Upon meeting Dorothy, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, asks, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” When Dorothy tells her that she’s not a witch, Glinda proceeds to the next obvious candidate, Toto, Dorothy’s dog, because clearly someone must be a witch. We are like that, except that we’re not witches, we are priests, all of us. According to The Reverend Dr. L. William Countryman, “Priesthood is common to us all, yet it is lived out in myriad ways.” (Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All)
We are all priests in what Countryman calls “the fundamental human priesthood.” That priesthood “is a fundamental and inescapable part of being human.” We can’t help but be priests, and, as priests, “everyone has a vocation leading them into a deeper acquaintance with God and so bringing them home to our true humanity in God’s presence.”
Our own “Outline of the Faith,” the Catechism, says much the same thing:
- Who are the ministers of the Church?
- The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Lay persons?! That’s us! We are ministers—priests—of the church.
The Catechism goes on to explain what our priesthood—our ministry—is:
- What is the ministry of the laity?
- The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
That sounds very much like a priest to me. Represent Christ and his Church? Check. Carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world? Check. As a matter of fact, the first line answering the question, “What is the ministry of a priest?” is “to represent Christ and his Church. The big difference between the ministry of someone called a priest and the laity is the “priest” administers sacraments. (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 855-56)
The question then becomes, to paraphrase Glinda, “Are you a good priest or a bad priest?” Countryman explains that “priesthood becomes dangerous partly because we try to use it as one more opportunity for human competition.” He gives the Genesis story of Cain’s and Abel’s sacrifices as an example. God “looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” (Genesis 4:4-5) No reason is given for God’s preference, but Cain becomes angry. For Cain, it was a competition, and he had lost. He found that he could not use God to his own ends, and, according to Countryman, “his priesthood became malignant, and he made himself a murderer.”
What, then, is required to be a “good priest”? “Faithful humility, hopeful patience, love, integrity—these are the keys.” But, Countryman warns that, “even if we cultivate such virtues . . . there is no possibility of mastering this priesthood, only a hope that it may master us.” It is a conversation with God, and God may decide when and to whom to speak, just as he spoke favorably to Abel. It is in our response—our part of the conversation—that we show ourselves to be good—or bad—priests.
So, are you a good priest or a bad priest? Clearly, we must be one or the other.