Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

The Duties of the Priests – From the Daily Office – June 19, 2013

From the First Book of Samuel:

Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Samuel 2:12-13a (NRSV) – June 19, 2013.)

High Priest Offering Sacrifice of a Goat“. . . the duties of the priests to the people . . . ”

Canon 9 of Title III of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church is entitled “Of the Life and Work of Priests.” It is ten and a half pages long; several of its paragraphs begin with the words, “It shall be the duty . . . .”

The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer teaches:

The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.

In the service of ordination of a priest, the candidate for ordination is asked early in the liturgy:

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

Later in the service, the bishop addresses the ordinand with these words:

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.

The ordinand is then asked eight more questions requiring him or her to promise to faithfully carry out specific ministries or to order his or her life in a particular way.

When the bishop and other presbyters lay hands upon the ordinand, the bishop prays:

Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to N.; fill him with grace and power, and make him a priest in your Church. May he exalt you, O Lord, in the midst of your people; offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you; boldly proclaim the gospel of salvation; and rightly administer the sacraments of the New Covenant. Make him a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise councilor. Grant that in all things he may serve without reproach, so that your people may be strengthened and your Name glorified in all the world. All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. [The pronouns are changed when the ordinand is a woman.]

When a priest accepts the call to be rector of a parish, he or she kneels in the center of the church’s worship space in the midst of the people and prays:

O Lord my God, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; yet you have called your servant to stand in your house, and to serve at your altar. To you and to your service I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit. Fill my memory with the record of your mighty works; enlighten my understanding with the light of your Holy Spirit; and may all the desires of my heart and will center in what you would have me do. Make me an instrument of your salvation for the people entrusted to my care, and grant that I may faithfully administer your holy Sacraments, and by my life and teaching set forth your true and living Word. Be always with me in carrying out the duties of my ministry. In prayer, quicken my devotion; in praises, heighten my love and gratitude; in preaching, give me readiness of thought and expression; and grant that, by the clearness and brightness of your holy Word, all the world may be drawn into your blessed kingdom. All this I ask for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“. . . the duties of the priests to the people . . . ”

I was a law office administrator and later a lawyer. I was an active member of the church. I served on the diocesan council, the commission on ministry, the camp and conference center board, and several other committees, commissions, and task forces. I even became the diocesan chancellor (the chief legal office of a diocese). From time to time my bishop (first Wes Frensdorff and then Stewart Zabriskie, both now departed) would say something like, “Why don’t we get you ordained?” or “When are you going to go to seminary?” or some other encouragement to take on the life and work of a priest, to bear the burden of “the duties of the priests to the people.” I would answer in protest, “I’m happy being a layman.”

Until one day, I couldn’t protest any longer. A friend who wanted to be a priest (he was a gas company engineer) but couldn’t afford the cost of changing careers died. He was only 45. At his funeral, I said to my wife, “I can’t do this anymore.” I started into the ordination process.

“. . . the duties of the priests to the people . . . ”

I didn’t want them. They can be onerous and burdensome. I don’t know how many of the duties of an Episcopal priest were also the duties of the priests of God at Shiloh. I know they had some duties that I’m very thankful we don’t have, like sacrificing animals. But I’ll bet the sons of Eli didn’t want them. The Law and the traditional inheritance of their tribe required that they do them, but I’ll bet they really didn’t want to, and that’s why they became “scoundrels.”

No one who does not feel that he or she cannot do anything else should take on “the duties of the priests to the people.” Maybe we ask the wrong questions at ordination. The really important question is “Can you do anything else?” because if you can, we shouldn’t be ordaining you. Our ordination screening process, the “discernment process” is (I guess) supposed to answer that question, although I’m not sure it does. But that is the most important question. Unless you simply cannot not be a priest, don’t be one.

“. . . the duties of the priests to the people . . . ”

They are often onerous and burdensome. I didn’t want them. In many ways, I still don’t want them. But I cannot not be a priest.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.


  1. Georgia DuBose+

    I think your question is important, Eric+–probably the most important question facing a priest. However, the fact is that both you and I can do, and have done, other work. It is just that we have been CALLED to this work. This is the only work I have ever done in which, when I am “doing” it (or it is being done through me) I am not thinking that I should be writing, or mowing the lawn, or polishing the furniture, or doing the laundry, or washing the car. I am totally engaged in celebrating the Eucharist, or being with someone who is ill, or preaching a sermon, and I never have the feeling, “Well this is interesting work, but I have the nagging sense that I should be doing something else.” To have that experience for the first time at the age of 59 was life-changing, because I had done a lot of different jobs in my life. I am profoundly grateful to the people who first suggested that I should pray about a vocation to the priesthood, because I never would have thought of doing so myself. As long as I refused to consider that request, it did not leave me alone. I am just sorry for the time I wasted saying “Oh, no, Lord, not I.” When I finally said, “Here I am, Lord; send me,” it was a moment of true freedom.

  2. eric

    “As long as I refused to consider that request, it did not leave me alone.” — Yes, Georgia . . . God is a nag!

  3. Betty Kondrich

    Frankly, this is a question for laypeople to ask of themselves also. To serve the Church in any capacity is to answer God’s call. I feel that call whenever my heart veers and I consider doing something else.

  4. Shelley Huston

    I’m not sorry for saying, “Not me, Lord. At least not in this life.” I’m only a marginally competent warden. No way could I be a priest with all that responsibility. I’m not conflicted at all either. God has plenty of uses for me beyond the priesthood. I have enough difficulty allowing that. I’m trying but God can be trying too. Fortunately God has a wonderful sense of humor.

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