In a way, I am glad I have not (or not yet) been ordained . Otherwise, I might be tempted not to address a persistent abuse and its feeble justifications. In his blog[1] an ex-Anglican priest argues why in the Roman Catholic Church only the “ordained clergy” (a pleonasm!) may preach at Mass. The subject itself is only the tip of an iceberg, but the blog reveals what many other ordained ministers in various denominations still feel and believe, but seldom speak about.

He starts by admitting that nowadays, priests are no longer the only ones with theological and pastoral training and that the quality of preaching by the Catholic clergy is not always “of the highest calibre”. Sympathetic, isn’t it? From his time in the Anglican Church, he remembers “lay readers” as a “great group of people”. The only thing he forgets to mention is that, nowadays, Readers are allowed to preach at Mass as well. He goes on to say that when there is no priest around, trained lay men and women can do “the other jobs” just fine and according to him they even should. This is, of course, the old “stop-gap” view of the ministry of the laity.

Sermons during Mass are different

The problem arises with sermons preached at Mass, which in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches is most of the time. Since “the whole Mass is a liturgical expression of the incarnation”, every aspect, including the sermon, must be “a celebration and recognition of the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord”. This mystery must come alive and be applied to the everyday needs of the faithful. Apparently, this is not possible when a priest performs the sacraments and a lay person takes care of the sermon. Why not?

The author’s low view of the laity becomes clear when he gives some examples of what the Mass should not be. This is apparently what Mass will degenerate into when a lay person preaches:

  • a pep rally for people to sing songs and hear a speech about how to be nicer people and make the world a better place;
  • a cheerful fellowship gathering where we all hold hands and try to raise one another’s self-esteem;
  • a political rally in which we learn about our particular ideology to change the world;
  • a religious lecture with bread and wine
  • an RCIA class with hymns

So, by the mere fact that a lay person preaches, the whole sacramental value of the Mass is lost, even if a priest takes care of the sacramental parts of the liturgy. It is interesting that a lay person should be more powerful than the priest in that he or she can instantly undo the work of the priest by collaborating with him! Christ said, “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters” (Mt. 23:8 NLT), but a number of priests feel they have to me more than teachers in order for Christ’s presence to be experienced. Ordinary teachers will not do, let alone “equal brothers and sisters”.

For now, let us overlook the fact that not all sermons preached by the clergy are about the incarnation, the passion or the resurrection. The texts that one should preach about vary from Sunday to Sunday. It would be very hard to preach about the exact same subjects every Sunday. Apparently, it is not necessary for the sermon to always comment on the sacrament, but when a trained lay person preaches on any subject, he will inevitably undermine the meaning of the Mass as “encapsulated in the words of the priest as he pours the water and the wine into the sacred chalice”. The Mass will turn from a mystery ultimately enabling the people to “share in Christ’s divinity” into a “utilitarian understanding of the Mass”. Whether transubstantiation will not take place under these conditions, or whether this is a case of de-substantiation or desecration, did not become clear.

Deeper motivation

At this point, the author exclaims “that’s it!” as if every necessary explanation has already been given. The deeper motivation, however, has not yet been offered. Here it comes: “At the Mass, the priest and the deacon stand in persona Christi… This is why they are ordained.” He goes on to say that representing Christ symbolically and liturgically as Priest and Servant is a kind of incarnation. “They are incarnating Christ the Teacher and Christ the Servant to the people”. Later he makes it a little more ambiguous. They “help” incarnate Christ in the world through their own person and through their own vocation.

Should we not all “help” incarnate Christ in the world through our own person and our own vocation, whether secular or sacred? As St. Paul wrote to all Christians in Philippa: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:” (Phil. 2:5-7). If this is not incarnational, I don’t know what is.

However, according to the author, “lay people cannot do that in the same way”. End of story. I take it he refers to them lacking the sacrament of ordination to really set them apart to dedicate themselves to this work of representing Christ. If this is the only obstacle, I see no reason why “lay” people who are properly qualified and willing, should not be ordained as deacons, so that they too can preach. Even without that, the very fact that they are serving (usually unpaid) would make them good symbols of Christ the Servant. The author would probably repeat, “not in the same way”. But what good is that, if he doesn’t explain the difference? Also, he doesn’t say a word about the reasons why the Anglican Church does allow certain lay ministers to preach, even in a Eucharistic service. Are they all just stupid?

The danger of pride

Actually, I don’t think this has anything to do with stupidity on either side, but with pride. Pride can make people blind to circular reasoning. Lay people cannot preach at Mass. Why not? Because they have not been ordained. Why have they not been ordained?  Because they are lay people. Could they not do a good job? Perhaps, but we don’t let them. We prefer to think of them as only capable of organising “pep rallies where people sing songs and hold hands”. Do the clergy always do a good job? No, but that is different. The argument is not much more than that, plus an over-reliance on and misuse of authority. The Roman Catholic catechism says that “one of the ways to objectively know that you have encountered the risen Lord is in the person of the priest”.

First of all, we may wonder how objective this can ever be. Secondly, “one of the ways” implies there are other “objective” ways to encounter Christ. Thirdly, not every encounter with a priest is an encounter with Christ. Priests are sinful human beings just like everybody else. In particular, when they elevate themselves above others, they show the very lack of humility which stops any incarnation of the spirit of Christ from taking place. Fourthly, the Eucharist itself, in its liturgical setting, is very powerful. It may temporarily change the symbolical and liturgical role of the priest, but does not magically change his mind. In that sense, the value of the sacrament, in so far as it can be determined by the person of the presider, would be limited by the mind-set of the presider as much as by any flaws of the one who might be preaching.

When certain representatives of the clergy, such as this author, insist that Mass is not just a “cheerful fellowship gathering where we … try to raise one another’s self-esteem”, they may be giving away what they are actually doing. Could they be raising just their own self-esteem at the expense of all others who, with them, should be celebrating the Eucharist? They should think very hard whether they are not turning what should rightfully be a “cheerful gathering” into a dismal one-way ritual which no longer reveals Christ “who humbled himself to share in our humanity”.

If even the most educated of lay members cannot understand what the clergy are doing, so that they would be able to meaningfully contribute to the liturgy in the form of a sermon, then I wonder if anyone understands what is supposed to happen and if even the priest himself understands. If we cannot share ministries, how are we ever to “come to share in Christ’s divinity”, which is said to be the purpose of the Eucharist? The idea that mysteries can be effective by just performing certain acts according to certain rules borders on heresy, for it is magical thinking. Maybe that is why the author does not mention the Holy Spirit anywhere. The Holy Spirit has been given to all true Christians and is the true channel of grace. The Spirit enables all of us to be like Christ. We are all called to become more and more Christ-like.

Fortunately, many priests have a more nuanced view of “in persona Christi”. See my article about the spirituality of pastors.[2] However, the consequences of improvements in our theology are not always immediately felt in Church regulations and in our assumptions and attitudes. Until such time, priests are free to continue to belittle those who are in a category conveniently called “laity”. Even those with good intentions will not always realise the destructive effects of these categories. Sociological experiments have shown that even the very act of dividing a group of people into two smaller groups, creates tensions between the two groups. There is a good reason why the New Testament insists in several places that there is only one head, Jesus Christ, and all others are like “members” of a body. “Each member belongs to one another” (Rom. 12:5). You may also want to read this treatise on the clergy-laity distinction.

Knocked off or falling off their pedestals

Introducing a recent discussion on clergy well-being in the Church of England Synod,[3] Canon Simon Butler, one of two chairs of the house of clergy, said parishioners’ expectations “set us on pedestals only to rejoice in knocking us off again, treating us as amateurs in a world of professionals, expecting a perfection in us that hides great hypocrisy in others“. I feel very sorry for the high expectations and the resulting stress, but we have just seen at least one important source of such high expectations. It is how the clergy position themselves.Then when clergy act in a less than professional, let alone Christ-like, way this may or may not feel like being knocked off your pedestal.

I am not sure, though, if parishioners always rejoice on such occasions. Usually it just makes everyone sad. You will never hear me say that the laity is morally superior to the clergy. That would indeed be hypocritical. However, I desperately wish for a large group of ordained ministers to stop openly or secretly describing themselves as better (or only) incarnations of Christ than the laity, when they clearly are not, at least not consistently. Let’s not get into discussions of ordinations which in retrospect were not valid. Let’s simply admit that ordination is the Church blessing a person to perform certain sacred tasks, based on trust.

When the Church’s trust sometimes turns out to have been spectacularly misplaced, we should also allow for the opposite situation. Currently, the Church often distrusts and blames the laity, for instance blaming them for putting the clergy on a pedestal. Instead, they could have trusted the abilities of the laity a bit more, teaching them where necessary. They could have been less eager to accept a pedestal. A more shared type of ministry would have been totally justifiable and would greatly have helped the proclamation of the gospel, avoiding many of the problems mainstream churches currently face.

Even so, the Church continues to underestimate these resources to its own detriment. Unfortunately, the interests of individuals do not always coincide with those of the Church as a whole. Some even make the transition to another denomination or jurisdiction where women cannot be ordained and cannot preach so that they themselves will have more status. If you believe that, in the Kingdom of God, status comes from rejecting others, and that this is how Christ wants to be incarnated, be my guest. However, you may first want to read Luke 14:11, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted”.