I have been asked to talk about the priesthood of all believers. What follows is not so much a sermon as notes to help us think about the issue.
1. The call of the Apostles. Some very obvious points–all laypeople, largely uneducated. They were not sent off to theological college for training. The training was the apprenticeship model, living and working with Jesus for a year or so. The selection process seemed to be remarkably casual. They were called and they followed. What lay behind that? It is worth noting that word ‘priest’ hardly occurs in the New Testament and not all in the Gospels except referring to the High Priest.
2. Paul’s approach. The way in which the early church spread so rapidly is astonishing. Consider what we heard in the passage from Acts (14:21–28). Paul did not say to the new group of Christians at Derbe: “I will send two people from Jerusalem to show you how to run your church and then maybe after 10 years you may be to produce a priest of your own.” On the contrary he and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” (Acts 14:23) Paul did not leave behind a string of mission stations which required the ministrations of outsider ‘properly qualified clergy’. He left behind fully functioning churches with their own ministry for the sacraments, pastoral care and spreading the good news further. He did not abandon them: he went back to see how they were getting on and encouraged them. It is really an astonishing the way in which the church at that time spread like wildfire. It was not led by professional ministers or missionaries. Paul was only a part of that movement, for example we do not know who founded the church in Rome. It is most likely that it was ordinary Christians who were lit up by the good news of the gospel who took the message there.
3. The Reformation.
Luther and the Reformation he sparked was in large part a reaction against the way in which in the Catholic Church clergy had become a group that was seen as spiritually distinct from laypeople – indeed you can see this in the word ‘hierarchy’ which means rule by priests. Luther said “Christians do not divide into two groups spiritual and secular but we are all consecrated priests through baptism.” He quoted from 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
The nature of that divide between clergy and people was exemplified by the way in which the Bible was seen as something which mere laity were not even allowed to read, even if they could read. And even if they could read, they would probably not understand it because it was in Latin.. John Wycliffe (died 1384) produced the first entire Bible in English but it was William Tyndale who translated the whole Bible into early modern English and translated it from Hebrew and Greek texts whereas Wycliffe had translated the Latin Vulgate.
John Tyndale’s fate illustrates well the ferocity with which the clerical establishment was prepared to defend its privileged position. Eventually he was charged with heresy; copies of his New Testament were confiscated and Tyndale himself was arrested and imprisoned in 1535. After refusing to recant, he was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
But this was a futile attempt to repress the wish of people to read the Bible for themselves in their own language and the access it gave them to understanding for themselves the treasure of what God in Christ has done for us. It was helped enormously by the invention of the printing press and the huge reduction in the cost of books. People were intoxicated and inspired by what they read and it changed their lives and the priests did not have to have anything to do with it. Think for example of John Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress.
4. The modern missionary movement.
This was undoubtedly an important step which made it possible for ordinary Christians to have direct access to the good news of what God in Christ has done for us. It unleashed a desire to spread the good news of the gospel and the realisation that this was something that ordinary Christians could do. It led to the foundation of missionary societies that are still with us today. For example in 1701 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was founded. In 1965 it merged with the Universities Mission to Central Africa which had been founded in 1867 in response to a challenge from David Livingstone to take the gospel to East and Central Africa. It then became the USPG which now stands for the United Society of Partnership in the Gospel.
This was all part of a great outburst of energy with a desire to spread the good news of the Gospel to the whole world.
But the point I want to make here is that often this expansion was led by lay people. Take for example Mary Slessor. She was born into a working class, Presbyterian family in Aberdeen in 1848. As a child in Dundee, she was enthralled by stories of missions in Africa. For years, she read diligently as she worked in the mills, and eventually, in 1875, she was accepted as a teacher for the mission in Calabar, Nigeria. Her fluency in the local language, physical resilience and lack of pretension endeared her to those to whom she ministered. She adopted unwanted children, particularly twins would otherwise, according to local superstition, have been put to death. She was influential in organising trade and in settling disputes, contributing much to the development of the local people with whom she later settled. She died, still in Africa, on 11 January 1915.
5. Current situation
Does that mean that the ‘priesthood of all believers is now a reality in all the churches? Clearly not. George Bernard Shaw said: “all professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Even those churches which proclaim ‘the priesthood of all believers’ most vociferously often have services which are totally dominated by the presiding minister. The moment you have a full-time professional the danger of clerical dominance is always there.
6. The ministry of everyday life and everyday jobs.
Whatever the complexities of how we organise the life of the church so that the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is given proper expression, it is a grave mistake to think of this just in terms of church. The main way in which most of us express our Christian commitment and ministry is within our jobs and the way we live our lives. I remember having an agonised discussion with former member of St Mark’s who was having to sack a significant number of the workforce of the company for which he worked. I wonder whether we should be doing more to enable one another to think through how we live out our Christian vocation in our jobs and the secular situations in which we find ourselves.
I think that many of us would say just this, that we do exercise our ministry through the jobs we do. I think that is entirely valid and very important and we should never forget it. But I think we have to ask a further and difficult question about what responsibility we have for maintaining the life of the church which nurtures us and spreading the good news which inspires us. Some people in the congregation will say explicitly: “I’m a professional. That is the main way in which I express my Christian faith. I expect the clergy as fellow professionals to get on with running the church.”
I have asked more questions than I have given answers. There will be an opportunity to discuss these issues in the chapel afterwards. I wish I could be there but I have to be at a meeting of the International Committee. However, if the priesthood of all believers means anything, I am sure you will get on very well without me.