My understanding of the priesthood perhaps dawned on me at the age of 15, shortly after the funeral of my father. A presbyter descended from a 400-year lineage of clergymen in the Ukrainian Church, my father had a knack for the unconventional. He would take semi-controversial stances for people to more deeply consider their faith; he would pose difficult questions, lovingly guiding the faithful to the the sheer basics of our faith – the ecumenical councils, the writings of our earliest Church Fathers, and the Gospels. It made him quite the popular guy – in the humblest variation of popularity, of course.
Growing up in the church rectory, and facing a fair amount of scrutiny, I understood early on that our family was hardly different from others. No more than any other family, we argued, slammed doors, got really frustrated with each other. Yeah, we sinned. No, we weren’t perfect – despite being at the head of our religious community.
As I stood at the head of the receiving line as 4,000 people paid their respects to my father, I could feel my life was changing in ways I wouldn’t expect. Time and time again, I would get a stern look from someone shaking my hand. “You are going to follow in his footsteps, right?” would come the question over and over, assured in the response. “You’re going to be a priest, aren’t you?”
In his first epistle, the Apostle Peter conjured a vision of the priesthood incongruous with how first-century Jews would have understood it. The Apostle Peter called everybody to the priesthood, wrecking the class system Judaism had developed with the temple and its elite priests at the top, impervious to sin and fallacy.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
Peter is directing this epistle, of course, to all baptized or soon-to-be baptized Christians, who are described by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians as “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; but all one in Christ Jesus.”
Before Christianity became an imperial religion, it spread based on these concepts proposed by Saints Peter and Paul – what some contemporary theologians would call the “radical equality of the baptized.” This means that no Christian is somehow called to a different level of holiness than someone ordained to specific responsibilities or ceremonial duties one day per week.
“In the Orthodox Church clergy is not above laity or opposed to it,” says Fr. Alexander Schmemann, one of the most prolific theologians of the 20th century.
The clergy are ordained to make the Church the gift of God,— the manifestation and communication of His truth, grace and salvation to men…The laity are ordained to make the Church the acceptance of that gift, the ‘Amen’ of mankind to God.
For this reason, our Churches have always maintained a Tradition of the vernacular. We are ordained to understand Scripture, to be able to engage with it, declare and affirm our faith in it.
Likewise, my father taught me that being a good Orthodox Christian means taking what you know from Tradition, Canons, and the Gospel to make your own decisions. It is in such a way that our Tradition avoids leading its faithful to clericalism, the concept that some sort of exceptional power is bestowed upon clergy.
If we are to take St. Peter at his word, which I recommend, then thinking independently and critically is what makes a priest – otherwise the praise we offer to God would be baseless, and we would lapse into a state of clericalism. The Gospel from St. John as well as the Acts of the Apostles repeatedly instruct us to bear witness for Christ; and we Christians need to put our beliefs through the metaphorical wringer before that can be done most effectively. Quite empowering, in my opinion!
I was once again ordained to the royal priesthood with that realization. Time will only tell if that’ll lead to the kind of priesthood mourners at my father’s funeral had in mind.