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Formulary Friday: Pastors for the perfecting of the saints

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Posted by The Rev'd Robert Evans, 8 Jul 2016

Following on from his previous post about ordination, Robert Evans examines the Ordinal's teaching on the role and duties of priests (presbyters).

Last Saturday, I was ordained *priest*. Now, I sit at my desk, wondering what on earth that means I am meant to do.

Fortunately, the formularies themselves come to the rescue in the form of the Ordinal, the service tucked in at the back of the Prayer Book for ordaining people. Although we often think of the formularies as packed with doctrine, the Ordinal shows us that such doctrine can also be deeply practical. The Ordinal is not only liturgy but also a handbook for anyone involved in Christian ministry – from people reading the Bible 1-to-1 with friends all the way to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course, these are very different offices, but discharged within the same framework, which the Ordinal sets out specifically for ordained clergy.

We’ve only got space to scratch the surface, but this framework for ministry seems to have two key axes: doctrine and example. As the bishop puts it in his opening question, priestly ministry requires ‘learning and godly conversation’. The ordinands are later reminded that there must ‘be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life’. In other words, a Christian minister must a.) know and teach the truths of the Christian faith but also b.) live out those truths in daily life.

Let’s look at the implications of each in turn.

(a) There is no space here for an understanding of ministry which downplays theological learning. Priests ought to be ‘studious in reading and learning the Scriptures’. As Paul reminds Titus, a minister ‘must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine’ (Titus 1.9). Priests must believe, and be able to defend, the three creeds (c.f. Article 8) and (ideally) the Articles of Religion. It should go without saying that priests must affirm to the bishop that the Scriptures ‘contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation’ (c.f. Article 6). We must also note, however, that there is something combative about priestly ministry. Titus’ ministers must ‘rebuke those who contradict’ sound doctrine. The Ordinal likewise enjoins priests to ‘banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines’. There are many strange doctrines abroad: this task is more urgent today than ever.

(b) Good doctrine cannot, however, remain a purely intellectual exercise. The Ordinal challenges priests to provide ‘wholesome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow’. 1 Peter and Hebrews both envisage priests mirroring good doctrine in their own lives. Peter tells priests to serve ‘not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock’ (5.3). Hebrews tells congregations to ‘consider the outcome of [Christian leaders’] way of life and imitate their faith’ (13.7). What priests tell their congregations by word, they must show by example and imitation – and disaster will follow if they do not. Shortly before sending his mission to the English, Gregory the Great warned of those ‘who investigate spiritual precepts with cunning care, but what they penetrate with their understanding they trample on in their lives’ (Pastoral Care, 1.2). Gregory’s warning still stands true today.

I know how short I fall in these categories and the bishop seems to agree: ‘ye cannot have a mind and will thereto of yourselves’. I am grateful, therefore, that the opening collect beseeches God to do the following in the lives of those to be ordained: ‘replenish them with the truth of thy doctrine, and adorn them with innocency of life, that, both by word and godly example, they may faithful serve’. These two axes of ministry set out in the Ordinal must be provided, replenished, and indeed adorned by God.

It should be no surprise that we find both axes thus provided for in the reading of Scripture: it is the engine room for priestly ministry. The bishop tells priests to be ‘diligent in prayers and in reading of the holy Scriptures’. This is not a dry or purely academic engagement with Scripture, but a prayerful encounter with the living Word of God. Only then will priests be equipped to preach ‘doctrine and exhortation taken out of the holy Scriptures’ and also live ‘a life agreeable to the same’. Only God-breathed Scripture is competent to equip priests for their work in these two axes of ministry.

Let us turn, finally, to the Scriptures which, after the introduction and collect, begin the ordination service.

From 1662, the readings appointed were Ephesians 4.7 and either Matthew 9.36 or John 10.1ff. Matthew speaks of labourers and harvest, the Epistle speaks of ‘pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints’, and in the John passage, Jesus makes his wonderful claim: ‘I am the good shepherd’, who will bring together his flock. The Bishop’s admonition picks up this language, with its emphasis on warning and teaching and, like the shepherd, ‘to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad’. The priest is not only shepherd but evangelist, charged to seek for Christ’s elect wherever they may be found.

The Church of England priest is deeply agricultural, working in the field with his scythe or his crook to gather in the harvest or tend to his flock – and it is hard work. As we have seen, this is to be done by sound teaching and providing a godly example.

Nonetheless, these passages also centre upon the Lord of the Harvest, the good Shepherd, the one who, when he laid down his life for the sheep, led captivity itself captive. As the prayer prior to the laying of hands reminds us, it is Christ who has ‘sent abroad into the world his apostles, prophets, evangelists, doctors and pastors’. It is Christ who ‘gathered together a great flock…to set forth the eternal praise of [his] holy name’. Throughout the Ordinal, it is Christ’s glory which is at stake: a weighty charge for all those who undertake the work and office and priest but also a wonderful assurance that this task cannot, ultimately, be undone by our own frailties.

To quote some final word from the Ordinal, therefore, may God give us all – whether bishops, priests, deacons, or laity – the strength and power to ‘accomplish His work, which He hath begun’. Amen.

The Rev'd Robert Evans is Curate at Christ's Church, Cambridge, and a PhD student at Cambridge University.

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