Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Priesthood of All Believers

This is a helpful piece by Rev. Jeff Meyers dealing with the question of the priesthood of all believers. Growing up Plymouth Brethren, I witnessed first hand the benefits and dangers (more the latter, I’m afraid) that can result from majoring on this idea. As a result, I tend to cringe every time I find someone wanting to place a lot of emphasis on this doctrine.

Jeff’s piece also reminded me of this, taken from the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, written by Thomas Day (there is profanity in this excerpt which I opted not to edit – just thought I’d warn you):

In the early 1970’s a friend of mine attended Mass in one of Philadelphia’s grand old parishes, an immense pile of stone built to last for eternity. In the same pew, right next to him, was an elderly lady who energetically fingered her rosary beads all during Mass. She stood, sat, and knelt with everyone else, but her thoughts seemed to be far removed from the activity around her.

The time came for the Handshake of Peace, one of those “new things” which made everyone feel a bit silly. My friend turned to the elderly lady at this point and, holding out his hand in friendship, said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you.” The old lady scowled. She looked at the proffered had as if it were diseased. “I don’t believe in that shit,” she replied and, without missing a breath, went back to the quiet mumbling of her rosary.

Before we start imagining that the old lady must have been some charming fossil from another eon, let us remember that as late as 1963 nearly every Roman Catholic bishop in the United States would have agreed with her. They did not believe in “that shit,” and neither did the majority of the faithful.

This piece shows the real nature of the situation that has existed in Catholicism for centuries. The book was first published in 1990, so I’m sure there have been significant changes in Roman Catholicism in the past 17 years as many of the older Catholics pass away and as those who remain adjust to the changes brought by Vatican II. Nevertheless, the historical situation was what it was. I also know there is still some pining for a return to the Latin Mass within Roman circles, particularly from those who long for a sense of mystery that they feel was lost in the changes made.

I hope Jeff’s posts will be effective in clearing up these misunderstandings among many. This is apparently the first of several posts in which Jeff will be talking about this, so keep checking his blog for the rest.


Anonymous jendark said...

I agree with the old woman. It could have been me (I?). All the nattering and chattering is a comedown from a spiritual high. The mystery of faith should be kept untarnished by socializing while worshipping God. We are there to focus on Him, not to mingle.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Kerry Lewis said...

Thanks for your response. I’m sorry I’ve been so delayed in getting back to this, but I do want to interact with what you wrote.

I would somewhat agree with you if what was really going on was “nattering”, “chattering”, “socializing”, or “mingling”. And I have seen the Sharing of the Peace function like that. I attended an Evangelical Covenant church for awhile where this happened Sunday after Sunday. The kind of dialogue that took place during the Peace would be, “Well, how y’all doing? I heard little Susie did real well at her piano recital. Y’all want to get lunch together after worship?” And the pastor always had a hard time reining everybody back in in order to continue with the service.

At the same time, I’ve seen it function well. At a Lutheran church that I’ve visited on and off for a number of years, the Sharing of the Peace is a regular part of Sunday worship. It functions in a very orderly fashion. The members of the congregation turn to each other, shake hands (or hug, if they are family) and say either “peace”, “the peace of the Lord”, or “the peace of the Lord be with you”. The pastor allows it to continue for ten or fifteen seconds while he shares the peace with those around him. Then he brings it to an end by facing the congregation and saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” to which the congregation responds, “And also with you”. And the liturgy moves right along. I have never thought in that setting that I was distracted from focusing on God, whereas I thought the behaviour of the congregation in the Ev. Cov. Church was irreverent.

The Sharing of the Peace is an element that has existed in the liturgy since the early days of the Church. In the early church it was called the Kiss of Peace, the biblical texts supporting this being Romans 15:33, I Cor. 16: 20-24, II Cor. 13:11-14, I Thess. 5:26, II Thess. 3:16, and I Peter 5:14. It is demonstrative from these passages that this involved not just a greeting from the ordained ministers to the laypeople and vice-versa, but it also involved the laypeople sharing the peace among themselves. It is also demonstrative in the historical documents that this is the way it functioned in the liturgy of the post-Apostolic Early Church. Another passage that is used in relation to this custom is Matt. 5:23-24. The Sharing of the Peace has historically been seen also as an act of reconciliation prior to bringing one’s offering to the altar (or prior to coming to communion – the placing of the Peace has shifted from time to time in the history of the church, based on the emphasis a group might place on the notion of the Eucharist as a sacrifice).

Relating this to the situation in the section of Day’s book that I quoted…the Peace had always existed in the Roman Mass, even prior to Vatican II. The old lady didn’t know this, though, because she didn’t know Latin. In the Latin Mass the practice had (somewhere along the way – when, I don’t know) become that the Peace was something the priest simply shared with the deacon or acolyte that was assisting him at the altar. This was just another result of the Mass being in Latin and of the laypeople being excluded from the worship. The laypeople were left to do nothing more than private devotions in the pews while the priest carried out his function at the altar. The reintroduction of the Sharing of the Peace at Vatican II was, I expect, one attempt to re-include the congregation as well as emphasizing the Priesthood of All Believers. The old lady was accustomed to her own private practices during Mass, and as most people don’t like change, she was apparently resistant to the changes to the liturgy.

But herein lies what I believe to be a big problem. Corporate worship is for, well, corporate worship. It isn’t the time for private devotions. But when the structure and theology of worship in any Christian group exalts the function of the minister to the point that the congregation remains largely or entirely passive during the service, doctrinal and practical passivity sets in. This is a problem that can (and has) occurred among Low Church folks (like Baptists) as well as High Church folks. Christian devotion becomes privatized, and it eventually works its way into the culture such that any sort of adherence to Christian belief becomes ghetto-ized. Catholics would like to blame the Protestant Reformation for the disaster in the culture. But I find the theology of the American Evangelicals to be far more similar to Catholic piety than to Reformation spirituality.

I also think that this sort of spirituality, what some have called “naval-gazing” spirituality, is very addictive for certain types of people. Some people grow sick of it because they aren’t naturally oriented to it. If they are in a church that promotes and encourages this, they don’t last very long and, if they don’t find an alternate view of Christian spirituality, they ditch the Christian faith altogether. Those who are drawn to it stay in the church, wonder why everybody else has left, and often spend much time mentally flogging those people for their sins, as well as themselves. The way to spiritual health for both types of people, I believe, is a more objective form of worship – one that turns the person from outside of himself to focus on more external manifestations of God. And nothing is a more clear external manifestation of God to me than another person.

So I would have to disagree with you. Corporate worship isn’t the time for an individualized “spiritual high”. I would also disagree with your perception of “the mystery of faith”. How would you define that? Is it a feeling? Is it your personal experience with God in worship? How do you know everybody else is experiencing what you are? The word “mystery” has come to take on those sorts of nebulous characteristics in our modern minds, but it isn’t the way the word “mysterion” is used in the New Testament. The definition of the word in its NT usage is that of a secret once hidden that is now revealed. It doesn’t carry extra-spiritual connotations at all. I don’t mean to be demeaning, but I consider your perception of spirituality (a common one in Christianity) to be the result of non-Christian influences (specifically Greek and Pagan) on Christianity. Think also of Old Covenant worship. Did they have the “mystery of faith” that you are speaking of – with the bleeting of sheep, chirping of birds, animals being slaughtered and cut into pieces, blood flowing copiously, feathers and fur everywhere? It seems to me what you are promoting is a quietistic, Gnostic, anti-material faith that doesn’t agree with the Scriptures. But I also believe this to be a common approach to Christianity that is less accurate than the more biblical and true understanding it has been at war with since the beginning.

I also think your contrast between focusing on one another vs. focusing on God to be problematic. It is true that we can make idols out of one another in this way, but it isn’t a necessary consequence. Jesus said that to love one’s neighbor is to love God. This is no less true in worship than it is outside of it. We don’t see this as a problem in relation to the service of the priest and the dialogical nature of worship between he and us. Why should it be a problem in relation to “singing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs“?

You speak of a “spiritual high”. For the most part I don’t get that in public worship. I think here there is a huge difference between what masculine spirituality should look like and what feminine spirituality should look like. Masculine spirituality has, for the most part, been sidelined in our time, and feminine spirituality has been held up as the ideal. My experience of worship is going to be different from yours, and both need to be given room and place in corporate worship. I don’t know what all the results of that would be, but I still believe it to be the case.

If I were to choose a word to sum up what I’m saying, the word I would use would be “objective”. Corporate worship is objective – outside of the individual’s consciousness. We are not coming as a bunch of disconnected individuals, but as a single body made up of individuals to worship God in unity. Any approach to worship that draws the individual back inside of his or her self detracts from that corporateness.

Let me say in closing that I don’t attribute everything I’ve written here to you. A lot of what I’ve said comes about in reality in the form of consequence. It doesn’t mean every element of criticism I’ve raised manifests itself in every individual.

4:08 PM  

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