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The Priesthood of All Believers: The Uses and Abuses of a Doctrine

By Elizabeth Anderson

“A lay theologian,” the bishop said with obvious repugnance, “is simply a logical contradiction, which undermines the entire ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church. People who are competent and called to teach theology are, by definition, people who are called to be ordained. ‘Lay theologians’ are simply what happens if a church refuses to recognize the ordained vocations of some of its members. The Roman Catholic Church created this whole lay theologian problem by refusing to recognize the ordained vocations of women and of married men, but a church that opens ordination to everyone should never have allowed such a fundamental confusion of roles to creep in.”

Although I was somewhat surprised to learn that my existence was a logical contradiction, I nevertheless felt a small amount of pride. If I had already managed to undermine an entire ecclesiology merely by getting out of bed that morning, who even knew what I might accomplish after a few cups of coffee?

Yet I also had a nagging worry that the bishop might not be entirely incorrect about the Episcopal Church’s teaching, however much I might wish him to be. Although we often claim to have a “baptismal ecclesiology,” we nevertheless struggle to articulate what such a thing would mean in practice. In these articulations, we often vaguely invoke the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers but interpret it in very different ways. Some Episcopalians place theology and spirituality within the exclusive domain of the clergy, insisting that the common priesthood of the church is held in trust by the ministerial priesthood, while the calling of the laity is inherently secular in nature. Others adopt a model in which the laity essentially become junior clerics, participating in the same kinds of training and ministry as clergy, but in a diluted and less intensive way.

Neither of these two dominant models seems to leave any room in it for someone like me, and I have been told by a surprising number of Episcopalians that I really just need to get ordained or find another church, because laypeople who have a fundamentally ecclesiastical calling are simply not compatible with our polity.

This dynamic is gendered as well. Several of my male colleagues who are lay theologians have shared that the Episcopal Church often treats them with profound confusion, but rarely with hostility. Yet as a woman, my discernment that I can probably serve God better as a layperson is often interpreted by others as being some kind of implicit objection to the ordination of women, as though that were the only possible explanation for such eccentricity. I have often been lectured about how my being “willing to settle for second best” inherently undermines the ministry of female clergy, as if a calling to serve God as a layperson is only something you have if you are not willing or able to do something “better.”

I want, nevertheless, to believe that there can be a place for laity such as myself in this church. Some of those laypeople may even one day be called to ordination. But even if that should happen, it should not render their current existence as theologically trained laity any less valid, as if they were simply some kind of proto-priests stuck in limbo while awaiting their true calling. In the remainder of this essay, I want to explore the two dominant models that I have encountered in the Episcopal Church for understanding the role of the laity and suggest a third model in which both theology and spirituality are viewed as properly belonging to the entire Church rather than being linked to a particular order of ministry.

“Are You a Priest, or Are You Just Here as Someone’s Wife?”:
The Functionalist Approach to Christian Ministry

In seeking to clarify different vocations within the church, one emphasis in recent decades has been a functionalist approach, which seeks to define each order in terms of what it does. The primary concern is to avoid any role confusion or overlap of tasks. Deacons advocate for justice and serve those who are in need. Priests preach, teach, and administer the sacraments. Bishops exercise a ministry of oversight.

The religious life, too, is increasingly defined by what it does (keeping a rule of daily prayer), rather than by a particular kind of relationship to the wider Christian community that is expressed through the traditional evangelical counsels of poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience. The result has been a rapid proliferation of new, dispersed, religious communities, which are defined by a rule of spiritual discipline that is fully compatible with marriage and property ownership, and whose visibility within the Episcopal Church often eclipses that of the traditional orders. To commit to a dedicated and disciplined life of prayer and spiritual growth is thus no longer the mark of a devout layperson or a holy priest, but is rather seen as a sign of religious vocation.

What, then, remains for the rest of the laity when all this carving up of functions is done? The only thing left is the domain of the secular. The place of a layperson is firmly within the world, and the role of the laity within the church extends only to the church’s temporal affairs. As a 2013 report of the House of Bishops Ecclesiology Committee explains, Episcopal polity emphasizes shared leadership between clergy and laity, in which clergy are responsible for worship, proclaiming the Gospel, and teaching the faith, and “the laypeople take responsibility for finances, and for maintaining the properties of the congregation for the use by the rector for ministry.” While this distinction has the benefit of being very tidy —  it could fit neatly into a seamless organizational chart with no ambiguity in which duties belong to whom — I will admit to some skepticism about just how many laypeople are going to be persuaded to embark upon an enthralling adventure of Christian discipleship if their call to follow Christ is defined not only by the joys of budgets but also by the delights of property management!

In seeking to explain this sense of a clear distinction between the roles of clergy and of laity, this tradition is keen to stress that the priesthood of all believers is not the priesthood of every believer. The priesthood does indeed belong to the church collectively, but it is exercised by only some members of the church on behalf of the others. The people of Israel, after all, were described as a kingdom of priests in Exodus 19:6, but it was the priests and Levites who performed obviously priestly functions. In this model, the Church can thus become so closely identified with the clergy that there is no imaginable way for a layperson to live out a calling that is primarily within the church without being seen as a wannabe cleric, someone who has chosen existence as a pseudo-priest rather than adopting an appropriately lay spirituality that finds its expression in the secular realm. Thus, when attending the meetings of ecumenical organizations or gatherings of Anglican theologians, I am frequently asked, “Are you a priest, or are you just here as someone’s wife?” The idea that a layperson might be both interested and competent to be present in her own right, rather than “just as someone’s wife” isn’t even considered.

Too much interest in theology, or even in spirituality, is often regarded as unseemly in a layperson. At best, it is seen as a sign of an incipient calling to ordination. At worst, one is subjected to lectures on topics such as how profoundly inappropriate it is for a layperson to presume to pray the Daily Office. The Office (it has been explained to me more than once) is intended to be recited by the clergy, and for a layperson to adopt it is a kind of illicit trespass on clerical piety. Many priests insist (quite correctly) that “the first work of a priest is prayer,” but they often neglect the fact that this is true only because prayer is a primary and universal calling of all Christians, not because prayer is some kind of exclusive clerical prerogative. Yet catching a layperson in possession of an Office book is rather like catching her secretly trying on chasubles in the sacristy —  at best, the immature exploration of someone with a genuine priestly call; at worst, an offensive form of trespass.

Because it is the unique responsibility of priests and bishops to preside at the Eucharist, the Eucharist, too, has often become identified exclusively with priestly spirituality rather than with the worship of the whole Church. Those in the ordination process are often (wisely) coached to wax lyrical about their deep sense of calling to celebrate the Eucharist, but since we do not permit private Masses, such a calling (while unquestionably a real one) is properly the calling of the entire Christian community, which offers the Eucharist on behalf of the world. I have been told by many different seminarians over the years that this was one time in the ordination process when they simply had to lie in order to say what their Commission on Ministry wanted to hear —  not because they felt no such call, but because they understood quite correctly that they were already fulfilling it.

It is true, however, that the Eucharist frequently becomes an act of the clergy, in which the laity are merely passive recipients — a symbolism strengthened by practices such as concelebration or by giving all clergy and seminarians present a piece of the priest’s host, while laity get individual wafers. I have frequently been at Masses where I am the only one present who is neither priest nor seminarian, and thus I have sometimes found myself the only one left in the nave while everyone else clusters around the altar. I then wait patiently at the altar rail while the celebrant searches around on the paten for the one piece of the body of Christ that I am allowed to receive. The overwhelming sense conveyed by this symbolism is that the Church is fundamentally a kind of clerical association, in which those who are not ordained are, at best, merely affiliate members.

Yet the idea that each order or pattern of Christian ministry consists of a unique job description sits uneasily with both Christian history and Episcopal polity. As a member of the Executive Council I engage in a ministry of oversight within the Episcopal Church, but I am under no illusion that a calling to that role has somehow transformed me into a bishop. When I engage in works of justice and mercy, no one wonders suspiciously why I am trespassing on the ministry of a deacon. I regularly preach, teach theology, and offer spiritual direction, but I am very self-aware about doing those things precisely in my identity as a layperson rather than in some kind of imitation of priestly ministry. And I have spent enough time living alongside the sisters of different religious orders to be acutely aware of all of the ways in which my own life is not the same as theirs, even if it has much the same external form, including singleness, a rule of prayer, and even more poverty! It is different not because of a difference in form or in function, but because of a difference in the specific kinds of relationships one has, both to other people within one’s local Christian community and to the Church as a whole.

Not only do the laity rightly participate in many roles within the church, but clergy also remain thoroughly embedded within the secular, whether they like it or not. I have never seen a priest successfully evade budget committees or property management, however hard some of them may try! But a priest is not somehow less authentically a priest when she is on the finance committee than when she is at the altar. A deacon is not somehow undermining the diaconate if she follows in the footsteps of deacon theologians such as Ephrem, Alcuin, and Evagrius and expresses her diaconate primarily through preaching and teaching rather than through advocacy or direct service to those in need. And a layperson is not somehow less authentically a layperson if she is teaching at a seminary or serving as a spiritual director than she would be if she were working in law or real estate.

Indeed, all of these false binaries — sacred/secular, spiritual/material, contemplation/action, Church /world, clergy/laity — imply a kind of dualism that is fundamentally incompatible with orthodox Christianity. In the incarnation, Christ has perfectly united the spiritual and the material in himself. To carve them up again into hermetically sealed spheres rests uneasily with that fundamental truth, and risks undermining the Christian proclamation by treating Christianity as though it belonged only within a tiny portion of life rather than within all of it.

The crossing of such boundaries, by which laypeople also take on sacred and spiritual responsibilities, and clergy also engage in secular and material work, symbolically deconstructs the false notion that people’s identities are properly constituted by what they do. Just as the Persons of the Trinity are identified by their relationships to one another rather than by each having a unique job to perform, so Christians callings also find their shape in a certain mode of relationship to others rather than each being primarily identified with a particular function or task.

“Real” Theologians and “Professional” Church Historians:
Ordination as Professional Credentialing

There is another, subtler, trap that some churches fall into, in which they try to efface the difference between clergy and laity altogether. This seems to be intended as a kind of democratization, but it has actually tended to result in brand new forms of clericalism. Although the functionalist model relegates laity to the secular sphere, within that sphere they are often accorded a high degree of autonomy and respect. But when clergy and laity no longer perform separate functions, the difference between them often becomes merely one of degree, and is expressed as the difference between professionals and amateurs.

In this model, the fundamental calling of every Christian is identical, and so ordination is treated as a kind of professional credentialing for church leadership, with laity functioning as unpaid junior assistants who help the clergy to perform liturgical and ministerial tasks. The role of the ordained minister is to help enable the ministry of the laity — with the assumption that those who are ordained necessarily possess more education and training, which they can pass down in a kind of diluted form to laypeople. A layperson with an M.Div., much less an M.Div. and a Ph.D., is thus simply unintelligible, like someone who graduates from law school but then refuses to take the bar exam. The canons themselves seem to support this view of Christian ministry as professional credentialing, with their stipulation (admittedly widely ignored) that laypeople must be appropriately licensed and clerically supervised for almost any kind of church role, whether that is being an evangelist or administering the chalice at the Eucharist.

This understanding of the laity tolerates the existence of a lay theologian in church gatherings, but since she is regarded by definition as an amateur, she is likely to be treated as the equivalent of an unpaid intern, relegated to tasks such as silently taking minutes and fetching coffee. I was once told (by another bishop) that the work I had been assigned would be more appropriately handled by “a real theologian or a professional Church historian.” Since I had a Ph.D. in theology and was teaching Church history at a seminary, I was moderately surprised to learn that I apparently lacked reality; but it turned out that by “real” and “professional” he did not mean a more senior scholar, but simply someone who was ordained. It has become a kind of joke on many church committees that “the youngest laywoman always has to take the minutes,” but the joke would not be funny if there were not so much truth in it.

When ordination is seen as a kind of professional credentialing, ordination status is also completely acceptable grounds for employment discrimination, even when a job has no sacramental functions. If a community is seeking a priest, no one would seriously suggest that it is discriminatory to exclude lay applicants, but for office jobs in church organizations a stated preference for ordination becomes more puzzling. My most striking job rejection was when a seminary dean (who probably would have been wiser to simply send a generic rejection letter about their many qualified applicants) called me to say, “I’m sure you can understand that obviously we would just prefer a priest in this role. How could we possibly expect students to respect the authority of someone who hasn’t been through the same kind of professionalization and credentialing process that they have?” (I had no idea that offering myself for Christian ministry of any kind was supposed to be about the ability to get respect, but… duly noted.)

The unfortunate result of having spent so many years in theological study and church work is that nearly all of my friends and acquaintances are now clergy. Therefore, I am frequently the only layperson present as I listen to all of them collectively complain about laypeople, often with a kind of condescension and contempt. “Not you, Liza,” someone will nearly always add. “You’re not really a layperson. Not like the rest of them.” It is well-intentioned, but is uncomfortably reminiscent of being told by my high school and college friends, who were nearly all men, that I was nothing at all like the “women” they always complained so much about. I was intellectual and interesting to talk to, and so therefore I was basically an honorary man. But if being considered the social equal of clergy means that one is no longer regarded as a “real” layperson at all, what does that suggest about how one views the laity?

It is admittedly the case that, ultimately, clergy are simply more essential and thus are vastly more valued. Particularly in times of scarcity, lay professionals become a kind of luxury that the church can no longer afford. This is especially the case as many parts of the church increasingly move toward part-time and bivocational clergy. When their local church is under stress, there can be tremendous pressure placed on active lay leaders to be ordained “to help out on Sundays,” especially when they can study for ordination without leaving home or their primary career. While this is a generous response to a real need, when ordination is compatible with every other vocation and can simply be grafted on to whatever a person was already doing, it can easily take on the character of something that people are simply expected to do at a certain stage in their spiritual development. I have read far too many essays from seminarians who articulate their own call to ordination as simply a desire for the fullness of Christian maturity, in which God finally “brings to completion the work begun at their baptism.” At the beginning of their Christian ministry, while a layperson, their priest gradually helped them to do more and more, until ordination was simply the next obvious step along their path to Christian maturity.

Parishes that try to flatten the distinction between clergy and laity tend to speak often and enthusiastically about the priesthood of all believers, but what they really seem to be describing is the presbyterate of all believers, in which each person should aspire to act as their own elder, rendering their own judgments, determining their own mode of worship, and being guided by their own opinions and preferences. When one is fully committed to such a vocation, the natural outcome of that commitment would seem to be ordination, and even when one is still being formed in one’s Christian ministry, one should express as much autonomy and leadership as possible.

However, absolutely nothing in Scripture or tradition suggests that each and every one of us has a vocation to be an elder! And indeed, the word for priest used to discuss the priesthood of all believers is not presbyter at all, but rather hiereús, the term used throughout the Septuagint and the New Testament for a priest who offers sacrifices. In light of that, I would like to suggest a third possible way to understand the priesthood of all believers, which neither involves outsourcing the common priesthood to the ordained, nor embracing some kind of anarchy of universal eldership in which the priesthood of the baptized is simply about the democratization of leadership within the church.

The Common Priesthood of the Church

I want to assert that priestly vocation does belong to each Christian believer, but also to stress that it is not at all the same kind of vocation as a call to serve the church as a presbyter. The unfortunate use of the English term “priest” to describe both the common and the ministerial priesthood often obscures this, but the ambiguity does not occur in the Greek. The priestly vocation of the Christian is to consecrate the world to God, both through our labor and through our prayers. Whether in the liturgy or in our daily work, the human priestly vocation is to take material things and unite them to spiritual contemplations. Both inside and outside of the formal worship of the church, human beings take the material things that God first offered to us, unite them with our own labor and infusion of meaning, and offer them back to God.

Prayer and contemplation are thus central to the vocation of all Christians, both ordained and lay. The question of the relationship of Christian contemplative prayer to liturgical prayer often seems to be needlessly fraught, but many patristic texts speak of the two as mirror images of one another, in which the heart (or sometimes the mind) becomes the altar upon which every thought and every desire is sacrificed to God. This interior liturgy of the heart becomes a perfect mirror of the exterior liturgy offered in the sacraments.

All of human work, likewise, can be consecrated and done in harmony with the interior liturgy when work is understood as a way of making the entire world sacred through both contemplation and labor. This doesn’t mean that laypeople can (or need to) consecrate our own private Eucharists. It does, however, mean that even things like sweeping the floor or washing the dishes can be done as a genuinely eucharistic act when they are performed in harmony with the liturgy of the heart.

It seems to me that the church has often tended to forget that we exist to consecrate the world to God and, having forgotten about the world, it is the laity who often mistakenly come to take the place of inert matter, which the clergy then mold and offer to God. Laypeople can, indeed, be fully complicit in a kind of spiritual passivity, not recognizing their divine call to work for the sanctification of the world — not the world in the sense of the secular, “the world as opposed to the Church,” but rather, the entire cosmos.

All that I have said thus far is well supported by patristic tradition, most prominently in writers such as Origen, Pseudo-Macarius, and Maximus the Confessor. I would like to conclude, however, by offering perhaps a more provocative suggestion. According to the model I have outlined, the ultimate Christian calling is a contemplative one, a call to growth in holiness, and to bringing about the sanctification of the world by uniting material things to spiritual contemplations. All other calls recede before this fundamental one, in which both clergy and laity participate, and it is a contemplative calling that is nurtured by both profound prayer and serious theological study.

I am therefore intrigued by the possibility that specifically in their roles in Christian liturgy, clergy and laity function as types of the active and the contemplative life. In contrast to the stereotype that associates the clergy with all things prayerful and sacred, in the liturgy itself, it is actually the laity who fulfill the higher, contemplative half of the human vocation, while the clergy are called to descend from contemplation into the lower realm of action because charity and the needs of the Christian community demand it.

This is not meant to reinscribe lay passivity. The laity are not passive, but neither do they necessarily need to speak more words of the script (as liturgical reforms of recent decades have tended to stress), or to have more visible, active liturgical functions. Contemplation is not inactivity, and it is only a church that values action over contemplation that would insist that what laypeople really need is more liturgical things to do as opposed to more intensive training in prayer.

Outside of the liturgy, individual clergy and laypeople will be called to both action and contemplation in different ways and at different times. But within the liturgy, it is the laity who have the higher, contemplative role — seeking the “better part” of Mary while the clergy offer themselves for the role of Martha, forsaking (temporarily) the contemplative life themselves so that others may enjoy it. While clergy should ideally be called from among those who already possess enough facility in the contemplative life that their necessary descent into activity will leave their prayer life relatively undisturbed, liturgical obligations will likely impinge upon their prayers nevertheless, and thus it is the laity who are better positioned to uphold the contemplative part. Understood in this way, the false idea that sacred things belong more properly or more fully to the clergy is deliberately undermined by the liturgy, and its fundamental incoherence is revealed as the full Church fulfills its priestly role of interceding for the world and consecrating it to God’s service.

Elizabeth Anderson received her PhD in historical theology from Yale University, and is an assistant professor at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, MN.


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