Growing up in tiny, rural communities dominated by Calvinist flavors of Christianity, I had no exposure to priests in my early years. Our church had its own authority figures – elders and pastors – but priests seemed exotic and mysterious. I was well into my 20s before I met a priest, and it was decades later before I started to think what priestly liberty might mean.
My first priest encounter occurred when my ex-partner’s mother died and we rushed to Syracuse, New York for the funeral. Life was stress-filled in those days, and the trip pushed my stress level so high that I got my first and only prescription for Xanax from my doctor.
My ex’s family was Roman Catholic, and I had no idea what to expect. My anxiety spiked when I agreed to read scripture at the funeral. The family’s priest, a middle-aged guy in a black suit and clerical collar, gave me minimal instruction. He probably didn’t know that I’d never been in a Catholic church before. Looking back, I did a lot of things “wrong” during that reading. I walked in front of the altar without bowing. I failed to call Paul “saint.” I’m sure it was plain to everyone that I wasn’t a Catholic. The priest certainly picked up that message.
Near the end of the funeral it came time for Communion. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but just followed those around me as they walked up to the altar rail in single file. I carefully observed what the people in front of me did – holding out their cupped hands to receive a white disc of “bread” from the priest and reverently putting it in their mouth. When I reached the front of the line I held out my hands too, but the priest placed his own hand over the container of “bread” discs, and said “Bless you” in a tone that said “next please, let’s keep the line moving.” I was shocked and confused, but knew enough to walk back to my seat. The experience left me feeling like an outsider, an unwelcome presence, a violation to the sensibilities of all the “good people” around me. In time I came to understand that the priest was just doing his job – controlling access to the body of Christ, ensuring that only true believers of the Roman Catholic variety partook of the sacrament. He did what priests have done for eons – controlled access to the Divine.
A few years later I had another close encounter with a priest with a very different outcome. It occurred at a memorial service for a friend who died of AIDS. Bob was a devout, “pre-Vatican-Two” Catholic who attended mass only when it was said in Latin. He left instructions that a Rosary be said for his memorial service. Most of us, his friends, had no idea what that might entail, but we gathered at his favorite Catholic church in San Francisco nonetheless to honor him.
When the priest came into the side chapel where we were gathered he was wearing street clothes, with another bunch of clothing over his arm. “Bob was a traditional one,” he joked as he gathered us together. “I know many of you cared deeply for Bob, but that you also have no idea what a Rosary is.” He continued to explain the entire ritual, beginning with each item of ceremonial clothing he donned and continuing on into what the Rosary itself included and what each part of it meant. He then proceeded to say the Rosary. What could have been an excruciating 45 minutes for a bunch of non-Catholics became a cherished remembrance. This priest did not block access to the Divine; he invited us in and enabled us to be included.
The Baptist concept of Priestly Liberty speaks to both of these encounters. First, no one can control our access to God, to the Sacred, the Holy. Priests do not stand between Baptists and Communion, determining who may participate and who may not. At Seattle First Baptist Church all are welcome to partake and we serve each other the bread and the cup as we pass the plates around. It’s not just a matter of convenience or expedience; it is a ritual in ministering to each other.
And with that freedom comes responsibility. We all must seek out the Divine, and help each other find our way to what is Holy. We all are empowered to minister to each other. Yes, our pastors who this professionally, but each of us has the right and the duty to commune with the Sacred, and to invite others into God’s presence.
The world needs priests. Even Baptists need priests. Not to control access to God, but to enable it. Each of us has a part to play in communing with the Divine.