On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

I spent a few years in the house church movement, and within it there is great emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Anabaptism emphasises this too; In Body Politics, Yoder writes of the idea of the religious specialist as something God is at work reversing, most profoundly in the experience of the giftedness of all believers in the early church. For a time, I was whole-hearted in embracing this thinking – to the point where the house church I was in had no formal leaders, and everything was decided on consensus. These days I’m ambivalent.

I don’t see leadership as a dirty word any longer. There clearly are designated leaders in the New Testament. Yet I remain critical of the way leadership happens in churches today; I think we’ve been too quick to embrace secular models of leadership and the pastor as CEO. I don’t believe megachurches are a good model of church, and if your church is not a megachurch you probably don’t need a CEO-style leader.

The idea of a priest in the Anglican church takes things in a different direction again. The robes and the special functions only priests can perform set them apart from the congregation. Yet perhaps no more than the professionalisation of large non-conformist churches has set their ministers apart. A layperson in a large Baptist church has little more hope of giving the sermon or officiating at the Lord’s Supper as a layperson in an Anglican church.

I see the importance of the long training and ordination process priests go through in the Anglican church, and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. (Baptists have a similar accreditation process.) The apostles’ three years of discipleship and formation with Jesus was far less structured, but today, if there isn’t a formal process, it’s unlikely to be done well.  So the house church movement’s desire to return to more ‘biblical’ models of formation (such as Timothy-Paul type apprenticeships) is unlikely to happen in reality – many house churches are led by people who have not gone through any process at all.

I think I’m happily agnostic on the question of priests and professionalisation at the moment. I accept how things are done at the church I attend, and I see the good side of it, while being aware it’s in tension with my beliefs of the past.

7 thoughts on “On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

  1. I think leadership is perfectly fine in churches – as you note, the New Testament notes that there are leaders. Formation of leaders is a necessity within churches as well so I’ve never been particularly interested in the rather laissez-faire approach of house churches in this regard.

    However, I think that the notion of a ministerial priesthood is inimical to Christian faith and practice and I’d argue that it is no accident that there is no mention of a Christian priest in the New Testament or in early Christian literature since a priest signifies quite a different approach to the faith.

    So I deny for instance that Anglican, Orthodox or Catholic priests etc are in fact Christian priests of any kind – though I have no problem recognising them as Christian ministers.

  2. Hi Nathan,

    It probably doesn’t matter whether its a Baptist or an Anglican church, some people feel dis-empowered when there is little room for the exercise of their talents and abilities, but this depends very much of what type of leaders you have in place in these churches.

    But in some house churches (though not in others) there is a spreading of biblical ignorance and often there is a struggle for power over whose views shall prevail.

    I don’t know how Yoder’s programme of ‘body politics’ can really be implemented in practice and I despair over it ever being able to happen for a long period of time by any significant section of Christians.

    Perhaps this is just part of my disillusionment with churches in all their forms.

    Best wishes for your journey, Nathan.

    John Arthur

  3. Hi Nathan
    Good to see you back on the blog.
    Evangelical churches profess to believe in the priesthood of all believers but I strongly suspect that most of them believe in the priesthood of NO believers. We all have access to God through Christ (hence no priests) but we overlook the need to care for each other, minister to each other, bear each other’s burdens, for me to bring you to God when you feel far from him, and for you to do the same for me when I need it.
    I discovered about a year ago, largely through your blog, that there are Anabaptists in the present-day world, and having discovered that, I think I am one. I have kind of moved in the opposite direction from you in the last few years though, from supporting professional ministry to being much more dubious of it – although it is easy to recognise God ‘s call to certain people to that type of work.
    There is an excellent book “The Abolition of the Laity” by R Paul Stevens which you might like to read if you don’t already know it. (Hang on, you’re a librarian – you probably know where it is on your shelves!) I found myself shouting “Yes! Yes” frequently as I read it. I love the title too. Keep open the question of professionalism by all means – but support and encourage the gifts and ministry of ALL Christians.

      1. I don’t think I’m in contradiction with you – I hope not, anyway. Encouraging the priesthood of all believers should not exclude those in full-time ministry. “Abolition of the Laity” challenges conventional thinking about professional ministry, but does not oppose it (as some “organic church” writers do).
        It’s good to share views and reflections.

  4. I think if one can provide and encourage “leadership at all levels” in secular contexts – this is the case where I work – then I don’t see why this cannot occur in church life. Sometimes the “children of the world are wiser in their generation than the children of the light” 🙂

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