Letter to a new priest

On May 13, Christopher Holmes was ordained a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada.  Over the past eight months, Chris served a ministry placement at saint benedict’s table, and just a couple of weeks from now he and his family will be relocating to New Zealand, where he will take up a new academic post.  This is the text of a letter written to him on the occasion of his ordination, and with his permission it is shared here on our website.

G

iven how much is on your plate over this next month or two—your ordination as a priest, but also a move to the other side of the world to take up your new academic post, with all that entails for you and your family—I thought I’d offer these reflections to you in written form, so that at some point when the proverbial dust has begun to settle you can spend a few minutes mulling over what is really an extension of the conversations we’ve shared over these past eight months.

The words of the ordination liturgy are so very strong, that in some respects it will take years to see how they will play out in your own particular ministry.  You will have been asked to offer a declaration that you believe “the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God,” containing “all things necessary to salvation.”  You will have been called to “love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  Your priestly ministry will have been framed in terms of preaching, declaring God’s forgiveness and pronouncing God’s blessing, and presiding at baptisms and at the Eucharistic table.  This is an extraordinary calling, and one that can never really be taken for granted.

In a letter written to the Archbishop of Canterbury sometime around 1930, Evelyn Underhill offered some rather penetrating observations:

We look to the Church to give us an experience of God, mystery, holiness and prayer which, though it may not solve the antinomies of the natural world, shall lift us to contact with the supernatural world and minister eternal life. We look to the clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. We are seldom satisfied because with a few noble exceptions they are so lacking in spiritual realism, so ignorant of the laws and experiences of the life of prayer. Their Christianity as a whole is humanitarian rather than theocentric. So their dealings with souls are often vague and amateurish. Those needing spiritual help may find much kindliness, but seldom that firm touch of firsthand knowledge of interior ways which comes only from a disciplined personal life of prayer. In public worship they often fail to evoke the spirit of adoration because they do not possess it themselves. Hence the dreary character of many church services and the result in the increasing alienation of the laity from institutional forms.

“God is the interesting thing about religion,” she continued, “and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him.”  In short, as she sees it, at the heart of this vocation is a calling to be truly “theocentric;” prayerful, attentive, and grounded in the things of God.

Through the 1960’s, the Anglican ascetical theologian Martin Thornton was a champion of such an approach:

One calls in a plumber because he understands plumbing, not because of his wide experience of life, and one is coached by a golf professional because he is not a week-end amateur. One is suspicious of a doctor who has read no medical book for twenty years and knows nothing of modern drugs, and I suspect that intelligent modern Christians are getting suspicious of clergy who are for ever engaged in something other than prayer, learning and such-like professional occupations…. It is precisely by not being busily activist that we may really learn to serve and love those who have to be. It is because the priest has time for prayer, study and reflection that his guidance of those in the world’s hurly-burly is likely to be worth having. If the priest is to have any loving impact on modern people in a modern world, then he must take his job with dedicated seriousness and not make himself ridiculous by making an amateurish mess of some other job.  (Thornton, The Rock and the River)

Now, your calling is to be a priest and scholar, and your vocation may well be lived out primarily—though certainly not exclusively—within the academy.  All priests, I believe, are called to be theologians, though most of us are meant to carry out that work from within a parish context, and much of our theological work is given expression in preaching, spiritual direction, and in the kinds of conversations that take place with people over the course of day to day ministry.

Now obviously, the academic theologian does a different kind of work; one that is of crucial importance to the Body of Christ, but only if it is carried out in relationship to the Body.  That to me is where your vocation becomes particularly significant.  The scholar priest is accountable to the church in a very specific way.   That is not to suggest that a layperson who is a theologian working in the academy is less a member of the Body of Christ, or that she or he isn’t in a position of accountability, but there is that moment in the ordination liturgy when you were asked the following:

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

Any sane person would surely pause at such a question, and I trust that you gave some fairly deep thought to this word “authority” long before the day of ordination. Many a bishop—and many a priest and many a lay leader—has mistaken power for authority, and has attempted to use power not grounded in any canonical or, more significantly, truly God-given authority; your assent to the authority of your bishop has absolutely nothing to do with the arbitrary power of human-made roles and structures.

And anyone so deeply formed by the thought of Bonhoeffer as are you will know how different this authority is from that power.  To be under this authority is to be freed to be a part of something, and to be a part of this “something” is to be challenged to be a part of shaping it in its ongoing life.  You will do this first and foremost as a teacher and writer and thinker, but you will also need to be a preacher and a priest who cares for souls.  You will be pressed at times to leave the classroom, library and study behind, and to inhabit the sanctuary and the pulpit.  More, you will need to inhabit life with people, and to accompany others—“young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor”—who will need you to love and to serve and to care about them in their various struggles.  That will all be a part of what will in turn shape your theological work, and that is a good thing.

In all of this, though, remember Thornton’s caution against being “busily activist.”  His words have been part of what has most grounded my own ministry.   “The priest must first of all be free to see,” suggests Rowan Williams in an address that borrows both its title and its spirit from Michael Ramsey’s book of ordination addresses, The Christian Priest Today. “The priest has to have the opportunity of not being so swamped with ‘duties’ that he or she can’t maintain a sense of the whole landscape.” Kenneth Leech is fond of speaking of this as being a sort of watching of the neighborhood, in which “pastoral ministry has to begin at this level of watching and listening to the hidden voices of the streets.” (Leech, Silence and Ministry)  Such watchfulness requires time and intention, as well as a fundamental belief that in its glorious unnecessity, it actually makes a difference.  It means that on any given day, the most significant thing that you might do as a theologian and a priest is to put down the book you’ve been working on and sit on a bench out on the lawn of the university, or take your children to the playground, or make your wife a grand dinner, or go to the pub on the day of a big rugby match and watch the game in the company of people for whom rugby is life, or, or, or…  The point is, all of these things are part of the “whole landscape;” are part of the context both of priestly ministry and of theological enquiry.  To bypass them as unimportant is simply not an option.

None of what I have written here is particularly new or innovative, though I do know that you’ll hardly be troubled by the fact that three of the four writers I’ve cited here are not particularly current (and of course Williams roots his own work in that of Archbishop Ramsey).  It is the best I can offer to you, and I do hope and pray that in these words you might find something that will be helpful in your vocation as priest and theologian and as a servant of the Word.

In Christ,

Jamie Howison

One Response to Letter to a new priest

  1. byron says:

    Hi Jamie…a first time commenter here. At first blush you seem to be saying there are two sides to the coin of clergy, and that this young man should remember to not neglect either side for total focus on the other. Sage advice indeed. I often wonder what you do all day, and in my uneducated idea of a day in the life of Jamie Howison I am comforted by my assumption that you reserve considerable spiritual replenishment and reflection hours.. alone.. to help you serve.
    I have seen the other side of your coin, Jamie, and it has served me well.
    I guess I am saying that your advice to this young priest exposes the flip side, and I feel there will be times when he will benefit greatly from this gentle yet firm letter.

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