This post is part of “Ecclesia Anglicana,” a series devoted to all topics pertaining to Anglicanism. This contribution is by Trystan Owain Hughes, Tutor in Applied Theology at St Padarn’s, Cardiff, Wales, UK. Stay tuned for more!

In recent years, the identity and distinctiveness of priesthood has been questioned. In functional terms, it has long been recognized that priests require certain gifts and talents to minister effectively. Vocations advisors and directors of ordinands will suggest texts to candidates that list these functions. Such lists can seem daunting to those exploring a call to ordination. In John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest, one of the principal texts given to candidates exploring ordained ministry in the Church of England and in the Church in Wales, sixteen distinct functional roles are presented, including “creative leader”, “faith coach”, “wounded companion”, and “spiritual explorer”. Traditionally, theological models of priesthood have grown out of a consideration of such functions. By doing so, such models often forged an ontology of priesthood.

During the twentieth century, in the UK at least, the model growing in prominence was the priest as, primarily, a pastoral care giver. In some ecclesial and theological circles, though, there was a sense of uncertainty about this model, with the question posed how much its functional roles actually differ from counseling and social work. By the time I went through the discernment process in the late 1990s, Anglican Churches had moved to regarding the principal role of a priest as an empowerer – a nurturer of the gifts of others. Before my own selection board, one priest even said to me: “as long as you slip in the word ‘enabler’ at least six times, you’ll sail through”! The concept of enabler certainly fits neatly into the contemporary emphasis on collaboration and the flourishing of lay ministries. However, questions should still be asked about the primacy of this model. It is, after all, weak in terms of its sacramental rooting and it could lead to priests becoming glorified creative administrators or, worse still, simply talent-spotters. As such, it is difficult to forge an ontology of priesthood from this model alone.

Towards a New Model

With such uncertainties in theological and ecclesial circles surrounding models of priesthood, it is little wonder that so many candidates struggle to articulate why they feel called to ordained ministry, despite the fact that most of them have read the classic texts of discernment and vocation. The purpose and nature of priesthood certainly needs more thought and clarity. In an issue of The Furrow in 1995, the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron suggests a model that is both culturally relevant and spiritually uplifting, as well as firmly rooted in tradition and scripture. It is also a model that could appeal to the plethora of churchpersonships and traditions that make up the Anglican Communion. It can be summed up as the priest as “a bearer of mystery”.

Barron begins his exploration of this model by describing the fundamental loss of confidence within the priesthood in recent years. He attributes this to an underdeveloped and negative theology of ministry. As a result, priests have lost confidence in themselves and their identity, leading to a lack focus and orientation. While he is writing from his own particular ecclesial context, the loss of joy and hope, along with the increase of pessimism and cynicism, is reflective of some areas of our own denomination. Rooted in that same loss of priestly identity is the superior, and sometimes arrogant, attitude that is found in other areas of our Communion, which looks down condescendingly on what is perceived as the lack of zeal and spiritual fervor of other clergy.

To counter the loss of priestly confidence and identity, Barron therefore presents an image that he believes captures the unique and indispensable quality of a priest. The term “mystagogue” was used in the early church with relation to bringing catechumens into the faith. Barron chooses this word to flesh out the priest’s role in bringing the mystery of God’s being to people’s troubled lives. In other words, the priest’s role is to notice, to announce, or to bring God’s love, hope, peace, and compassion to individuals and communities. He roots this in Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis, whereby we come to know and experience God through his creation – we experience the otherly-other Being through the very tangible being of this world.

In this model, the overriding call of priesthood is to explore and grasp the mystery and then initiate others into it – opening eyes to God’s presence, ears to God’s call, hearts to God’s love, and ways to God’s will. It is in this context that Theilard De Chardin described the priest as a “border walker”, bringing those on earth closer to the kingdom. They stand at the boundaries between the commonplace and the sacred, thus offering the possibility of relationship with the divine. Priests are, therefore, interpreters of Manley-Hopkins’s “grandeur of God”, Von Balthasar’s “patterns of grace”, and Philip Yancey’s “rumours of another world”. They hold, to use William Blake’s phrase, “infinity in the palm of their hand and eternity in an hour” and offer this to those to whom they are ministering.

Incarnation and Mystery

This model is profoundly incarnational in its scope. Paul Tillich describes preaching as “holding up a picture of Christ”. The mystagogue’s task is related to this image – it is the art of bringing Jesus down to earth by displaying of the wonder, inspiration, and complexity of his icon. We do this through our words, but also through our lives. Meister Eckhart pointed out that the incarnation is worthless and pointless if the Word is not also born in Christians. By stating that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1.14), the Gospel writer uses the inceptive aorist Greek tense which implies an action that has started in the past but is continuing into the present. The phrase might rather be translated as ‘the Word started to become flesh’. Thus, the Word continues to become flesh, even today, as Christians acknowledge that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The priestly calling is rooted in this and, in this sense at least, all church traditions will be able to affirm the priest as “in persona Christi”. The model of the bearer of mystery therefore allows us model ourselves on the Jesus of the gospels, bringing to our congregations as many questions as we provide answers, telling as many stories as we affirm facts, and challenging as much as we give comfort.

Yet, more than this, this ministry is a paradoxical process of being Christ to people we already regard as Christ. Cistercian Charles de Foucault regarded the recognition that all people are “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself” as integral to the priesthood. Likewise, in light of the radical incarnational call of Matthew 25, Alan Ecclestone went as far as to challenge his fellow priests to consider where they bow at the end of each service. They should, he suggested, be bowing where they truly believe Christ is. Rather than bowing to the altar or the host, he urged them to consider bowing to their congregations, where the real body of Christ resides and where the physical real presence is found. With the model of the priest as a bearer of mystery, then, we are compelled to see Christ in both ourselves and others, whoever they may be and however different they are to us.

Sacraments and Mystery

This model of priesthood is also sacramental to the core. On one hand, priests become witnesses to the wonder of the traditional sacraments, leading others beyond physical matter to spiritual beauty and benefit – to see beyond bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood, beyond the font to the transformational water of life, beyond the temporary joy of a wedding day to a spiritual covenant, and so on. On the other hand, priests become living sacraments themselves. They do this by, firstly, demonstrating, through words and deeds, God’s excessive and unreasonable love and compassion. To use Philip Yancey’s words, priests need to show people “what’s so amazing about grace”.

Secondly, though, priests become living sacraments by bringing others into engagement with the beauty and wonder of the whole gamut of human experience – theology, literature, film, music, nature, laughter, ecology, spirituality, art, architecture, poetry, and so on. G.K. Chesterton wrote that to see the world properly one must stand on one’s head. The priest’s role is to stand on her or his head, beckoning others to do the same and so to share this distinct, awe-inspiring, and life-giving vision of the world around. It is helping others to recognise the pearl of great price in their seemingly ordinary everyday routines. Karl Rahner, himself often referred to as a ‘mystic of everyday life’, pointed out the importance of leading Christians to God’s active grace in creation, his self-communication in the midst of our everyday lives. This is, to use the words of R.S. Thomas, “the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you”. Furthermore, there is also a healing aspect to this call to, in the words of Alan Billings, “make God possible”. After all, love, compassion, wisdom, and beauty are not only mystery bearing, but also profoundly healing. Barron employs the ancient term doctor animarum (doctor of the soul) to develop this aspect of priesthood and relates it directly to the priest’s pastoral calling.

To truly live out this model, though, priests themselves need time and space to connect with God and to engage with, and theologically reflect on, wider culture. The pace of modern ordained ministry, much of which is either non-stipendiary or encompasses the demands of diocesan or provincial roles alongside parish work, rarely allows enough time for study, contemplation, and prayer, thus making St Paul’s command to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16) seem a mere aspiration to most clergy.

Bearer of Mystery

With Anglican Churches embracing the healthy process of commissioning and licensing lay people for various roles, it is imperative that we ensure that the priestly role is not devalued. Embracing the model of the bearer of mystery may help give further life and purpose to priestly ministry, as well as to our ordinands and ordination candidates. Priests should certainly never be placed on a spiritual pedestal or elevated over and above the laity. No parts of the body should be elevated above the body itself (1 Corinthians 12). However, there has to be something unique and distinctive about priestly ministry. The concept of priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5) reflects that all Christians share something of the role of Mystagogue, but to the priest this is more than a role or function. Through ordination, it becomes a way of being.

While there is, then, no ideal model for which we can forge an ontology of priesthood, Barron’s work does provide us with a model that is both relevant to our times and rooted in the past. It also has the potential to inspire those who may feel the oars of priesthood have been lost on the shores of our rapidly changing culture. Furthermore, this model has the benefit of being accessible to all backgrounds and traditions. John Wesley once described himself as a preacher who set himself on fire and allowed people to watch him burn. This is at the root of this model of priesthood. The primary function of the priest, writes Barron, is not to preach, minister, or counsel. In fact, no function can define or confine priesthood. Rather, a priest is someone who is set on fire to the depths of their being by the mystery of God and then beckons others to draw near and be warmed or set alight by the flame.

Trystan Owain Hughes is Tutor of Applied Theology and Director of the MTh (Theology) at St Padarn’s Institute, Wales, UK and priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff, Wales. Previously he has been Chaplain at Cardiff University, Director of Ordinands at Llandaff Diocese, and Head of Theology at Trinity University College, Carmarthen. His theological training included extended placements in an asylum seekers deportation centre, an Oxford University college, and a large episcopal church in Washington DC. Trystan has attained an MTh from Oxford University and a PhD in church history from the University of Wales, Bangor. He is the author of Winds of Change: The Roman Catholic Church and Society in Wales 1916-1962 (UWP, 1999), Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (SPCK, 2010), The Compassion Quest (SPCK 2014), Real God in the Real World (BRF, 2014), and Living the Prayer (BRF, 2017). He has also been a regular voice on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Prayer for the Day’ and BBC Radio 2’s ‘Pause for Thought’ and was on the theological commission that assists the bench of Welsh Bishops for over 10 years. He is presently a member of the Church in Wales Evangelism Fund Committee, appointed as a cleric who has seen considerable growth in his parish in the past five years.

This is the first contribution to the new series, “Everyday Ecumenism.” This collaborative project will be a compilation of contributions from women and men seeking to engage theology from an ecumenical perspective for the benefit of the Church.

The topic of disability has recently opened itself in Biblical scholarship and theological studies. The conversation stems from a larger societal movement concerning both the personhood of the disabled and their role in society. Since the topic is fairly new, however, the reach of scholarship has just begun to bring the discussion into the ethical dialogues. In the world at large, ethical treatment and consideration of the disabled is lacking. The United States suffers from underfunded and understaffed care facilities, largely run on unethical and questionable models of caregiving. In the United Kingdom parliamentary debates rage in regard to Down’s Syndrome, which has almost been “eradicated.”[1] Thus, the caregiving quality and personal value of those with disabilities is a needed dialogue.

            The alternative to maltreatment and devaluing of the disabled is primarily the Church. In particular, such societal protections and values of the disabled necessary for an alternative stem from the Old Testament’s specific stipulations of the priesthood (Leviticus 21:16-24). The Levitical priestly considerations not only provide a contrasting value for the disabled from that of surrounding societies in the ANE, but also provide a framework for how the modern church can integrate and care for the disabled today. By exploring these priesthood laws of disability, new perspectives on religious treatment of the disabled and integration should become clear.

ANALYSIS OF DISABILITY IN LEVITICUS 21

            One of the more difficult and perplexing passages of the Old Testament in the conversation of disability is Leviticus 21:16-24. The entire chapter is dedicated to the regulations of priestly duty and holiness. Derek Tidball clarifies the priestly role and holiness by explaining, “one of the major responsibilities of the priests was to distinguish between these categories [holy, clean, etc.].”[2] Holiness indicated the consecration of an object or person, while cleanliness seems primarily concerned with the state of things.[3] The exclusions found in the text include regulations about where priests can go (v.12), who they can marry (v.7), and general hygiene rules (v.5). Verses 16-24 contain the only exclusion of a people group, those with disabilities such as blindness, lameness, deformities of limbs, and other defects, from preforming offerings and entering the holiest place. For the modern reader these regulations seem discriminatory.

            Some scholars consign these seemingly discriminatory regulations to the idea of holiness: that the disabilities were simply seen as unholy. Tidball argues that “like the sacrificial victim itself, only perfection could be brought so close to the presence of a perfect God.”[4] However, there seem to be fundamental flaws in Tidball’s placing the lack of holiness on the person with disability. First, Tidball’s reading of the text seems to be limited to a presuppositional ideal image. As Kerry H. Wynn argues, this “normate reading” of ancient Yahwist texts assigns categories and meanings with modern social norms.[5] Tidball makes an error in assuming that the text’s regulations concerning the profaning of the sanctuary indicate a lack of holiness altogether in those with disabilities, and this reasoning ignores the text’s indication otherwise. The beginning of the discourse on disability regulations prevents the disabled from offering the bread of God (v.17), but it does not disqualify the disabled from the priesthood as a whole. As Sarah J. Melcher notes, physical standards are fundamentally different than holiness since “the writers of the Priestly Torah never refer to a person as holy unless that person has been consecrated to priestly service.”[6] Thus, the exclusion from certain acts within the priestly role does not equate to a lack holiness on the part of the disabled individual.

            From what are the disabled being excluded? Melcher argues that “the primary intention of Lev. 21:16-24 is to prohibit a priest from officiating in the sacrificial cult…”[7] Melcher rightly acknowledges that the disabled person is not disqualified from the priesthood, and that the only major prohibition is the officiating of offerings. The regulation is not primarily concerned with God’s presence as a whole, but rather the action of offering itself. Neither does this exclusion mean that the disabled individual is ritually impure, as v.22 explains that the priest is able to eat of the priestly bread. Amos Yong further clarifies that “contemporary disability readings would obviously want to note that this text doesn’t exclude people with disabilities as a whole from their priestly vocation.”[8]

            Yong, however, continues by noting that the main issue becomes the idea of profaning the sanctuary (v.23). Melcher acknowledges that the profaning is “a very serious violation,” because this act puts both the disabled individual and the sacrifice at risk.[9] Tidball argues that these regulations indicate that the body signifies “the totality of the person.”[10] In this interpretation, the disability becomes a symbolic model for the modern reader to understand spiritual impurities and defects. This approach to the regulatory texts once again fails to provide an adequate answer for the disabled reader concerning the exclusive nature of the regulations, perpetuating a stigmatizing view of the disablement and failing to give proper room to the disabled reactions to the text.

            Two major interpretative options thus present themselves to the modern reader.[11] The first, presented by Yong, is a Christological reading. This interpretation first presents the idea of Christ being the perfect High Priest, alleviating the restrictions placed on the disabled individuals and indicting “neither disabilities nor people who have them.”[12] In order to prevent further stigmatization in this interpretation, Yong argues that Christ’s crucifixion fulfills the priestly function with a disabled and wounded body, thus alleviating the disabled reader from alienation.[13]

            A second interpretive approach is to allow for the tension of the text and a deconstruction of the stigmatization in the regulative codes. This approach does not “de-sacralize” the text but rather interprets the regulations through the larger paradigm of Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.”[14] Using this passage paradigmatically, one can begin to read the text within the larger ethical context of Leviticus. A paradigmatic cultural comparison of the Levitical ethics to that of Mesopotamian treatments of disablement allows for an expanded attempt to draw ethical conclusions in the modern context.

MESOPOTAMIAN VERSUS LEVITICAL TREATMENTS OF DISABLEMENT

            Mesopotamian ethics were rooted in mythological understandings of creation narratives. According to Neal H. Walls, the Mesopotamian creation myth included the idea that humanity’s purpose was primarily labor and alleviation of labor from the gods.[15] In said mythologies, sometimes the gods created disabilities in order to prevent the overpopulation of humanity. In Mesopotamian social contexts, families bore most of the responsibility of caring for those with certain disabilities and were excluded from most temple service.[16] Thus, the value of the disabled was consigned mostly to productivity. The first distinction between the Yahwistic regulations and the Mesopotamian practices lies in the idea of productivity. The Levitical laws seem to centralize care within the temple context, as indicated in the role of disabled priests.

            It is worth noting how Mesopotamian societies remedied disabilities. Walls argues that infanticide and euthanasia were rare, but still occurred. He provides the first example, from the diagnostic handbook (sakikku) which discusses a certain ailment (considered to be Werdnig-Hoffman Disease) resulting in the family throwing the child alive into a river.[17] Similar texts point to the practice of live burial of infants with similar syndromes. The second clear distinction between the Yahwistic regulations on disability and some of the Mesopotamian ethics is the practice (however rare) of infanticide. No such practices are known to have been allowed in the Yahwistic stipulations, thus the value of the disabled individual is not consigned to their productivity.

            Hector Avalos, in his analysis of healing liturgies in the ANE, explains that the framework for disability was largely influenced by the contrast between polytheistic and monolatrous drives. The Mesopotamian treatment of disability was largely centered in the home (which valued productivity) in contrast to the temple centrality of the Yahwistic practice. Here, Avalos fails to draw from the inclusion seen in Lev.21. Rightly, he argues that the temple centrality prevented direct treatment for some of the disabled, but this ignores the larger provision of temple inclusion.[18] The disabled individual is provided with food (holy food at that), sacred duties in the temple, and societal protection. Edgar Kellenberger notes that “the temples had the greatest economic power” (behind the royal palace of the ANE), a dynamic certainly necessary to acknowledge in order to see the importance of disabled inclusion in these contexts.[19] Though Mesopotamian treatment of the disabled is varied, the Yahwistic inclusion of the disabled into the very priesthood of the temple displays an integrative model ahead of its time.

DISABLED PRIESTHOOD AND MODERN ETHICS

            The modern conversation surrounding the place of the disabled in the larger society is not new to the human experience. The Yahwistic provision for those who are disabled, regardless of productive level is in direct contrast to the Mesopotamian ethic. Driven by the Genesis narrative of creation and the paradigm of Leviticus 19, cultic practices and regulations not only value the disabled with provision (shelter, food, etc.) but secure them socially by enabling disabled Levites to be consecrated priests. Among these many social provisions is the eating of the showbread and the direct route to sanctification (v.15), as well as a restored dignity and level of autonomy seemingly absent from the Mesopotamian ethic.

            Dominant within the modern conversation surrounding disability seems to be an exaggerated version of the Mesopotamian ethos, regulating stigma and social position of the disabled to a larger myth of productivity and economic stability. As previously noted, current so-called “eradication” efforts of Down’s Syndrome in Europe are contingent on the idea that abortion will not only ease the suffering of the child but lift the potential economic suffering of the family. Due to the larger bifurcation of the disabled individual between emotional capacity and rational, social provision and participation of the disabled seems low (especially if death is seen as a better option). It seems that a challenging, yet holistic approach is the alternative of the church. In parallel with the Levitical model of disabled priesthood, the church not only could integrate the disabled into the church but potentially ordain or allow clerical participation. Though a case-by-case model, the idea of “sacred disability” upholds the dignity of the disabled but also provides a “liberating power” from the world’s conscriptions of value to wealth and productivity, a power found in the friendship of the church.[20] Using the model of close friendship, churches not only can help carry the burdens (financial, physical, spiritual) of those with disabilities but also further integrate them within the very tapestry woven in the Body. What would it look like if the Eucharist was administered by those with disabilities? In similar fashion to the Levitical priesthood, what does it tell us about God? In the United States, where many churches have separate services for those with disabilities, what would it communicate to the country as a whole to have fully integrative services? The provision, societal protection, and sacred participation found in the Israelite temple can be mirrored by the modern church, in which participation in the liturgies and practices provides the window of provision and dignity. Said participation also provides representation not only within the congregation but even in the clergy. The hardships faced by those who are disabled are hardships that the church should take up as its own, working and living alongside the afflicted in both provisional and participatory ways.

Cody Bivins holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies & Biblical Languages from Evangel University and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Historical Theology from Wheaton Graduate College. His areas of interest include philosophical theology, theological ethics, political theology, and theology of disability. Cody’s work is driven by a desire for the Church to live Incarnationally and to see others love their neighbors as themselves. 



[1]Alison, Gee.  https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37500189

[2] Derek Tiball, The Message of Leviticus (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005), 27.

[3] Ibid, 27.

[4] Ibid, 265.

[5] Kerry H. Wynn, ““The Normate Hermeneutic and Interpretations of Disability Within the Yahwistic Narratives”  in This Abled Body, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 92.

[6] Sarah J. Melcher, “Visualizing the Perfect Cult: The Priestly Rationale for Exclusion” in Human Disability and the Service of God, ed. Nancy L. Eisland and Don E. Saliers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 57.

[7] Ibid, 65

[8] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and The Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 19.

[9] Melcher, ”Visualizing the Perfect Cult,”  66.

[10] Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 265,

[11] It should be noted that neither option totally alleviates the tension in the text by eliminating it completely.

[12] Yong, The Bible, Disability, and The Church, 26.

[13] Yong, The Bible, Disability, and The Church, 29.

[14] Melcher, “Visualizing the Perfect Cult,” 69.

[15] Neal H. Walls, “The Origins of the Disabled Body: Disability in Ancient Mesopotamia” in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 16.

[16] Walls, “The Origins of the Disabled Body,” 16.

[17] Ibid, 21.

[18] Avalos, “Disability and Liturgy”, 41.

[19] Edgar Kellenberger, “Children and Adults with intellectual Disability in Antiquity and Modernity: Toward a Biblical and Sociological Model,” Cross Currents 63 no. 4 (2013), 460.

[20] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 139.