I have just read with great profit On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers and Sentinels (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2020. 177pp: £12.99) by Stephen Cottrell, who until recently was the Bishop of Chelmsford and is now the incoming Archbishop of York. Based on addresses given to ordinands on the night before their ordination, I found it challenging, insightful, and thought-provoking; and so I intend to write a series of reflections based on this guide to ministry.
However, although I count Stephen Cottrell as a friend, theologically he and I are very different. We both have a passion for the Gospel, but our understanding of church is different – not surprisingly, for he is an Anglican and I am a Baptist; furthermore, if we were to use ‘labels’ (which I tend to dislike) he is a ‘liberal Catholic’ and I am an Evangelical. This means that even although I happily acknowledge that this guide to ‘ministry’ (a word which Stephen does not like, since ministry is the task of the whole church) is full of good things, I find myself in disagreement with the book’s basic premise. From my perspective the term ‘priesthood’ is misleading and unhelpful for what others would call either ‘the ministry of word and sacrament’ or ‘leadership’ in God’s church.
I know that in the Church of England historically the word ‘priest’ is a contraction of the word ‘presbyter’ (‘elder’), but theologically today it has developed ‘priestly’ overtones. As a result, in the Church of England nobody but a ‘priest’ may pronounce absolution of sin, may preside at the Lord’s Table, and may bless God’s people. I accept that when the Apostle Peter wrote of the church as ‘a holy priesthood’ (1 Pet 2.5,9), he was using a corporate rather than speaking of individuals as priests and that how that church’s priestly calling is expressed will vary, in the sense that there are what the Apostle Paul termed ‘varieties’ of ‘gifts’, ‘services’, and ‘activities’ (1 Cor 12.4-6) – nonetheless the implication is that all God’s people have equal standing before God. There is only “one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2.5). As Stephen Cottrell recognises the word priest (hiereus) is not found used of church leaders in the New Testament. The only New Testament reference to “priestly service” (Rom 15.16) refers to preaching: Paul likened his preaching role to that of a priest presiding over offerings presented to God, which consist of Gentile lives surrendered to God.
In terms of absolution, Stephen Cottrell with the ministry of ‘priests’ in mind writes: “On the first night of Easter Jesus gave authority to his disciples to continue his ministry in the world. He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them’ (John 20.22-23). This authority is sometimes referred to as the power of the keys. The keys of heaven, the keys of forgiveness, are entrusted to us. It is not that we have any power to open the gates of heaven, or any power, to forgive sins, but we are given the authority to speak and act in the name of Jesus himself, who does.” But, as the context of John 20 makes clear, this authority is given to the disciples not as leaders of the church, but as representatives of the church. Immediately before this, Jesus had said: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20.21). This commission, like all the other forms of the Jesus’ final commission in the other Gospels (Matt 28.19; Mark 16.15; Luke 24.47), is directed to the church and not to its leaders. It is the task of the whole church to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24.47). It is on the basis of their response to the Gospel that people are either forgiven or not forgiven. In the words of John 3.18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God”. John 20.23 does not have in mind a priest praying for God to “have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in eternal life”. Our forgiveness is not dependent upon a priest’s prayer but upon our response in penitence and in faith.
Nowhere in the life of the early church as depicted in the Acts or in the Letters do we read of anybody giving of absolution to sinners. As for the reference to the “keys of the kingdom” given to Peter (Matt 16.19: see 18.18) they relate to knowledge (Luke 11.52; Matt 23.23) enabling others to enter the kingdom. Peter’s power to “bind” and “loose” sins involved the admission or exclusion of people from the kingdom of God. This power was exercised in Peter’s preaching: it was, for instance, as a result of his preaching that on the day of Pentecost over 3000 people were admitted to the kingdom (Acts 2.41), and that a little later on, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends were accepted into the kingdom too (Acts 10.47-48).
Stephen Cottrell tells of a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, who said to him “that there was one thing that he knew many of his patients needed that he didn’t have the means or authority to provide. ’What’s that?’ I asked him. ‘Forgiveness’ he replied. ‘That is what so many of the people I serve need. They can’t forgive themselves. They don’t know that they can be loved, accepted and forgiven. We can offer the first two, but not the third.” However, that need – which is present not just in damaged and broken young people, but in many of today’s worshippers – does not require a prayer for absolution, but instead a declaration that Jesus forgives all who repent and put their trust in him. That assurance is not dependent upon a priest but rather upon the Word of God. So, when I lead God’s people in a prayer for forgiveness, I normally end with an ‘assurance’ of God’s pardon taken from the Scriptures. For example,, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9) Or: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 1 Tim 1.15) – to which can be added ‘to forgive us in our failure, to accept us as we are, to set us free from evil’s power’.
The role of leaders in God’s church today is to preach the good news of a Saviour who delights to forgive all who come to him in penitence and faith. In the words of the great Evangelical Anglican John Stott:
“The authority to ‘forgive’ and ‘not forgive’ sins, which the risen Christ gave to his disciples, was ministerial, not magisterial. It was not an authority to forgive, but to preach forgiveness, to proclaim…. both the promises and the warnings of the gospel – the promise of salvation to the believer, the warning of judgment to the unbeliever.”
– Confess Your Sins