I had reason to write to a friend who has recently celebrated twenty years in the ministry. It has given me the opportunity to reflect upon some of the questions and convictions that surround the nature and exercise of priesthood in today’s complex and confusing world.
It was Bob Runcie, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who would often comment that he hoped he would be remembered as a decent human being before people made any judgment about the quality of his Episcopal contribution to the life of the Church. One of the things I remember about him was his quality, his personal authority which was never overbearing or pompous, his breadth of outlook, his humility which made him ready to grow and change, and it’s this courage which enabled him to refuse to deny his God-given humanity.
One of the dangers of ministry is that it can lead the serious minded of us to take life far too seriously. Making a distinction between what ought properly to be taken seriously and what ought to be allowed to let be, is very important. In this we should draw or remember the distinction between episteemee (knowledge) and doxa (opinion). If our lives are full of doxa without people around us to challenge us then our ego goes wild and we end up continuing to become both self-obsessed and self-important. Ministry can be an exercise of wanting to be liked or possibly admired. In this there are huge dangers of simply telling people what they want to hear.
The thing that I most admired in my friend was that his ministry has been, and I hope will continue to be, a process humanising people and their concerns. Thinking it over I have come to the conclusion that the valuable thing that he did for others was to humanise whatever it was they were concerned about, whether it was a cause or a theological idea, or moral principle or an ecclesiastical stance. He has a tremendous ability to help them see what it meant in terms of them being human beings with other human beings as well. The question for him, and I think for us, is what does all this do to our own and other’s humanity?
I don’t think it is at all easy these days to be a priest and many underestimate the challenge and the task. As the church continues to decline; as society continues to invest itself in the material and the commercial, ministry is a real and extraordinary opportunity to help us to love life and love people. So think on about your priest or minister – give them a word of encouragement and help them to become what God would have them to be.