Priestly cults, Calvinist predestination and Churchly destiny

At last week’s meeting of the Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College we discussed the nature and meaning of ordination in the URC and whether it had a “priestly” character. Some participants felt that it did, that it made those who were ordained uniquely able to preside at or administer the two sacraments we recognise (Baptism and Eucharist) while others (me included) felt that it did not, that it only recognised that those ordained were called to serve in the Church in a particular way.

This was related to the longstanding tension in the URC between those (from the Churches of Christ and some Congregationalists ) who would extend presidency beyond the ordained and those (especially from the Presbyterian tradition) who would not. The connection with “priesthood” is clear. The “priestly” dimension of Church life is related to “cult” and sacrifice and finds its inspiration more in the Old Testament than in the new.

The idea that there are special rites and rituals that form a significant part of the identity and life of the church and that special people who have a kind of holiness that others don’t is closely bound up with the sacraments and with the priesthood.

There is a tradition in the churches of the reformation of talking about the “priesthood of all believers” and this is an idea that fascinates me. If the Church itself is a priestly order (and I think it is) then what is the context for its priesthood?

The Jerusalem Temple of Israel was part of the life of Israel as a nation. The priests served as mediators between the People as a whole and God. So how can the Church have a priestly mediating role? Does it only mediate its own relationship to God?

I don’t think so. The Church serves the world by being the “place” where God and world meet in a self-conscious way.

This isn’t to suggest that God is absent from the rest of the world, only that the nature of the encounter in the Church is different, is explicit and directly relational.

The Church (meaning the community of people called by God into this particular mode of service) isn’t primarily about serving the spiritual needs  those who belong to it (although this is  necessary if it is to enable them to participate in its work). Rather it serves God (and the world) by being where God and world come together in conversation and embrace.

This sense of the role of God’s People is present in some passages of the Old Testament, where Israel’s role of being God’s representatives to the whole world and the world’s representatives to God is expressed.

My feeling is that the Church needs to recover and examine this particular aspect of its calling above all others at this moment. It is profoundly liberating for the Church because it can remove our anxieties about numbers, relevance and influence. We don’t have to be big, we don’t need to persuade those outside our community to believe what we do or do what we think is right.

Our mission is rather to faithfully listen to what God has to say to us, to accept God’s loving embrace of us, to speak to God in prayer on behalf of all humanity and above all to love and praise God. Part of this is to remember and proclaim the promise of salvation, whatever that ultimately may mean, but we should not imagine that this promise is conditional on anything we (the Church) might do or might leave undone. This is the inner truth of the old doctrine of predestination that came to be associated with the name of Calvin.

Our final destiny, our salvation, is in God’s hands, not in ours. For this we should be thankful.


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