A Job That's Not A Job

An unknown writer once observed about the work of a minister, “The minister teaches, though he must solicit his own classes. He heals, though without pills or knife. He is sometimes a lawyer, often a social worker, something of an editor, a bit of a philosopher and entertainer, a salesman, a decorative piece for public functions, and he is supposed to be a scholar. He visits the sick, marries people, buries the dead, labors to console those who sorrow and to admonish those who sin, and tries to stay sweet when chided for not doing his duty. He plans programs, appoints committees when he can get them, spends considerable time in keeping people out of each other’s hair. Between times he prepares a sermon and preaches it on Sunday to those who don’t happen to have any other engagement. Then on Monday he smiles when some jovial chap roars, “What a job--one day a week!”

Some of us can chuckle at a comment like that. Those of us in the ministry cringe. Unfortunately there are some who perceive the work of the ministry as being a one-day effort. No doubt there have been eccentric English vicars in previous centuries who hived bees most of the week. To be sure, there have been ministers who only worked few hours of a day in a week but they don’t last very long. The fact is that serving as a priest is not defined by the day, or delineated only by function, position or title. As someone once quipped, if it’s all about position and function:

There is a pastor, himself he cherished,
Who loved his position not his parish
So the more he preached
The less he reached
And this is why his parish perished.

Yes a priest surely has a title, many responsibilities, and functions. But he is much more than that. Ordination is more than changing function. It is an ontological change in the priest first and foremost. Something is added at ordination to him that alters who he is at his core. A mystical transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit is given to him. Thus his calling is the one job that is more than a job because it’s not simply a job. 

Consider the language of St. Paul in his closing thoughts to the early church in Rome. He describes his own ministry when he speaks of how, “the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that my offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16). The Greek word for priest is hieros from which we derive the word hierarchy. But the early Apostle-Bishop speaks of his priesthood in terms of offering a living sacrifice of Gentiles to God. The terminology here is more than that of avocation or occupation. It is what we call the nomenclature of vocation and sacrament.

First, the priesthood of which St. Paul speaks is a vocation. It is more than an avocation, although the one called into the priesthood should love what he does. Nor is St. Paul’s priesthood strictly speaking an occupation or profession. The modern church has fallen into a great deal of trouble by classifying the minister as a profession. If this priestly service is a profession assuming that all jobs are a profession, then like any of the other professions it has been concluded that there should be equal opportunity for men or women to be at the altar. But what if the priesthood is not a profession? In fact the language of St. Paul’s description of his own priestly service is more than that of a profession. 

St. Paul uses vocational language. He speaks of special grace given him. And his description implies a special calling. It is true that every Christian has a calling to serve the Lord in the world and in the church. In the world a Christian should have the sense that the Lord has called him or her to be businessperson, lawyer, doctor, truck driver, all noble professions that are to be done as unto the Lord as the New Testament speaks. And in the Church all Christians have spiritual gifts that are to be used. But the priesthood of Holy Orders is a special calling unlike any other. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the installation or the institution of a rector in a parish. Something happens that I often point out is one of the features distinguishing the priesthood from any other job that indicates it is not a profession. It is a job that is more than a job.

When a rector is installed in a parish the bishop of the diocese, either in person or via his representative, installs the rector. Indeed, the minister’s call into Holy Orders began with a discernment process that had to be confirmed by the bishop. No other profession among Christians in the Church has to be approved, confirmed, ordered by the laying on of hands, and yes, actually installed by a bishop. Other noble professions are entered without the laying on of hands of the bishop, or moreover the requirement of the bishop’s institution. 

Holy Orders are different from occupation, which is why we ought not to view the ministry as a profession. It is a holy, heavenly, and eternal calling that stays with the man forever. A 17th century Anglican vicar named Richard Baxter once wrote, “To be a pastor a man must set his heart on the life to come and regards the matters of eternal life above all the affairs of this present life. Above the trifles of this world, he must appreciate in some measure the inestimable riches of glory.”

Second, when St. Paul describes himself as a priest he uses the language of sacrament. He speaks of how “by the Grace,” the special Grace of God, he is a priest to offer an “offering of or for the Gentiles a sacrifice.” Importantly, this is special grace beyond the grace that saved him. This is the language of sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Thus, the order of the minister of the Gospel called presbyter or priest is a sacrament. This is why we view holy orders as one of the seven sacraments. The rubrics of the ancient Anglican prayer books reflect this view of Holy Orders when referring to the institution of the priest by the bishop as establishing a “sacerdotal relation” that the minister might perform “sacerdotal functions” (1928 BCP). 

The priest unlike any other occupation is therefore a conduit of grace absolving sin, blessing, and in short curing souls. He is actually not primarily to be a philosopher, lawyer, entertainer and so forth. The priest is an icon of Christ, standing in persona Christi, in the person of Christ at the altar. Just as Christ did at the Last Supper, he recapitulates this event by standing in the stead of Christ consecrating bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The in persona Christi priest re-presents the Son to the Father that the congregation might be atoned to become a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. 

As such, the priest is a spiritual director guiding his flock to live and proclaim the Gospel. He is to lead his congregation with their consent to a completely consecrated life and offering before the Lord. And this offering is the Gospel to and before the world.

Thus a special sacerdotal relationship between priest and parish is formed when a priest is installed. Perhaps the prayer offered by a Medieval Archbishop of Canterbury named Anselm best describes this:

Jesus, good Shepherd, they are not mine but Yours,
for I am not mine but Yours.
I am Yours, Lord, and they are Yours,
because by Your wisdom You have created
both them and me,
and by Your death You have redeemed us.
So we are Yours, good Lord, we are Yours,
whom You have made with such wisdom
and bought so dearly.

Then if You commend them to me, Lord,
You do not therefore desert me or them.
You commend them to me:
I commend myself and them to you.
Yours is the flock, Lord, and Yours is the shepherd.
Be Shepherd of both Your flock and shepherd. 
You have made an ignorant mother,
a blind leader, an erring ruler:
teach the mother You have established
guide the leader You have appointed,
govern the ruler You have approved.

I beg you,
teach me what I am to teach,
lead me in the way that I am to lead,
rule me so that I may rule others.
Or rather, teach them, and me through them,
lead them, and me with them,
rule them, and me among them. Amen.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.