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Priesthood for all Believers: Clericalism and how to avoid it by Simon Cuff

08 July 2022

Ann Morisy looks how valuing the diaconate helps with priesthood

THIS is a book about clericalism: the elevation of certain models, vocations or ways of being church in such a way as to diminish others, to quote the author. Simon Cuff’s argument is that efforts to move on from priestly forms of ministry as an antidote to clericalism are misguided.

Here, I assume, he is referring to approaches to church leadership associated with fresh expressions of church. For Cuff, a better way is to embrace a more intentional focus on the capacity of the priest to liberate others for their vital and particular vocations; for deacons to direct the Church’s focus to the margins and “fold in” those at risk of exclusion; and bishops to have oversight of all of this by continually assessing actions against Jesus’s priesthood.

Cuff examines the Letter to the Hebrews and St John’s Gospel to demonstrate the ways in which Jesus embraced the role of High Priest as he journeyed towards his personal rather than animalistic sacrifice: his anointing by Mary at Bethany, washing his disciples’ feet serving to extend a priestly prerogative to them, his seamless robe alludes to the distinctive robe of the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Cuff emphasises that, most importantly, Jesus expands our vision of what the priesthood might be and our expectations of who might be called to serve as priest, and this serves as the basis for anti-clericalism.

Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers, Cuff suggests, serves to deny the concept of the laity, as well as make clericalism and new forms of elitism more difficult to diagnose. He warms, however, to Luther’s desire to ground ministerial priesthood firmly within the baptised people of God. The challenge then becomes to devise a process of ministerial calling which achieves this instead of allowing the priesthood to degenerate into a clerical self-replicating elite. How to achieve such untainted processes Cuff leaves hanging. This is a significant shortfall, leaving Cuff to rely on the secret (the word Cuff uses) prayers said by the priest at the eucharist, along with eastward celebration, as his antidotes to clericalism.

By way of Clement of Rome, Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage, and Rowan of Oystermouth, Cuff traces the language and theology of Christian ministry, culminating in priests, deacons, and bishops, ever bound to Christ’s priestly actions at the Last Supper, leading to the celebration of the eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation.

The habit of overlooking the ministry of the deacon (permanent and distinctive), Cuff suggests, is indicative of clericalism, especially when priesthood becomes associated with leadership and the deacon with service. The deacon has a specific commission to those on the margins, and to name the processes of marginalisation, and in doing this bringing health back to the Church and countering the urge toward clericalism.

Whom is this book for? The use of the pronouns “we” and “us” make it clear that it is for those embarked on a priestly journey, both Father and Mother. Distinctive deacons will rejoice at their recognition, and I, as a lay person, will ponder whether I belong to the “they”.

Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.


Priesthood for all Believers: Clericalism and how to avoid it
Simon Cuff
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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