Sunday, 8 March 2009

William Stringfellow on ordination

In view of the publisher’s special discount, I’ve decided to have a week of Stringfellowing here at F&T

Both in his writing and in his personal life, William Stringfellow presented a powerful critique of the cult of ordination. (A couple of weeks ago, I myself visited a church that used the term “full-time ministry” – a sure sign of theological confusion and spiritual decay.) Nowadays, Stringfellow argues, the priesthood “is so radically misconceived that the clergy have become a substitute laity whose function is to represent publicly – in place of the laity – the presence of the church in the world.” Thus the clergy has become “a superficial, symbolic, ceremonial laity” (A Private and Public Faith, p. 38).

One of the formative events in Stringfellow’s own life was his early decision to renounce ordination: “I would be damned if I would be a priest. That was what I decided. I would not be a priest and, moreover, I would spend my life refuting any who suppose that to be serious about the Christian faith required ordination. I would be a Christian in spite of the priesthood, in spite of all the priests” (A Second Birthday, p. 82).


Anonymous said...

I'm proceeding to ordination myself, but I heartily agree with your sentiment regarding the term 'full-time ministry'. I always try to make it clear that I'm getting ordained because I (and the church) think I'm gifted for the work, not because I think it's a 'better' way to serve than any other. There's a ministry training organisation I know of that promotes the idea that every Christian needs to be able to justify to themselves why they are NOT called to 'full-time ministry'. It makes you want to nail a few theses somewhere.

Anonymous said...

"Ordination", "ministry", "priesthood", "laity" - what a semantic mess - and "full-time ministry" is a good example of our lack of word-care.

In the thickest sense of the word, all Christians are ordained at their baptisms into the "priesthood of the believing community" (perhaps a better expression than the "priesthood of all believers", which is usually contaminated by the ideology of secular egalitarian individualism).

Then there is MOAB, i.e. the ministry of all believers. Every Christian has a vocation, which, with Stringfellow, is not a "career" or a "profession" (oh dear!), but God's call to each to be the person that we will find ourselves to be on Judgement Day. In via, our being-in-becoming will, of course, include certain doings, ecclesial and worldly, for which the Holy Spirit graces us with specific charisms. One of these charisms is the gift and task of what my own Reformed tradition calls the "ministry of word and sacrament". Because in this tradition it is claimed that the church is recognised where the word is preached and the sacraments are celebrated, we consider this ministry so special (foundational, if you like) that we "ordain" ministers.

Of course the Reformed traditon configures this ministry in a very different way from the Roman and Orthodox traditons (e.g. it is a matter of good "order", not personal potestas), because we configure the relation between church and ministry in a very different way - and ultimately because we configure the relation between Christ and his church in a very different way. But I think that we would all agree that disempowering the so-called laity (it has been said that Luther abolished the laity - and Calvin the priesthood) and robbing believers of their own vocations is not part of the brief. Alas history demonstrates that we have been unfaithful servants (if not without the collusion of believers themselves). So while I am not an Anglican priest, nevertheless as a URC minister, to Stringfellow's critique I can only cry, "Ouch!"

One of Freedom said...

I will have to check out Stringfellow. I successfully argued against ordinatio in the Canadian Vineyard because the idea that ones role in a community is not discerned by that community is troublesome for me. But our model has problems if a pastor is screwed up. So for me this is also a safeguard. My issue is with lifetime automatically transferable ordination. I was ordained (over ribs mind you) as an easy way to get licensed to marry in my province. But what is important to me is the recognition of my congregation as their pastor.


Anonymous said...

These criticisms of "ordination" are all very well. I do not think they are entirely without point. Nevertheless, in the end I would say they are fatally flawed.

We must absolutely cease, I believe, to be acclimated to the divisions that rend the churches. They are not "normal," and they are not tolerable.

These divisions are not going to be healed by resorting to a wholesale rejection of ordination. Ecumenically minded Protestants need to cease doing theology as if Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy did not exist. They represent the vast majority of the world's more than 2.1 billion Christians. Ordination, which is non-negotiable for these communions, is a major hurdle that must be overcome if we are to move toward a future united church.

We need to find a view of ordination that all communions and traditions can affirm without theological compromise. I try to make some suggestions about how this might be done in "The Eucharist and Ecumenism."

If we start from a center in baptism, which mediates the calling of all Christians in general and of each Christian in particular, then we have a basis from which to think about the further specification of a person's calling for those who are are to set apart as bishops, presbyters or deacons.

Although these offices will need to be reconfigured in any future united church, ordinations within the Protestant churches will need to be regularized according to apostolic succession and episcopal ordination. The BEM document and the Porvoo process (you can google them) point the way.

Anonymous said...

Re: Stringfellow. He should not be understood as anti-ordination. He was a devout Episcopalian who, ironically enough, defended one of the most controversial bishops in the American Episcopal Church's history, Bishop Jim Pike. HIs book on Bishop Pike, by the way, is a marvel of restrained critique, insight, and pauline love all the way down.

Anonymous said...

It's all very well for Stringfellow (and others) to reject "full-time ministry" or "ordination", but the distinction appears still relevant for most. He was only able to pull this off by being a lawyer which he viewed as battling the "powers", and so still being in the ministry. Had he been doing this audit with me right now he would see how accounts receivable can take every thought captive.
Stringfellow's view of politics as theology basically made him a "minister of the law". Isn't this an ironically almost Constantinian view of ministry. Securing due process for people in a liberal democracy is working for the kingdom? I'm sure he would say balancing the books of the liberal democracy's business is likely not. Many "helping" professions can be conveniently construed as ministry, but otherwise most of us spend our time in drudgery that we clearly know is not "full-time ministry".

Stringfellow just strikes me as anti-clerical, and seminarians who reject "full-time ministry" are often just justifying an academic career or trying to express how they are smarter than their pastors.

It's all fine with me. I'm just saying the distinction remains relevant for most of us, and I think subtly even for those who protest the loudest.

Anonymous said...

Lest the conversation proceed under a gross misunderstanding, Stringfellow was not in principle anti-clerical or anti-ordination (even if he did describe himself as "a closet anabaptist"!). But he did insist, with Anglican tradition itself, that "There is no priesthood without a laity serving the world; there is no laity without a priesthood serving the laity;" and "that those installed in ecclesiastical office are accountable to those over whom they exercise the authority of such office." Which is why he could not stand idly by in the face of ecclesiastical malfeasance, and why he would not reply "How high?" simply because a priest or bishop said "Jump!" Like all true prophets, Stringfellow loved the church - which is why it grieved him so much to see it in cahoots with the demonic powers of mendacity and death.

Paul said...

This reminds me of Kierkegaard's last years, when he felt compelled to launch a polemical attack on the Church of Denmark. Many people found it unacceptable behavior, but Kierkegaard thought it was his duty in the name of Christianity to destroy the illusion of a church that thought it was.

Michael said...

Kim, I think it is incorrect, perhaps even a caricature, to say that Roman and Orthodox traditions regard ordination as conferring a personal potestas. A priest can only do what Christ's church does and nothing else. Vatican II's Presbyterorum ordinis barely has a sentence about the priest which does not also mention Christ.

In some ways the more "ritual" a church, the more the minister is symbolically limited. Today there is a curious hidden intersection between Protestant critiques of Roman Catholic "sacerdotalism" and the conservative Catholic movement against liberalized liturgical practices, which allowed unexpected forms of ritual independence and clerical dominance.

I think it's worth considering the complex and sometimes paradoxical ways in which our churches' traditional notions of ministry and priesthood both confer and withhold various kinds of "personal potestas".

gbroughto said...

The context of the Stringfellow quote posted by Ben in "A Private and Public Faith" is not anti-ordination as St Egregarious points out, but I do think Stringfellow's criticism is vaild - and I speak as one ordained in the Anglican / Episcopalian church.

Recently I spent a day and half in a nearby diocese with some of their deacons / candidates doing some action-reflection style theological reflection on a ministry incident.

I was surprised by a very "high" view of ordination - an old world clericalism that I'd not really encountered before. The diocese I am ordained in has a more general ecclesia-centricity, which
I have also increasingly felt ill at ease in and with.

But what I encountered recently ago was of another order entirely...
people talking about feeling personally and spiritually "complete" and "fulfilled" by their ordination.

I read the passage in "A Private and Public Faith" a day or two later, and Stringfellow described and critiqued the misunderstanding of ordination I had just encountered.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

I am certainly happy to be corrected on this matter, but unless my sources are incorrect, my understanding is that the ordination of a Roman priest confers a potestas on him, viz. the power to perform certain actions that that only he can perform, such as to celebrate the mass and to absolve from sin. Similarly bishops have a potestas that priests do not, for example, to ordain. Is that wrong?

::aaron g:: said...

Thanks for these quotes. I know have a new hero in my rejection of ordination. But then again, what about those fantastic Fringe Benefit payments?

Anonymous said...

Kim, what Mike is saying is that potestas is not "personal" in the sense that we tend to think of it, i.e. now belonging to that person. In the sacrament of Holy Orders the ordinand is imprinted by a special grace of the Holy Spirit with an indellible spiritual character which itself is derived solely from the priesthood of Christ.

All that to say you are correct to say that ordination means that the priest now has authority to efficaciously perform sacraments (which he couldn't do before and no one but an ordained priest/bishop can do) by he can do so only because potestas of Christ working in, with, and through him.

NB: On all this see The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Anonymous said...

PS - Just as there is a "cult of ordination" in some circles is there not also a "cult of anti-ordination" (especially amongst idealistic Protestants) which is equally as erroneous?

Anonymous said...

Oh, the pain, the agony of this disscourse!
Okay, theology class, repeat after me:

I will never blog again without reading first what the other jackass wrote.
I will never blog again without reading...
I will never blog again without reading...
I will never blog again without reading...
I will never blog again without reading.
I will never blog again without
I will never blog again
I will never blog
I will never never never never never, Father, no never.

Amen. Alleluia. Thank you Father for your wicked awesome good graces, freely given at your ordination.

Alleluia? Alle-flunking-luia??

Repeat after me boys:

I will never break the Lenten rubric.
I will never break the Lenten rubric.
I will never break the Lenten rubric...

Thank you father, May we have another?

Oui, oui, repeat after me:
Potestas ordinis, potestas iurisdictionis
Potestas ordinis, potestas iurisdictionis
Potestas ordinis, potestas iurisdictionis

Put that in your Professor Hunt-a-Thinker and smoke it.
And may the Very Right Reverend Ben M. Sir
Cuss us
over all of this fussy guss
Well to this we do say,
Calooh and Callay. Priests smell to heaven
And have a good day.

Michael said...

Thanks to David for his follow-up comment to mine. My point was, indeed, that any potestas from ordination is not in any usual sense "personal", but is rather a differentiated form of participation in the work of Christ, the one high priest.

"Imprinted by a special grace... with an indelible spiritual character" is a metaphor which I think would be best abandoned. It is better to speak of participation in the ministry of Christ, ultimately rooted in baptismal grace.

Anonymous said...

"Closet anabaptist.."

That's the lot of the thoughtful cleric in collar.

And you better stay in the closet if you want your paycheck for your work as chrysostomos...

Anonymous said...

Two quick points.

First, in my book I propose that the special vocation bestowed on every Christian at baptism, whatever it might be in any particular case, always brings with it the promise of the spiritual potestas needed for that vocation to be carried out.

What is true for all Christians would then be true in a particular way for those called to be bishops, presbyters or deacons.

I also suggest that this potestas be thought of "actualistically." It would be something once given de iure, but then also continually given and received, not something given just once and then possessed.

Second, if we start from a baptismal, and therefore communal, center in thinking about vocations and offices, then it becomes clear that power relations in any future united church will need to look very different than they do now in any existing church or communion. That would be the larger context in which to place Stringfellow's concerns, it seems to me.

By the way, Karl Rahner is often very good on these questions. I don't have the books in front of me, but if memory serves, vol. 20 of Theological Investigations is a very fruitful place to look.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, George.

Btw, I pre-ordered The Eucharist and Ecumenism, got it and devoured it first thing in August. A major contribution which I hope may be a sign of spring during the so-called ecumenical winter here in the UK, it also informed a sermon I preached at a service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, in which I put three hard questions each to episcopal and non-episcopal churches. One to the former took as its gist your question: "If the high sacramental churches are not prepared to subject their own episcopates to fundamental self-examination, such as they require of the ministries in other traditions, does that not suggest a defect in itself?" (Needless to say, I avoided the language of "defect"!) Of course this question is not new and was, for example, on the table as our Welsh Commission of Covenanted Churches BEM Committee (Anglican - Rowan William was a rep - URC, Presbyterian, Methodist, and a few Baptist congregations) worked on plans published in 1997 as Towards the Making of an Ecumenical Bishop in Wales (in the end, the Anglicans, true to form, turned down the proposal, even though the entire bench of bishops supported it). Anyway, shortly after the service, our local Churches Together received a letter from the (ex-Anglican) Roman priest, a University Chaplaincy colleague of mine. Put it like this: he was not a happy bunny (though we are still talking)!

Oh, and on further reading, Edward Schillebeeckx's Ministry: A Case for Change (1981) is also worth a look, offering as it does a critique of the "ideology of priesthood".

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

this is excellent. I found out yesterday that I am required to right a reflection on the nature of ordained ministry... Torrance has been helping me thus far...

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I guess you're referring to Torrance's Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry (1955, 1993)? If you can get hold of it, also check out Robert Paul's Ministry (1965). Paul, a Congregationalist minister, theologian, and church historian studied at Mansfield College and taught at Hartford Theological Seminary. Good luck with your reflection!

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