First Among Equals?
Just had a profound insight in my seminary class…The insight is this: I believe in the validity of the ordained priests AND the priesthood of the believer. The principles are held in tension. How? By seeing the ordained priest as merely the first among equals among a congregation of lay priests. This is a very different view from that of a top-down Episcopal model or a bottom-up congregational model…Suddenly my life makes sense.
This was recently posted on a social media site; it came to my attention simply because a dear friend and brother commented on it and suggested that my fellow parish priests and I would likely agree. My true assessment is more nuanced than simple agreement, though. I, too, recognize the validity of both the ordained priesthood, i.e., the vocational priesthood, and the priesthood of all believers, the baptismal priesthood. While both are valid, the post goes further to maintain that the two priesthood are equal, by which I presume the author means having the same nature. It is only that which would allow him to consider the vocational priest as first among equals in the congregation of lay priests. And it is just here that I must disagree.
To assert that the vocational priesthood conferred by the Holy Spirit and conveyed by the laying on of the bishop’s hands in the ordering of priests is identical with the priesthood of all believers conferred by the Holy Spirit in baptism and strengthened by the bishop in confirmation is to make a category mistake.
The prayers from the Book of Common Prayer 1662 draw out the distinctions between the priesthoods. During Confirmation the confirmands kneel before the bishop who lays hands on them and prays:
Defend, O Lord, this thy Child [thy Servant] with thy heavenly grace that he may continue thine forever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit, more and more, until he come into thy everlasting kingdom. Amen.
The corresponding prayer for the ordering of priests is significantly different:
Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The prayers following in the ordering of priests only highlight the differences between the two priesthoods further.
Classical Anglicanism rejects the first among equals assertion of the post if it is the equality of either the nature or responsibilities of the vocational and baptismal priesthoods that is being asserted. Certainly, both priesthoods are valid and are gifts of God for the people of God and for the world. But, to conflate the two is not to elevate one to the perceived level of the other, but rather to diminish both.
The baptismal priesthood is ontological; baptism affects a change in one’s nature and identity. According to St. Peter, the baptized believer becomes a partaker in the divine nature. That does not happen again — nor does it need to happen again — in the ordering of priests. Whether the vocational priesthood is ontological or existential is a debate for another time. But, something happens — something changes — in the ordination of a priest that is different from and in addition to the ontological change wrought by baptism. The ordained priest is not “merely the first among equals among a congregation of lay priests.” He is different in some profound ways, even if we perhaps differ in opinion on precisely what those ways are.
Even the notion of “first” among equals is fraught with difficulty. First implies rank or superiority, the very thing I think the author of the quote is trying to avoid. Priests — the ones I know and serve along side — do not consider themselves first among equals in this sense, but rather servants of all.
In contrasting the resurrection body to the physical body, Paul notes:
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory (1 Cor 15:41, ESV).
Might the same apply to the priesthood? There is one glory of the ordained priesthood and another glory of the baptismal priesthood; for priesthood differs from priesthood in glory. Why would we think they are the same? Why would we want them to be?
So, no, I cannot agree that the ordained priest is merely — and how unfitting that word is for any priesthood! — the first among equals among a congregation of lay priests. One day, I assume, I will lay aside the vocational priesthood; its purpose will have been fulfilled or my time of service will be complete. But — thanks be to God! — I will never lay aside my baptismal priesthood, for it is the very essence of my new identify in Christ.
Photo by Carole Metz. Used by permission.
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