Project Canterbury

The Priesthood

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Harrison
Rector of the Church of the Advent

Rector's Tracts, Number One

Boston, 1936.


The following sermon was preached at the ordination to the Sacred Priesthood of the Rev. Stanley Warren Ellis, at Saint Paul's Cathedral, Boston, on May 13,1936. The candidate was ordained by the Rt. Rev. Henry K. Sherrill, Bishop of Massachusetts. The sermon is printed at the request, and through the generosity, of several members of the Church of the Advent. To these our thanks are due and are hereby gratefully given.

Rectory of the Advent June, 1936.


S. John 12:32:
"I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me."

We are assembled here today to ordain a priest in the Church of God. Just as Moses was divinely commissioned to lift up the brazen serpent in the wilderness that men should look on it and be miraculously healed, so the priest is ordained, not of men but of God, to lift up Jesus Christ that men may look unto Him and be saved. That, in the briefest terms, is the function of the priest: to lift up Christ, that He may draw all men unto Him and give them eternal life.

What we do here today depends entirely upon our faith in the power of God and in the drawing power of Jesus Christ. Without such a faith, this ceremony of ordination would be quite meaningless.

The so-called Liberal or Modernist conception, that is to say the humanist conception, is that a man, having felt a call to the ministry, is ordained by his fellow ministers, in order that he may have authority in the human organization of the Church, to stand in the pulpit and give his interpretation of the Bible and of religion; to go about as a pastor among his flock and give them loving sympathy and comfort in times of trouble; and in every way to endeavor, by his teaching and by his example, to help men to live good lives in this world; to speak to them occasionally, if he can conscientiously do so, concerning a possible life in some doubtful other world; and to lead them, if his intellectual honesty permits it, by timid and hesitant steps toward a probable God, who may or may not be aware of his potential Godhood, and who indeed may not even exist.

With all such nebulous and sacrilegious conceptions of what these pseudo-liberals erroneously call the Christian religion and the Christian ministry we are not here concerned. We are here to ordain a priest in the Church of God.

Here is a man who, we steadfastly think and believe, has been truly called (in the words of the Prayer Book), according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Order and Ministry of Priesthood. He is to be invested, not humanly but divinely, at the hands of a Bishop of the Church, with authority to execute the office of a Priest in the Church of God.

The Church requires, in accordance with the will of Christ as expressed in the practice of the Apostolic Church, that a Priest be ordained at the hands of a Bishop. That is why our branch of the Church of Christ is called Episcopal. But it is not the Bishop who makes the Priest; it is Almighty God, working through His Holy Spirit, in His Holy Catholic Church, which is the Body of Jesus Christ.

The whole thing rests entirely upon our faith in the power of God—the supernatural, the miraculous, the incomprehensible power of God. The Christian ministry therefore is a human affair in only a secondary sense. It begins, like the Incarnation, like the Atonement, like Pentecost, like every other mystery of our faith, with God. It is mediated through the human, but sacramentally ordained, servants of Christ, His Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, for the salvation of mankind. But this salvation, and therefore this ministry, has for its final end and objective the glory of God. Let us take heed then that we clearly understand that what we are here for today is not simply that we may stand as witnesses while a young man makes solemn vows to serve God to the best of his ability as His faithful minister. Deeply impressive and eternally significant as is that solemn taking of life-vows, it is but preliminary to the great and central act of this sacrament, which is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We are therefore to stand as witnesses while God, by His power, and by His will, makes a Priest for Himself—a Priest, who shall devote his life to serving and glorifying God—a Priest, whose primary interest and end in life, whose dreadful duty, whose unspeakably joyful privilege it shall be, to lift up Jesus Christ before men, in order that they may look unto Him and receive eternal life, and thereby glorify God.

Our Church is set apart and differentiated from denominational Protestantism by virtue of the fact that she is—from what we know of her history and from what we may read in the Book of Common Prayer—irrevocably committed to a sacerdotal and a sacramental system. Were she, by any strange misadventure, to relinquish this system, she would cease to be part of Catholic Christendom; she would cease to be herself.

Why is it that no man, unless he be an episcopally ordained Priest of the Church, is allowed to stand at our altar and offer the Holy Mysteries of the Eucharist? Is it because we scorn Protestant ministers or regard the denominations as unchristian? God forbid! It is simply because our Protestant brethren, however much we may esteem and love them, do not even pretend to be, and assuredly are not, what our Church very clearly intends her ministers to be; that is, Priests with Priestly authority.

The priest at his ordination is given power and authority to stand at the altar and consecrate bread and wine. No layman no deacon can do this. Likewise he gives Holy Communion—he distributes to Christ's people the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. He is commissioned also, and given power and authority, to declare and pronounce to Christ's people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He is empowered and authorized to dispense the sacraments of the Church. In so doing he exercises his priestly functions and thereby lifts up Christ that He may draw men unto Him.

The priest has also prophetic functions: he is to preach the Word. And to preach the Word means to preach Jesus Christ. There are countless men and women today who do not believe what the Church teaches simply because they do not know—they have never heard—what the Church does teach. In this land of ours today there are literally millions who are hungering for the truth, who are like sheep that have no shepherd to feed them—millions who, though many of them go to church, have never heard a straightforward, plain sermon on the nature of the Church, or the ministry, or the sacraments; or, what is far more fundamental—the Incarnation or the Atonement. People want to know—not all of them but many—what the Church teaches. They can wait to know what the rector's interpretation of some difficult text may be, or what his view of current events may be, or what he thinks of the latest best-seller. But they must not be kept waiting to know what the Church says a man must do in order that he may inherit eternal life. The function of the priest as prophet, then, is to lift up Christ before men, to give them His teachings and the teachings of His Holy Spirit as they have been revealed in His Church.

In the third place the priest has pastoral functions. Here again his work is to lift up the Crucified—not simply to go about among his flock as their fellow-man, but loving them in the bonds of Christ to go among them as their priest and shepherd, bringing them human understanding and sympathetic counsel, but bringing them especially the divine comfort of the Gospel of Christ. When a priest visits his people he comes as their friend, but also and especially as their priest. Whether he comes to bring the sacraments or not, he comes always as one who is empowered to dispense the sacraments. Once ordained the priest is a marked man. He is impressed with the indelible character of the priesthood. He is a priest forever, even when he plays tennis or goes swimming, and his people will remember this even though he should himself forget it.

The priest has no magic powers. There is no hocus-pocus nor anything automatic about the sacraments. But the priest does have divinely committed powers, and once they have been bestowed they are never withdrawn, no matter how sadly they may be obscured by the man's unfaithfulness. The Church has ever held and taught that even a bad priest, even the worst of priests, is still a priest with priestly powers. Even if a priest who had been deposed should undertake to celebrate the Holy Communion, it would be an entirely valid sacrament though irregular and unlawful. This is a healthy doctrine for the laity to ponder, but the priest would do well to forget it. A priest who is worldly or superficial or lazy or careless or proud or selfish or rude or gossipy or uncharitable can do untold harm to the priesthood, the Church, and the Kingdom of God.

And so to you who are at this time to be ordained I would say, remember: that it is to be your life-work to lift , up Jesus Christ before men, that so He may draw them unto Him. Of yourself you can do nothing. It is God, as you well know, and only God, who has power to change men's lives and to save their souls. In order that you may apply this power to men's souls through the sacraments and that you may teach this Gospel with authority, you are this day to receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a priest.

By virtue of this gift God will work through your hands veritable miracles—sometimes even when you are not aware of it. That is because of your indelible and divine priesthood, quite apart from your character and your talents as a man. This knowledge should make you very humble.

But God wants you to be not merely a priest but a good priest, and I am persuaded that that is your desire also. It is therefore for you to "stir up" the gift that is given you. And what does that mean practically? It means long and loving periods of prayer, of priestly and pastoral prayer for God's people, your flock. It means frequent times of deliberate withdrawal from the busy pursuits of your " job " in order that you may be still and know that God is. It means diligent study of the revealed word of God in Holy Scripture. It means faithfulness in the saying of daily offices. These things are not easy to do; in the average parish today they are exceedingly difficult to do, as you must yourself well know. But they are fundamental. They are indispensable. If a priest becomes lax about saying his prayers and reading his Bible, his people soon find it out. It shows in his preaching; it shows in his every word and deed.

A priest may take life easy. But to be a good priest is the hardest work and the most glorious work on earth. It takes love—abundant love and the most patient love—and it takes hard work. And perhaps above all else it takes prayer—loving prayer.

The priest in fine is God's priest. He is God's servant. He must be God's humble servant. He must belong to God, body and soul. The true priest lives no longer for himself, but solely to the end that he may hold up the Crucified before men. I know it is your will and desire to be such a priest; and I pray and believe that God will give you grace to fulfill the same. Amen.

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