Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Priests and Bishops

The priestly function almost certainly goes back to the dawn of the human species. Ancient cave paintings record the shaman or tribal priest. Amongst the Khoisan people of Southern Africa the shaman (crudely termed "witchdoctor" by Europeans) still exists to access the "dream-world" of animals and ancestors.

By the time of Jesus the priestly function had been greatly elaborated throughout the known world. It oversaw many types of function - from rites of passage concerning birth, marriage and death, to animal, human or even child sacrifice. Its members often formed a distinct caste, usually closely allied to what we today would call the "secular" arm of government. Priests were, in effect, civil servants.

Christians often think of the Hebrew priesthood of Jesus' time as inherently evil. This bias is derived from the anti-Semitism which took root early in the history of the Christian movement. The Jewish nation - personified by its priesthood - was thought of as having been responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. As Steve Mason remarks,

Christians typically ... saw the "death" of the Jews as a necessary condition of the birth of Christianity ... the Church took over the heritage of God's covenant from the Jews ... [1]

The Hebrew priests (Levites and Zadokites) in Jerusalem were concerned mainly with cultic sacrifice of animals in the Temple, and with the policing of strict dietary and purity laws.

The latter have survived into the Church of the 21st century in modified form. Roman Catholics (by far the majority of Christians today) are, for example, officially not supposed to receive Holy Communion until they have been purified through confession to a priest. And until comparatively recently, so-called "mixed marriages" of a Roman Catholic to a non-Catholic or non-Christian were frowned upon - an echo of the Jewish ban on contamination by contact with Gentiles.

In the earliest Church, Paul talks of himself as "serving like a priest" when he preaches to the Gentiles. But here the Greek word leitourgos really means, in our modern sense, a civil servant. Jesus is regarded as a "priest" in the Letter to the Hebrews (written by an unknown author). This sort of priesthood seems to be linked to the obscure Hebrew idea of a king-priest and not to the cultic priesthood. Reflecting this, the traditional bishop's mitre is a thinly-disguised royal crown.

The Christian fellowship is for some a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2.9) - in the sense that it embodies a New Israel which is God's holy presence in an otherwise unholy world, and which has been "called out of darkness into God's marvellous light". The European Reformation took this idea and transposed it into the priesthood of the individual believer, a concept which is still central to the teachings of many non-Catholic churches today.

The term "priest" as applied to a Church member doesn't appear in any other Christian writing until the third century. But before then Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) referred to himself as theophoros or "God-bearer" and wrote,

Wherever the bishop (episkopos) is, the whole congregation is present, just as wherever Jesus the Messiah is, there is the worldwide (katholikos) Church. [2]

In contrast to the cultic overtones of the offices of bishop and priest as quasi civil servants, the New Testament often uses the Greek word diakoneo - the activity of serving, rather than that of overseeing and controlling. The term  diakoneo is preserved today in the Diaconate, sometimes a permanent position and sometimes a stage on the way to the priesthood.

It is this (the function of serving from a lowly position) rather than the ruling or guiding role of a priest or bishop, which picks up a vital thread in the teaching of Jesus. In Mark 10.42-45, for instance, Jesus is dealing with disciples who want preferment in the new social order Jesus appears to them to be promising. He puts them straight in no uncertain fashion:

You know all too well that those who assume rule over foreigners boss them around; and you know how powerful officials tyrannise people. It shouldn't be like that for you. With you, whoever wants to be great should be everyone's servant (diakonos) ...

So greatness in Jesus' frame of reference is denoted by the activity of serving others in the same way that a waiter serves at table. His meaning becomes even clearer when we note that house servants in Roman times were almost always slaves. At best a diakonos would have been a person with few rights and fewer privileges, probably at the beck and call of even the children of a household.

The most casual glance at the Church today indicates that the priesthood (by whatever name) seldom, if ever, reflects this way of life.

First, the bulk of the Church is arranged into a rigid hierarchy. At the top are the bishops, each in charge of a geographical area. Below them are priests, most commonly given charge over local congregations. Below them are deacons. They may have certain tasks in a congregation and may assist at celebration of the Eucharist. Right at the bottom of the pile are laypeople.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome is known as the "Father" or Pope. In theory, he is primus inter pares or " first among equals" - the "equals" being all the other bishops with whom he supposedly exercises collegial control over the Church. In practice, however, most popes have taken and held more or less absolute power.

Non-Catholic churches may have other forms of government. But in essence the effect is the same - a rigid organisation of control into hierarchies, some elected, some appointed. 

The Anglican Church claims to be both reformed and catholic. It has bishops, but they are usually elected by gatherings of priests and laypeople. In the Church of  England, bishops are appointed by the State. In most cases, however, the bishops have effective powers of veto over key aspects of church doctrine and order.

Second, the theory behind the priestly system in the Church is almost universally that which emphasises a role in persona Christi - that is, "in the person" of Jesus himself, a theophoros. But this Jesus is not equated with a peasant or a servant but with a "risen Messiah" who now co-rules the world with none other than God. 

Even where the priesthood is thought of as a function of the entire congregation, a "minister" or "pastor" is almost always appointed or elected to embody that function and thus preserve good order in the group. A bishop by any other name works just about the same. The only group which does not do this is the Society of Friends (Quakers). Many churches consequently think they they are not "proper" Christians.

It is the doctrine of in persona Christi which, one way or another, produces the most intense conflicts within the Church at large today. According to the doctrine, the priest becomes a "holy person" (holy as in "set aside" or "dedicated") who represents fellow-Christians to God. The priest also brings God to the people through the sacraments, preaching, and teaching.

Most Christians today think of this representative role as relatively benign. Only a few perceive its potentially great power. John Spong, himself a bishop, points out that the priesthood when thought of in this way becomes a determinant of salvation. In the heyday of priestly power

... claims were made that the only way ... God could operate was through the authorized sacraments of the established church ... Outside the Church, it was claimed, there was thus no salvation. [3]

Spong and others maintain that this ancient power is being rapidly eroded in today's secular societies. That appears true in the West. But in many other cultures the priest still maintains his (seldom her) high social status and influence.

The structure briefly summarised so far displays one outstanding characteristic - it is potentially highly stable. A rigorously top-down exercise of power tends to resist unwanted change better than one which distributes power and influence right through an organisation. The latter must rely for stability on balanced powers.

Other factors contribute to the high stability of the Church:

  • The power of those in charge - the bishops and their sidekicks, the priests - is boosted by the claim that bishops, and through them the priests, represent Jesus to the world. Seeing that their forerunners have defined Jesus as coterminous with God, it is not an exaggeration to say that the clergy can, and often do, exercise the fear of God over their flocks.

  • This is still further reinforced by the frequently wholehearted acceptance of the claims of bishops by Christians who are subordinate to them. Those who submit themselves to the authority of bishops (or pastors, or ministers or circuit superintendents) must usually do what they're told in matters of morality and belief on pain of expulsion from the fellowship.

  • In some cases, bishops are elected by priests and laypeople. In theory, then, it should be possible for their grip on ecclesiastical power to be weakened or broken when necessary. In practice, however, this seldom happens because bishops and others typically organise themselves into self-perpetuating power-blocks. Under such conditions, the lone voice is easily muted and silenced. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church bishops are appointed by the Pope. He is unlikely to ensure that dissidents are invited to the ecclesiastical party.

In the relatively distant past this closed-shop arrangement has perhaps not mattered much. Only the most determined and powerful opposition has been likely to threaten the thrones of ecclesiastical power. Even then, as the schism of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the 11th century and the Reformation of the 16th century show, separation rather than change is the normal solution to major internal stresses and strains.

As Bishop David Jenkins asserts, however, Christians in the 21st century face a unique challenge. He notes that a few in positions of ecclesiastical authority, even while administering and preserving institutional religion, have woken up to the fact that

The taken-for-granted way of looking at the world which holds widest sway and earns most prestige has no place for God ... The Copernican revolution has been completed. [4]

But a large majority has either not fully recognised or not acknowledged that the Christian world has willy-nilly moved into a new age, one in which the ancient modes of thought no longer serve well. It is proving impossible to preserve ancient images in cultures which are now intensely secular.

The authorities of the Church at large are faced with an unenviable choice. If they start using the constructs and knowledge of Western secular cultures, then (or so it seems to them) they must jettison the pre-scientific constructs and knowledge upon which their authority is based. If they do that, then the power upon which they depend for their very existence will eventually fade away. As Jenkins points out, there has been

... a revolution in the practical understanding of "what counts", of "what has weight" ... the Bible does not "count for" God, any more than does the Church as such ... Neither antiquity nor intensity, nor extensiveness of belief are, as such, of decisive weight ...

One unfortunate result of the resistance of bishops to change is, as current events tend to show, that they and the Church are gradually being perceived as enemies of truth and opposers of genuine authority. They are increasingly being seen as upholders of a false, limiting and damaging way of life because they tend to reject anything which contradicts tradition.

None of the above is to denigrate or deny the great pastoral work of  priests and bishops. They do much to motivate others for the good of the world. But one doesn't have to be a bishop in the traditional sense of the word to manage and motivate others. 

Nor is it to maintain that an organisation can do without leaders who share responsibility and take on accountability. That is, whatever form a Christian fellowship takes it will need mechanisms for continuity and focus. Hierarchies are not intrinsically wrong or ineffective.

What is at stake here, however, is not structure or authority but the nature of the spirit which infuses the Church. A basic question has to be asked and answered: Are the present cultic, controlling offices of priest and bishop congruent with the life and message of Jesus? Not of the Messiah created by the Church, but of the Jesus who actually lived, who said and did certain things as a matter of good history.

To summarise:

  1. Bishops and priests, far from enlivening and enriching the people of God, are a powerful force within the Church who can with considerable justice be accused of killing true knowledge of God in the modern age, of wantonly blocking new directions, and of limiting humanity's true freedom.

  2. The way bishops and their subordinates use their power and influence does not open the Church to new opportunities and challenges. Instead it tends to put the Church into a consistently defensive posture. Defensiveness in turn encourages Christians to live in the past rather than, in Jenkins' words, "In the present out of the past for the future".

  3. Church hierarchies are frequently preoccupied with questions which they ask - and then answer for themselves. They seldom allow others to set their agendas. In so doing they tend to discount or avoid the exciting and sometimes terrifying ethical and practical questions upon which humanity's best minds are focused day-by-day. As Jenkins says, "The really human and important issues are [now] found and experienced in and through the world, not in and through the Church ..."

The present incapacity of the Church to face up to the need for totally new ways of construing Jesus of Nazareth does not bode well for it as an institution. Many now see its future as a long and dull descent into obscurity, first in the West and later elsewhere.

Be that as it may, the average Christian had best not look to its priests and bishops for a way to serve a secular world. For if ordinary Christians ask for the bread of life, they may well be given a stale loaf.
[1] Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003
[2] To the People of Smyrna, Chapter 8
[3] Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
[4] Lambeth Essays on Faith, SPCK, 1969

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