The conversation took place many years ago.

Neither the priest who made the statement nor the one about whom he spoke are still alive.

But, all these years later, the statement remains engraved in my brain. He was telling me how grateful he was that the Rector of the parish he had joined after retirement had allowed him to serve as an honourary assistant. He said,

I am so thankful he gave me an altar.

There is something sweet about the sentiment. This aging priest felt, as he should, the privilege of celebrating the mystery of the eucharist in the midst of a community of faith. I am touched by his devotion to the sacrament and the deep piety that informed his ministry.

In a day when it is tempting to view priesthood as some kind of middle management function within the bureaucracy of the church institution, we would do well to feel the challenge of this priest’s deep devotion to Christ expressed through his participation as Presider at the Lord’s Table.

But…. there is also something disturbing about this vision of priesthood.

Behind the expression “I am so thankful he gave me an altar,” lurks a dangerous underbelly. In addition to the devotion and piety expressed in this statement, I sense an unsettling possessiveness. I hear hints that priestly ministry is for the priest rather than for God’s people.

This attitude can lead to a place where the parish exists to meet the needs, wants and desires of the priest. The parish comes to be dominated by the individual predilections and preferences of the priest who seeks to impose on everyone his/her idiosyncratic version of “how things should/must be done.

As a priest I do not ever want to demand that anyone conform to my vision of how life or church ought to be.

The fact that I may be ordained to perform a particular function does not bestow upon me any greater hold on the truth than any other person. In fact, to the degree that I use my position to control, repress, or ignore anyone, I am deaf to the voice of Christ who speaks to me through every person of faith when I am willing to listen.

Parishes do NOT exist to serve the ordained person who is put into that parish to serve God and to serve the people God has called together to be the body of Christ in that particular community of faith.

In Galatians chapter 5, Paul offered a compelling vision of the ministry of Christ followed by a stern warning, when he wrote,

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

The function of the priest is to listen to the people and set them free to find their own deep, true, and authentic calling in ministry whatever that may look like in the unique circumstances of their particular lives.

The priesthood exists, not to control, manipulate, or demand, but to model openness, grace, acceptance, welcome, and love. Authentic priestly ministry starts when I lay down my personal needs, wants, demands and desires and open my heart to the presence of Christ’s Spirit at work in every person.

True priestly ministry is only possible when the priest starts  with deep respect for the people among whom he/she serves and genuine trust that God’s Spirit dwells within their lives every bit as much as in the life of the ordained person. The goal of priesthood is to encourage every person to listen carefully to God’s Spirit and to live responsively to the flow of love that is the force that sustains the universe.

The goal of the church is to be a community in which all people are encouraged to come to Christ,

a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (I Peter 2:4,5)

Church exists to nurture all people in their calling to “priesthood.” We are all priests and, to the degree that we neglect, devalue, or fail to honour the priesthood of anyone, we diminish the “spiritual house” into which we are being built.