Project Canterbury

Sacerdotalism Explained
The Congress Books: No. 35

E. Milner-White, D.S.O.
Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge

Fellow of St. John Baptist’s College, Oxford
Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Gloucester
London, The Society of Saints Peter and Paul,
First Edition 1923

Transcribed by Dr. Elizabeth G. Melillo
AD 2000

The Priesthood of Christians

What is a Christian priest (sacerdos)? Every full member of the holy Catholic Church is a priest. Baptism and Confirmation are the normal admission, 'ordination,' of the Christian into his priestly character and work in the Church of God. As St. Peter says, 'Unto whom coming, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ' (I Pet. ii. 5). ' Ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession' (I Pet. ii. 9).

That it so seldom occurs to Churchmen to regard themselves as priests, with all the glory and responsibility of priests, and to recognise and value their high calling, is a great disaster. The obscuring of this truth is due largely to historical reasons. It became obscured on one side when the clergy in the Middle Ages, among populations whom they were educating out of barbarism, not unnaturally, nor at first for any but good ends, tended to exalt their status, functions, and authority, and became a superior caste wielding terrible and incalculable spiritual weapons. It became, in the opposite direction, still more obscured when, in ferocious reaction against clerical domination and mechanical notions of the Mass which accompanied this, the Protestant peoples fell upon the very word and idea of priesthood, and sought to abolish it altogether. This they could not do without destroying the historical and scriptural doctrine of the priestly Church ; but they did not stick at that.

We, wise after the event, need not blame either side; it is equally difficult to discipline slow historical growths and passionate historical reactions. But the net result was, that the truth of priesthood in the Catholic Church fell victim to the two extremes. Reformed Roman Catholicism defended itself against the revolts from the authority of its hierarchy, by defining priesthood in the Council of Trent as being as nearly as possible that which it had grown to be in the course of the ages ; which gives to its clergy an authority that is not necessarily contained in the Catholic doctrine of priesthood. Protestantism gave the ancient word 'sacerdotalism' a new ugly sense, and did all it could to expel the glorious word 'priest' from the vocabulary, the creed, and the worship of Christians.

Since we are the heirs of these sixteenth- century controversies and are accustomed to misuses of the words 'priest' and 'sacerdotalism,'  we have to be careful not to have false ideas in our minds when we use them now. The English mind is, alas, too ready to spoil good words and great truths by hurling them as reproaches and taunts against an opposite party, whether political or ecclesiastical. The religious struggles of past centuries have left us a sore legacy of this nature. We must forget them if we would seek truth.

What a difference, for instance, it would make, if we could get into the habit of regarding the members of our Church, as composed, not of laity(1), and clergy, but of ' priests' and 'ministerial priests' - as is the case. How much more eagerly and often would the average communicant go to Communion if he imagined (which after all is the simple fact) that he goes to celebrate as well as to receive : goes to be, by virtue of his priesthood, concelebrant with the priest who stands ministering in his name at the altar : goes not only to get a gift from God for himself, but also to exercise his glorious priesthood in the communion of saints, by offering to God the perfect life of his great Brother, Jesus Christ—to do his bounden duty and privilege of pleading the wounds and love of the Lamb of God, the one perfect sacrifice, for the healing and perfecting of Church and world.

For members of the Church of England, one fact of the sixteenth-century struggles stands out prominently. In spite of the bitterness of theological feeling at that time, in spite of the fact that foreign Protestants at the elbows of our divines did all they could to prevent it, the word 'priest' was deliberately maintained in the Prayer Book; and in the Ordinal a deliberate challenge to the innovators was thrown out by the retention of the three orders of 'bishops, priests, and deacons' as immemorial 'from the apostles' time.' It is hard for us to realise the wisdom and courage which could resist, upon this, the bitterest point of the passions of that day, the theological pressure from within and without, and the political pressure of Edward VI's ministers. Here is perhaps the crucial point which made so large a distinction between the English Reformation and any other. The Church in England declined at the bidding of the powers and passions of the times to say that the age-long Christian language about priesthood was mistaken and wrong. Exaggerated and false ideas had no doubt grown up around it, but such abuse would be better met by restoring its true and ancient meaning, than by totally uprooting conceptions and terms at once scriptural, primitive, and traditional.

Meaning of this Priesthood

What then is priesthood? For our answer we must not go to the Old Testament, where priesthood is admittedly imperfect, at best a shadow or suggestion of the true priesthood to come. We must go to the perfect priest, Jesus Christ. Our Lord is mankind's great and only High Priest. Why ? First, because he offered to God for his people a perfect sacrifice, himself, his whole heart, in a perfect human life, keeping nothing back, not even his life-blood. And secondly, because now and for ever he presents and pleads that perfect sacrifice of love before the Father for our sake and the world's healing.

Both these parts belong to the definition of a priest. That was so even with the imperfect Aaronic priesthood. The High Priest first made the sacrifice of bull or goat, and then came into the Holy of Holies before God to offer its blood, that is to say, its life. Among the Hebrews blood did not convey, as to us, the idea of death, but of life : to them the seat of life was the blood, just as in modern popular language it is the heart(2).

But what Christ is, so also is his Church, his body, indwelt by him. For the Church is nothing if there be not 'Christ himself who is being formed in her' (Galatians iv.). Because Christ is Prophet, Priest, and King, the Church is, as a body, prophetic, priestly, royal. Read over again the words of St. Peter quoted above (p. 2). The author of Revelation constantly breaks into song about it. 'Glory and dominion be unto him that loveth and loosed us from our sins by his blood, and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father' (Rev. i. 5, 6). 'Thou wast slain and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every, tribe and tongue and people and nation, and madest them to be unto our God a kingdom and priests' (Rev. v. 9).

So Christ's body, the Church, is priestly through its union with Christ it is permeated by the love, the heart, the sacrifice of the perfect Priest. Its inward spirit must be always wholly and splendidly 'sacerdotal': and if its inward spirit, so too the outward expression of it. Our Lord indeed was careful to institute and appoint such an outward expression in the wonderful sacrament of Ms body and blood, rightly called the Holy Sacrifice.

Each member, therefore, of this royal priesthood, if he would be loyal and faithful, should be ever more and more offering his own life to God, as Christ offered his. And since we who are stained and spoiled by sin cannot come as we are before the throne of God, who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, we come 'in Christ.' For, sin stained though we be, we are not without our perfect offering: we possess, by his own gift, Jesus our Brother, the representative Man, the true Man, and we offer his perfect life and love to God for our forgiveness. He is our own, for ever and ever ; and through him, God longs and loves to accept us. We do explicitly a priestly act every time we utter a sincere prayer ' through Jesus Christ our Lord.' The Protestant fear of ' a priest coming between my soul and God' simply does not exist for a faithful Catholic, who, as a member of a royal priesthood, lives to exercise his glorious privilege, and to unite himself in inward spirit and outward act with the sacrifice of his great High Priest, and its perpetual presentation before God.

Especially does he come to the Mass to do his part as priest. Every word and act of the Mass speaks of this union with Christ and with the sacrifice of his life and death. Christians who neglect it show that they misunderstand the earthly sacrifice and heavenly priesthood of our Lord, his intention in instituting the sacrament, and the meaning of their own scriptures, their own Church, their own priesthood.

The Church then is through and through a sacerdotal body, because its Head, who is its life, is the supreme and perfect sacerdos: because it exists to do his work, to live and show forth his life of sacrifice and love, and so in him and through him to redeem the world. No description of its meaning and purpose is more utterly scriptural, essential, and inspiring. It is indeed the failure of the 'laity' to understand and exemplify their own priesthood as its members, which nowadays does far more to cause misunderstanding over the ministerial priesthood of the clergy, than any illegitimate assertion of sacerdotal order and power on the part of the latter.

Ministerial Priests

What then is then is 'ministerial priesthood,' the priesthood of the clergy? Its meaning and place become simple enough, once the foundation truth, that all members of Christ's holy Catholic Church are priests, is surely grasped. The clergy are representatives of the whole membership of the body; representatives both in respect of its outward ceremonial and corporate acts, and also in respect of its inward sacrificial spirit, to which these give expression.

In the first place, they represent a congregation (for instance) before God, simply for the sake of order. A public service cannot be conducted without officials commissioned to act for all. If all the communicants at Mass are in a true sense celebrants, yet one must at the altar say the prayers and perform the action for all. But, if that is all, why should not a different member of the congregation minister thus each Sunday?

It is not all. For the clergy are representatives in the sense that each of them is commissioned to represent the whole body, together with its Head, and not merely one particular congregation. No man is commissioned, ordained, licensed in the Church by particular people who may like his teaching and personality; but by the bishop, acting professedly for the whole Church. This body possesses its special organs for the performance of special functions, just as the physical body possesses eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, hands for handling. These functions are not interchangeable. My hands will not help me to see if my eyes fail. If a parish priest fell suddenly ill, his churchwardens, say, cannot celebrate and preach in his congregation even should they wish to. They have no commission for such function.

For this commission—to minister in the things of God—can only be given by God. Just as Christ selected and endowed with his own Spirit the apostles, so the commission of the ministerial priest, in the priestly body of which Christ is Head, has been given, all through Catholic history, from himself : ordination is a special gift of the Holy Spirit for a direct responsibility. This is made perfectly clear in the very first chapter of Acts; no more hierarchical, sacerdotal passage exists in literature than the account of the appointment of Matthias to apostleship. It is true that a man proposes and offers himself for the ministry ; but never, it is to be hoped, unless he is sure that he has received a call from God to do so. It is true that through its bishops the Church as a whole, so far as it can, examines and tests the candidate; but that is in order to assure itself and him that the call from God is genuine. And it is true that the bishops give the solemn sacramental admission to the office; but here again they are but exercising their proper function for Christ and his body in endorsing the choice of God, and conveying his blessing and Holy Spirit to the new sacerdos.

Each order of ministry, episcopate, priesthood, diaconate, has its own special and indelible function, well known to everybody. What Christ instituted by setting aside the apostles, his apostolic body has simply and dutifully continued ; on no more elaborate a scale than was immediately found necessary in a society which came at once to number thousands of all nations and tongues; safeguarding the priestly character of the whole body by the care and solemnity with which it has surrounded the appointment to special ministry.

Ministerial priesthood is thus representative of the whole body of Christ. A priest does not merely represent his own congregation in its approach to God. Wherever and whenever, for instance, he celebrates Mass, he celebrates in the name of the whole Church. Whenever and wherever he gives absolution, he does it as the accredited, the responsible officer of the Catholic Church. It is because he thus represents Christ's body that he truly represents Christ himself.

But by his ordination, he is not only made representative of the Church in these definite spiritual functions; he is also appointed to represent in his person Holy Church in her inward sacrificial spirit. The Anglican Ordinal stresses this point sternly. It was just the point which the pre-Reformation Church had allowed itself largely to forget. Over-emphasis on the priest's function in celebrating the sacraments caused the popular mind to forget that it was every whit as much the priest's function, as representing in himself the sacrificing spirit of the whole Church, to show forth in his life the spirit of love and sacrifice in the highest degree. The pastoral side of a priest's work is as important an element of his character as priest as the celebrating of the holy mysteries. By that he lives out the inward sacrificial life of his Lord, which is expressed outwardly in the sacraments he administers.

The Church of England has nothing to say to the dangerous theory that there are two Christian standards of conduct, a higher one for the clergy, a lower for the laity. There is only one Christian standard—the standard of Christ. As the laity are so much more numerous than the clergy, it depends finally on the former how strong and holy the Church on earth is. Since all are priests, all have their part to play in making the union in sacrifice of the Church and its Lord complete. But on the other hand, the ministry has a high and difficult responsibility. Its members have received a special call from Christ to identify themselves with his priestly work of intercession, love, and self-sacrifice; and indeed it is woe to the flock if the shepherds are false or weak. Holy Church can only play the part in the healing of the world which God hopes and expects from her, if the 'ministerial priests' set a high standard of love and labour, and the 'priests' help them with all their might by their loyalty and prayers.

Clerical Ministry

Neither in theory nor in practice is there any ground whatever for the Protestant interpretation of Catholic priesthood, that it is something which 'comes between my soul and God.' Ministerial priests are simply men chosen out of the whole body of priests, by inward call and public outward consecration, to be organs of the whole body for special necessary purposes. Because in a true sense every Churchman is a priest, the consequence does not follow that he can either perform or dispense with the ministries which apostles, bishops, priests, deacons, are commissioned to fulfil. Let us take two examples.

Ministerial priests are alone commissioned to celebrate the Holy Communion. In this lovely, dreadful act, every one who takes full part in it in a true sense celebrates ; but the organ of performing, for all, the liturgical celebration is the ministerial priest. It is his loftiest executive function, his highest privilege. Eucharistic leadership, truly understood, involves many corollaries of spirit and life—'the bearing of the people on the heart before God; the earnest effort of intercessory entreating; the practical translation of intercession into pastoral life and anxiety and pain' (Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood). He is representing at every celebration the whole Church in its act of identification with the one perfect sacrifice on Calvary and the one perpetual offering thereof in heaven. Thus by a special order of priests, called, by God and commissioned by the Church out of the whole priestly body, the due performance, the reverent understanding, the assured validity, and the faithful stewardship of the holy mysteries are safeguarded and secured, so far as may be with human agents, to the glory of God, the well-being of his 'royal priesthood,' and the benefit of the world.

Again, Christ left to his apostles to declare in his name, and to pass on to all time, the precious gift of his forgiveness. (St. John xx. 22-23.) This function of 'retaining' and 'remitting' sins in the society of Jesus, the Church, was in time likewise entrusted to the presbyterate, and is expressed clearly in the actual formula of ordaining a priest in the Anglican Ordinal. It is a wild notion to suppose that any ministerial priest claims himself to forgive sins. No ; but he is definitely ordained to the function of representing the whole Church in its bounden duty of conveying its Lord's pardon to the penitent sinner. It is hard to see how this duty can be more directly, effectively, and carefully performed than by solemnly setting apart ministers in every place to hear the confessions of the contrite and to pronounce the absolution of Christ. Nor must it be forgotten that the sin of a Christian is not a thing only 'between himself and God.' First and foremost it is so; but in fact it also damages and soils the Bride of Christ, the Church of which the penitent is a member ; and it is a help to him to feel that he has done what he can to repair that damage, by owning it before the whole Church in the person of its commissioned representative.

The result of the faithful exercise of these and similar ministries—all that our Ordinal, in its grave charge to those about to be ordained priest, comprehends under the cure of souls—is what reasonably might be expected men are everywhere and every day helped to come into living touch with their Lord.

No one denies that, in this world of ignorance and sin, there can be such a thing as bad sacerdotalism. Most non-Christian religions illustrate it; and like other temptations, it has attacked Christianity itself often enough. But that does not alter the fact that the Catholic Church, like its scriptures and liturgies, must be always sacerdotal through and through. Its Head is High Priest. Its members all are priests. Its apostolic organisation was, even before Pentecost, and ever since has been, hierarchical. Its supreme act of worship is an act of identification with the sacrifice of its Lord and the perpetual presentation thereof in heaven. It offers its life in and through him as a sacrifice to God. It pleads for the world. It exists to redeem. It presents before God the Lamb that was slain.

1. i.The word 'laity 'in its original sense did not mean, as now, merely one who is not a clergyman; but a member of God's chosen people, 'the People', in contrast with 'the Gentiles,' the heathen. 'It is a word of the most positive privilege.' See Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood, ed. 1907, P. 98.

2.  ii.Hence, it is often a good plan, when we read old Evangelical hymns and books, to substitute privately the word 'heart' for the word 'blood.' It cannot always be done; but it often translates happily into our modern tongue the scriptural meaning of 'blood.' The Roman Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart is, so to speak, a translation of the Evangelical devotion to the Precious Blood.

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