There is no greater advocate for the priesthood than myself. But the limitations of lay priesthood are frustrating.
Consider this: If I have sufficient knowledge to preach and the wisdom of God to do so, what is ordination to me? What goal is the pulpit? Why not preach from the street corner?
Because I would be a laughing stock. It is the unfortunate condition of modern religion that neither the street-corner prosthelytizer nor the robed bishop ex cathedra can command our trust and attention–the former because he lacks credibility, the latter because, well, he lacks credibility.
For different reasons, of course. The former has no history and the latter has far too much history–bloodied history, at that. What is orthodox in Christian religion is lost on dogma and ritual. In the winding words of G.K. Chesterton (whose deep concern for probity was second only to rhetoric): “Orthodoxy means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by all who call themselves Christian… that is, until a very short time ago.”
And what does the creed say about priesthood? Both everything and nothing. It is, most basically, a declaration of faith for those of the cloth and those of the pew. It says nothing at all of ordination, and even less about our adherence as Christians to an established sacrament of Holy Orders. No one will argue the faithful need a shepherd, but if Jesus picks the lot from fishing boats without further ado, what is our business making fishers of men jump through hoops?
What’s more (and generally necessary to understand): When we say, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” we do not mean at all that there is some pre-eminence in the Roman Catholic Church which subordinates all other traditions under its feet. “Catholic,” before its appropriation and after, signifies only universality–a fact so easily forgotten when ecumenism stumbles on itself in our day.
What is my point exactly? Disregarding the evident truth that I am far too comfortable in bed with Luther, I will say that his theology of sacrament rings true. And yes, his reform of the Roman Catholic Church came about because of corruption–both material and theological corruption. But that does not mean sacrament itself was undone. Rather, I think, it forced a reconsideration of what the fishers of the church were called to do–and who rightly could be called a fisher of God’s men.
We forget these arguments today, I think, because we are lazy and wantonly ignorant. We prefer rote ritual and memorized prayer because they are easier. But if we scratch the superficial surface of that charade, it would seem dark and dreary underneath–a void of un-faith and confusion. Most of us have no idea what to think about who should lead and what they should be saying.
Which makes me wonder if those whose call is clear have put it aside, deferring wholly to the dictates of the church and its proceedings. There is a way by which shepherds are made in the church today (don’t you know), and that is not to be questioned.
Or so we have convinced ourselves. But that is because we are undiscerning and apathetic. Is it any wonder that on rare occasions we give the street prophet credit for his words, if only because they are so much easier to absorb and he has no true power over us? The bishop wields an invisible scepter and dresses himself in regal robes. We are American and boast our aversion to authority; he cannot tell us what we will do and what we will not.
Unless of course, it means our salvation. And then, we will concede only enough to ensure the formula is complete. Nothing more.
What faith is there in that? The creed has fallen out of style and out of society. What’s more, the shepherd has become an automaton.
Jesus would be appalled, I’m almost certain.