Thursday, December 24, 2009

Building the Priesthood of All Believers

From the Collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent:
"Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself..."

Fifty years ago tomorrow, a then-young man named Nicholas Phelps was ordained a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church.

That last phrase is Prayer Book language describing our belief that to ordain someone a priest is to take action in the name of Jesus, symbolized by the stole that yokes each priest to the Gospel of Christ, and to ordain someone a priest is to take action on behalf of the holy catholic Church. Not just in the name of the particular congregation that priest is to serve, not just in the name of his or her diocese, and not just in the name of the Episcopal Church (which we seldom call “the holy catholic Church”), but in the name of, well, the whole enchilada, the universal Church, the Body of Christ in the world, the Church beyond walls and beyond tribal claims and beyond definitions that exclude people. The Church whose unity we don’t yet see, except when we look at the cross. The Church whose one voice we do not yet hear, except when we recite our creeds and sing certain great hymns. The Church whose behavior and integrity we long for, but too seldom contribute to, though we think we know that integrity when we see it.

That was a long preamble, wasn’t it? It was almost a pre-ramble, but I needed you to catch how part of a priest’s calling is, well, imprecise, unmeasurable, even deeply unrealistic . Not confined to being pastor to a local community, or taking part in the councils of a diocese, or representing the one particular tradition of Anglican Christianity, but trying to serve the movement of the Spirit of Christ recognizable in the world, the Spirit that is bonded to the human race, bound to free and reconcile and heal the whole created order. The first three of those roles (in parish, diocese, tradition) are one thing, but that last one is so idealistic and imprecise that few priests find it expected in their letters of agreement. But there it is, in the Book of Common Prayer. Utterly unrealistic—unless, of course, you believe that the Holy Spirit is the Church’s only essential reality.

And, while I don’t know Nicholas Phelps well enough to say, I’m going to guess that he does believe that. To have reached his 50th anniversary of ordination, I’d judge that he must.

Yes, back to Fr. Phelps. A 1956 graduate of Williams, he returned to Williamstown after seminary, and from 1959 to 1962 he was Curate here and Vicar of St. Andrew’s, Blackinton. Which means that, in all likelihood, fifty years ago tomorrow it was here in this place that he was ordained a priest.

He and I have only corresponded, never met, and I’m thinking it was either in our centennial year (1995) or during our capital campaign in 2005 that our correspondence started. When the invitation to attend his 50th anniversary arrived, earlier this month, I knew we had to have a hand in it. (I also knew that wouldn’t be by me attending, since it’s happening right now, at this moment, in St. Mark’s Church in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. If the snowstorm hasn’t shut them down.

And we’re there, indirectly. The service leaflet somewhere will say,
“The flowers at the altar are from the people of St. John's Parish, Williamstown, MA, and the people of St. Andrew's Church in Blackinton, MA, at whose altars The Rev. Nicholas Phelps first celebrated the Holy Eucharist, in thanksgiving for his faithful ministry in many places throughout fifty years.”

And we’ll be there in another way. When I saw that the parish Fr. Phelps assists at in his retirement is in Philadelphia, I went fishing for an ambassador to represent us. My first choice was Lindi Von Mutius, a 2003 Williams grad who was very much part of us here throughout her college years. She married recently, and is an attorney in Philadelphia.

I emailed her, described the situation, inquired how out of the way might it be for her to give us a Sunday morning by attending St. Mark’s, Rittenhouse Square. I knew she was worshiping somewhere, but hoped she could free herself to be our ambassador today.

“St. Mark’s is the church I go to!” she wrote back. And it’s partly because of Fr. Phelps, I gather, that Lindi worships there. So Lindi took charge of arranging for those flowers, and the last I heard she was aiming for purple thistles, the purple, I’m sure, for Advent… or is it for Williams?

And what became of Fr. Phelps after he left here? He became Assistant Chaplain at UCLA for two or three years, then Chaplain until 1970. Counting his time here, that was eleven years working with the Episcopal Society for Ministry in Higher Education. Then he served as Rector of Trinity Church in Buckingham, PA, for ten years, and from 1981 until his retirement in 1998, Rector of St. James Church, Bristol, outside Philadelphia, where he continues to live.

St. John’s has been privileged to help God incubate many candidates for ordination. This fall, I heard from another member of the Class of 2003 at Williams, Grey Maggiano, who is seeking ordination in the Diocese of Virginia. He says of St. John’s that we taught him that the Church can be more than just a protector of traditions, that we showed him how a church can be welcoming to a wide variety of people while still retaining its Anglican roots.

Doesn’t that sound as if St. John’s is acting like a priest? That would be the priesthood of all believers, the community’s ministry that a priest is called to nurture and promote.

We’re every bit as privileged when we help God raise up bright and gifted lay leaders like Lindi. She and her new husband Chris are laying hands on a mission congregation of St. Mark’s. It’s named St. James’, and it’s located in an old neighborhood, ethnically and socially diverse, not wealthy or thriving. Lindi says that for her the real action is there, where members are learning to reach out into their community to serve it where and how it needs. Youth groups come from neighboring parishes to clean and maintain the place, and Lindi meets them with cupcakes, hundreds of cupcakes. She’s the Cupcake Lady.

That’s pretty realistic ministry, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why God apportions vocations sparingly: Priests account for some tiny percentage way below 1% of the Episcopal Church’s membership. The other 99+% of the Church, working in and moving about in the world, may be better positioned than the clergy for recognizing the movement of the Spirit beyond the walls of the local church.

But the truth is, clergy and laity, the whole 100%, need each other, together form the priesthood of believers, and together need beyond themselves the Spirit of God and all people who are open to being agents of that Spirit in the world. Then we may make headway on that mansion, that livable dwelling-place open to all, sustained by the Spirit, useful to the Spirit, prepared for the Son of God when he comes.