"... 'ere priestcraft did begin"
[A Talk given at St Andrew by the Wardrobe]
"In pious times, 'ere priestcraft did begin"
So runs the opening line of Dryden's satirical poem Absalom
It's taking a bit of a risk to use any satire as the "text-peg" on which to hang a serious investigation such as this – if only because one cannot be certain whether the author's tongue was in his cheek when he wrote the particular phrase one wishes to use.
However, I think it is clear that when Dryden used the word "Priestcraft" in this context he was referring to what, in the memorable phrase of 1066 And All That would have been classified by its authors as a Bad Thing (Capital B, Capital T).
And although Dryden was himself later to become a Roman Catholic, the poem Absalom and Achitophel was written during the days when he was still an Anglican; and there is no reason to suppose that his conversion made him any less critical of the abuse of priesthood which the word priestcraft suggests.
Besides, there are numerous instances, both contemporary with and before Dryden which demonstrate that the word craft was widely used to suggest some arcane, cunning and generally malevolent practice by which one being could exercise a supernatural power over others, perhaps to the latter's disadvantage, but certainly to further his own ends.
"Witchcraft is one example of the word "craft" so employed. But if we go back some 50 years or so to the Authorized Version of 1611 we find in Ephesians 4:14: "That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of vain doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness whereby they lie waiting to deceive." Or in the previous century in Cranmer's Litany of 1544: "From all evil and mischief, from sin, from the crafts and assault of the devil; from thy wrath and from everlasting damnation: Good Lord, deliver us".
The juxtaposition of craft, sin, mischief, evil, devil and damnation gives craft some pretty nasty bedfellows, does it not? These are just two or three examples taken at random. If you care to look up Christopher Hill's book The World Turned Upside Down you will find many more instances of how, in the popular mind of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, priests, by the abuse of the power which they supposedly possessed, were held to be responsible for much, if not all, the political and economic misfortunes and abuses which were so common at that time.
Among the simple people, of course, the very idea of magic and witchcraft was enough to sent them into a blind panic. But amongst the more sophisticated there was the notion that priests, recusant Jesuit priests particularly, smuggled in by the Counter-Reformation popes, were specially trained to persuade people of any level of intelligence to abandon the fundamentals of the Reformation and enslave the country once again to foreign domination. Their training, combined with a high degree of self-discipline and a specific oath of loyalty to the Pope himself (together, it was alleged, with a willingness to call right/wrong, black/white or vice versa as he might command them); all these things added up to a climate of fear and mistrust in which such phenomena as Titus Oates' spurious Popish Plot could flourish. "Priestcraft" in the popular mind was rife at every street corner, and there was a potential Jesuit agent under every bed if not actually inside it.
I want now to leave the trouble of the 16th century to begin a more general enquiry of how the concept of priesthood becomes corrupted into that of priestcraft both in the popular mind and in reality.
For this purpose I must make one important assumption about a belief which time would not permit me to argue through this afternoon, but it is a belief which is held, as it always has been held by the vast majority of Christians from the beginning: the belief that our Lord deliberately chose certain people, the 12 Apostles, and they in their turn ordained others, to be the basis of ministerial activity within his Church. whether we call them presbyters, priests, elders, deacons, overseers, apostles, ministers or bishops or some- thing else, this pattern of commissioning and laying on of hands never seems to have varied down the ages. So if anyone here this afternoon believes that this whole practice was based on a gigantic misconception of Jesus' intentions, then I must ask you to bear with me. There have always been a few people in every age who have held this view. But the vast majority, whilst recognizing all the corruptions and misapprehensions to which the sacred ministry has been subject from Judas Iscariot and Simon Magus onwards, have nevertheless believed firmly that a sacred ministry, ordained and commissioned, was an important element in God's plan for the reconciliation of mankind to himself in Jesus Christ. Sacraments and sacramental ministry are meant to go hand-in-hand as extensions of the Incarnation.
So, given this belief, When, Why and How did things go wrong? The question When is the one most easily answered, the answer being "Almost from Day One". Take the treachery and suicide of Judas Iscariot, add the notion of Simon Magus that spiritual and miraculous powers could somehow be bought for money (hence the word Simony); add to these the "divisions" (referred to by St Paul in I Corinthians) each one attaching itself to a well- known person's name (I am of Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ as might be the case); add the phenomenon of "super-apostle" or "extra-powerful apostle" who had attracted so many of the faithful; the Anti-Christ of I John; and on top of all these the numerous references to false apostles in the epistles of Peter, Jude, John and the letters to the Seven Churches and you have evidence enough, I suggest, that the problem of Priestcraft has always existed in some form or another within the Church.
Do let us be clear about the troubles of the early Church. Don't listen to those who would claim that the first years of the Christian Church were a kind of Golden Age of Christianity to which we should be endeavouring to return. It was nothing of the kind. Problems like persecution and lack of money dogged them continuously; but more the our point is the fact that these "false brethren" whose end, St Paul said "is destruction, whose god is their belly" were a constant difficulty with which he and his fellow christians had to battle. Today's problems are neither specifically modern, mediaeval or primitive – they are ubiquitous and universal.
Let us next look at the question Why? Why do such things go wrong. Let me quote you a passage from the Book of Common Prayer, the section entitled Concerning the Services of the Church to provide us with a clue. The opening sentence reads: There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised or so sure established which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.
This statement applies as we know only too well not only to man's devices but to God's creation as well.
There is nothing in what whole of creation, however good in itself which cannot be, and probably already has been corrupted by misuse of one sort or another.
It is never the things themselves that are bad, mark you, but the use to which they are inappropriately put. there is nothing in the whole wide world, be it wine, or food, or power, or sex or the pursuit of pleasure which does not have both a rightful and a wrongful use. For example the power and authority which can be wielded for good by a benevolent and upright man are in essence no different from those exploited by some self-seeking tyrant. It is the end to which they are put or the means employed which are different. So too the wine that "maketh glad the heart of man" is the same wine which intoxicates him into committing misdeeds which in his sober moments he would not even contemplate; but that wine is, incidentally, one and the same substance used by our Lord to communicate himself with his faithful people at the altar rails Sunday by Sunday.
It simply is, therefore, no answer at all to such evils as priestcraft to suggest that we should do away with priesthood altogether; any more than fornication can be eliminated by abolishing sex, or gluttony by enforcing starvation, or sin by abolishing humanity. If priesthood is part of God's redemptive purpose it cannot simply be "done away with"; it is data, something given.
There are two rules to guide us. The first I have just mentioned: a sort of Divine Murphy's Law which says that if something exists in a fallen world it can be expected invariably to go wrong in some way or another; and the very fact that we talk about something as "going wrong" indicates that there is a way for it to "go right".
Like Jesus Christ, we are not sent to condemn the world in the first instance but to enable the world to be saved through him. If men prefer darkness to light, of course, then that is their own business (and condemnation). But to suppose ourselves as being first and foremost Judges and Executioners, however just we may contrive to be, simply will not do. Or, to change the metaphor, to do so would be putting the cart of judgement before the horse of salvation. In the long run, perhaps in the very long run we shall, as St Paul says, judge even the angels. But in the meanwhile our job involves us in exercising a good deal of caution as to how we proceed.
Which brings me onto the second model or rule which is the parable of the Wheat and the Tares. In their early life these bear a remarkable resemblance to each other; so much so that to indulge in an unrestrained "Tare-Hunt" will result in many good seedlings being plucked up at birth. However, the early resemblance of tares to wheat should put us on our guard. The most dangerous and insidious untruths and misconceptions are the ones which most closely resemble the truth. Just as a parody, to be successful must approximate in as many ways as possible to the object of its barbs, so theological error, if it is successfully to deceive, needs to resemble closely the truth which it misrepresents. Otherwise its identity and real nature will be sussed out in five minutes by any intelligent person.
By the same token, of course, when the truth does stand revealed, albeit after the lapse of some time, then there can be no compromise between wheat and tares. Tares are poisonous weeds. Not only will they do the eater no good; they will do him positive harm. He must be discouraged by all means from consuming them! So, if I my briefly sum up these two rules it would be to say that whilst we should expect anything and everything, however good and noble to become corrupted sooner or later, our job, our vocation if you like, is wherever possible to de-corrupt; and whilst in the end good and evil cannot stand together we must be patient with error until the moment has come to put the sickle in and reap: then it really does become a matter of either/or.
Every generation of Christians has been and can expect to be, faced with instances where priesthood has turned into priestcraft. Sometimes it is only isolated instances; sometimes the thing assumes the proportions of an epidemic.
How then do such outbreaks occur? They begin, I think, as often as not with the individual priest's understandable human desire to feel important. Now in one sense of course the priest really is important, whether we think of him as God's agent for preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, tending the flock of Christ or by any other analogy. He is important in the sense that if he makes a mess of the job then a whole lot of people besides himself are going to get seriously hurt. In this sense he is no less important than the pilot of a particular aircraft, the driver of a coach or a particular surgeon taking out an appendix.
But that sort of "importance-feeling" is not the one men crave. They want to see themselves in a kind of stand-alone importance in relation to other people.
And that, of course, is the one thing a priest par excellence can never do. The gospel he preaches is not his own; the people he ministers to are not his, but Christ's flock (over whom he has been made temporary overseer); the sacraments he administers are not his gifts, but God's; the grace they convey owes nothing to him, however good or bad a man he may be in his personal life.
In short, anyone who looks to the exercise of the ordained ministry to make him "feel important" is making a dreadful and self-frustrating mistake. The more important he succeeds in feeling (save in the sense I described a moment or two back of being entrusted by God with what is beyond price) the less likely he is to be exercising a useful ministry and, therefore the less satisfied is he justified in feeling, and the more short-lived will be his satisfaction anyway.
So what happens then? Well, generally one of two quite opposite things. Either he will start to abandon little by little all the distinctive marks of priesthood. He will stop saying his daily office, perhaps a large number do that; or he will cease preparing his sermons and trust instead to the inspiration of the moment he gets up into the pulpit.; or he will cease to study the scriptures, or more probably take up the study of some alternative discipline like sociology or psychiatry; he will take less trouble over the preparation of candidates for baptism or confirmation; he will question, quite openly perhaps, the validity of revealed truth, advocating in its stead something more "in line with current thinking"; he will tend to be somewhat scornful of the church which nurtures him and gave him his commission in the name of Christ; and he will before all else see himself as "an ordinary guy", "a man of the people", "one of the lads" – whilst secretly wishing, of course, to be nothing of the kind.
That is one deviation. He may, on the other hand go in completely in the opposite direction. He may seek to feel important by trying to make out that his version of the faith is the one and only true one – all the others being more or less defective. In this way he may become either "plus papaliste que le Pape" or more fervently fundamentalist than the most extreme evangelical. In either case the result will be the same: in the vain pursuit of feeling important his faith and the exercise of his ministry become arcane – they are strictly for the like-minded. Priesthood turns into priestcraft; the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.
Bearing in mind what I said earlier about the wheat and the tares and the need to be patient I do not wish to be too hard on this latter type of priestcraftsman. Most of us I fancy have at one time or another dipped our toes in this sort of "stream of extremity" and by no means all of us have caught a cold or been drowned as a result. Youthful keenness and enthusiasm can often lead young priests into wading up to their ankles in such waters and, providing they are properly helped and supervised by their overseers, no great harm is done. Indeed there are perhaps times and places when a little bit of extremism in a Laodicean sea of lukewarmness may be for everyone's benefit.
Besides, really dotty extremism, besides being rare, is quiet simple to detect. In the last analysis it is so patently not the norm of Anglicanism (however defined) and less and less that of Roman Catholicism, that those who indulge in it have few followers and do little harm.
However, with the other variety of priestcraft, what I will call the "Minimalizing" school, I must be more severe.
This is partly because to-day there are a great many more of them; but chiefly because the degenerate nature of their beliefs and ministry poses a much more serious threat to the faithful who are in their care than that of the extremist, if only because of its much vaunted claim to be "in harmony with the spirit of the age". Closer inspection, by the way, often reveals it to be nothing of the kind, but its claim to be up- to-date, or "relevant" lends it a miasma of intellectual respectability in the minds of its hearers.
For such priests to extol doubt above faith; to deny the Resurrection and other key articles of the Creed; to pronounce all morality "relative" (whatever that may mean) may sound all very "with it". In fact, of course, most of these ideas were old hat by the mid-Nineteenth Century.
But unless lay people have a certain knowledge of history (which most of them do not, since they've never been taught it in church) such ideas may sound both original and exciting.
Lest you may think that I am making all this up, let me give you some examples. One church locally has had no weekday services for many years. I read the incumbent's letter in his parish magazine: it was about the National Health Service. Quite a good article as a matter of fact; but the word God, Church, Christ, Faith or any other specifically christian term did not appear once in it.
Two of our major theological colleges appear to have stopped teaching theology save as an examination subject. They are training their pupils to be effectively no more that social workers; whether or not their ordinands attend acts of worship appears to be a matter of indifference to the staff; as indeed does the sort of worship they attend. Once a week regularly a Methodist minister celebrates the Lord's Supper in Chapel and all there present are not only allowed but encouraged and expected to communicate.
Now all this Minimalism as I have called it might amount to no more than a bad attack of clerical laziness to which christians and christian priests in particular have always been prone.
But there is, in fact, another, more sinister feature about the present breed of Minimalism all this which gives the lie direct to its true nature.
The disturbing feature is this. Whilst demanding (and expecting) Anglican toleration to extend to their own particular beliefs (or the lack of them) such priests are at the same time most significantly intolerant of those whose beliefs are cast in a more traditional mould.. Apparently the one thing that should not be tolerated at any cost in their view is the straightforward down-to-earth Anglicanism which has been faithfully preached and practised by such diverse people as George Herbert; Jeremy Taylor, Samuel Seabury, Nicholas Ferrar; Westcott, Lightfoot, Hort and Gore in days gone by, and by Eric Mascall, Austin Farrer, C.S. Lewis, Michael Ramsey and John Moorman (to name but a few) in our own time.
Thus far I have been speaking only of the church of England. In ECUSA, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, things have gone much further down the line. On the one hand there is Jack Spong, Bishop of Newark, who said quite openly that credally, in matters of belief, so far as he is concerned anything goes. "Everything is up for grabs" was, I think his exact words. Many of their clergy (including bishops) are on their second or third marriage, in some cases with the former wife of one of their fellow clergy; and yet at the same time any priest who chooses to stand up and take a "strong line" knows that he is likely to be passed over should he wish to move. It will be interesting to see what happens at Phoenix, Arizona this month where the church's National Synod is meeting to debate and vote on such matters as whether Jesus Christ is God; whether justification is through faith in him alone or may be sought by other means; and whether Scripture is any longer the final test of what is saving belief.
Now all this, needless to say, didn't happen overnight. It first showed itself when bishops and clergy started in the 1960s to sit rather lightly to their belief and by contrast to display an unusually passionate interest in such matters as Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam.
But that was America and this is England. Beyond taking heed of their example I suggest we stay firmly anchored to the here-and-now.
Such attitudes as I have mentioned are always conducive to polarization, which in itself is a sort of craftness. Birds of a feather flock together even when those birds are wearing clerical attire. Such polarization leads in turn to a hardening of attitudes and this in its turn leads to priests being unthinkingly and unhealthily dismissive about each other's ministries.
And there of course we are back with the Wheat and Tares problem. Where does one draw the line between what is good and bad about all this? The sacred ministry was never intended to be something entirely static or fossilized. It has developed and should continue to do so in many different ways. It is only necessary to compare the ministry of, say, a country parson, a town incumbent, the vicar of a city church, a hospital or prison chaplain and a non-stipendiary to see that these are in themselves five legitimate developments of the one sacred ministry.
But that being said, it must be insisted that Murphy's Law still applies. Just as all the other means of grace are subject to corruption, any or all of these expressions of the sacred ministry are no exception to the rule.
I have dealt at some length with what Priestcraft, as I have called it, actually is; why it happens; and how it may be recognized. I want to spend the remaining time this afternoon talking about its prevention and cure. These are not two separate processes since, happily, if the cure is effective it will, when diligently applied also prevent an early recurrence of the disease.
1. The first step towards putting anything right is to recognize that something is wrong, and to get other people to see this too. A lone voice of protest cannot be heard amidst a general buzz of approval. And in an epidemic of priestcraft the very last people to recognize that they have caught the disease will be the clergy themselves. It is the layman who is in a position to see what is happening.
Many of you I am sure are familiar with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and will know the quite appalling state into which the late 14th century church had degenerated. But it was, for sure, laymen like Chaucer who were most aware of it. Not his hunting monk; his wanton and merry Friar, buying off the young girls he has seduced, shunning the company of the poor to whose relief his ministry should have been directed; the equally lecherous and inebriate Summoner and his friend the poofy Pardoner with his bagful of worthless relics.
None of these, I am sure, thought that there was anything seriously wrong with his ministry – a bit of excess here and there, perhaps, but then "times are like that"; or (to use a modern phrase) "the culture demands it".
But it was Chaucer, the educated layman who put his finger unerringly on their faults. This he did, not in the negative sense of being exclusively critical of what was wrong with the church of his day, although many things were scandalously amiss. On the contrary, he went 11 out of his way to approve and encourage what was right, for example in the case of the Poor Person of Religion.
2. The best possible prevention and remedy for priestcraft is an educated and critical laity.
Educated, not in the sense of having a deep knowledge of theological intricacies – most parish priests don't have that either nowadays – but of possessing a good solid working background of what Christians have always believed. Forget for a moment that there are and have always been divisions on certain matters; the overwhelming witness of Christians down the ages has been to the unique and ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ and his Incarnation; his birth of the Virgin Mary; his death on the cross and his resurrection and ascension; his unique power to save those who believe on him; and his continuing presence amongst us in the Scriptures, the Church and the Sacraments; and the Last Judgement before the throne of God where right and wrong will finally be shown up for what they really are.
Add to this groundwork of belief the broadest outline of Christian history and you will have an atmosphere in which priestcraft cannot possible flourish.
3. Such a background knowledge will immediately inform its owner whether what is being said, taught or practised is ringing true" or not: and when things stop ringing true or start sounding false is the time to start asking questions. Not petulantly or aggressively, but in a quiet, persistent way. For the odds are that the things which don't ring true to-day are the same old things that people were getting wrong in the time of Chaucer, the Reformation, the Arian heresy and so on back to the very beginning. Try reading St Paul's epistles or St John's letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation if you doubt this. They will demonstrate that the falsehoods of today are nothing new in the experience of the Church.
4. Such a background will not only indicate that something is wrong. It will also help to remind the person possessing it how time and again in the history of the 12 Church (and of course in the Old Testament where the idea of Remnant is a key concept) it was a small faithful remnant through whom the divine truth was safeguarded. There was a day when the "whole world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian"; and the saying Athanasius contra mundum was once uncomfortably near to being a fact. Yet somehow we, the Church, survived not only the Neronian persecution but 1,001 other hazards and misfortunes.
5. There is also another prophylactic against priestcraft which can go a long way towards helping any parish priest from indulging in it. I said at the beginning that priestcraft was a way of making oneself "feel important". The sort of kick that boys of all ages get from belonging to a gang or a club or a society is in itself a relatively harmless, I would say positively beneficial experience. But it is when such an attitude to "being on the inside" becomes a substitute for proper professional skill and dedication that it starts to smell bad.
After all, there is a wholly honourable use of the word craft to mean a skill, thoroughly learnt, and practised with integrity. In that sense Priestcraft is no more to be ashamed of than the stonecraft and woodcraft which went into the creation of our mediaeval cathedrals and churches.
Nothing can be more debilitating to a priest than the sense that he is carrying on this craft "on his own". To have one's efforts unappreciated, one's faults unchecked, to have one's shortcomings taken for granted ("Oh well, he'll never be any different") is a surefire way of making certain that we never do get any better. It's even the case that priests may actually become proud of their shortcomings. Be that as it may, we need to remember that it was precisely the sort of thing that people, priest and laity alike, were saying and thinking about the Church in Chaucer's day. This is the surest possible way for the good sort of craft to degenerate into the bad sort.
5. Much stress today is laid, rightly on Lay Participation" 13 . But this so often means no more than persuading laypeople to do all the jobs that the Vicar isn't particularly good at or interested in – which in some cases amounts to very nearly all of them.
What it should mean is sharing in that priestly ministry to which we have all been ordained through baptism, and which includes both the ministry of the sympathetic critic and the intelligent encourager.
Let me conclude with some words from the Ordinal of 1549. The Bishop says to those to be ordained priest the following words: "We exhort you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you have in remembrance into how high a dignity and how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish; to feed and provide for the Lord's family; to seek for Christ's sheep that are dispersed abroad in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever" If those words were only to be heeded by one and all then certainly Priestcraft, in the bad, Drydenesque, sense of the word would become, and remain, a thing of the past.
Return to Sermon Salad
Return to Trushare Home Page