What is a Priest For?

Reflection 24-11-13


At the Archdeaconry conference a couple of weeks ago, sitting in a circle with all my colleagues, it struck me that all of them (including me) had answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you believe that you are truly called to be a priest in the Church of God?’


But looking at them, they all looked like me, just ordinary folk. I asked myself ‘What difference does being or having a ‘priest’ make? I am reminded of the story of the young conductor who was having difficulty with an orchestra in a master-class. The maestro asked him to give the ‘up beat’ and sit down. After he did that, the orchestra played the whole piece in a workmanlike kind of a way. The maestro said to the young conductor ‘If you want to be up front, you have to add value’.


So what ‘value’ do we add? Well, there is the value of knowledge. In the old days, when hardly anyone could read, a clerk in holy orders was expected to be able to ‘read the common prayers’. So when no one can read, being able to read Latin is certainly a case of ‘adding value’ through extra knowledge. Today, everyone can read, but in a priest’s work there is a huge amount of implicit knowledge that adds value to the work of the Church. It consists in knowing how the lectionary works, and how that connects with the prayer book. It consists in knowing what services need to go where. These days, in small places like ours, if there is to be quality, it consists in knowing how to use word processing, and page making documents, and knowing how to use the photocopier. Much value has been added these days to people’s weddings, and funerals, and to our Sunday Eucharist by your priest’s capacity for these things. It consists in having something to say about the gospel each Sunday. It consists in understanding what a liturgy is, and how liturgy and ritual work. Let me give you one example.


But there are other aspects to being a priest that look intensely practical. Since coming here I have painted the fence and pruned the plants. I have changed numerous light bulbs, and high up ones at that, I have repainted the doors, I have unscrewed multiple pews so that they could be moved to present a bigger ‘space’ for our Sales, I have ‘hung around’ the Sale chatting to numerous people as they came and went, I fill up the humidifiers for the organ every day, I open and close the Church and like Samuel, make sure that the sanctuary lamps are burning. I have washed and ironed the linen. All this does not on the surface look like ‘priestly work’, except it takes on significance because it is the ‘priest’ who is doing it. This reminds me of an image I heard of about priesthood that compared priests to the clowns of s circus. The circus consists of some very skilled people. Lion tamers, bareback riders, jugglers, trapeze artists etc. Their skill is there to be admired, but most ordinary people say ‘Wow! I couldn’t do that’. There is the potential that they become alienated. So each circus has a ‘clown’ act. This person is as highly skilled as the other performers. But their skill is hidden. Their skill is in ‘falling down’, their skill is in appearing not to be skilful, while at the same time engaging in highly skilled activity. So ‘hanging around’ at the Sale, fixing the lights, painting the doors all communicate something about commitment, relationship and the desire not to waste our money that represent how I think a Christian can be. This is all part of being a ‘priest’  


But there is more to being a priest than these ‘skills’ which to a degree can be learned. Some of who a priest is cannot be learned at seminary, but is part of our unconscious lives, or part of our lives that have been formed over a long time. This sensibility has to do with our relationship with God. I remember that the first ‘sermon’ I offered when I was nine at ‘Christian Endeavour’ where each person, however young, had to deliver a ‘paper’. On Sunday nights, when dad was away preaching, as a family we would ‘put on’ Church at home, turning our upside down lounge chair into a pulpit. No matter how ‘far away’ from God I sometimes feel, it is the connection with God that dominates life for me: how it is going, how I think about it, what I think God thinks about me, how I fail God. Every morning there is the question of ‘Will I go into the Church to say the Morning Prayers’ or not? Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes I decide not to go, sometimes I go because it is my duty. But whatever happens, the question of God to me and to Adam and to every human being thereafter does not go away ‘Where are you?’ That is the centre of being a priest. That is what your stipend goes toward: to keep that question before me and by extension before you. That is what the sermons are about, that is what these reflections are about, that is what the painting of the doors and the re-filling of the humidifiers is for.  


This kind of sensibility can’t be ‘taught’ but must be either part of who a person ‘is’.


Once there was a goat who wanted to be a lion. He went to the wise man in the village and said ‘I want to be a lion.’ The wise man replied ‘If you want to be a lion, you must go where  lions go, do what lions do and say what lions say.’ So he did, he joined the pride and went where lions went, did what lions do. But when it came to ‘saying what lions say’ he went ‘Roaaaaaaarrrr….He He He!’ Being a priest is like that.


But the priest that a person ‘is’ can be ‘brought out’ however. In 1979 I spent a year playing Samuel to my friend’s Eli. I learned the ways of the Anglican Temple from him. I learned what can and can’t be done in liturgy from him. Staying up all Maundy Thursday night till Good Friday I learned commitment from him.


In that congregation, I had difficulty being accepted I was, as they say a ‘rough diamond’. I had just come from working in pastoral care in the Prison to an upper middle class parish in Melbourne. Half way through my year there, my mentor went away. Somehow that absence gave me the chance to do what I could do. It was then that the congregation ‘ordained’ me. The cassock I wear now is on of the two that they gave me. In the bible that my mentor gave me, before my ordination, he recognised this change and wrote ‘You are ordained already.’

In my experience of that year in the congregation and with my mentor, I discovered that my ‘priest side’ could ‘add value’ and be received by a congregation.  This is what must happen in every congregation. There is a lot of resistance to it, especially if the ‘dark side’ of the humanity of the priest comes to light. People’s natural resistance to and fear of someone who holds before them the question of ‘relationship with God’ can mean that a ‘priest’ is rationalised away into some other thing that means that where a person is up to with God does not have to be taken seriously. That I what I was coming into contact with at the conference. ‘how do I take seriously the fact that each of my colleagues is also a ‘priest’? In the long run, however, the great privilege of having, and being a priest is that the central question, the one of God, and God’s question to us ‘Where re you’ is made concrete.




About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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