Thursday, October 1, 2009

YEAR OF THE PRIEST: John Macquarrie (1919 - 2007) on Priestly Character

John Macquarrie was a Canon of Christ Church and Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, Oxford University. This is an extract from To be a Priest, pp. 147-153, edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.

We live in the age of functional man. That is to say, a man or woman is considered in terms of what he or she does. A man, for example, is a train driver or a bank clerk. Of course, no one is a driver or a clerk all the time. But then we speak of roles, and this too is a functional term. When the bank clerk comes home at night, he lays aside his working role and takes up the roles of husband and father. What we seem afraid to do is ever to come to the person himself, the person who in some sense remains identical through the many roles and functions, the person who not only does things but is someone. Perhaps indeed we have come to doubt whether there is a personal reality, for in the depersonalized world of today we act much of the time as if people were nothing but the sums or aggregates of changing functions and roles. Gabriel Marcel has said that one of the diseases of our time is the loss of the ontological sense. Man has become so absorbed in what he does that he no longer has any sense of who he is.

There is, of course, some truth in the idea of functional man. It is through our deeds and decisions that we become persons, and what we do makes us who we are. But the human reality is not exhausted by the functions which any individual performs.

Surely the Christian minister in particular is more than his functions. We can list his various roles and functions-he is servant, proclaimer, priest; he preaches, baptizes, presides at the Eucharist; he does many things besides. But it makes sense to ask: Who is it that appears in these roles and performs these functions? Daniel Day Williams made the point when he wrote: "Vocation is more than a role; it is a life dedicated and a responsibility assumed. No one should be playing a role at the point where ultimate things are at stake."(1)

If ministry were merely a role or a collection of functions, then there might seem to be no need for a distinctive ordained ministry in the Church, and this idea has an appeal in our egalitarian age. The Church would consist, so to speak, of modular Christians, any one of whom might be fitted into the appropriate functional slot. Certainly, everyone recognizes that some functions need training and preparation and that not everyone could get up and preach. But is presidency at the Eucharist, for instance, merely performing the function of reciting certain words and doing certain acts, so that any Christian who is literate and has had a little practice could do this as well as anyone else? Or is there more to it? Is there a deeper connection between ministry and presiding at the Eucharist than can be expressed by terms like "role" and "function"? Or again, can this particular function be separated and considered in isolation from that whole constellation of functions which constitute the work of an ordained minister?

I think there is much more to ministry and priesthood than the fulfilling of roles and functions. R.C.Moberly expressed the matter thuss:

"There are not only priestly functions or priestly prerogatives; there is also a priestly spirit and a priestly heart-more vital to the true reality of priesthood than any mere performance of priestly functions. Now this priestly spirit is not the exclusive possession of the ordained ministry; it is the spirit of the priestly Church. But those who are ordained 'priests' are bound to be eminently leaders and representatives of this priestliness of spirit, and they have assigned to them an external sphere and professional duties which constitute a special opportunity, and a charisma of grace which constitutes a special call and a special capacity for its exercise. Such opportunity and call are inseparable from the oversight of the Christian community to Godward, and they are as wide as is the life of the Christian body. Leadership in eucharistic worship, truly understood, is its highest typical expression . . . but eucharistic leadership, truly understood, involves many corollaries of spirit and life." (2)

It is not meant that the ordained minister is somehow better or more inward or more spiritual than his lay brothers and sisters. But within the order and economy of the Church he is distinct, for he has received a special call, accepted a special responsibility, and been given in ordination a special grace to strengthen him. When we remember that ministry is a grace or gift bestowed by Christ, we shall not be in danger of thinking that the ordained ministry is a superior caste in the Church. The ordained ministry owes everything to Christ-it is indeed Christ's ministry embodied in a certain way. This is recognized by the Church's teaching that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the personal worthiness of the priest. Christ himself is the true minister or every sacrament, and the unworthiness of the human agent cannot void Christ's bestowal of grace. Of course, this was never intended to suggest that the minister's worthiness or unworthiness is a matter of indifference! Effectual priesthood demands not just the doing of the priestly act but being a priest in union with the great high priest, Jesus Christ. The traditional word used by theologians to designate the peculiar being or status of the ordained priest, that which underlies and unites his various roles and functions and finds expression in them, is the word "character." This is not a popular word at the present time. To those whose minds are pragmatic, empirical, analytic, the idea of character may seem just a mystification. They feel safer in dealing with functional man.

Now I do not deny that the traditional doctrine of a priestly character was often described in categories which nowadays we judge to have been too metaphysical and impersonal for describing the kind of phenomenon which is here in question. To some extent, this may excuse the impatience with the idea of character found in some modern writers on ministry. Anthony Harvey, for instance, brusquely dismisses the idea of character as something that "can find no place" in his account of ministry.(3)

But it cannot be so quickly dismissed, nor is a merely functional approach adequate in the least. The contemporary theologian has got to find more up-to-date and personal categories in which to express the abiding truth in the idea of priestly character.

In its literal sense, the Greek word charakter signified the distinctive mark made by a seal or die or similar instrument. The word is used only once in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where Jesus Christ is said to be "the express image of God's person" or, alternatively translated, "the very stamp of his nature" (Hebrews 1:3). In modern usage, the word "character" has developed a great many meanings, but for our purpose we shall take our clues mainly from ethical usage, for there is a close parallel between the ethical idea of character and the theological idea.

The parallel emerges right away, because just as we have seen that there are two views of the ministry standing in some tension, the functional view concerned primarily with what the minister does and the ontological view concerned with who he is, so there have long been two types of ethical theory, the one understanding morality chiefly in terms of rules, commandments, acts, overt behavior, the other understanding the moral life more in terms of virtue and the formation of moral persons or even communities. It is no accident that the morality of command and act has, in the specific area of Christian ethics, flourished chiefly among Protestants, while Catholic moral theologians have been preoccupied with the ethics of virtue. Likewise, many Protestant theologians tend to view ministry in a functional way, while such ideas as priestly character and formation have dominated Catholic thinking.

But although the two approaches have often been in tension, my own view is that in both ethics and theology they are finally complementary The merely functional approach is superficial and fails to do justice the personal reality, but it is not canceled out by the ontological understanding of the matter; rather, it is given depth and cohesion.

How then does a modern ethicist think of character? Clearly, character is not a thing or a special faculty. It is more like a pattern, traceable in a person's behavior and showing elements of directionality and consistency. Stanley Hauerwas, author of one of the best recent studies of the subject, writes: "The clearest example of character is one in which a life is dominated by one all-consuming purpose or direction."(4) This would be an extreme case, and there can be strong characters where there are many purposes and interests, provided these are brought into unity by an "ultimate concern" (to borrow Tillich's useful expression) giving, as it were, a recognizable set to the agent's policies.

But although character is a pattern discernible in action and built up in action, it is not just an adjective or product of action. On the contrary, character produces some actions rather than others, for it is constituted by the value judgments and priorities of the agent, and is hardly to be distinguished from the agent himself.

It is clear that character cannot be acquired in a moment. It needs formation, and that may take a long time. Once character has been formed, it introduces a pattern of stability and reliability into life, but this does not mean an end to growth. Character deepens and develops in the face of new problems.

Where does character come from? Obviously it has several sources. There is the given genetic inheritance of every individual, his innate propensities, capacities, weaknesses. This is the raw material of character. Within limits, it determines what it is possible for one to become. But this raw material is plastic and has many possibilities inherent in it. Next, there is everything that happens to a person from outside. There are the accidents of his own history, and these may have good or bad influence. There is the impact of his culture, and none of us can help absorbing many of the beliefs and value judgments of contemporary society. There is the important factor of education, the systematic training of mind and spirit. These three influences that come from outside we may call the passive elements in character formation. But there is also an active factor. To some extent, each one of us chooses to be the kind of person that he or she is. We strive to realize an ideal self of our own choosing. Finally, to the factors already mentioned, the Christian would add divine grace. He believes that the attainment of character is not just an accident of birth or environment or the fruit of unaided human struggle, but that prayer, the sacraments, and life in the Christian community are of supreme importance.

The foregoing discussion relates to character in general from the standpoint of ethical theory. What light does it throw on the theological concept of priestly character? We shall answer this question by considering the steps by which one enters the ordained ministry. These can be understood as steps in the formation of special types of character.

First there is vocation, the calling of God. Priesthood is a gift, it is not something we choose for ourselves. When a priest is asked: "What made you decide to enter the ministry?" he may very likely reply that he hardly knows. He may only be able to say that at some time he felt a calling. The call to the ministry is a special case or an extension of the mystery of election, which all Christians have known to some extent. It is that inner constraint, that claim of God, that fascination with Christ which lays hold upon one and draws one on, perhaps at first unwillingly. The call to the ministry is an extension of election, the summons to a new relationship. Already the experience of this calling has its ontological consequence and has begun to shape the character of the one who is called; for no one who has known such a call can ever be quite the same again.

Next, God's call elicits the human response. Character is formed not only by what comes from outside but by our own active pursuit of an ideal, and this is true of priestly character. It requires the dedication and self-giving of the one who is called. We have seen that character is formed when one is devoted to an "ultimate concern." The coming of God's kingdom in the world, and the service of that kingdom, become the focal interest of the Christian minister and give the distinctive set to his character. There is also the negative side. To choose one thing means to renounce other things. The ordination vows speak not only of what is to be chosen and done, but also of "laying aside the study of the world and the flesh." Sacrifice is a necessary element in the priestly character. In consenting to become this kind of person and to let his character be formed around the focus of serving God's kingdom, the priest must make renunciations.

I think there are different permissible interpretations of what this focusing and its accompanying renunciations will mean in priesthood. The Church will always need some whose intense dedication will lead them to celibacy and the severing of all ties that might seem to them to be obstacles to their vocation. Others believe that the priestly character can be formed in lives that are more diversified and cover a broader segment of human interests, including marriage and the family. Still others -and perhaps an increasing number-will combine priesthood with a secular occupation. I believe that all these styles are possible, provided always that there is that fundamental orientation toward the calling of God, the orientation that is a major factor in the formation of the priestly character.

Priesthood is a lifelong vocation and a lifelong commitment, and indeed it takes a lifetime for the full flowering of priestly character. The formation of this character becomes an irreversible process, and this is what is meant by the traditional language about the "indelibility" of the character. But we live nowadays in a time when many are unwilling to make lifelong commitments, whether in vocation or marriage or other ways. Should there then be temporary ordinations? This question must be answered in the negative. A temporary priesthood would be conceivable only on a purely functional view; it is impossible on the deeper conception which I am trying to expound. But what is possible is a temporary commitment to particular forms or styles of ministry. I said the Church will always need some ministers who will dedicate themselves with an exclusive intensity that eschews all worldly ties. Surely there are in the Church today young priests who might be willing to promise that for five years they would not marry, they would live on a minimal wage, they would serve wherever the Church needed them. Such a corps of utterly dedicated young priests could become the shock troops of the Church and might accomplish much in evangelism and renewal.

Vocation and response do not happen just between an individual and God, but in the context of the Church, which tests the calling of the individual, judges his fitness, and provides the training he needs. It is this period of formation that is of vital importance in the making of a priest, and though priestly character is ontological, it is in no sense magical. This is no place to raise the vast questions relating to the training of ministers, but whatever else is done, it is essential that there should be formed a character marked by devotion to God and his kingdom, openness and responsiveness to others, and inward strength of spirit.

I have still to mention something else. Vocation, response, formation in the Church culminate in ordination, with its gift of sacramental grace. God commits himself to his ministers, and this is more important than their commitment to what is, from the human point of view, an impossible vocation. Priests sin like other human beings, but God keeps recalling them, electing them again to be his representatives in the assembly of his people. And this process goes on in the years after ordination. Character does not fall ready-made from heaven at ordination or any other time, but it deepens through this life and beyond.

I have stressed priestly character as a distinctive gift for those who are called to a distinctive ministry, but finally I want to come back to the point that all this happens in the context of the Church. The distinctive ministries are closely related with the general ministry of the whole Church. Thus we have seen that calling to the priesthood has affinity with the mystery of election that touches every Christian, and we could also say that priestly character is a special development of the character which originates in baptism. The general ministry of the Church and the distinctive ordained ministry are closely related because they are both modes of sharing in the ministry of Christ himself, but they are different modes of sharing. There is distinction without separation within the indivisible body of the Church, which will be all the stronger and better equipped for its mission if we are careful neither to break up what is common to all ministry nor to blur what is distinctive. For this ministry is Christ's gift to his Church for the sanctifying of his people and, indeed, of the whole creation, that he may present it blameless to the Father.


1. D. D. Williams, The Minister and the Care of Souls (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 103.

2. R. C. Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood (London: John Murray, 1910), p. 261.

3. A. E. Harvey, Priest or President? (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1975), pp. 49-50.

4. S. Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 1975), p. 119.


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