On Priesthood: Servants, shepherds, messengers, sentinels, stewards, by Stephen Cottrell

15 May 2020

Graham James reads thoughts on priesthood inspired by the Ordinal

ANYONE wanting to discover what animates the next Archbishop of York should read this book, based on Stephen Cottrell’s ordination charges over the years. Although focused on priesthood, we learn much about his wider theology and personality. He inhabits pastures rich in scripture, peopled by the greatest and wisest minds of the Church down the centuries, and grounded in more than 30 years of ministerial experience. His hinterland embraces the fields of poetry and music and much else besides. This is catholic writing in every sense.

A great joy of episcopal ministry is to charge those about to be ordained. An ordination charge is not simply another address. Nerves are jangling since the ordinands are on the cusp of a life-changing experience. The hint of a military metaphor in the word “charge” may discomfort some, but the newly ordained are being sent on active service. There will be conflicts ahead, never minimised here, though the greatest battles may lie within their hearts and souls. Cottrell rejoices in the responsibility and delight of the priestly vocation, but the words in the Ordinal immediately before the prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit are never forgotten: “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength”.

The five words of the subtitle — servant, shepherd, messenger, sentinel, and steward — are used in the Common Worship Ordinal to describe the office and work of a priest. Cottrell traces their use back to Cranmer’s Ordinal of 1550. They appear to have no earlier or ancient source. Intriguingly, other Anglican Provinces do not seem to have adopted them; so this is a very Church of England contribution to the theology of priesthood.

Each descriptor has a chapter to itself, developed from an ordination charge. The exposition of the priest as sentinel seems the most ground-breaking. It was the subject of the author’s MA thesis, which may explain why it’s the one chapter that reads more like an essay than a charge to ordinands. As a sentinel, the priest occupies a strategic vantage point, looking attentively both at God and the world. It is argued that prophetic ministry will be possible only if waiting on God in prayer, the activity at the heart of the contemplative life, is practised as much as being attentive to the world and its needs.

Cottrell suggests, perhaps mischievously, but with deep seriousness, that a key performance indicator of priests should be “time spent looking at God and looking at the world”. His book offers the sort of theological infrastructure that the ministry of priests will need in the future, especially as the Church of England enters uncharted territory as a consequence of Covid-19. We can thank God that the Province of York will be blessed by a prayerful sentinel occupying his watchman’s perch at Bishopthorpe.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.


On Priesthood: Servants, shepherds, messengers, sentinels, stewards
Stephen Cottrell
Hodder & Stoughton £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £11.70

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