Anglican Priests — Ontological? Functional? Or something else?

Posted on October 9, 2021 
Filed under Opinion, Theology

Joshua Bovis at St John’s Tamworth shares this article written for his parish newsletter –

Anglican Priests — Ontological? Functional? Or something else?

The 1st of May is the anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood.

When I used to have a Facebook account I placed a picture of the occasion on my news feed (yes that is me, the man in white just right of the middle). One of the others in the photo also placed the same pic on his Facebook page. What I found interesting was that he received many comments and ‘likes’ whereas I received no comments and not many likes.

Of course it is Facebook, it does not really mean anything because the world of Facebook is not real, but what is real is that my friend who was priested with me held to an ontological view of ordination. Whereas my view of ordination is functional (though I suspect he agreed with some aspects of the functional view).

For those who are not sure what I am writing about, here is an explanation:

Ordination – The Ontological View

When a person is ordained, there is a change regarding their very nature. In essence you become a different kind of person, a different king of Christian, and this is not to do primarily with your role, (though it shapes and dictates your role) but with who and what you become. God effects an ontological change in the very nature of who you are. Deacons, Priests and Bishops who hold to this view see themselves as being in Holy Orders until they die, still recognised as one by retaining their title even at retirement and still wear their clerical garb. The Roman Catholic Church holds to this view. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that ordination “confers an indelible spiritual character” which “cannot be “repeated or conferred temporarily” (CCC#1583). “The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” (CCC#1583).

The late Rev John Richardson (aka The Ugley Vicar) describes this view like this:

“In ordination, the person being ordained is, as it were, ‘made into’ a priest — he (or she) is no longer quite what they were as a layperson, and is not simply ‘authorised’ by ordination, but is changed and ‘empowered’ by it.”

The views on this ‘empowerment’ may vary, but the essential characteristic is that priest and laity are in some way separated in what they are, not just in what they do. We will call this simply the ‘priestly’ model, since for most people, the word ‘priest’ conjures up exactly this ‘set apart specialness’ of someone different from the layperson.

Ordination – The Functional View

When a person is ordained, nothing happens to them in regards to their nature. The change is only in regards to what they can do publicly. Actually what presbyter/priests do in church, anyone Christian can do in their own homes.

And as for the prayer in the Anglican ordinal asking God to send down The Holy Spirit, is so that the Newly ordained priest may do what the ordinal and the Scriptures set out for them and require them to do, Scripture is very clear what the role of the ordained is to be. The Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) are very clear on what the role is of a Presbyter/Priest, and the Anglican Ordinal very clearly states what the roles, requirements and expectations are of a Deacon, Priest or Bishop and the roles are functional.

So while I do not hold to the ontological view of the Priesthood (due it its origins lying in Roman Catholic Theology rather than the Scriptures, nor is it supported by the Anglican Ordinal), I do wonder if the understanding of the Functional view of ordination is deficient in some way for it seems to me that there are two weaknesses with the current understanding of the Functional view:

First weakness – The role of the ordained is professionalised – Where they are likened to that of a CEO, service leader, preacher, Bible study teacher, manager of other clergy (who are called paid staff). In other words the role seems to be reduced to that of someone who is a paid professional, rather than a role that is vocational and one of calling.  So one’s suitability as a priest and effectiveness as a priest is discerned by ‘success’ (however ‘success’ is defined in modern 21st ministry culture) and in practice one’s godliness, holiness, piety, love for others is minimalised or reduced.

Second weakness – The role of the ordained is compartmentalised – It allows for the vows ordinands make at their ordination to be compartmentalised from every day life and their roles to be compartmentalised from everyday life when the reality is that neither is possible.

Whether a deacon, priest of bishop likes it or not, (although there is no ontological change within them at the ordination), the way they are perceived by people will change. Whether those views held are right or wrong; based on weird theology or something they have imbibed from childhood or previous experience; whether they are Christians in their own church, or unbelievers without their church; it cannot be avoided, even when they are not in church, even when it is their day off, and even if they are out and about not wearing a clerical collar attempting to be anonymous. Once a person is ordained, it does not go away, and there is no off switch. Of course they can take a day off from ministry, (and they should) but they cannot take a day off from the vows that they made at their ordinations, nor decide to reject the very doctrines that they affirmed at their ordinations; just as they cannot take a day off from being a Christian and they cannot take the day off from how people will see them.

Personal Example when I was serving as an Assistant Minister in my previous parish, I was at the shopping centre buying a DVD, I was not wearing a clergy collar and the girl served me remembered me from her Mother’s funeral I conducted. In her eyes, I was the priest. At the moment I was not leading a service, nor reading the Bible, nor preaching, nor was I managing church staff, so according to the functional view I was not acting as a priest. But in her eyes I was, simply by being.

This was supported by something I read which stated:

“There are appropriate whole-of-life expectations for ministers such that they cannot ever switch off from their role in the same way that a pilot can when they’re not flying. And even once they’ve retired from a position, a failure to live up to their ordination vows can have significant impact on those that the clergy have previously ministered to in a way that a pilot’s post-flight behaviour doesn’t affect their previous passengers”.

I viewed an online piece some years ago pertaining to the UK series entitled Rev and the author noted the confusion between being a priest and leading the church; the ontological view of being a priest and the functional view of being a priest. The author looks at it from the problem of the ontological view (i.e. Just because someone is called to be a priest, doesn’t mean they’re called to lead a church). We see this with the Rev’s main protagonist Rev Adam Smallbone. In short Smallbone is absolutely not suited to being a Priest. But because his role is defined by the Ontological view, therein lies the problem. The author points this out in his piece and I think is absolutely correct when he says:

The result is people like Adam Smallbone in Rev. He’s a nice guy; he’s clearly got some kind of call on his life. But according to that list, he isn’t called to lead a church, and the tension in the series comes from fact that no-one quite grasps that he may well be called to be a priest by the C of E’s understanding (Ontological), but he isn’t called to lead a church by the Bible’s understanding (Functional).

We see the problems shining through in the series. Adam isn’t a good preacher; as a result his congregation don’t have transforming encounters with God’s word and so don’t change. We see that painfully clearly when it comes to welcoming a repentant paedophile into the church. Adam understands grace, but he hasn’t communicated that understanding to the rest of the church, so they reject him. Adam’s wife isn’t properly on board with him being a vicar – she clearly resents it and it causes all kinds of problems for her faith, and for his leadership. I know both from personal experience and from that of friends that if a vicar’s spouse isn’t keen on them following the calling to lead a church, it won’t work. The tragedy is that Adam has been badly let down by the C of E in its confusion between the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church. As a result, everyone loses – Adam, the local church, and the wider church”.

This is the weakness of the ontological view, but the weakness of the current understanding of the functional view is just a serious. A priest who is professionalised and is compartmentalised and sees their role as a priest as a job rather than a calling and a vocation is just as unhelpful as the Rev Adam Smallbone.

So back to my FB pic. I suspect that the reason why my post did not receive so many comments from many of my ‘friends’ is because they hold to the functional view of ordination, they don’t view being priested as being that much of a big deal. Another author expresses this point using the analogy of acquiring a pilot’s licence:

“Being ordained is a bit like getting your pilot’s licence. You need one to fly but it’s no more than a mark of recognition that you’ve proven yourself able to fly, that you choose to be an active pilot and that the authorities are happy to accept you. There’s no way in the world that just issuing a licence gives you your flying skills and there’s no reason to hold a licence once your active flying career is over”.

If this is the understanding of the functional view of ordination then I think it goes too far, however the answer I believe is not for Anglicans (ordained or non-ordained) to embrace the ontological view of ordination, but to re-examine the functional view of ordination in light of God’s Word and to a lesser extent (though not insignificant) the Ordinal. Scripture is clear that all Christians are members of a new Royal Priesthood, however those whom God has called to be ordained, like every Christian, are to be living examples of those who worship God in Spirit and in truth who offer their bodies to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). This means that the oaths clergy made at their ordinations, the doctrines that they affirmed and the promises that they made are to be lived out transparently (and by God’s grace, contagiously) every day, and it does not matter if they are not rostered down to lead or preach that Sunday or whether they have parish council coming up that week.

Not ontological, but more than merely functional.

– Joshua Bovis is the Vicar of St John The Evangelist in Tamworth.