Contact E-mail

For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The High Calling

On reading about the Romantic idea of the poet as seer or prophet (an idea that Wordsworth found in Milton), I was struck by the notion of the poetic or prophetic vocation. The idea of a distinct, personal, inescapable calling, when one's inner and sometimes inchoate sense of purpose is awakened and given definitive form and moral certainty by an external event (sometimes an event that might seem trivial to anyone else) - this Romantic or even Augustinian idea of calling or conversion to a purpose has seeped into our ideas of what it is to have a purpose or calling in life in a broader sense. This becomes confusing and potentially misleading for many Christians, whose notions of vocation are influenced by this pervasive idea. They are then waiting for a moment of epiphany to tell them how they should live and serve in God's kingdom, under the impression that without such a Moment they have not yet arrived at a perfect knowledge of God's will for their life.

The problem is not that Christians should be sensible of having a vocation, the "high calling of God in Christ Jesus", but that their ideas of what "calling" is should be dominated by the paradigm of the prophetic calling: by the Temple vision of Isaiah, Ezekiel's vision of the cherubim, or Jeremiah's commission as the one ordained as prophet of the nations. And this is a paradigm of vocation that is reinforced in the New Testament by the notion of calling in Paul's letters, the Damascus road calling of Paul and his subsequent and unshakeable sense of divine mission: "Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel".

The "high calling" of which Paul speaks, however, is not to be found in any particular set of dramatic internal or external events, or the satisfying of any particular emotional or psychological criteria. We have a calling "in Christ Jesus". Christ is not only Prophet, but is also Priest and King. It is instructive to give some thought as to how the idea of Christian calling and purpose is transformed, by thinking about our calling into the priestly and kingly offices of Christ, and on their own terms, rather than through the exclusive lens of the very personal prophetic vocation of a Jeremiah or a Paul.

There is a sense in which all God's people are called into Christ's prophetic office, apart from any special vocation to a prophetic role. The prophet is the one who has been given a word from God, a seer who must communicate the vision of the deep things of God that he has been granted, whose message unveils the judgment of eternity on his epoch and its worldly pre-occupations. A Christian's belief in the Gospel and communication of its message in life and speech is prophetic, for the Gospel of Jesus is God's word to Man, his judgment of the world, a revealing vision of divine things.

Certainly some Christians are specially called, chosen, seized by an eruption of the Holy Ghost into their life, and by which they become the destined bearers of a specific message to their Age, revealing its inevitable future judgment. Although this special calling is hidden from others, it can only be judged by the common prophetic calling of all Christians as witnesses of the truth of the Gospel, and the prophetic word will be greatly resisted when it is needed most and when Christians have succumbed to the spirit of the Age. There are also the deluded and the deluding, false prophets. But much more commonly, there are a large number of sincere and good Christians who imagine that they have a prophetic calling of some kind, a charisma, a vocation to a special mission - whether to an office in the church or whatever - because, under the impression of the Romantic idea of vocation, they have interpreted their life's circumstances and emotions to mean that the lightning of the Spirit has struck them. In the realm of calling to the priestly ministry, I think that this can be a harmful thing.

In talking of the calling to the priesthood, one must be clear that each Christian possesses priesthood as part of the priestly people. The mandate is there in Paul, the first verses of Romans ch. 12 in particular: "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service". I would not hesitate to say that the priesthood of the Church as a whole extends to offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist, and the passage quoted above is echoed in the words of the Roman Canon (quam oblationem... rationabilem). The Eucharist is primarily offered by the Church, the recurring "we" of the ancient Eucharistic prayer, and the role of the ministering priest is internal to that "we". The priest's action represents the people's; it is done for them because it is done with them. The word "ontological" with regard to the priesthood is misleading unless it is understood in relation to the people that the priest represents. A man becomes a priest with, as one of the people, his priesthood being an intrinsic sacramental role within the Church of which he is a baptised member: ministerial priesthood is not a permanent characteristic or essential difference in an individual apart from the people. There is not (I would argue) a straight line to be drawn from the divine High Priesthood of Christ to the presbyter; but one can draw a line to the priesthood of the Church in its offerings, from which the ministerial priesthood is derived. (It is important to note that this is not the same thing as to say that the graces of ordination are derived from the will of the Church rather than from Christ; the special anointing of the Spirit of Christ in Holy Orders is one thing, and the meaning and significance of the priestly role is another.)

The features of a vocation to the ministerial priesthood in the New Testament are threefold, (1) the individual's desire, (2) a series of criteria of fitness (holiness of life, monogamy, and so on), and (3) the responsibility of the Church for the choice: "choose out from among you". Because the priesthood is a role within the Church that a man is adopted into rather than being born into, its ritual and sacramental actions, enabled by the grace of ordination, must be learned and practiced. It is not an innate role. It is in that sense a professional role, in some ways similar to other professions like soldiering or medicine. It is even a bureaucratic or political role in a way in its service to the people through the bishop - the civil servant or politician is similarly appointed to perform a hierarchical role for a civitas or polis. It is internal to a "system" or ordering of the Church's life and therefore involves a certain amount of real-life compromise and diplomacy, and I think that this would hold true even where there was no such thing codified Canon Law, seminary and an absolute minimum of ecclesiastical organisation. This is not necessarily a Bad Thing: there could be no such thing as a Church Militant without order or organisation of some kind. The priestly role is not incompatible with a specific prophetic calling, nor should it ever be separated from the common prophetic office of all Christians in the Gospel. But the priestly and specifically prophetic calling do not necessarily run together and there is a certain tension between them.

How is one to discern a calling to the priesthood? I think, from what I have said above, that it will inevitably attract a certain kind of person, with a preponderance of extroverts, and the choice of men will require prudence on the part of those who are charged with discerning fitness. The additional responsibility of celibacy does complicate things, however, and makes the notion of discernment and vocation much more fraught, almost necessitating in most men a moment of epiphany to make the choice. When the distinct question of a calling to the ministerial priesthood becomes mixed up with a calling to celibacy, becoming a "eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake", the sexual and emotional urges are understandably in the foreground of any decision. I have my own opinion on this, and like many others think that this is not a good thing at all. I suspect that it tends to create a crisis in the man, which is either resolved in some moment of putative spiritual revelation, or sometimes not resolved at all, leaving a deep sense of guilt, destructive cynicism, or both. The discipline of a celibate priesthood therefore enhances the risk (already high) that the vocation to the ministerial priesthood will be confused with the special prophetic calling. Given the kind of life that most priests are forced to live - their time eaten up almost completely with ritual and administrative acts, when there is hovering in the air an expectation that they have specifically prophetic form of vocation - this can surely only create a deep dissonance in individual priests, and a general scepticism towards clergy, and frivolity about the whole notion of prophetic vocation. And when a seer emerges from either within or without their ranks, this scepticism and dissonance in people and priest could well work against acceptance of the prophetic message, and against an understanding of the role of the prophet in the Church and the world.

Christ as King is an office to which most men are called in a quite specific way. A king is the father and ruler of his people, a shepherd who stands over them and protects them. He keeps the peace, is the highest court of appeal, and acts as a symbolical figurehead. The role is hereditary, natural, innate: kingship is something a king is born into because of his intrinsic relation to those who go before and follow after him. Fatherhood is similar to kingship, and is the predominant way in which individual Christian men are called to hold Christ's kingly title. Kingship is also acquired in some sense, at coronation, when a king "marries" his people and vows are exchanged, vows of service on his side and of obedience on theirs. Similarly, a man acquires kingship through marriage, which sets up a new natural relation between a groom and his bride. The kingship of the father and husband is not so much learned technique (although one can learn a great deal about it) as it is a given thing. One is first a father, and one then tries to be a better father; one marries and then one tries to correct one's faults as a husband. Kingship is not the learning of a professional role but the perfection in love of a relation.

There are other specific roles besides fatherhood in which the Christian is called into Christ's kingship - one thinks of the pastoral role of the bishop, the role of a male teacher, the head of a business, large or small, or even a farmer or those who tend the earth. And likewise (as with the priesthood of all believers, and the prophetic power of the faith of all Christians) every Christian is a King, as a part of the "royal nation" that bears rule over Creation through the Cross. But my general point is that kingship as a specific function, or the discharging of a particular role as King, is the most common special vocation in which men will share of the three offices of Christ, that of Prophet, of Priest and of King. And it is the most natural and least "charismatic" in the sense that it does not require any special epiphany. People fall in love, and (one hopes) are happily married and have children. Men don't usually wait for a special revelation from above to do so.

Likewise, to wait for a special revelation for a vocation to the ministerial priesthood, or to encourage it, is I think to mistake the nature of what the priesthood is. Inclination and desire are one half of the process, the choosing by the Church is another - and sometimes it might be healthier if it were almost wholly the latter, when the choosing was done not by distant clergy primarily but by a group of faithful Christians who have had most opportunity to see the person's life and character. Instead of taking a priest off to a special school to become some kind of super-refined being endowed with special powers after years of psychological assessments (and do we really trust human methods and aims so much after seeing what can go wrong?) how about starting with the following premise: that every group of gathered Christians should have a bishop or his vicar a presbyter, aided by a deacon, and that these should be chosen out "from among them" for the role? I am not arguing against the need for special education in clergy, but perhaps the way priests were "apprenticed" before the reforms of Trent and the development of seminaries and houses of study in Protestantism is a better fit in some ways, with both the vocation to the ministerial priesthood and its presentation in the New Testament.


  1. Perhaps a debate on the Eucharist will wake you up out of your spiritual coma...

  2. The article that you link to is about the teaching of the council of Trent on transubstantiation which isn't at all what I was talking about in the post. For what it is worth, I don't think that either the decrees of the council of Trent, or the article you link to, speak primarily of what our Lord Jesus and the Bible say about the Eucharist.