A Pandemic Priesthood: A Reflection on Vocation in Strange Days

A Pandemic Priesthood

Stuart Higginbotham

This morning, forty-six days after I closed our campus and we moved our shared ministries to our homes and an online platform, we gathered for our weekly Sunday service of Morning Prayer via Zoom.  (As an update, we really are getting better at logging in and aiming the camera at our actual faces rather than one ear or merely our legs, as was the custom for some early on). 

Each Sunday when we meet, I give a Community Minute update that highlights various parts of our common life.  It gives me an opportunity to gather insights from the prior week’s conversations and summarize where we are as well as offer markers for possible next steps in the week to come.  Lately these updates have been running a bit long, with all we have to hold as a community of a thousand souls.  

Now that our governor has made it at least theoretically possible (however unwise) for small groups of ten or less to gather, we are sharing a theological conversation around what it is like to see clergy celebrating the Eucharist on a screen with the congregation sharing visually in the celebration from their homes.

I asked the staff and vestry to join with me in discerning next steps as we listened to various perspectives on what such a visual communion might feel like.  While my heart yearns for us to be together, understanding my vocation as gathering the people together for prayer, I am aware that, for many, seeing prayer “being done” from the familiar space of our chancel might be deeply meaningful.  For others it may cause grief with the feelings of distance and the inability to share in the bread and wine.  

For the entire span of my ordination, I have known that the majority of the parish encounters me as a priest only on Sunday mornings.  Their experience consists of me being dressed a certain way, saying specific prayers in a formal way, and standing in a particular place.  These days, they are as likely to find me in an old Sewanee t-shirt sitting in our living room next to a cat as they are wearing a clerical collar and posed next to a bookshelf.  In fact, when I left my office with bags of what I thought would be the essential items to use in my new home broadcasting studio, I realized I had brought my meditation bowl, my favorite prayer shawl, books of poetry, and two large bags of dark chocolate.  The thought never crossed my mind to bring actual vestments home.  (Why would I have ever worn vestments at home before?) After wearing only a clerical collar the first Sunday, I didn’t think it important to make a trip back for full vestments.  

I don’t write this to judge anyone, because I know that every clergy person is trying to figure this out as best as he or she can.  Furthermore, every parishioner has been moved out of a space steeped in countless prayers and the hint of lingering incense to find themselves proclaiming “Christ has risen indeed!” with the lingering smell of last night’s tuna casserole.  These are curious days.

All this to say that this far in, it seems to me that, when it comes to a priestly vocation, what really matters is not where you stand but how you stand.  What is the posture we are taking now that we are in this strange space of prayer, formation, and community?  My grandmother was right: your posture matters.  She was talking about slouching shoulders, but the principle stands all the more with recognizing the importance of nurturing a contemplative posture that is grounded in the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ.

This Sunday morning, I invited my parish to explore the ordination rite for a priest from the Book of Common Prayer as I shared with them how this series of words in my own vows helps nurture the nimble, grounded presence I think is called for during these days.  Here’s a brief reflection, for what it’s worth, on the images in these vows. 

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and example and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, 

When I reflect on this first line, it strikes me that there are three layers here to my public ministry.  First, I am called to proclaim by word, to tell the people entrusted to my care that God’s love for them is the absolute foundation of their lives.  I’m also called to give them examples of this wisdom, nurturing their own sense of deepening participation in the mystery of God’s own divine life.  

At first, it may look like the third element “deed,” is superfluous, but I don’t think it is.  While I consider offering examples to be a key piece of formation in taking the theoretical and moving toward the embodied, I think “deed” means that I better pay close attention to my own life and how I nurture my spiritual heart as I live my life–and people watch.  Now they’re just meddling.

and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts.  

I told you so.  We’re called to pattern our own lives with the Gospel’s precepts, so it is essential that we cultivate a practice of prayer that will help ground us when the inevitable pressure comes our way.  The Gospel is relentless in its call to a life of holiness.  God’s grace is relentless as well in its loving and forgiving embrace, so we can rest more and more in that reality rather than our own clever ideas, I think.  That being said, prayer is essential.

You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.  

When I read this, I wish they had kept going with the list of dualisms, just to make the point that every single dualistic framework we can think of–every either/or that we think we can hide behind or use for our own sense of self-righteousness–is meant to be transcended in the practice of our faith.

Also, I love the way this is framed with “among whom you work” and not “whom you lead.” This distinction has been so very important for me as I remember that I do not lead from ahead, so to speak, with the pretense that I have all the answers.  There is wisdom in a deeper reflection on what it means for God to dwell within us as we seek to understand what spiritual leadership looks like.  These are the days of a priesthood of presence.

You are to preach, 

And keep on preaching, recognizing that preparing for sermons and writing them is deep spiritual work that should be done in the sight of the rest of the staff team “among whom you work” (see above).  Since we can’t be in our offices together, we find ourselves needing to cultivate rhythms of study and prayer in our days, so that our hearts can listen deeply for the Spirit’s voice.  Do we talk about our sermons with our colleagues?  Do we bounce ideas off our staff and vestries and conversations with folks as we scroll through the directory to make phone calls?

When it comes to sermons, while it is always good to understand the importance of a grounded Trinitarian theology, I want to spend more time actually talking with folks and learning their stories about where God’s grace has surprised them in moments of darkness.  “Tell me a story about that”is an invitation that will always foster relationship.

to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, 

Oh I think this is so important, because people need to be reminded that God loves them!  These days lend themselves to sadness and grief, to be sure.  There is a tendency on one hand to look toward blame, and so many feel they are falling short of what they should be doing.  Folks feel like they should be producing something (or is that just me?). 

What does it mean that we have the opportunity to invite people into a conversion experience, a transformation of the heart?  Where do we find hope and peace in the midst of all this anxiety and fear?

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, 

While this may be the first time the formal, sacramental liturgies show up in the ordination vows, it is by no means the first time that we experienced the sacramental grace of God, as noted above.  This is why I think it is essential to see that it is far more important to nurture how you stand than where you stand.  Thomas Keating wrote once that “we receive the sacraments to become the sacraments,” and I think that is holy wisdom to keep close to my heart.  

And bless!  How are we blessing the glimpses of God’s grace around us?  “Give us eyes to see and ears to hear,” we say, as we support one another in our lives these days.  Also, I think that a life in deeper attunement with God’s indwelling presence can’t help but spill blessings out all over the place.

and to perform other ministrations entrusted to you.  

Here we could insert all “sorts and conditions” of tasks, from business meetings to completing reports to speaking to locale casserole clubs to, yes, managing fifty-seven Zoom calls with people who still only show you their ear because they don’t realize they have the video function turned on on their phone.  Every single time we have struggled with a Zoom call because someone wasn’t sure if everyone else could hear their voice–but they kept trying to speak and others waited to listen–I know full well that is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

At the end of the day, I think the framers (who I assumed had been around for a good long while and had run into truth here and there) were reminding us that we need to be nimble.  Again, this is why I think cultivating a posture is essential, because I can pivot in many directions if I am grounded in my own practice of prayer.  Otherwise, I topple over at the first wind of critique that blows my way.  

[The pause]

So, I don’t know if the framers of the rite meant to put a pause here, but they did, and it is very meaningful for me.  There’s an actual space on the page before the next sentence, and I take that space to mean we should pause and breathe and reflect on what we have just said we wanted (to try) to do.  With God’s grace.  Because God knows we will need it.  Pauses are essential.

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.

This last sentence means the world to me, because it reminds me just where the font, the source, of all this goodness really is: with Christ.  I am called to nourish Christ’s people with Christ’s grace–not my own cleverness or seemingly well-organized plans or selfish agendas framed with exquisite theological language.  At the end of the day, this is about Christ’s grace that flows into us and through us, and that grace is the only thing that will sustain us through these strange, anxious, fearful, and oftentimes imaginative days we are sharing.  And now, for the next part.

My brother or sister, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to this priesthood?

I believe I am so called.

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