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News & Reflections

Is It Okay to Call Your Pastor "Priest?"

Andrew Russell

One of the things about Anglicanism people always seem to question (or flat-out reject) is the idea of our calling pastors “priests.” And I’ll admit that, initially, it made me uncomfortable as well. Growing up in an evangelical, free church setting had planted the “priesthood of all believers” deep into my psyche, and the idea of reserving the priestly title for one or two people in the congregation who would do everything for me seemed to come from a backwards, outdated Christianity.

“Isn’t Christ our high priest?” I asked. “Don’t we all have access to the Father through him alone? Wasn’t the curtain in the temple torn in two?” The answer is, of course, yes. And Anglicans—along with Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox—don’t disagree. All Christians are priests because, since we have been united with Christ, we share in his priesthood.

If you’ve read any of my pieces for this site, you’ll recognize the name Alexander Schmemann. He’s a phenomenal Eastern Orthodox theologian, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s shaped my theology more than anyone else in the last year. (Seriously, buy this book and tell me he’s not great.) Schmemann helped me reconcile vocational priests with the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” by developing a good understanding of what it is that a priest actually does. For Schmemann, to understand the job description of a priest, one must understand humanity’s initial role in creation: to bless the world, to offer it up to God, and to receive it back from him. The whole world, then, is a Eucharistic liturgy, a cosmic worship service where God blesses human beings through the material world. This means that, from the beginning of the world, every human being was created to be a priest!

One of the many ways that Jesus saves and redeems the world is by restoring this Eucharistic vision of creation. He has “made the whole world Eucharist,” and human beings are once again enabled—encouraged, expected, entreated!—to resume their priestly function. We are all priests.

And the role of what we call “vocational” priests—the men and women in collars—is simply to demonstrate for you and me what we are supposed to be doing out in the world. What do we see Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican priests do? We see them proclaim the gospel; we should do that too! We see them assure people that God will forgive them of their sins; we should do that too! We see them perform holy acts with the most mundane of materials; we should do that too! In the strictest sense, vocational priests have no vocation at all, except to show people how to be priests in their own various vocations.

This is one of the reasons I have grown to love the priestly language in my denomination. On Sunday mornings, as I watch my priest preach the Word of God, pray on behalf of the congregation, and adminster the sacrament to us, I am reminded that this is what I’m supposed to do at my own job. I should be a priestly seminary student. And this goes for you too, reader. God is calling you to be a priestly office manager, a priestly high school teacher, a priestly artist—and so on, and so on. Everything our hands touch should be blessed, offered, and received again. I’ll take all the help I can get to remember that.

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