Is there anything different about being a ‘priest’ in an Anglican low-church tradition to, say, a church leader in an independent church stream, or a  committed lay, even staff, member of a church?

The answer I think is ‘Yes’. Although it’s hard to put your finger on what it is without first experiencing the difference. Yes, within our societal and church system, the role of priest is both functionally [what you do] and ontologically [who you are] distinct. Whether you think that it should be distinct is another matter.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu greets new priests including Keir Shreeves and Tim Hughes, but Archdeacon Stephan has the best costume. [photo Jennalise Kassannis]
The Anglican Holy Orders build upon a Reformed and Catholic tradition. As linked in a previous post the best job description of a priest in the New Testament is the reference to the priestly task of proclaiming the gospel. So the reformed definition of a church minister is foremostly the person who ensures that the Word of God is proclaimed in their community and congregation. The book of 1 Samuel tells of dire consequences for the whole of society when there is a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. And there are many churches where this fundamental and core priestly task is grossly inadequately performed. But from a low church perspective you might say ‘So far so good… I’m up for that but can’t and don’t all disciples of Jesus share his word anyway’. Do I need to be set aside for a teaching/evangelistic/pastoral ministry through ordination to the priesthood.

The answer to that is clearly no. You can be ordained a baptist, methodist, set up your own franchise of newfrontiers, icthus or pioneer your own special blend of emerging church and coffee beans. You can be on an Anglican staff team in a senior capacity in a larger church without being ordained a priest. You can be a lay person who is highly effective at sharing the Word in your work, family, life places as well as through church ministry. And frankly people in all of the categories above may be more worthy in every way than their ordained Anglican low church priestly friend or colleague.

What then is distinctive? The distinctive almost certainly builds upon the more catholic heritage of the Church of England. Within and without the church there is a desire for a mediator between God and his people. The Anglican priest is ordained into that middle ground for better and for worse.

Neil Robbie at Transforming Grace has helpfully produced this comparison between the old and new ordinals (what Priests in the CoE promise to live up to):

Questions in the Ordinal: Book of Common Prayer Questions in the Ordinal: Common Worship
Do you think in your heart that you be truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the order of this Church of England, to the Order and Ministry of Priesthood? Do you believe that God is calling you to this ministry?
Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture? Do you accept the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?
Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your cure and charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same? Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both publick and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given? Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?
Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own selves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make both yourselves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ? Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
Will you maintain and set forwards, as much as lieth in you, quietness, peace, and love, among all Christian people, and specially among them that are or shall be committed to your charge? Will you, knowing yourself to be reconciled to God in Christ, strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?
Will you reverently obey your Ordinary, and other chief Ministers, unto whom is committed the charge and government over you; following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourselves to their godly judgements? Will you accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it?
Will you work with your fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God?
Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known among all whom you serve?

In some ways the ordinal has improved although reformed distinctives on doctrine have been dulled. Authority and obedience notions have been pushed back probably more due to increased democratic sensibilities in society than a deep-outworking of a belief in the priesthood of all believers. Yet you still lead Christ’s people, they are committed to your charge and the way you pattern your life and household is supposed to be paradigmatic for all. The ordinal is not a job description but an statement of who you are about to be.  At ordination you are about to inhabit the middle ground between God and people – whether you would choose to or not.

There are aspects of how an Anglican ordination is perceived that we would do well to fight against. Where that middle ground might look like special status or hierarchical position we have to fight especially hard: The word serve is vital. With Ezekiel’s warnings about bad shepherds of the flock ringing in our ears we will want to remember Philippians 2 “let your attitude be…”, Christ washing the disciples feet and the charge that as living sacrifices we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought in Romans 12.

But does this ordained priestly Anglican role have any merit over and above, or in contrast to the wonderful functional pastoral / church leadership roles I mentioned at the beginning? And are you really any different if/when you are ordained? My answers are ‘yes – it can’, and ‘yes – you can be’. If God calls you to serve in an Anglican church and to take up the position of priestly servant leadership it is a noble task. If you are called to something else you will have the grace and favour for something else – be it (in church terms) congregational leadership, parachurch ministry, or a specialised role with church and community. But if you have calling, grace and favour for Anglican priestly ministry my experience is that God backs you for that shape of ministry, whether you previously thought it was the best shape or not!

To put it in examples: Any believer with an evangelistic/pastoral heart has a ministry to those around them that they know and come into contact with. I as an Anglican priest have all that, plus: I also have ministry with all those who have an inkling that they want the ministry of the church / or a divine representative who exists for them regardless of whether they are already in the club. A young man walks into church about to join the military wanting to talk to a priest as he has had some demonically troubled dreams. A catastrophe occurs and someone is needed to say prayers at multiple deathbeds. A Sikh man wants an exorcism from a  curse that had been put on him by a witch doctor in Africa. An older woman wants to confess her long held sense of shame about an event that happened fifty years ago to God through someone she perceives as a figurehead, a congregation at a funeral receives the blessing as a divine impartation, life and healing are spoken over people not just with the personal spiritual authority level of a new priest, but with a sense of backing from the whole church mystic and eternal, and bread and wine are broken and outpoured as part of a larger action that spans well beyond that congregation on that day at that time.

You may argue that this is not how ministry should be. You may think that  there is more benefit from every single believer operating in every gift all the time. You may think that is what was meant by the ministry of all believers. But that is not how this Anglican priesthood works. It involves a set apartedness for the sake of the gospel. It involves choosing to allow yourself to be a distinct part of the body of Christ. Choosing to be a jar of clay. Choosing to be someone who says that death may be at work in me so that life may be at work in you. It is distinctive. It can be deeply lonely. There are things that you will carry to the grave unspoken because you are that confidential go-between person between God and man. Is it the best system? I don’t know. But it is the one we have got and for any failings it may have there are countless untold advantages of a low-church, gospel proclaiming, ministry empowering, servant, humble Anglican priest, who is not a solo figure building a charismatic church on their own personality and gifting, but anchoring a movement into a wider, far-reaching, national, international, eternal, credal, reformed and catholic church.

I hope to be one someday.