This is my third reflection on Stephen Cottrell’s thought-provoking book, On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards (read the first post, and the second post). I have no doubt that this guide to Christian ministry by the new Archbishop of York will rapidly become a best-seller in Anglican circles. However, for me it also raises questions, particularly relating to the concept of ‘priesthood’ in the Church of England.
As we have already seen, for Anglicans the three key functions of a ‘priest’ in worship are absolving sin, presiding at the Lord’s Table, and blessing God’s people at the end of the service. It is this final function that I want to explore this week.
To quote Stephen Cottrell:
A priest is called to bless. This is probably the aspect of priestly ministry that is spoken about least, and yet as I grow older… I increasingly think of it as the most important and the most beautiful.
In that regard he notes a remark by the Revd John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead:
I became a minister not for any of the usual reasons, but because it gave me the opportunity to confer blessing.
Blessing others is not, of course, limited to ministers. When a person sneezes, we say ‘God bless you’, a custom which is said to go back to the sixth century when a sneeze was deemed to be a sign that a person was suffering from the plague. Tradition holds that Pope Gregory declared the phrase “God Bless You” should be uttered upon hearing another person sneeze, that this might call upon the mercies of God to intervene and bring healing from above! Indeed, if you go on Google, you will discover that more generally blessings have become something of a modern fad. In the words of one fridge magnet:
Today will never come again. Be a blessing. Be a friend. Encourage someone. Take time to care. Let your words heal not wound.
And in a church context, when as the people of God we share the Peace with others before Communion we are effectively blessing them as we wish them God’s very best – Shalom!
As for ministers, they can bless others through their preaching. In the words of Bruce Epperly, an American church consultant:
Throughout my process of preaching, I remember the community to whom I am preaching. I pray for their well-being and spiritual growth. I pray that I might speak a word of grace, healing and inspiration to them. I see them as God’s beloved and ask that God fill them with joy and grace. I continue this practice as I walk to the podium, take a few cleansing and centring breaths, and then, as I gaze upon the congregants, take one more deep breath and symbolically and prayerfully breathe God’s blessing upon them.
In particular ministers can bless others as they pray for the new-born and as they pray for the dying; as they pray for a young couple at their wedding and as they pray for an older couple at their golden wedding. There is indeed no limit to those who ministers might bless.
However, there is also the opportunity to bless God’s people at the end of a service. A very basic blessing is as follows: “The blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always”. In this regard, notice the use of the second person plural – as distinct from the third personal plural. According to Anglican theology, only a priest may declare God’s blessing in the second person. Although I have no difficulty For my own part, as a Baptist minister I have tended to ask God’s blessing upon ‘us all’ – because I am conscious that I too need the grace of God in my life. On the other hand, the French Reformed scholar, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, felt strongly that it was wrong for any minister not to act as a priest:
Those ministers who transform the proclamation into a wish expressed in the first person plural are not showing humility, but sabotaging the liturgy, depriving the faithful of part of the grace which God wills to give them. God has chosen minister to bring into effect the process of salvation, not to impair it.
To which I would say: ‘But where is the scriptural basis for this? And any rate, ultimately it is the Lord who blesses – and not his servants.’
In this regard C.F.D. (‘Charlie’) Moule, who was my first New Testament teacher, made the interesting observation in his book Christian Worship in the New Testament:
With regard to doxologies, blessings, ascriptions, greetings and the like…. the current habit of almost always using an optative or imperative in translation of such phrases seems to be contrary to the balance of New Testament usage…. Hebrew and Biblical Greek more often than not omit the verb altogether, but where a verb is supplied, it is as often or not in the indicative (e.g. 2 John 3: ‘Grace, mercy and peace from God the father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son will be with us in truth and love”)… This suggests that some element of confident affirmation has been lost from worship since New Testament times.
Here is indeed food for thought!