Tuesday, 17 May 2016

High church anti-clericalism: some thoughts on ministry

Late in the afternoon I went out for ice cream with one of my doctoral students. We sat on small chairs on the pavement crowded with bankers and lawyers scurrying home from work, and the slower, reluctant stream of bartenders, security guards, and prostitutes who crept half-heartedly into the dying light to commence their nighttime labours. We ate the ice cream, my student and I, with glad hearts and loud exclamations. For we were arguing about lofty things – I mean the priesthood, the sacraments, ordination, and grace.

My student was provoked by my refusal to believe in mediated grace. I should have been politer, more ecumenical, since he had paid for the ice cream. But in my heart of hearts I cannot see how the church or the clergy could mediate divine grace to anybody’s soul. I do not see how special powers could be conferred on a person through ordination.

And yet I love the liturgy, the priesthood, and all the rest. I am practically Calvinist in my understanding of these matters, and practically Catholic in my feelings. I want the laying on of hands and orders of ministry and candles and vestments and chanted psalms and the sign of the cross and a certain measure of good-hearted pomp and ceremony. I approve even of liberal doses of incense, provided it is not sprayed directly in my face, as I’m afraid the stuff makes me sneeze. Nothing detracts from Liturgical Solemnity like a thundering sneeze.

My view, in short, combines high-church feelings with low-church theology. If I had to give it a name, I would call it high church anti-clericalism.

Edmund Burke had a similar view of political leadership. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke noted that the French revolutionaries had a purely rational assessment of political leaders. There is no divine right of kings. No supernatural power is invested in a head of state. There is no difference between royal blood and the blood of any common peasant. The queen of France is a woman, a human being, nothing more. Monarchy, according to the revolutionaries, is merely an illusion. All its pomp and ceremony need to be stripped away in order to get at the bare truth of things.

Burke might agree with the metaphysics of the revolutionaries – of course monarchs are not anointed by God; of course a king is a man like any other – but he disagrees with their conclusions about the value of culture and tradition. Pomp and ceremony are important because the king is merely a man. Without the elaborate artifice of glory, our relationship to rulers would be reduced to one of naked power: we would obey because the sovereign wields the sword. But rulers are clothed in ceremonial traditions in order to subdue our hearts. We form attachments to the office of our rulers. We obey not out of fear but out of love. “It was this,” Burke says, that “produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings.” When we treat a human being as if he were appointed by God, it makes our obedience “liberal” and his power “gentle.”

Paradoxical as it might seem, Burke thought the rigorous equalising metaphysics of the revolutionaries would end up transforming the ruling office into a position of naked power, and would turn citizens into craven subjects. By contrast, the elaborate trappings of hierarchical tradition end up elevating citizens to a level of spiritual equality with their rulers, whom they serve freely with affectionate hearts. Burke viewed with horror the rationalistic iconoclasm of the revolutionaries. Nothing good will come of this return to bare nature and bare power: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

Well I’m inclined to think about these ecclesiological matters along similar lines. Of course the Christian minister is not directly appointed by God – but let us relate to the clergy as if they were appointed by God. Of course the laying on of hands at ordination does not confer spiritual powers on a person – but let us celebrate ordination as if it were a conferral of grace. Of course preachers speak only human words when they stand up in the assembly to expound the scriptures – but let us listen to them as if listening to the voice of God. Of course the priest cannot transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – but let us receive bread from the priest’s hand as if receiving it from the hand of Christ.

The church is not a grace-machine. It is a human gathering that seeks to bear witness to the totally free movement of the grace of God. The symbols around which we gather are not illusions; but nor are they the thing itself. My anti-clericalism is high-church because I think the symbols are indispensable: I do not want an evangelicalism in which “all the decent drapery of life is rudely torn off,” to quote Burke again. But my high-churchliness is anti-clerical because I think the symbols point to something only God can do. They proclaim grace in word and action, but do not confer it. They are instruments of witness to God but not mediators of God. Only God can mediate God.

Thus it was that we argued and disputed on the pavement outside the ice cream shop. I quoted Calvin, I quoted Karl Barth, I expounded patristic authors, I waved my little plastic spoon with the gravest theological gesticulations. I don’t mind admitting that we did not quite see eye to eye. He went away, my student, with a head still full of mediatory ecclesiology. What more could I do? I would have mediated the truth to him if I could. But I am a mere teacher of theology, a layman, and laypeople don’t mediate anything. We might have agreed on that much.


Anonymous said...

I'm unsure that you've said anything that would be anything different to, oh, say, the Basis of Union.

Anonymous said...

Actually the BOU at many points at least implies a form of (derivative) mediation through the church...take para 6 on sacraments, 'Christ himself acts in and through everything that the Church does in obedience to his commandment...'...or in para 8 for Holy Communion, 'The Uniting Church acknowledges that the continuing presence of Christ with his people is signified and sealed in the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion, constantly repeated in the life of the Church.' It describes the sacraments as 'effective signs' (para 5), that is, they do more than just memorialise, they some how convey the grace to which they also point...

Rotsinn said...

You say: "Of course the priest cannot transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – but let us receive bread from the priest’s hand as if receiving it from the hand of Christ."
Burkhard Conrad

There is a change of category going on here. I would have expected you to say: "...as if they were body and blood of Christ." But instead you say what you say. That is interesting, but is it Calvinist?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Burkhard, probably just a symptom of my hurried & harried writing! Still, I think the answer is: yes, this is a Calvinist sentiment, since the emphasis isn't on what happens to the material elements (or what happens through the presider), but on how Christ interacts with the heart of the believer during the sacrament.

Steve Wright said...

"Nothing detracts from Liturgical Solemnity like a thundering sneeze."

I see your nasal interjection, and raise you a daughter interrupting a Maundy Thursday tenebrae service from the front with a rousing performance of the chicken dance.

Doug said...

Doesn't the incarnation imply mediation of grace in and through a called community? Or are we left with a guerrilla raid of grace which is no different from any other graced encounters through prophets, holy people, and assorted material objects and personal relationships whose essential randomness is necessitated by the need to preserve graces freedom of movement? Is the binding of grace to a particular community and its developing (and possibly changing) structures, a necessary kenosis of divine freedom?

Anonymous said...

Indeed Doug. Or put another way, the ministry of the called community is an inevitable (and dare I say biblical) outworking of the Incarnation.

d-b said...

Well said, except for the part about mere symbolism, as the sacrament of Holy Orders and the mediation of the Priesthood, are indeed true.

Logos said...

have we regressed to classic Calvinism? as if Calvinism was more orthodox than Scripture? the Bible is replete with mediations. it is expressive of mediation, from creation to history to apocalypsis. As if Barth remained stuck in his Romans book...

Anonymous said...

I'll just say I don't know how you can doubt the sacramental mediation of grace through the matter of this world while eating ice cream. ;-)

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