiting the sick and spending a few minutes with the dying or the bereaved, even when words fail, may be considered a form of prayer.

In being a “person of holiness” it is important that we recognise that the priest is also human and suffers the same weaknesses, yet, in the power of the Holy Spirit is also able to exhibit the characteristics of holiness. As the current Archbishop of Canterbury is on record as saying, holiness is not static, but ecstatic! In living as someone under the Holy Spirit, the priest is called to practice the Word, to show the fruits of the spirit and the joy of living in the spirit. They can only do this if they are indeed committed to the life of the Spirit.

Preaching is an important task, albeit one now shared with many in “lay” ministries licensed by the Bishop. Again the preacher needs to connect with both their own life and experience and that of those to whom they preach. The example of George Herbert, John Donne, Cardinal Newman in using the Biblical text and connecting this to the reality of the world they spoke to, is a sound example of reaching out to illuminate the Word and inspire the hearer. Donne’s famous sermon which includes the words “send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” is a good example of the manner in which theology can be rendered more easily understood by a congregation in the way it connects the death of one to the life of all. Herbert’s hymns and poems are further examples of the transfer of Biblical thought to vernacular understanding. A good preacher must always be able to connect to the lives of the hearers; no point is served in praising the joys of a succulent banquet to a congregation of anorexics!

Secular dimensions

As in so many areas there is also a secular dimension to the priestly calling in the modern world – indeed it is difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when it could be completely ignored. The modern priest has many legal responsibilities within a parish and, in some cases, is almost the “General Manager” of a corporate operation, yet, in the exercise of these powers and duties it is the priestly traits and values which must guide the secular actions. Here, as in all matters to do with the priesthood, the priest must show the same holiness, reconciliation, prayerfulness and resolution of the Word and Spirit as in all else. In some larger churches and congregations he is also an "employer" as he heads the Parish and employs on their behalf the gardeners, cleaners and vergers.

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, reading the five source books I have used for this exercise, I am left with the overwhelming conclusion that the priestly role is a complex mix, encompassing several important aspects of the Gospel, our faith as we have received it and our response to the world. Clearly the priest must be all of the following:
• Called out of the congregation,
• Called to be for God,
• Called to be an Absolver,
• Called to be for the Word of God,
• Called to be a man or woman of prayer,
• Called to be a conciliator,
• Called to be a worshipper and a leader of worship, in short
• Called to be a disciple of Christ.

It is important to recognise that it is in the exercise of the gifts the spirit bestows upon those He calls, that the individual’s weaknesses and failings may be made strengths. It is in operating within the community that is served, in “getting alongside” the people of a community that the priest is best able to fulfil the role of intercessor, liturgical leader and “holy man of God”. It is in responding to the needs of people for hearing the Word of God, in being reconciled to God, in worshipping God and in seeking to find God and to grow in the Spiritual gifts of God that the priestly role is enlarged and fulfilled.

The priest clearly has roles which are also definable as “tasks” and these include:
• Presiding at the Eucharist,
• Pastoral care of the souls in his charge,
• Preaching the Word of God,
• Leading the people in public and private prayer,
• Bringing hope and comfort to the sick, the distressed and the bereaved, and
• Enabling the development of gifts and ministries within the congregation.
The distinction made in the New Testament between the congregations and the presbyteroi, diakonia and episcope are still valid and still provide a distinct and important role for those called to leadership in any congregation.

Clearly the priest is called to be the “man of prayer, the man of the Word and the man of reconciliation” in the footsteps of the disciples and of Christ Himself. As the Byzantine ordinal indicated the priest is to be:
• The proclaimer of the Gospel,
• The exerciser of the Sacred Ministry,
• An offerer of Spiritual Gifts, and
• A renewer of the people by baptism regeneration.

A challenging role indeed, one that is dependent upon the heavenly grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit and by the support and encouragement of the faithful.


Brown R and Cocksworth C; On being a priest today; 2002, Cowley Publications.
Croft S; Ministry in three dimensions; 2005 Darton, Longman and Todd
Ramsey M; The Christian Priest Today; 2001 SPCK
Dewar F; Called or collared; 2000 SPCK

Posted by The Gray Monk at March 5, 2006 08:04 AM

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Very well said.

Posted by: vw bug at March 5, 2006 12:26 PM