By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
Two recent conversations related to the function of priesthood reminded me of the perennial nature of the ordained vs. laity polarity that exists in the thinking, if not in the actual practice, of many believers. One conversation involved an impatient dismissive rant from an Episcopal priest friend about the concept of “priesthood of all believers” as understood by some free church congregations. The other conversation was a woeful tale from a fellow Baptist about a crisis related to complaints about non-ordained staff serving communion.
William L. Countryman’s Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), revisits the issue of the concept of the priesthood of (all) believers. First, under “Rediscovering Priesthood,” Countryman offers a systematic review of various ideas of priesthood in the Christian context.
In the first four chapters Countryman establishes premise of his book, mainly, that priesthood is inherently the human vocation. It is the work of all humans, not just a professional few. Under the rubric of religion, the instrument that “maintains the language and patterns and traditions of spirituality that help us interpret what we encounter in the border country,” (p. 35) Countryman interprets the uniqueness of “the priesthood of Christ,” namely the very idea that Jesus Himself was the border country where humans experience the Holy. Countryman makes a Christological distinction in making a case for “the priesthood of the Christian people,” which is the unique priesthood of a people who confess Christ.
The second major part of the book deals with the implications of Countryman’s thesis specific to congregational life. In addressing the issue of the difference between clergy and laity he makes the distinction of the clergy as being the sacramental nature of the role they play in reflecting the universal priesthood of humanity, in contrast to contemporary images used to views of the clergy as “professional,” “parent,” “corporate executive,” etc.
Subsequent chapters examine some problems plaguing the priesthood today, including clerical malfeasance and issues related to the requirements for ordination. Countryman concludes the book with a treatment on the practical implications of what it means to be a part of both the universal priesthood and the ordained priesthood.
Countryman’s book is a worthy contribution to the study of ordination and the issue of the nature of clergy vs. laity. His framework of interpreting clergy as priests among priests is a helpful corrective to overly strict sacerdotal polarities between clergy and lay.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).