We cannot deal with priesthood without acknowledging the people who make up the church. Before all else, the church is the people.
Long before mention of buildings, ministers, priests, bishops, popes, organisations, institutions, or moral codes, there should be discussion of a community of hearts and souls, previously separated by many things, coming together.
Jesus formed a community around himself, animated it, then left it his word, his Spirit and the Eucharist. These are such evident issues in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Gospel of John that filled our weekday lectionary after Easter.
Leadership in the community
In looking at the issue of leadership in the community and in light of a recent reading from Acts 6:1-7, I came across some relevant reflection points on the text.
Religious communities are among the most conserving and traditionalist groups within society. Today’s clerical vestments were the clothing of everyday Romans of the fourth century.
Contemporary ecclesiastical terminology is replete with strange words from dead languages. The church’s traditionalism may be partly ascribed to its need to conserve what is true, to remain faithful to the truth once received.
In the speeches of Acts we often see proclaimed the remembrance of past promises to Israel. The Pharisees and Sadducees see themselves as doing their duty in protecting the faith of their ancestors from destructive innovation – and sadly, they missed the truth in the new revelation of God.
The Spirit-led community moves in obedience to the Spirit. A new challenge has arisen within the community as it multiplies and new organisation and leadership are needed. In saying that ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables’ (6:2), the apostles are not disparaging such work but taking decisive action so that the necessary social (and liturgical) administration might be assured, even while implying that the task of preaching is a primary apostolic duty.
Luke does not use the term ‘deacon’ for those selected to serve in table fellowship, but may imply the origin of the diaconate. Stephen and Philip are certainly pictured more in the role of prophets than deacons.
Three critical conclusions
Luke’s preoccupation in Acts is in establishing the transition of leadership. Hands are laid on these new leaders, a gesture of the bestowal of authority taken from Judaism. We need to be careful in reading too much into this passage concerning the origins of later ordained ministry, but what can be clearly discerned are some conclusions about community leadership and the work of the Spirit:
- Leadership within the church arises from the community’s quite ordinary but utterly necessary functional needs. The Jesus called by God in his baptism calls the Twelve who call others to ministry within the congregation. The essence of future ordained ministry is derivative of and accountable to the ministry of the church as a whole.
- Leadership arises from below not from above. From above implies the dribble down effect from God to Jesus to the bishop through the hierarchy, to the clergy, at last to the lowly laity. The process of ordination moves in the other direction – leaders arise from the needs of God’s people for guidance and service. At the same time leadership is from above, a gift of the Lord (Eph 4:8-11; 1 Tim 4:14), so the church prays as it lays on hands. God does not leave the church bereft of leadership and gives us worthy servants beyond the bounds of the first apostles.
- The ordained ministry in its present form is an adaptation of the church to its leadership needs. The Twelve evolve into other forms of leadership. The present order of clergy was not set in stone from the beginning of the church or established by divine decree. The church creates certain types of leadership for the community to function. What the church has established it may change. Acts 6:1-6 is a demonstration of an admirable adaptability to attend to the essential and to follow the leading of the Spirit to respond creatively to new challenges.
In the Year of the Priest, and in such troubled times as the church is presently going through, bishops and priests deserve our prayers and gratitude for their faithful life and service.
Change will continue in parish leadership and we need to be open to what the Spirit is doing in the church, either with us, without us or against us.
I also wonder how we would react to hearing a Prayer of the Faithful that began,
‘Let us pray for the People of God and those who faithfully serve them, our religious, our priests and bishop, and our pope, the servant of the servants of God.’
The glory of priesthood is service of the people in ‘the name of Jesus’ (another great theme of Acts).
References: Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: Search for Christian Spirituality.
See also Bishops as apostolic successors