The heretical and institutional challenges facing biblically faithful clergy today are quite complex, but the problems did not appear overnight. They came steadily, sometimes through the front doors of the church, sometimes through the chimney. But they came, pressed on by the enemy of men’s souls. And most clergy did not see what was happening, especially the presbyters. They had clerical presbyopia.
Elders, or presbyters, were the backbone of the church’s leadership in the early generations of the historic Faith, and they have remained so. They are placed on the front lines of the church’s ministry in every parish. Without godly priests, the church falters. But they have gradually forfeited more and more of the authority given unto them by their Lord and his church. They have become dependent on higher authority. And many do not see the problem. Much that ennobles their calling has been lost.
Recent discussions in my diocese have illustrated this, as parish clergy grappled with the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic. In place after place men were incapacitated until detail instructions were given from diocesan headquarters. Reams of paper were printed that sought to give explicit detail and direction to men charged by God to give oversight to the flock in which they serve. Holding the keys to life and death, men were showing themselves unable to decide when or how to share communion or preach the gospel without direction from above. The height of this sad state came when we were instructed we could not do communion in a natural and dispersed manner because the Archbishop had forbidden it. It was not so at the Reformation in England.
Of course in those days the issues were life or death, not just institutional conformity. To be on the wrong side of the authority of the realm could mean, and often did mean, martyrdom. But men went to their death rather than forfeit their freedom won in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of them were lay Christians, others were ordained priests and bishops. The blood of those martyrs watered the soil that finally gave birth to the reformed Church of England. And Thomas Cranmer sought to preserve that freedom in the liturgy he bequeathed to the ages. Nowhere more than in his guidance and teaching given to the presbyters. They were to take up the ancient mantel of the apostolic office. They were to enter into the ministry of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Ordained to preach the gospel and guide the local church into holiness, they were called to stand in the shadow of those martyrs and lead boldly. They were not ordained to be passive.
How then do we explain the gradual surrender of priestly, presbyteral, authority to the bishops as “always in charge” instead of rightly seeing bishops as historically evolved servants of those “actually in charge” in the parish? It started slowly, and grew for over a century, but it was finally explicit in the Book of Common Prayer of 1979. And because clergy eyes had grown old, most did not see. In that book he is now the ordinary leader for all services. He was now the fount of all authority. He had become again a “prince.”
Next Week: “None are So Blind….”