Exploring Priesthood – article from The Friend


“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation and a people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the triumphs of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.  1 Peter 2:9 (NEB).

“When early Friends affirmed the priesthood of all believers it was seen as an abolition of the clergy; in fact it is an abolition of the laity.  All members are part of the clergy and have the clergy’s responsibility for the maintenance of the meeting as a community”.  (QF&P 11:1).

Early in 2017 I was encouraged by a Friend to apply for an Eva Koch scholarship.  I had been wrestling for some time with trying to understand the essential nature of Priesthood – as distinct from its usual manifestation as a job as vicar of a parish, minister of a church or chaplain to an institution. More, since coming to Quakers, I was concerned to know better what we mean by the “Priesthood of All Believers”.

The quotation from Quaker Faith and Practice (above) is a challenging one.  Many Friends take a negative view that Quakers just don’t have, and don’t need, priests – they are against the whole notion of priesthood as medieval and superseded.  Our passage is altogether more positive: we are all priests and we all share in priestly responsibility for our Meeting: its spiritual health and for one another within it and perhaps more particularly for the world around us.

My challenge was to explore what the priesthood of all Members might learn from the practice of ordained priesthood in other churches – and vice versa: what Quaker experience of  mutual priesthood might be able to offer to a fuller understanding of ordination to the wider church.  What can we offer to, and learn from, one another?  This is not just an academic exercise: I realise that considering these questions will take us beyond our comfort zones.

Quakers’ opposition to the notion of Priesthood goes back to our earliest days and to George Fox himself.  Born in 1624 he left home at 19, an unhappy young man seeking religious truth.  The clergy he consulted offered him little comfort or inspiration.  Indeed these were troubled times for everyone.  The Reformation under Henry VIII had been partial and political and was followed by violent swings between Catholicism and Protestantism under succeeding monarchs.  Literally thousands had suffered and died in the process.

A few years into George Fox’s quest even the King was publicly executed.  Civil War was in the air.  Puritanism was in the ascendant and there were many conflicting groups.  Fox recorded: “But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also….for I saw there was none there that could speak to my condition”.  He rejected not only the priests of the historic churches but also the ministers of newer sects.  Fox is anguished by this – and from his journal we can see that that is not too strong a word – anguished until he discovers for himself that he can have a direct experience of The Spirit: The Spirit communing with his spirit without the need for human intervention.

The verse from St. Peter’s first letter (quoted above) comes from the earliest days of Christianity – written around AD 63 by (or in the name of) the man described by Jesus as “The Rock” – the foundation of The Church.  Peter calls his readers “a royal priesthood”:  the members of that early Christian community are themselves its priests.  We can see Fox’s insight about priesthood harking back to this first principle.  What is more that membership of the community of faith, that priesthood, is based upon direct personal experience of The Spirit.  No need then for an intermediary professional priesthood with sermons and sacraments (and church taxes!) one might suppose.

We too must guard against a negative view.  Fox himself preached and it wasn’t long before preachers – men and women – were sent off around the country evangelising, calling people to faith, setting up local meetings and establishing many of the structures and procedures which Quakers still use today.  They began a long Quaker tradition of “travelling in the ministry” – with a “note” to validate their preaching and to distinguish them from common vagrants.  They may not have been paid but it was expected that they would be welcomed and supported.  So ministry, even if not designated “priesthood”, was established early in Quaker history which continues to this day.

In our largely silent worship we hold ourselves in readiness to minister – by which we mean we are open to speak aloud if so led by the Spirit.  Some say (perhaps out of some misplaced modesty) “Oh! I would never speak in the Meeting” and attempts to accommodate this have seen the emergence of “after-words” or books for writing further thoughts.  But ideally we are all priests and the Spirit should be free to speak through any of us.  Now we have this warning from Pope Francis: “Where there is no prophecy among the people, clericalism fills the void” (16.12.13).

And it is this clericalism that so stuck in the gullet of Fox and his followers: seeing priesthood as a status above others; dominating through a rigid “hierarchy” (the word means priestly rule); exacting payment through tithes; reserving the mediating of the Spirit through themselves; claiming the moral high ground.

So, avoiding clericalism, what should our common priesthood look like?  Certainly being willing to speak in the Meeting if The Spirit so moves – but more: sharing pastoral care for one another – do we really know each other? Have we a readiness to share ourselves, our insights, our fears, our skills, our griefs, our joys? and facilitating others in doing likewise; sharing the gifts of encouragement.