How does our theology of priesthood shape the practical task?

Fr. Simon Rundell, 4th May 2021, College of the Resurrection

Thank you for taking the short straw and listening to my paper. My name is Fr Simon Rundell. As this [morning/afternoon] I am talking about how our theology of priesthood shapes the practical task, I suppose you should understand where I am coming from to this point:

I was formed here at the College, many, many years ago; I arrived with two small children and left with three – I still have to work out how that happened, but I often blame the Sherry.

I served my Title at the anglocatholic gem that is Holy Spirit, Southsea and served for 7 years in Gosport and now 9 at the Parishes of Bickleigh & Shaugh Prior; a mixture of estates and rural ministry in four churches on the edge of Plymouth running out to Dartmoor.

Those three small children are all now adults and living independently, so let me reassure you, that they managed to survive life as College children, Vicarage Teenagers and haven’t been too damaged by the experience, so parents here, be assured, it will work out, I assure you…

How does our theology of priesthood shape the practical task?

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16 A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’[1]

     John 21:15-16, NRSV

So there we have it: Love Jesus, love his people.

Five words which manage to convey so much that it needs an entire theological discipline: pastoral or practical theology to explore it. But ‘loving the people of God’ is a complex and difficult calling, so how is this practical theology informed by our understanding of what it is to be a Priest?  

Anglican Ecclesiology and Theology is often most clearly expressed in Liturgy, and so the main text of this paper will be the Ordinal – the ordination service; and most specifically the Bishop’s words which set out the vision of Diaconal and Priestly ministry and his prayers after hands are laid and the Holy Spirit invoked.

In the book If you meet George Herbert on the road: Kill Him[2] the author recounts how not to successfully develop a Theology of Priesthood.  He tells of their how theological college stressed the need for a proper Job Description/Working Agreement and cites this noble piece of supervision between a TI and freshly minted Deacon…

More than a Job Description, far deeper than a Working Agreement, there must be an active and ongoing theology of Priesthood active working inside all who are preparing for, and all who are engaged in the service of God’s people. Not just those who are Priests, or being formed for it, although that is vital, but also those who are not.

It is a Theology which is worked out at the ecclesial level in Ordinals and academic or spiritual writing, but more importantly it is something which we ourselves, as Reflective Practitioners need to prayerfully develop and which will, I sincerely hope, be the work of a lifetime; for your growth as a Priest is never-ending, always developing until we are gathered ourselves to God or Christ returns in glory.

This is because without theological reflection on the call to, the role of, the burden and the immense privilege that is Priesthood, what are we actually doing? Without it, we are reduced to mere Social Work in a Cassock. And we know it’s much more than that.

We, unlike Sir Humphrey Appleby, should not be sceptical of contextual pastoral theology:

(It might not be as exciting as Patristics, but it is something that will be applied every single day in your life, work and witness as a Priest)

Pastoral Theology, often also called Practical Theology[3] is the active consideration of the application of theology in context. It is much more than simply the praxis – the doing as distinguished from the thinking[4]. It encompasses the theory and practice of Mission, which is both close to my own heart and fills my priestly life.

David Tracy[5] defines it as

 ‘… the mutually critical correlation of the interpreted theory and praxis of the Christian faith and the interpreted theory and praxis of the contemporary situation.’

So the ‘doing’ cannot be separated from the ‘thinking’. And the thinking has to happen in the context of the situation in which you minister. All ministry contexts are different, all congregations and mission fields are different; and most importantly because Ministry is a partnership it requires negotiation, collaboration and generosity.

The ‘doing’ is a result of the ‘being’ about which Practical Theology does the ‘thinking’.

You can quickly see how this interdependent process cycles, and reminds us of the one of the many models of the Pastoral Cycle. This Pastoral Spiral is one such that Laurie Green describes[6]

I am sure you will, as part of your preparation to reach this point of your theological formation have been required to read a number of significant works reflecting on the Priesthood, and these will again be revisited as I speak, but I want, this afternoon, to point to beyond those and to encourage reflection on the wonderful calling that is to be ordained as a Priest in God’s Church, for that is what your orders will say, not to be a Priest in the Church of England, (or even perhaps the Church in Wales, I don’t know who is here today!) but to be a Priest in the Church of God.

A Theology of Priesthood is essential because the Office and Work of a Priest – the Practical Task before us is, as I have already alluded to, not one of doing but of being. All the activities of daily priestly life are as a result of that ontological change which occurs as hands are placed upon you (the pressure of which, whilst not physically heavy, feels enormous because of your appreciation of what it signifies): the Holy Spirit called down and the heady Oil of Chrism placed on the hands which – as a Romanian Orthodox Priest once told me – have the privilege of holding God before your people.

But this cannot exist in isolation, for to thoroughly explore a Theology of Priesthood, we need to have a fully developed theology of Episcopacy, of the Diaconate – most significantly for that is what faces you more urgently. Foundational to all that, it is part of a theology of being a Christian. All of these are not substitutes for one another, nor in reality a hierarchy, but each is a separate calling by God, in a right and proper Order – an arrangement of interlinked callings which the Church historical has borne witness to. This is why these services are called the Ordinal, and the process Ordination because it sets the Church in a right Order[7]

This Order is part of the Apostolic Succession which we usually only consider as applying to Bishops, and yet Jesus said to both the 12 and to the 72 and hence to all those called to minister:

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me”[8]

And Deacons, Priests and Bishops, indeed the whole people of God are part of that procession of Saints who have heard, believed and shared the Good News of Jesus.

So we must really consider all of them as part of a single concept: a Theology of Holy Order

When I was made Deacon, in Portsmouth Cathedral, 20 years ago this July, and a year later ordained Priest in my Title Parish I was advised to print out a piece of text from the Ordinal and to keep it in my Office Book, to read it each Petertide (or perhaps Michelmas for you) and reflect each year as they come round. I will commend that to you – your own personal Ministerial Development Review, just between you and God. On the anniversary of your own Ordinations.

The Deacon’s Ordinal lays out the nature of that being:

But one of the things that I want to reflect on is these values – look at them closely – are they not what every Christian is called to?

Indeed it is, but here is a difference: the Deacon, diakonos is the same role as one who waited tables: a specific role set apart. It does not deny the involvement of the people of God, it does not disempower them, but it enables some to be specifically released from other modes of being in order to

  • Bring to the Church the needs and hopes of the People
  • Search out the poor and weak, the sick, and the lonely
  • Speak out for those who are oppressed and powerless
  • Reach into the forgotten corners of the world that the love of God (which was never absent) might be made visible

These are not so much a job description or working agreement, but to use modern management jargon, a person specification. It seeks values and aspirations and is therefore a product of the inner growth of an individual rather than the ticking of a series of competencies. Steven Cottrell in last year’s collection of ordination addresses reminds us that ordination, whether priestly or diaconal is not a graduation, but a commencement – the beginning of a ‘ministry of surprises’ and ‘a fresh anointing of the spirit for the purposes of God are bigger and wilder and more profligate than we could possibly imagine

We can only respond to this through prayerful and repeated reflection on what this means in your context – whatever Ministry you find yourself in – parish, chaplaincy, service and through whatever mode of Ministry you find yourself in – whether stipendiary, self-supporting and all points in between.

In the same way that one cannot (really) fulfil the being of a Deacon without also the vocation to be a Christian, so one never fulfils the role of Priest without also fulfilling the vocation of Deacon and Christian. However, they should not be looked upon as a hierarchy or a graduation. Again, Stephen Cottrell vigorously challenged the notion that the main difference between being a Deacon and a Priest is “being allowed to do a few more things”[9] For these “few things” are certainly not trivial or incidental, nor are they simply tasks: they are the very being of the nature of Priesthood.

The first paragraph of the Ordinal sets out the principles of a Priestly Ministry which is always in partnership, most significantly with the Bishop with whom one is entrusted with the Cure of Souls – I will speak more of this in a moment, and time I think prevents me from fully including discussion of the Theology of Episcopal Ministry suffice to say that all Priestly Ministry is shared with and derived from his or her oversight.

The Cure of Souls is the outplaying of the sacrament of reconciliation[10] not just in the confessional but in each and every parochial encounter. The Parochial System is at the heart of the Church of England and the Church in Wales. It arises from the geographic context of the parish and everyone within the environs of that parish has he opportunity, the right even to receive care and counsel from their local Priest. It does not demand membership, a gift-aid envelope, baptism or even a Christian faith, just geography. Other Churches which strictly police their membership rolls and hence the limits of whom they might minister to do not carry that burden, nor can realise that opportunity.

This was made most clear to me only last week when I met on a Zoom call with Diocese, URC, Baptist and Methodist colleagues to discuss an ecumenical response to the building of some 5000 new houses within my Parish as Plymouth relentlessly grows. Each of the denominations had an opportunity to be a part of that response if they so cared. The Church of England had the responsibility. It is not a responsibility we are going to shirk, and as a result the response is going to turn out to be something exciting, creative, ecumenical and pioneering; potentially a small New Monastic Community at which the Church of England will be the heart.

Often people think that some of these natures of ontology are optional, that must either be a Servant or a Shepherd, but the call is to be both. Yes, there is a delegated authority from the Bishop, but the call is also so be the diakonos of the people you are placed amongst. The old “Father knows best” Parish was never successful in either the sight of God or Man because one cannot Shepherd without being a Servant; and partnership, collaboration and engagement is what grows a Parish[11]. No longer is the Priest-in-Charge solely in Charge and I can certainly tell you, Father (in this case) certainly never knew best. Where the Good News has been proclaimed effectively it is never the work of a single, hardworking, ultra-pious individual, but the result of a generous and inclusive collaboration between Priest, People and Community.

This is where we meet profoundly with the Scriptural metaphor of the Priesthood of All the Baptised of 1 Peter 2:9:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

Michael Ramsay[12] in The Christian Priest Today a book that seems both quaintly of a different age and yet at times strikingly immediate, demonstrates for us the connection between this Royal Priesthood, the High Priesthood of Jesus himself (Hebrews 4:14-16) and the delegated being of Presbyter within a contextual community:

So today the ordained priest is called to reflect the priesthood of Christ and to serve the priesthood of the people of God, and to be one of the means of grace whereby God enables the Church to be the Church.

Fr George (Guiver) once remarked

“Of course we believe in the priesthood of all believers but how can people be a priest if they haven’t seen what one looks like?”

The ordained priest is therefore called to model priesthood for the community of faith.

Moving on, the authority to teach and admonish is a challenging one in today’s society when the Parish Priest is no longer at the centre of a community’s life[13] and so admonition has to an extent given way to encouragement. Raw admonition is a quick way to alienate people, and we must never forget that for the most part, we work with volunteers, who give freely of their time and money, and put up with us to boot!

This is where nurture is mostly revealed: I suspect many of you gathered here might have been called from Parishes where the Priest was referred to as ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’, and for some of you, that might be your expectation for your future selves also.

I am known in my Parishes as “Father” and willingly take that on, not because it is a title of authority, but because of this call to nurture: the Priest is a Spiritual Parent to those in their care. Some of you may also share the vocation of parenthood with your aspiration to priesthood and there are both similarities and differences in that nurturing role. Each time I am called ‘Father’ in the Parish, it does not build me up, but rather puts me in my place and reminds me of the obligations, of the sometimes pain and worry of Spiritual Parenthood.

In order to tell the story of God’s love, the Ordinal speaks both directly and indirectly of the Priestly immersion in the Sacramental Life. Although Austin Farrer spoke so many years ago of the Priest as a “walking sacrament”[14] it is important to remember that Priests are only participants in the Sacraments. The Schillebeeckx[15] Model of the Sacraments establishes Christ as the fundamental ‘Primordial’ Sacrament – whose outward physical form was his humanity and whose inward spiritual grace was his divinity. From Christ himself arises the other Primordial Sacrament: the Church itself, and from that Sacrament that all the other sacraments emanate.

John Francis-Friendship, whose book Enfolded in Christ[16] I cannot recommend highly enough speaks of Priesthood as not as the guardian of or gatekeeper to the Sacrament, but its conduit. The person who is enabled through the grace of the sacrament of ordination to make the other sacraments available to the people of God.

This means that every sacrament brought into the presence of God’s people, every baptism, wedding and most significantly, every funeral, every visit, every healing prayer and every act of Collective Worship in School is at some level, Missional; for it enables us to speak of God’s love, forgiveness and constancy amid the pitching storm that people encounter in everyday life.

One example I want to share with you was on the day when I went to Church to open up for an evening Mass. On the doorstep, blocking my way in was a very drunk, quite large lady. Fast asleep on the step. I couldn’t get round her, and no-one certainly could go over her. I was stuck, and the time for Mass was fast approaching, parishioners would be arriving soon. Eventually nothing else for it. I had to wake her, and when she awoke, it was clear that she was in a bad way, at a rock bottom in her life.

She clearly needed pastoral support, but… and here is the Parish Priest’s dilemma in a nutshell… the Mass needed to be said. So we took her into church, sat her down in the side chapel where the Mass was being held and members of the congregation joined her while she sat in her now semi-stupor. As the low Mass continued, I became aware that she was more engaged, although clearly unused to Church.

When the time came for Communion she stood with the rest. I had no idea of her background, indeed no idea whether she was baptised, and I sincerely doubted it. However, as she held out her hand like the others, I had no doubt that she needed that sacrament more than anything at that moment in her life. So I gave her communion.

After the Mass when we finally could speak properly, her first words were “I want to be baptised.”

Conversations and further meetings flowed, she was baptised and confirmed and became a regular member of the Body of Christ. She stayed sober and made reconciliation with God and with her estranged Mother which was at the root of much of her alcohol dependence. Sadly, her health had been irrevocably damaged by many years of addiction and she died a few years later, but she died a friend of Jesus, a new person in Christ. The Sacraments are, as John Wesley famously described them “a converting ordinance”. We are called to be that conduit of the sacraments, and this is what I just knew, sensed that the Holy Spirit was calling me to do this, as she stood before me: the Sacrament was that dear lady’s salvation.

Of course, it is in the sacramental life that the Priest as a conduit of the sacrament is diminished so that Christ may be increased, to paraphrase John the Baptist[17]. This is why vestment is important to emphasise the separation the sinful individual from the sinless sacrament. The stole, the chasuble, the humeral veil all serve to remind not only the congregation but the priest themselves that the are the door-openers. It is not an excuse for tat, but rather the sublimation of self so that it is Christ who stands at the altar offering the holy sacrifice through the hands of this unworthy individual.

If we do not reflect theologically on the sacramental life, then we cannot make them visible amongst the people. If we are so preoccupied on what is done, then we miss what the sacrament is doing and we fail see to spot the action of Spirit working in our communities.

In the same way that I spoke of the Deacon as set apart, reserved for, released in order to, make Christ known through theology practised in context, so the Priest is also set aside in order to preside at the Eucharist, pronounce God’s absolution and disseminate His Blessings – for I feel there aren’t enough blessings given in this world.

Bishop John Pritchard[18] in his down-to-earth book on Priestly ontology The Life and Work of a Priest identified these attributes and the roles that spin put from them:

  • Spiritual explorer: Passionately directed towards God
    • Why the discipline of prayer shaped here and in your title will last you a lifetime of ministry, particularly in those phases of ministry when you are on your own, corporate prayer is a pipedream and it can feel arid: The office sustains you
  • Artful story-teller: Opening up a world of grace
    • The largest congregation of the week will be school collective worship and both adults and children need the stories of faith to come alive
  • Multilingual interpreter: Exploring the landscape of faith
    • You will be called to talk with an upset 8 year old about why Grandad had to die, and realise that the whole family is leaning in because they need to hear also
  • Inquisitive learner: Digging into theology
    • If you don’t keep reading theology you stop practising it
  • Pain bearer: Keeping vigil with a damaged world
    • Sometimes, often we don’t have the answers and have to hold a hand and agree – yes, this situation is shit isn’t it?, leading onto his idea of a
  • Wounded companion: Sharing the journey
    • Not aloof but engaged. I will never ask anyone in the Parish to undertake a task I am not willing to do myself. I will happily mop a floor, clean a toilet. Just don’t ask me to go up a ladder!
  • Weather-beaten witness: Discerning the Kingdom
  • Iconic presence: Identifying with the community
    • Some of my most effective pastoral ministry happens in the pub or Tescos.
  • Friendly irritant: Challenging the structures
    • Don’t ask my local MP about this but remember the words of Dom Helder Camara
  • Creative leader: Scanning the horizon
    • Liturgy is mission, pastoral care is mission, it’s all mission Dave.
  • Attractive witness: Pointing to Christ
    • Who will do the real converting…
  • Faith coach: Helping people to grow
    • More than just spiritual direction, but spiritual nurturing
  • Mature risk-taker: Thinking outside the box
    • Creative, missional
  • Flower arranger: Managing the church’s life
    • This Easter was the ultimate proof that there are some things I should not be entrusted with, ever…
  • Life-fulfiller: Enjoying all God’s gifts
    •  In the words of S. Padre Pio “pray hope and don’t worry

Many of these can be mapped directly onto the Ordinal and some speak powerfully of the burden and indeed cost of that ministry. Priestly Ministry within the pandemic has been challenging and above all, exhausting and has demanded even greater reflection and self-awareness in order to prevent burn-out and self-destruction. But I feel that this period has also seen a renewed focus on what really matters as we seek to serve the people of God

To be all this, to be a Servant, Shepherd, Messenger, Sentinel and Steward is a challenging task, and one which at this point you might never feel equipped to undertake, but luckily the ordinal recognises this:

And the response to the searching questions the Bishop asks of you will be:

S. John Vianney, the Patron Saint of Parish Priests, a man of poor academic accomplishment yet immense spiritual depth said “The Priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”.

So in answer to the question of today’s paper “How does our theology of priesthood shape the practical task?” – it is the love of the heart of Jesus that is the very core running through each and every function of ministry.

All Practical, Pastoral Theology is shaped by making visible that love of the heart of Jesus. It is a love expressed by both the ordained and those with whom they collaborate, to feed the Sheep of Christ’s flock, just as Peter was commanded to do.

It is a love which seeks to nurture, teach, and admonish the Royal Priesthood so that we all may be (in the words of the ordinal) made whole in Christ.

The Bishop’s Prayer after the laying on of hands recalls the elements of being that make up the grace of Holy Orders which will be played out daily in Priestly Ministry:

Through your Spirit, heavenly Father,

give these your servants grace and power

to proclaim the gospel of your salvation

and minister the sacraments of the new covenant.

Renew them in holiness,

and give them wisdom and discipline

to work faithfully with those committed to their charge.

In union with their fellow servants in Christ,

may they reconcile what is divided,

heal what is wounded

and restore what is lost.

May they declare your blessings to your people;

may they proclaim Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness,

and absolve in Christ’s name those who turn to him in faith;

so shall a people made whole in Christ

offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you[19]

The Ordinal has it all: Once it has conferred on you the grace of Holy Orders return to it frequently, at least annually and use it as a part of your Reflective Practice.

I pray that this session will have given you some tools, or least a reminder of the tools you are already equipped with, to assist you in the life-long partnership of Ministry in the Church of God; to reflect this [morning/afternoon] on the beautiful and complex myriad of ways of what God will ask of you; of the privilege of holding God before his people and the needs of his people before God and the joy of making Christ known wherever he may lead you.

By the help of God, I pray, that you will.

Thank you.

Recommended Re-Reading

Ramsay M (1972) The Christian Priest Today London SPCK

Guiver G et al (2001) Priests in a People’s Church. London. SPCK.

Pritchard J (2007) The Life and Work of a Priest London. SPCK

Lewis-Anthony J (2009) If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him: Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry. London. Mowbray.

Ward R (2011) On Christian Priesthood London. Continuum

Friendship, John-Francis (2018) Enfolded in Christ Norwich: Canterbury Press.

Cottrell, S (2020) On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards. London. Hodder & Stoughton.


[1] John 21:15-16, NRSV

[2] Lewis-Anthony J (2009) If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him: Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry. London. Mowbray.

[3] Mette N. (2013) Pastoral Theology, Roman-Catholic, Europe. In: Runehov A.L.C., Oviedo L. (eds) Encyclopaedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer, Dordrecht.

[4]  Steyn, T.H. & Masango, M.J., (2011) ‘The theology and praxis of practical theology in the context of the Faculty of Theology’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 67(2), Art. #956, 7 pages. hts.v67i2.956

[5] Tracy, D., (1983), ‘The foundations of practical theology’, in D.S. Browning (ed.), Practical theology: The emerging field in theology, church, and world, p. 76, Harper and Brothers, New York, NY.

[6] Green L (2009) Let’s do Theology London. Mowbray. pp. 24-41.

[7] Cottrell, S (2020) On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards. London. Hodder & Stoughton. p29

[8] Luke 10:16

[9] Cottrell S (2020) Ibid p27

[10] Ward R (2011) On Christian Priesthood London. Continuum


[12] Ramsay M (1972) The Christian Priest Today London SPCK

[13] Pritchard J (2007) The Life and Work of a Priest London. SPCK

[14] Houlden, L (1991). Austin Farrer: The Essential Sermons. London: SPCK

[15] Schillebeeckx, Edward (1963) Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God London: Sheed and Ward

[16] Friendship, John-Francis (2018) Enfolded in Christ Norwich: Canterbury Press.

[17] John 3:30

[18] Pritchard J (2007) The Life and Work of a Priest London. SPCK

[19] Common Worship (2000) Ordination of Priestsv