Anglican Priests – Ontological? Functional? Or Something Else?


The 1st of May is the anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. One year I placed a pic of it on my FB page and my friend who was priested with me (standing on the right of me, I am the bloke in the middle wearing the almost white chasuble) also placed the same pic on his FB page. What I found interesting was that he received many comments and ‘likes’ whereas I received no comments and not many likes.
Of course it is FB, it does not really mean anything because the world of FB is not real, but what is real is that my friend who was priested with me is a very staunch Papalist Anglican priest where I am very much a Reformed Anglican Priest.
His view of being a priest is ontological whereas my view of being a priest is functional (though I suspect he agrees with some aspect of the functional view). For those who are not sure what this means here is an explanation:

A view of the Priesthood – Ontological
When a person is ordained as a priest, there is a change regarding your very nature. In essence you become a different kind of person, a different kind of Christian, and this is not to do primarily with your role, (though it shapes and dictates your role) but with who and what you become. God affects an ontological change in the very nature of who you are. Deacons, Priests and Bishops who hold to this view see themselves as being in Holy Orders until they die, still recognised as one by retaining their title even at retirement and still wear their clerical garb. The Roman Catholic Church holds to this view. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that ordination “confers an indelible spiritual character” which “cannot be “repeated or conferred temporarily” (CCC#1583). “The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” (CCC#1583)
The late Rev John Richardson (aka The Ugley Vicar) describes this view like this:

In ordination, the person being ordained is, as it were, ‘made into’ a priest — he (or she) is no longer quite what they were as a layperson, and is not simply ‘authorized’ by ordination, but is changed and ‘empowered’ by it. The views on this ‘empowerment’ may vary, but the essential characteristic is that priest and laity are in some way separated in what they are, not just in what they do. We will call this simply the ‘priestly’ model, since for most people, the word ‘priest’ conjures up exactly this ‘set apart specialness’ of someone different from the layperson.

A View of the Priesthood – Functional
When a person is ordained as a priest, nothing happens to them in regards to their nature. The change is only in regards to what they can do publicly. Actually what priests do in church anyone Christian can do in their own homes.
And as for the prayer in the Anglican ordinal asking God to send down The Holy Spirit, is so that the Newly ordained priest may do what the ordinal and the Scriptures set out for them and require them to do. Scripture is very clear what the role of the Priest (the term Priest is an English version of the Greek word Presbyter, although many Reformed Anglican Priests avoid the term due to perceived Roman Catholic/sacerdotal connotations) is to be. The Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) are very clear on what the role is of a Priest and the Anglican Ordinal very clearly states what the roles, requirements and expectations are of a Deacon, Priest or Bishop and the roles are functional.

So while I do not hold to the ontological view of the Priesthood (due it its origins lying in Roman Catholic Theology rather than the Scriptures,nor is it supported by the Anglican Ordinal), I do wonder if the understanding of the Functional view of the Priesthood is deficient in some way?

It seems to me that there are two weaknesses with the current understanding of the Functional view of the priesthood (not the view itself):

1. The role of priest is professionalised – Where they are likened to that of a CEO, service leader, preacher, Bible study teacher, manager of other clergy (who are called paid staff). In other words the role seems to be reduced to that of someone who is a paid professional, rather than a role that is vocational and one of calling. So one’s suitability as a priest and effectiveness as a priest is discerned by ‘success’ (however ‘success’ is defined in modern 21st ministry culture) and in practice one’s godliness, holiness, piety, love for others is minimalised or reduced.

2. The role of a priest is compartmentalised – It allows for the vows ordinands make at their ‘priesting’ to be compartmentalised from every day life and their roles to be compartmentalised from everyday life when the reality is that neither is possible. Whether a priest likes it or not, (although there is no ontological change within them at the ordination), the way they are perceived by people will change. Whether those views held are right or wrong; based on weird theology or something they have imbibed from childhood or previous experience; whether they are Christians in their own church, or unbelievers outwith their church; it cannot be avoided, even when they are not in church, even when it is their day off, and even if they are out and about not wearing a clerical collar attempting to be anonymous. Once a person is ordained as priest, it does not go away, and there is no off switch. Of course they can take a day off from ministry,(and they should) but they cannot take a day off from the vows that they made at their ordinations, nor decide to reject the very doctrines that they affirmed at their ordinations; just as they cannot take a day off from being a Christian and they cannot take the day off from how people will see them.

I was at the shopping centre recently buying a DVD, I was not wearing a clergy collar and the girl served me and she remembered me from her Mother’s funeral I conducted. In her eyes, I was the priest. At the moment I was not leading a service, nor reading the Bible, nor preaching, nor was I managing church staff, so according to the functional view I was not a priest. But in her eyes I was, simply by being.

As I read recently on another blog:

“There are appropriate whole-of-life expectations for ministers such that they cannot ever switch off from their role in the same way that a pilot can when they’re not flying. And even once they’ve retired from a position, a failure to live up to their ordination vows can have significant impact on those that the clergy have previously ministered to in a way that a pilot’s post-flight behaviour doesn’t affect their previous passengers”.

I saw a blog post recently pertaining to the UK series entitled Rev and the author notices the confusion between being a priest and leading the church; the ontological view of being a priest and the functional view of being a priest. The author looks at it from the problem of the ontological view (i.e Just because someone is called to be a priest, doesn’t mean they’re called to lead a church). We see this with the Rev’s main protagonist Rev Adam Smallbone. Rev Adam SmallboneIn short he is absolutely not suited to being a Priest. But because his role is defined by the Ontological view, therein lies the problem. The author points this out in his piece and I think is absolutely correct when he says:

The result is people like Adam Smallbone in Rev. He’s a nice guy; he’s clearly got some kind of call on his life. But according to that list, he isn’t called to lead a church, and the tension in the series comes from fact that no-one quite grasps that he may well be called to be a priest by the C of E’s understanding (Ontological), but he isn’t called to lead a church by the Bible’s understanding (Functional).
We see the problems shining through in the series. Adam isn’t a good preacher; as a result his congregation don’t have transforming encounters with God’s word and so don’t change. We see that painfully clearly when it comes to welcoming a repentant paedophile into the church. Adam understands grace, but he hasn’t communicated that understanding to the rest of the church, so they reject him. Adam’s wife isn’t properly on board with him being a vicar – she clearly resents it and it causes all kinds of problems for her faith, and for his leadership. I know both from personal experience and from that of friends that if a vicar’s spouse isn’t keen on them following the calling to lead a church, it won’t work. The tragedy is that Adam has been badly let down by the C of E in its confusion between the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church. As a result, everyone loses – Adam, the local church, the wider church.

This is the weakness of the ontological view, but the weakness of the current understanding of the functional view is just a serious. A priest who is professionalised and is compartmentalised and sees their role as a priest as a job rather than a calling and a vocation is just as unhelpful as the Rev Adam Smallbone.

So back to my FB pic. I suspect that the reason why my post did not receive so many comments from many of my Evangelical ‘friends’ is because they don’t view being priested as being that much of a big deal. To use the  analogy:

“Being ordained is a bit like getting your pilot’s licence. You need one to fly but it’s no more than a mark of recognition that you’ve proven yourself able to fly, that you choose to be an active pilot and that the authorities are happy to accept you. There’s no way in the world that just issuing a licence gives you your flying skills and there’s no reason to hold a licence once your active flying career is over”.

If this is the understanding of the functional view of the Priesthood then I think it goes too far however the answer I believe is not for Anglican priests to embrace the oncological view of the priesthood but to re-examine the functional view in light of God’s Holy Scriptures, and to a lesser extent (though not insignificant) the Ordinal. Scripture is clear that all Christians are members of a new Royal Priesthood, however those whom God has called to be ‘Priests’ like every Christian are to be living examples of those who worship God in Spirit and in truth who offer their bodies to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) and this means as an ordained Anglican priest their oaths made at their ordinations, the doctrines that they affirmed and the promises that they made are to be lived out transparently (and by God’s grace, contagiously) every day, and it does not matter if they are not rostered down to lead or preach that Sunday or whether they have parish council coming up that week.

Not ontological, but more than merely functional.


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