Wednesday, December 09, 2009

a call to anglican priesthood

an exploration of "The Charge to Priests"

An Anglican Prayer Book 1989, page 587-588

by Canon Mark R D Long, Diocese of Pretoria, Anglican Church of Southern Africa


Invited to preach by my friend and colleague at the 20th Anniversary Eucharist of his ordination to the Priesthood I returned to the Scripture readings and "The Charge to Priests" (The Charge) found in An Anglican Prayer Book 1989's Ordination Service. Ordained to the Priesthood myself 20 years ago on 12 November 1989 alongside my friend, the sermon became a reflection on my own ministry and journey. The following reflects the direction of my sermon but is also a journey in itself.

In re-reading "The Charge to Priests" I was amazed on what a wonderful discourse it is on ministry, not only for clergy but for laity as well, and how focused it is on Jesus.

I found the themes of The Charge highlighted in the readings: Micah 2:5-7, Psalm 145:1-7, 2 Corinthians 5:14-19, and John 20:19-23. It may be worth referring to these and "The Charge to Priests" before you journey further.

Called through Baptism

The Charge begins by reminding all listening that the Priest will always remain a part of the Body of Christ, of the community of all believers; and that all believers – members of God's Church – have a wonderful call. This call, like the Trinity, is three-fold:

  1. to witness to Jesus Christ as Lord of life;
  2. to proclaim Jesus to the world; and
  3. to walk in the footsteps of Christ.
If we link these three statements above to the Trinity then we discover, excitingly, that "to witness to Jesus as Lord of life" is to be involved as God's people in the creative work of God; "to proclaim Jesus to the world" is to be involved in the redeeming work of God; "to walk in the footsteps of Christ" is to be involved in the sustaining work of God. The call to witness and proclaim is in the broadest terms: to life and to the world. And we are called to do this primarily through example and action.

Both life and the world are our play-ground: we are called as God's people to a holistic embrace of all aspects and areas of life; there is no area we should not be. And we are not called to talk, we are called to act: "Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News, and if necessary use words" (attributed to St Francis of Assisi).

Made Deacon

The call to be made Deacon is one to which the Priest has already responded, and the Diaconate will always define the foundation on which the call to Priesthood is received. This is a call to service. The Charge reminds us that there are two aspects to this call:

  1. to be a servant of God; and
  2. to be a servant to God's people.
"The Charge to Deacons" (An Anglican Prayer Book 1989, page 583) gives greater clarity to these two statements: it is a special ministry of "humble service" and a call to serve "all people". The Diaconate finds its focus in seeking out the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely, and thereby demonstrates that in serving those in need we serve Christ himself. The ministry of the Diaconate is for the Deacon to be immersed in the world to such an extent that the Deacon is able to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.

While acknowledging the above, "The Charge to Priests" subtly redefines the role of service for the Priest: it is no longer to "all people" but to "God's people". It may be argued that in terms of all humanity carrying the "image of God" these two phrases are synonymous. However, "The Charge to Priests" is attempting here to give some definition to the two roles, that of Deacon and that of Priest. The Deacon now to be ordained Priest will have other priorities, primarily that of making disciples. Service for the Priest will find its purpose in nurturing God's people as disciples, equipping them to witness to Jesus Christ as Lord of life, to proclaim Jesus to the world, and to walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Ordained Priest

"The Charge to Priests" focuses, for obvious reasons, on what it is to be called to ordination to the Priesthood. The calling to the Priesthood has many aspects, but is directed by the threefold description of the Anglican Priest as

  1. priest,
  2. pastor, and
  3. teacher.
If we apply the image of the Trinity, then the "priest" is the creative role, the "pastor" the redemptive role, and "teacher" the sustaining role. Thus Priesthood in the Anglican context is not just about being "priest" – it is far more inclusive, holistic and abundant. Core to Anglican Christianity is balance, finding the via media, the middle way. The challenge for the Anglican Priest is to find the balance in being priest, pastor and teacher. It is a broad and challenging ministry to which we are called. Trinitarian imagery also gives focus to the different roles: to be priest is to build, to be pastor is to heal, to be teacher is to nourish.

The ministry of the Priest as "priest, pastor and teacher" is described as a lifetime of ministry in the following of Christ, sustained through an ever deepening practise of prayer, and enriched by daily reading and study of Scripture. The Priesthood requires a living relationship with Christ, and this relationship is nurtured in prayer and in immersion in Scripture. Prayer and study impel us into action: our relationship with Christ is the driving force of ministry.

The primary focus of the Priesthood, while directed by the roles of priest, pastor and teacher, is on making disciples. The Charge addresses the "How?" of making disciples with thirteen action words: bring, lead, proclaim, preside, intercede, help, share, rebuke, pronounce, care, bring back, guide, prepare. The detail describing these actions can be found by reading The Charge, but suffice it to say, the making of disciples begins with bringing people into relationship with Christ and ends with preparing them to embrace death and the fullness of eternal life. In addressing the "Why?" of making disciples The Charge states that the purpose is "that they may be saved through Christ for ever. " Anglican Priesthood is focused in the present, but embraces the eternal.


The Charge ends with the observation to the Priest that "This ministry will be your great joy and privilege", that it is a "weighty responsibility" that should not be undertaken lightly nor without a clear call from God; and that those whom God calls God will also strengthen. The weight of responsibility can be overwhelming, self-doubt can be destabilising, the expectation of others disheartening. But we have chosen obedience to the call of God, we are volunteers, there is no contract, just a license from the Diocesan Bishop empowering us to serve. We acknowledge this privilege, and we take joy from the fact that we minister not out of compulsion, but voluntarily in obedient response to God's call and in relationship with Anglican Church structures.

And on occasion we are paid.

9 December 2009

Mark R D Long

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