Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[57] VI

The Office of the Priest

[Preached on Trinity Sunday, 1916, in Salisbury Cathedral.]

TO-DAY is for some men the most important in their life. On Trinity Sunday they are set apart for the office of priest in the Church of God. Many of us have memories of Trinity Sunday long ago: I was ordained priest twenty-one years back. Such memories must lead to a deep penitence. At this time there are fewer priests than usual. A dangerous shortage is imminent. For some time to come we are not likely to see anything like the average number. Even that was too few.

All the more reason is there that the laity should know what are the functions of those thus set apart. If there are to be fewer priests, it is doubly needful that they should no more be expected to fritter their energies by work that is not their own. I speak not of hobbies or recreation, but of adding to the burdens of a priestly life things that do not properly belong to it.

[58] Let us get clear what we want of priests; then we shall not worry them by asking for something else. Mr. Clutton Brock has written one of the best books called forth by the war. It is entitled The Ultimate Belief. In that book he says that it is an inveterate vice of Englishmen to think of everything in terms of something else, i.e. to confuse activities that are in their nature distinct. This evil is rampant in regard to religion. Many people think that religion is equivalent to morals. They cannot see why such fuss is made about matters that have no direct and obvious bearing on morals; for instance, the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. It has a bearing, and a very important one: this was pointed out in an article in yesterday's Times. But it is not obvious at first sight. Religion involves morals, but it is in its essence something more wonderful. Others look upon religion as mere philosophy, a general view of the world. That it may involve; but that is not what it is. Others again look upon religion as a mere social phenomenon, the expression of the herd-instinct. They think to explain it by knowledge of the tribal customs of Australasia. True, religion is a social fact involving an outward cult. That does not exhaust its meaning.

Religion is the organized response of man to God. The Christian religion is the collective [58/59] response of man to God, Who is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. This you will find well brought out in Mr. Hardy's book on The Religious Instinct.

It is essentially social, a Church, the family of God. Men are not isolated units, but members one of another. Christ came to make a new race, a holy nation, a peculiar people. The Christian Church is the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel. The office of the Church is to be the bearer of redemptive life.

The priest is its representative. He is set apart to communicate that life to men. All that bears on that belongs to his office. All else is irrelevant. People are always demanding other things from the priest as priest. He must be manly, sociable, business-like, a scholar and a gentleman, a good speaker, an organizer, and so on. Some of these things he ought to be because he is a man. Others because he is a Christian. None of them attach to him precisely as a priest. A doctor is not the better for being unmanly, nor a lawyer for being unsociable. But we do not talk of these things as their peculiar differentiæ. We must take for granted that a priest has the qualities of a man, and also of a Christian man. A Christian ought to be a good son. Yet many good sons are not Christians. Manliness makes no one a Christian. Piety [59/60] makes no one a priest. To be a pious layman is as much a vocation as to be a priest. In some ways it needs a higher grace. The priest is the person appointed to represent God to the Church, and the Church to God. That representative function is his differentia. All his activities are to be directed to that end.

First, he represents God to man, i.e. he holds a supernatural office. To this end he needs leisure to pray. Sometimes folks grumble that the clergy waste time in prayer. Would to God they wasted more time that way! If the National Mission does no more than increase the time spent in prayer by the clergy, it will do great good. To all men prayer is a necessity; religion is no luxury. Prayer is the communion of the soul with God. To the priest it is doubly needful. Otherwise he will sink into routine. The evil of the Church is not idleness, even though some priests may be idle. Rather is it the doing of Church work in the spirit of mere business, something to be got through. The only way to avoid this is for the priest to be instant in prayer. If he does not, he will lose that touch of the supernatural without which he has no right to be a priest at all.

In the same way he must have time to study. The priest's work, outside a small class, has gone back in this respect. Largely this is the fault of the laity. Nobody knows, when a priest is at [60/61] home, whether he is at study or reading the Harmsworth Magazine. They do know if they see him running about all the morning, and sitting on committees all the evening.

So we have now priests who are proud to tell you they have no time to read. This is your fault. You like priests to be seen anywhere and everywhere. And then you criticize their sermons because they are not up-to-date. It is easier for a modern priest to run a tea-garden than read a book. If the priest is to represent the otherworldly interest, he will show it in his ways. He will not be the same as other folks. He ought to be manly. It is desirable that he should be cultivated; all to the good if he is socially agreeable. But that is not what he is for. Spiritual interests are his special function. On that ground, and on no other, are the clergy exempt from military service. People complain of the clerical manner. Partly they are right. At least, it is better than an unclerical manner. An unclerical priest is not the least like a layman. He is merely a priest who is ashamed of God. The best way to escape the clerical manner is for all parties to recognize the functions of the priest. The manner is the effort to secure that recognition by a conventional pose. When that recognition is given, priests are human enough, like Father Brown in Mr. Gilbert Chesterton's story.

[62] The priest's function is, then, above all things otherworldly. Amid the din of earth he is to witness to the paramount value of heaven. If this be so, you will say, How can he help us? Aloof and apart he will have no entry into common life. He will have no interests that are not ecclesiastical. The only people he will have any use for will be Church workers and dilettante lay men who have a penchant for ritual or theology. That danger is real. Always there is a danger of the man being forgotten in the specialist. This can be seen not only among priests, but among doctors and lawyers and officers in his Majesty's forces. I do not think that it is worse in the clerical profession than in others.

When it happens, it does more harm. The priest must not neglect the second part of his office. He is ordained for men. He is to represent men to God. How can he do this if he does not know them? Far from being a glorified sacristy boy, the priest must be learned in the ways of men. He must be quick of sympathy. Unhampered by ordinary ties, he will move with freedom in all classes. Bishop Creighton used to say, "You can be on equality with all classes, because you belong to none. The moment you shut yourself in one class you are lost."' Vivified by contact with life, his theology will not be a system learned and then repeated, but an [62/63] ever-growing apprehension of God's ways with men. Men expect that in bodily arts and the virtues that grow from them, the priest shall be a man, and know what men care for. It is no less needful in regard to the mind. So far from wishing the clergy to know less of what goes on in the world, I would that they knew more. Acquaintance with the dreams and ideals of men, good and bad, is a sine qua non. Just as he reads the newspaper, so ought the priest to read modern novels and go to the play. Recent changes in outlook were heralded in many ways before the war. The revival of poetry was symbolic. Some people would like a clergy ignorant of such things. Yet they are forward to blame for preaching a theology that is technical and a morality that seems unreal. A priest must study the temper of his own time and its natural language, without being the slave of its culture.

On both sides, you laymen need the same lesson. Priests are largely what you make them, if only because every priest is a layman for twenty-three years. Do not burden the priest with tasks that are not his. Do not injure your own souls by being merely passive, laying all on the clergy. There would be less numerous cases of break-down, and less futility in the work of the Church, if the laity did their own share, and expected the priest to do his. Now they expect [63/64] him to do theirs, and are careless about his proper function. Secondly, do not lay down a conventional standard of the books and plays a priest must not read, and all the while blame him for ignorance of real life. Above all things remember that the place of the priest is at the altar. There is realized his double office of representative, that of God to man and man to God. There he testifies to the supernatural gift of God's love to man and makes that gift operative. There also he brings before God, and in union with the One Sacrifice once offered, "the troubles of the people, the dangers of nations, the groans of captives, the tears of orphans, the needs of wanderers, the distresses of the weak, the despair of the sick, the infirmities of the aged, the sighs of youths, the temptations of virgins, and the laments of widows." That is the centre of the priest's work, as it is the centre of the Church's worship.

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