So, what is a priest?”

This was the bald question put to me at the close of a retreat I had arranged to mark the 50th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood of the Church of England. I stumbled for a clear response then, have thought about it repeatedly since and want now to attempt a fuller answer. I have been a priest for more than half a century and I will continue to be so until my death, I guess.

To start at my own priesthood’s beginning: I count my “calling” from a Sunday afternoon at about the age of 14. I had been confirmed by Cuthbert Bardsley, Bishop of Croydon a couple of years previously and with youthful enthusiasm had been a regular churchgoer and communicant ever since. This was hardly surprising as my parents, being committed churchgoers themselves, had taken me to church every Sunday from my birth.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me1’.” This classic vocational quotation seemed to fit my situation exactly. As I understood it then, this passage pictures God sitting outside of this world and its affairs, on his throne “high and lifted up”. I probably, even then, thought of this as something of a metaphor – but if God was “up there,” then I would be “down here.” I believed that God did indeed have something for me to do “down here” – somehow to speak for him, to represent him in this world; regularly to celebrate the sacraments and to lead his people in their worship. Yes, certainly: “Send me”.

At the same time Isaiah speaks of his unworthiness for this great calling. This too resonated with my new-found sense of sinfulness and gave the whole experience a heightened reality. This was exactly where I was – and here, in this chapter of Isaiah – was an assurance of forgiveness and of my being equipped by God for this important calling. My unworthiness, my forgiveness, my calling, God’s preparing me for the task were all part-and-parcel of my experience that Sunday afternoon: a moment of clarity that I recall all these years later. If I now want radically to re-shape it, I certainly don’t want to deny it.

Finally, aged 19, my university place confirmed, I was put forward for a Selection Conference at which I was “Approved” and my training could begin. Two years of National Service and five years of full-time study brought me to a Sunday morning at St. Pauls Cathedral and my ordination service. The “laying on” of the bishop’s hands assured me of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to empower my ministry and of my place in the succession of priests right back to the earliest apostles. I went straight to be assistant curate in my first post. So began my 18 years of parish ministry/57 years of priesthood.

Is that then what is meant by priesthood? Is that what a Priest is? : a professional liturgical and pastoral functionary with responsibility for a church, a Parish Priest, a Vicar, a Minister, a Padre? If he or she ceases in that role does the priesthood cease too? At least as far as the Episcopal churches are concerned, I think not! Now, more than 50 years into this priesthood – and many of those years not involved in parish ministry – I find many challenges to the simplistic equation of priest = vicar.


In this essay we cast the net wider (wider than the present time, wider than our own familiar Christian denominations) in an attempt to find the essential priest.

Many have been the changes to the patterns of priesthood in the second half of the twentieth century. I opened this essay on a personal note, drawing on my own experience. I want now to open out the subject to wider considerations as we explore the essential nature of priesthood. No longer will it satisfy just to consider the practice of priesthood in one Christian denomination, in one century, in one country. In any case – the models we knew in the earlier part of the twentieth century were no more time honoured in their detail than what followed from the ecclesiastical reforms of the nineteenth century. Expressions of priesthood had been different again in the eighteenth century as also in the seventeenth (a formative period to which we will return later in this essay). The practice of priesthood has evolved over time and will – must – continue to do so if it is to have any chance of survival and relevance in the future.

The great missionary endeavour of the 19th century meant that we exported European models of Christianity to the respective overseas empires of Germany, France, Great Britain, Spain, etc. In far flung countries can still be found the old western patterns: architectural, social and administrative structures and, of course denominational differences – and their varied theologies and practices of priesthood. Here are gothic revival churches and cathedrals, diocesan offices and synods, district circuits and presiding ministers – with theologies and liturgies to match, often conservative in nature and so continuing our unhappy divisions world-wide.

Back in the Church of England (as in other denominations) the last half-century has seen the number of stipendiary parish clergy halved, women have been admitted to ministry at all levels, parishes have been combined and are served by team or group ministries. More priests now follow careers in other fields: teachers, civil servants, therapists, drivers, nurses. Some of these assist in team ministries on a part-time basis; others are financially self-supporting in the service they offer within the churches. Specialist or sector ministers are to be found in chaplaincies, hospitals or the military, part of the establishment of those institutions, often paid by them rather than by the churches.

It is here that we can most clearly see that priesthood is not defined just by what goes on in church. Most of those clergy employed in these other spheres will be asked at some point to bless a colleague’s new house, baptise a baby, take a family funeral – but it is not in doing these things that their priesthood is to be seen but in the performance of their everyday life and work. An ordained taxi driver, for example, needs first and foremost to be a good, safe driver! Somehow that daily work needs to be acknowledged and valued in church and if so for the priest so also for all. The priest in secular employment should be an exemplar for all: no longer should our mundane (= out in the world) lives be left outside at the church door – but brought in, shared, acknowledged, valued – sanctified.

Understanding this last point is crucial to a fuller understanding of the faith, the spiritual life, the ministry, the service of us all. And it is mutual: it’s not something that is offered by special, or especially good, people to others who are somehow lesser or more needy mortals. This brings us to the matter of the “Priesthood of all Believers” (as Quakers put it) or the “Priesthood of the Faithful” (as Roman Catholics might say). The ordained priest who works in an office, school or factory shows something of what it is to be a member of a community of faith in that work-a-day setting.

Here is a committed Christian and faithful church attender. He works day by day as a highly regarded hospital specialist: literally he has his patients’ lives in his hands on a daily basis. He is also an ordained priest, assisting as and when he can is his local team ministry. He speaks with frustration of the way in which that church is more interested in whether it is his turn on the rota to preach or to read on a Sunday than in supporting him in the life and death decisions he must make in his surgery through the week. So among the faithful in our own priesthoods: it is not just what ministry we offer at church or chapel or in our meeting: our priesthood is also – perhaps particularly – worked out in our daily lives and among our colleagues. “The World is our Cloister” is the telling title of a book by Jennifer Kavanagh2. It is out in the world that we work out our spirituality, discover the implications of our faith and wrestle with the practical applications of our beliefs and testimonies.


When early Friends (Quakers) 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”.3

Of course Quakers are not the only Christian community to hold this view but to understand its origin and meaning for them we need to turn back (as promised above) to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When Henry VIIIth declared the independence of the English church from the authority of the Pope and himself to be its head he was acting more politically than religiously. He was concerned about the succession of the monarchy – more particularly of the House of Tudor; and even more perhaps for the security of the country. While he might well have been encouraged in this by the reformation of churches in Europe signs are that he was not wanting radically to change Christian Catholic theology – in which he was well versed: indeed the Pope had only recently given him the title of “Defender of the Faith” – a title English monarchs have retained ever since, though our next king might change this subtly to Defender of Faiths.

Part of Henry’s anglicising of the church included bringing in the use of the English language in the Bible and in worship. Henry otherwise stood aside from the great continental theological reforming movements. He nationalised or stripped the churches under his authority of their wealth (particularly in the case of the monasteries whose allegiance might still be to Rome) which he used for the defence of the realm and to reinforce his own authority through nobility who were loyal to him.

After Henry’s death and the untimely death of his only son there followed a century of uncertainty: the succession of the throne itself was not clear and pressure from the catholic church of Rome on one side and from the European protestant parties on the other was constant. Many thousands suffered or were killed, tortured or were martyred in the process.

It was against this wider context in 1643, at the age of 19, that the young George Fox set out from his home in Leicestershire, full of doubts and questions and seeking the truth.

These were days of bitter civil war. Is this what God wanted – that men should fight and kill in his name? Children left fatherless and harvests laid waste? Fox, like many others, was in despair. He travelled far and wide looking for answers, searching for religious and spiritual truth and for a new equitable politics giving a more just and equal society. The clergy of the established church that he consulted were unable to help him, no more were the ministers of the newer sects – the puritans. He rejected them both. The former represented a medaeval hierarchical and privileged structure, battening on poorer working folk through the system of tithes, taxes on land and produce, the latter preached conflicting, more extreme continental theologies.

But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also….for I saw that there was none that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap with joy.”4

We need not concern ourselves here as to where, when and how this revelation or realisation came to Fox. His dilemmas and doubts were answered and the course of his life was changed. He himself did a great deal of preaching – in churches, in private homes, in the open air: everywhere he found a great many people ready – hungry – to share in his discovery. He had found in his own experience (“experimentally” was his word for this) that his own spirit could communicate directly with The Spirit and that if this was true for himself it could also be true for others. No need for intermediaries. No need for priests – who he dubbed “hirelings” (whose own the sheep are not) who ministered for money their churches were dismissed as “steeple houses”. This seemed to be the fulfilment of the prophecy: “And it shall be in the last days that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams”.5 As noted above it is not so much that clergy were abolished among Quakers but that priestly ministry was shared between them: all members are equally responsible to one another (and to the world around) for the practice of priesthood. This can be thought of as a mutual priesthood. Priesthood resides within the household, the community of faith.


First must come a sense of vocation – a calling. This is not just the bright idea of the individual or over-persuasion by friends and family. It arises outside of one’s self, often experienced as a sort of pressure or a conviction. Many resist it, perhaps over many years. Or it gets hidden by other concerns, interests or commitments in life. Quite common is a feeling that the person being called feels unworthy or unsuitable in him- or her- self.

The whole process of calling to priesthood has become so much more complicated by its over-association with social status or educational achievement or with those assumptions about what is involved – or simply with the tasks that so many priests do within a church: being in charge, being responsible for everything, appearing as a public figure, always being upfront. I have tried to address some of this in the opening section above.

The other side of calling is acceptance or refusal both by the individual and also by the institution – one can just walk away from it: “It’s not for me”, “Later, later, don’t bother me now”, “My friends wouldn’t understand”. Refusal by the institution is often expressed as rules or conditions: “we only accept men”, “we don’t accept gay people,” etc for priesthood.

How does this principle of vocation operate in those communities where all members are counted as priests? Quaker practice answers this question quite clearly: there is a recognised path to membership. Anyone can attend worship, join in with activities and even take part in business meetings. Regular such attendance will inevitably begin to build acquaintance and the question of membership will be raised – no pressure is applied and many “attend” for years. The desire for membership arises from the attender and this represents the first stage of vocation (as described above). Once this is indicated to the Meeting the second stage begins: visitors are chosen for a discussion with the applicant. A report of the meeting or meetings is agreed between applicant and visitors. This is reviewed at an area meeting and, if affirmed, Membership begins. What is not always made as clear at this stage as it might be is that this admission to membership of the Society of Friends is also the admission to the Priesthood of all Believers.

So long as this is unacknowledged, this notion of mutual priesthood remains ill-defined for many Quakers as in other churches that practice it. Certainly it is recognised that any Member (or indeed Attender) may minister and all are encouraged to do so: that is to say speak, pray or sing aloud during worship. But this ministry is not the top and bottom of priesthood – there are many other aspects of which that should be sought and practiced in our priestly ministry. Some of these are delegated to individual members through a process of discernment by a Nominations Committee. One might be called to act as clerk to the meeting or to one of its sub-groups; another to be an elder or an overseer. Such positions are not honorific and are for a specified period of time. Training is given for these ministries at the expense of the Meeting. Elders facilitate the spiritual life of the meeting and overseers the pastoral care. Each meeting has a library and the members appointed to its care can be thought of as encouraging the process of study and research both individual and in reading groups for example.

In this case of churches with shared or mutual priesthood (and I have had in mind especially how this is practiced among Quakers – though there are many other churches which hold to this view) it is clear that priesthood arises from and belongs to, the membership at large. In secular or sociological terms this might be described as a democratic or mutual model of priesthood.

In churches that have a specifically ordained priesthood with defined areas of its practice – as parishes or particular churches or other institutions – the priesthood is bestowed from a higher authority. At the induction of a priest to a parish other senior clergy are present (an Area Dean, an Archdeacon, a Bishop) bringing with them legal documents and oaths to be sworn and signed. This is clearly a hierarchical structure (however benignly practiced!).

Democratic or hierarchical, we live in a mixed economy. Generally the spirit of the age favours the former – yet even in that model of church we employ staff and maintain headquarters offices (are those who work there “hirelings”?). We turn to them for guidance and their experience gives them a sort of authority and often they are called upon to speak on behalf of the rest of us. As for the hierarchical churches economic considerations and the pressures of public opinion demand modifications. Lay members take increasing responsibilities and decisions are taken influenced by opinions of members at large; votes are taken and historic practice is changed – as in the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England.

A distinctive mark of ordained priesthood is the celebration and administration of sacraments – especially the Eucharist. They are efficacious outward signs of inner spiritual meaning commemorating historic events in the life of Jesus Christ. Generally only an ordained priest may perform these significant and prophetic actions. Some would go so far as to say that without sacraments there can be no effective priesthood. However, Baptism may be performed by lay people in extreme situations (eg. when death is imminent) and Holy Communion may be distributed by duly authorised lay assistants using pre-consecrated bread and wine. These exceptions have developed largely under pressure of the shortage of priests.

Those churches that hold to the priesthood of all believers regard all things as sacred – none more so than any others, so also none less. The challenge of this position is to find in the physical the inner spiritual content – to seek the eternal in the temporal – to find in everyone their full potential. “Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life”.Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways….?”.6


My use of the words hierarchical and democratic are descriptive of the two prevailing models of priesthood. They are sociological terms but they are probably heard as judgmental by some of my readers. Those who practice or follow either model will have suspicions about the other. It is however my contention that we have much to learn from one another. No longer is the laity’s involvement in the hierarchical church to be thought of in terms of “helping the vicar” – an expedient in the light of declining numbers of ordained clergy. Both sides will need to work at this. Here is a church in a large team where lay members take their place on the rota for leading prayers at the Eucharist (hurrah! – but the vicar still writes out the prayers for the lay members to read!!).

On the other hand those churches which hold to the Priesthood of All Believers will need to bring the practice of priesthood more into focus as an obligation laid upon all members and each member will be helped in this if we can see our contributions to the life of the Meeting as being a positive expression of our priesthood. Ministry is not just about speaking in a meeting for worship and we don’t just delegate our other priest-like responsibilities to the various chosen office holders.

It is clear that we have much to share with, and much to learn from, one another as Christian communities about priesthood. We are hampered in this by our “unhappy divisions” as separated churches and I see little interest in either of the churches I know well towards ecumenism. How can we share with one another if we know so little about each other, our beliefs or our practices? George Fox’s antipathy to “hireling priests” and their “steeple houses” was born of his time – we don’t need to continue that division now. On the other hand we are assisted in this shared understanding of priesthood by a realisation that the true locus for our ministry is out in the world where we live and work.

Priesthood is less about what we do – or don’t do – in the church it’s more about who we are, about what motivates us in the world. Priestly formation is a continuing process by which our priesthood increasingly becomes an essential part of our identities. This formation is not something we have to work up from inside ourselves with a great effort of will-power – it’s more about what inspires us, what we breathe in from outside of ourselves, the promised gift of the Spirit. It’s how we are with ourselves and how we are with other people in the world. It’s less about position or status in the church – still less about power over others – more about what we are able to facilitate with everyone around us. Its validation is that it is shared with the whole people of God.


1 Isaiah 6:8

2 Jennifer Kavanagh The World is our Cloister, A guide to the modern religious life. O Books 2007. Elsewhere reporting on the ordination of inter-faith ministers she writes, “Most importantly, it was twice emphasised that we are all priests…..what does priesthood mean for us? ….. Maybe we need to reawaken our priestly consciousness.”

3 Quaker Faith and Practice 11:01

4 Fox’s Journal (1952 ed.) quoted in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies OUP 2013 (Eds Stephen Angell and Pink Dandelion).

5 Acts 2:17ff citing Joel 2:28ff.

6 Quaker Advices and Queries: 7 and 17


Copyright: Quaker Quarterly and reproduced here with permission.