I am often asked, “Do Anglicans believe in the priesthood of all believers?”
There is an underlying assumption behind this question. As we call clergy “priests”, we than assume that they aloneare permitted to carry out the “priesthood ministry.” What then do we make of this phrase in 1 Peter 2:9?
In the Bible, we can see that the word ‘priest’ was never used for bishops, elders and deacons in the NT era. To do so would have led to it being misunderstood as a continuation of the Levitical order in the old covenant. This was something which the early church was careful to avoid.
There is a history (some of it unfortunate) behind the eventual etymological use of the term “priest” for the clergy but I won’t go through the technical details here. It is important however to examine why the term is still helpful and practically what it means for all of us.
Firstly, the use of this term is based on the priesthood of Jesus (Hebrews 7:26-29) and the priesthood of the Church (1 Peter 2:9). The Church is called to continue to priestly ministry of Christ – standing for men before God and bringing God to the people. This is a very rich understanding of the church’s sacred place and role but this is not the occasion to unpack what it fully means.
That clergy are called priest is a helpful reminder of their essential role. This quote from Archbishop Michael Ramsay is helpful: “..today the priest is called to reflect the priesthood of Christ and to serve the priesthood of the people of God, and to be one of the means of grace whereby God enables the Church to be the Church.” (from The Christian Priest Today.)
Secondly, the ‘priesthood of all believers’ has never meant the priesthood of each individual believer, but rather of the whole community. And this community need to be led in a way which will enable her role. Centuries of church experience and tradition has shown us that the laity best serve under the guidance of the apostolic tradition mediated by a prepared and informed ministry. While all are called to do ministry, some are set apart for the specific tasks of an ordered ministry e.g. equipping (Ephesians 4), representing, leading, and preserving the faith and order of the Church.
Even from the beginning, not every individual believer has the right to perform all the priestly and ministerial functions. Some were appointed to the functions of oversight, pastoral care and diakonia. E.g. deacons (Acts 6), Elders (Acts 14:23), Overseers (Phil 1:1). By the time of Irenaeus (AD 170), threefold ministry was widespread and established.
So my simple answer to the question is a resounding “Yes!” In fact during the Reformation and in the subsequent centuries, the church ministry was increasingly carried by the lay. Here in Singapore today, we can see how true this is. There will always be a need for a set-apart, authorised and trained leadership order in the Church. Other church streams have evolved various ways to express this need, just as Anglicans had done so.
If the Anglican use of the term priest can be misleading, lets also see it as a strength and solemn reminder of the nature of the Church. The Church is indeed sacred, a living temple of God’s presence. We are set apart (“holy”) to reflect Christ and this is why by His grace, we endeavour to live in holiness. We refrain from seeing the church in “just-ism terms, i.e, she is just an institution to improve stability, or a community for the lonely or an organization to fulfil a mission. She is all these and more.
One important truth flows from this and I will say it will be tragic when we lose faith in this. As God is present and Lord of His Church, we need to be conscious of His presence. We need to observe what the Father is doing. We need to be dependent on His guidance. We need to place less confidence in our own judgment.
And we need to pray and worship more! This is why I have always place importance on the need to pray and wait upon Him, something which we will focus on this Friday at the Worship and Prayer Evening. We need to pray as Moses did in Exodus 33:15: “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.”
We approach another AGM with these truths in our hearts.