Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Priesthood of All Believers (RIP John Stott)

“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” (Rev 5.10)
1 Samuel 3.1-10; Revelation 5.1-10; John 1.43-end

I was in a packed St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday morning - they were queuing before 8am – for the memorial service for John Stott, the long time Rector and Rector Emeritus of All Souls Langham Place. Both English Archbishops and our own Bishop were there as well as a host of other Archbishops and Bishops from around the world.

John was a remarkable, humble and faithful pastor, Bible scholar, mentor and friend. His simple life of study and prayer, preaching, writing and discipling, helped shape the face of 20th century evangelicalism in Britain and around the world.

It was a long service and as I sat watching the congregation and various participants, it was fascinating to see that while most of the overseas Anglicans wore clerical collars, most of the English Evangelical Anglicans did not.

And I reflected on the differing understandings of priesthood that have ebbed and flowed during the 60 years of John Stott’s ministry.

In the 70s and 80s, many churches used to have those big sign boards outside with a text or a little thought for the week painted on in dayglow colours.
“Don't let worry drive you to despair - let the church help.”
Some of them were quite witty, but all of them were subject to additions by anyone with a spray can.

So “The meek shall inherit the earth” had added underneath - “if that’s alright by you?”

And someone had supplemented the rather hopeful: “Are you tired of sin? Then come inside.” with “If not, phone Bayswater 7328!”

But I remember it was an Anglican Church in the vanguard of the charismatic movement which had the usual more discreet sign outside, which said: Vicar: The Revd So-and-so; Ministers: the whole congregation.

So what is the distinction between laity and priests, and why does our text from Revelation tell us that all believers are priests to our God?

I first began reading John Stott in the 1960s - a time when all distinctions of persons were being swept away and so it is hardly surprising that Vatican II addressed what was seen as the problem of clericalism - nothing could happen without a priest. Priests were to become just ordinary chaps! Nuns would knit their own cardies and wear sensible shoes.

I think it was that great 60s theologian Spike Milligan who said: “never trust a priest who wears a rollneck sweater and says ‘call me Ken’”.

The Vatican II document Ulterior temporibus in 1967, while recognising the increasing role of the laity still maintained that priestly ministry is ‘distinct from the common priesthood of all the faithful... in essence and not merely in degree.’

Many of my low church Anglican colleagues would disagree with this Vatican II distinction between ministry and priesthood.

They might rather agree with the famous Church of England evangelical WH Griffiths Thomas, who was very influential at the beginning of the 20th Century and sometime Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

He said: “Christianity is a religion that is a priesthood and not one that has a priesthood.” This was seen as a strong part of Prayer Book, Reformation faith for many evangelicals.

John Stott was always more measured and biblical. Here he is in his commentary on the Ephesians:
“The New Testament concept of the pastor is not of a person who jealously guards all ministry in his own hands, and successfully squashes all lay initiatives, but of one who helps and encourages all God’s people to discover, develop and exercise their gifts. His teaching and training are directed to this end, to enable the people of God to be a servant people, ministering actively but humbly according to their gifts in a world of alienation and pain. Thus, instead of monopolizing all ministry himself, he actually multiplies ministries.”
There is still a fierce debate that divides the Christian church: is priesthood a matter of ontology (essence); or function? Does ordination change the very being of a priest, or does it just set a person apart for a particular ministry within the church order?

Well, however we view priesthood, clergy both model and mirror the priesthood of all believers or the priesthood of all the baptized as it is often stated.

We are all disciples, and we are all called like Samuel to listen to the call of God, and like Philip and Nathanael, to follow Jesus as loving disciples.

John Stott was once in a debate about the media with Malcolm Muggeridge. These were Muggeridge’s days of fervent faith when he had no time for the media and declared it rotten to the core.

John Stott rounded on him and said you don’t blame the meat when it goes rotten, you blame the salt for not doing its job.

Stott was convinced that unless Christians took their faith and discipleship into their spheres of work, then they were failing in their Gospel calling as salt of the earth.

And he didn’t mean setting up prayer meetings or Bible studies at work – not that I’m against those. He meant that Christians should think hard and biblically about the decisions they make at work and in whatever area of life God has called us to be salt and light.

And so the task of the priest and preacher is to help the faithful to reflect on their manner of living and working. And to live out their calling – for as Christians we all have a calling – to live that out with integrity and in such as way as is honouring to Christ.

Religious faith became very internalised in the last half of the twentieth century – it was all a matter of private belief. Many of my generation and older find it very strange when Christians assert that what they believe is a public truth. That the transcendent God has revealed himself to us in Christ, and that we are all called to respond.

Of course many will choose not to believe or respond and that is their absolute right. But any religion worth its salt must proclaim what it believes publicly and bring its contribution to all debates in the public square.

It was this sense of public ministry that fired the new democracies that sprang out of the Reformation in Europe. People realised that it was not just for clerics and the aristocracy to be civic leaders, but all Christians were called to serve their society - for the common good and not just for their own good.

Last Sunday I was worshipping in Miami Cathedral, and at the end of a very challenging sermon the preacher turned to the organist and said ‘thank you Matthew’ and launched into a song.

It was a moment of deep culture shock for me!

Well I will not be launching into a reworking of
I am the very model of a modern Vicar General
I’ve information biblical, synodical and clerical…
But without a song and dance, and in that very understated English way that was the manner of John Stott,

I urge you to take your Christian faith seriously in every aspect of your life and public service,

So that the prayer of the Elders might be true of all of us…

“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” (Rev 5.10)