In 2009 a number of fellow clergy and I worked to start a North American branch of the Society of Catholic Priests which had begun in England. It is a group that seeks to follow the traditional Catholic faith of the Church while being open to the insights and movements of the Holy Spirit along the way. This meant that unlike many Catholic societies within Anglicanism we welcomed women who are priests, LGBT people, and others. Our goal was not to question anyone’s priestly ministry but to affirm the Catholic heart of priesthood however it is understood.
In England this has meant a good deal more striving for the ordination of women bishops while in the United States this has meant a good deal more striving for apostolic continuity of faith with regard to Sacraments, Creeds, and more. When the Bishop Visitor from the United Kingdom arrived for our first annual conference in New Haven he expressed surprise and dismay (in a restrained British way) that we were arguing for the proper Trinitarian invocation at Baptism. He was dismayed not because we were arguing therefore but because we had to make the argument at all. The same was true of the relationship between Communion and Baptism.
One of the choices we made when starting the American chapter was that we would welcome not only priests (those ordained to the priesthood) but lay religious and deacons as well to full membership. This was a departure from our mother province’s practice but one that I think was well grounded.
The grounding, for me, has come in hindsight. I am not sure that I could have articulated why we made that choice when we did. My Rector, the first Convener of the Society might have been able to but I only know that I concurred. I was not a priest yet when we started the Society. It was an odd position to be starting a Society for priests when I was only eligible to be a provisionary member.
Having been a curate, sub-dean, and now rector I can now say with more certainty what was only an inchoate notion then – we admitted lay religious and deacons because priesthood is a pack activity.
Tomorrow is our annual meeting. It is my second in this congregation. I am reverently aware as I put together the “Rector’s Report” that the work I do is simply to create the boundaries of healthy habits and help till the soil so that a verdant and fully alive ecosystem of faith, hope, and love can take root and grow. It would be easy to think that a Rector does something by force of charisma, faithfulness, charm, or intellect. It would be easy but deleterious.
When I worked in retail we used to joke, “This would be a great store if it weren’t for the customers.” Of course, the customers were completely annoying and exhausting. This was because they were consumers and we were there to facilitate their consumption.
Our parishioners are not here to be consumers – they join us as fellow ministers – as those who work, pray, and give that more may come to the Font and to the Altar. They join us as friends and witnesses of the faith that is in them. They are walking Sacraments – sign and outward manifestation of grace so deeply welcomed. Our priesthood is theirs insofar as they invite, by word and inspiring service, those they meet to see and know that abundant life is waiting at the foot of the cross and beyond.
Our fellow ministers are not consumers but are being changed by the Holy Spirit as they offer their selves, souls, and bodies for the work of ministry – for the work of spreading the Word and making the fruits of the Sacraments visible and known. This is why we welcomed deacons and lay religious to the Society of Catholic Priests – not because all are priests but because all make the priesthood worth living and worth the calling.
We celebrate a priesthood of all believers – this is manifest most fully in some sinner pouring water, some lovely widow filling the ewer, some tearful usher guiding the family forward, some bored acolyte trying to look too cool, some deacon worried about when to pass the paschal candle, and some Lord looking on and welcoming a child into the household of faith.