Essay / Theology

Year of the Priest

Last year I wrote a blog about the “Year of the Priest” called by the Roman Catholic Church that began on June 19, 2009. I suggested that it would be a good idea for evangelical pastor-priests to also take a year to reflect on their calling and commitments as “servants of the servants of God” (Gregory the Great). The official “Year of the Priest” ends this week, on June 19. Thus, I thought it would be good to write another blog thinking about the pastorate/priesthood. To do so I want to use John Donne as my guide. Donne was an Anglican priest (serving as a Royal Chaplain to James I and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral) and is one of the greatest English poets. In Donne’s “To Mr Tilman after he had taken orders,” we have a reflection on the nature of the pastorate/priesthood. The poem reads,

Thou, whose diviner soul hath caused thee now
To put thy hand unto the holy plough,
Making lay-scornings of the ministry
Not an impediment, but victory;
What bring’st thou home with thee? how is thy mind
Affected since the vintage?  Dost thou find
New thoughts and stirrings in thee? and, as steel
Touch’d with a loadstone, dost new motions feel?
Or, as a ship after much pain and care
For iron and cloth brings home rich Indian ware,
Hast thou thus traffick’d, but with far more gain
Of noble goods, and with less time and pain?
Thou art the same materials, as before,
Only the stamp is changèd, but no more.
And as new crowned kings alter the face,
But not the money’s substance, so hath grace
Changed only God’s old image by creation,
To Christ’s new stamp, at this thy coronation;
Or, as we paint angels with wings, because
They bear God’s message and proclaim His laws,
Since thou must do the like and so must move,
Art thou new feather’d with celestial love?
Dear, tell me where thy purchase lies, and show
What thy advantage is above, below.
But if thy gainings do surmount expression,
Why doth the foolish world scorn that profession,
Whose joys pass speech?  Why do they think unfit
That gentry should join families with it?
As if their day were only to be spent
In dressing, mistressing and compliment.
Alas! poor joys, but poorer men, whose trust
Seems richly placèd in sublimèd dust,
—For such are clothes and beauty, which though gay,
Are, at the best, but of sublimèd clay—
Let then the world thy calling disrespect,
But go thou on, and pity their neglect.
What function is so noble, as to be
Ambassador to God, and destiny?
To open life? to give kingdoms to more
Than kings give dignities? to keep heaven’s door?
Mary’s prerogative was to bear Christ, so
‘Tis preachers’ to convey Him, for they do,
As angels out of clouds, from pulpits speak;
And bless the poor beneath, the lame, the weak.
If then th’ astronomers, whereas they spy
A new-found star, their optics magnify,
How brave are those, who with their engine can
Bring man to heaven, and heaven again to man?
These are thy titles and pre-eminences,
In whom must meet God’s graces, men’s offences ;
And so the heavens which beget all things here,
And the earth, our mother, which these things doth bear;
Both these in thee, are in thy calling knit
And make thee now a blest hermaphrodite.

There are several themes here that are worth noticing. First, something important vis-à-vis one’s self happens at ordination. Donne describes ordination as a moment when one’s self stays the same but the mark one leaves is different. Like a stamp, one is made of the “same materials” but “the stamp is changèd.” Or, in another analogy, when a king mints new money, it is only the image on the coin that changes, not “the money’s substance.” For Donne, once one is ordained, one is different, not necessarily in an ontological sense but certainly in the mark that they make in the world and on the life of others.

Second, in Donne’s time, as today, pastor-priests are often looked down upon by others. Twice Donne states that lay persons (i.e., the un-ordained) show scorn for the office of the pastorate/priesthood. Mr. Tilman is warned to expect “lay-scornings” and Donne asks, “Why doth the foolish scorn that profession?” Donne finds such scorning misplaced given that fact that those in holy orders are now clothed with something other than “sublimèd dust.” The poet encourages his recipient to simply allow the world to disrespect the office that he now assumes while pitying other’s neglect of their own sinful state in life.

Third, now that the newly ordained pastor-priest is a different stamp who is scorned by the world, he must nevertheless offer the service necessary to his new station. For Donne this service is like that of the angels, Mary (the mother of God) and an astronomer. Just as angels “bear God’s message and proclaim His laws,” so do pastor-priests. Further, just as Mary bore Christ to the world so do pastor-priests in the act of preaching, blessing “the poor beneath, the lame, the weak.” Like astronomers, pastor-priests are to bring “man to heaven, and heaven again to man.” What lofty service pastor-priests are to give to the Christian church, for, as Donne asks, “What function is so noble, as to be ambassador to God, and destiny?” The answer – nothing! In fact, for Donne, pastor-priests are mediators of “God’s graces” that salve “men’s offences.” Pastor-priests are mediators, neither of heaven nor of earth. Rather, pastor-priests are “hermaphrodites,” that is, a person in which two opposite attributes or qualities are combined. In this case, the two qualities are the heavenly and the earthly. Thus, the pastor-priest is a heavenly-earthly man, neither fully of this world nor of the next. In essence I think that Donne is saying the ordained person is a Christ figure, the God-man. The priest stands in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) and in persona ecclesiae (in the person of the church). The pastor-priest is a kind of mediator between God and man, especially as he preaches and ministers.

In short, what can we learn from Donne about the pastorate/priesthood? First, pastor-priests are different and should not forget this. Acknowledging that one’s ordination “effects” something in the ordinand does not negate any concept of the priesthood of all believers. As Donne notes, pastor-priests are the same people but different in that they now make a distinct stamp. This does not make pastor-priests “better” than anyone else, just different by virtue of their calling by God. Second, though perhaps looked down upon, pastor-priests must not give into any temptation to downplay their own unique calling and equipping from God. Third, the ministry of the pastor-priest is angelic, Marian and astronomical. Pastor-priests serve as God’s chosen bridge between the heavenly and the earthly. Thus, despite differences of theologies of ordination among evangelicals, may all evangelical pastor-priests strive, with God’s assistance, to be the pastor-priests that God has called them to be in service to God’s church. As well, may those in the evangelical church who are not ordained fully support the person and ministries of their pastors.

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