Christian Names

The eminently sensible Bosco Peters posted this piece a day or two ago about the titles we clergy give each other and the preposterous getups we wear to distinguish ourselves one from the other. I agree with Bosco completely on this one, though I must say that in our diocese the issue isn't as huge as it is some other places.  The word hierarchy means "rule by priests" and the fact that it has entered the English language with the particular meaning we now give it is testimony to the development of the finely graded and nuanced pecking order developed in the church over the past millennium or so.

In the olden days, when the act of professing Christ meant inviting your neighbours to burn your shop and the government to burn your body, baptism was a brave and significant act. The new Christians were schooled in the ways of Jesus, then, before entering the waters of rebirth, removed all clothing. They were immersed into the death of Christ and raised to new life whereupon they were given a new set of white clothing and a new name signifying that the old had indeed passed away and the new had indeed come. As a baptised member of the household of God the new Christian had a new identity and they were known by the name given at the font: the name by which Jesus called them.

The old ways linger. We still give baptised infants a Christian name and this is the only name that matters within the Church. Sometimes we might name a role or a relationship in the church the way we might in any family, but our Christian name is the only name that needs to be used.

We still use the white baptismal garments, though these days not everybody gets to wear them. The clothing which marked new life in Christ have morphed into the albs and surplices and rochets which now proclaim not so much entry into the community of saints as authority within it. Now this is not a bad thing as the task performed by the clothing is still an important one.

As one of the Church's functionaries I must continually live with the question, by what right do I presume to stand up in front of people and speak to them? Why should anybody pay any attention to me? And of course the brief answer is that in my own right I have no basis for such a presumption and there is no reason at all that people should take a blind bit of notice of anything I have to say. But I don't stand up in front of people in my own right. I do it in the name of the church, which has, for better or worse, decided that I am a suitable person to perform acts of ministry  on the church's behalf. And in token of this, I am vested; that is, my own identity is masked. It is hidden within the garments which represent to the congregation the church's history and the Gospel out of which that history has grown. Take, as an example of ministry, the absolution that I pronounce most Sundays. I, obviously, have no ability to forgive anybody's sins. What I do have is the authority to pronounce the truth of God's forgiveness, given by Jesus to the apostles One of the signs that I am not speaking on my own behalf is the clothing I wear.

There are a number of things which have undermined the intention of vestments. One is the fact that after Constantine the Church became an instrument of state and the church's functionaries became important social figures. Vestments, while retaining their "masking" function became also badges of rank and prestige. Another is the tendency of clergy to personalise their vestments, so that they start to represent not so much the church's tradition and expression as the clergy's tastes and personal spiritual history. When this latter happens, vestments are working directly in opposition to their intended purpose. Another still is the expression of the emotional programs for happiness unconsciously invested in by all of us.

We clergy are as human as anyone else. We have our own unconscious needs and we are called by the Holy Spirit to recognise these and bring them to the cross, just as is any other Christian. It is a process which takes a lifetime, so most of our lives as priests, deacons and bishops is lived within the reality of these drives and we tend to shape our theology, order our churches, and vest ourselves in ways which are hugely influenced by our striving for safety and security, affection and esteem, power and control, just as you might expect. Recognising this tendency in ourselves is important. More important is subverting our unconscious motives in favour of the Gospel of absolute forgiveness, radical equality and conscious servanthood. So fancy titles and the subtly nuanced power games of  ecclesiastical costumery?  Well, perhaps occasionally, but only as a joke.