A Peculiar Priesthood

Christ the High Priest
Saint Sophia, Kiev


Quakers have been known as “a peculiar people.” Although even today we have some unusual ways, the phrase refers not to oddness but to vocation (i.e., calling), and it is closely related to the idea of priesthood. Its source is the first letter of Peter in the Christian scriptures.1 Here’s the King James Version’s rendering:

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

“A peculiar people” renders the phrase laos eis peripoiēsin: “a people into possessing/preserving.” In the scriptures’ few instances of similar wording,2 what we are given to possess or are preserved into is salvation or the glory of Christ. With that in mind, and borrowing a bit from Paul’s vocabulary, here’s an alternative translation of the passage:

But you are a chosen family, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people gathered into Christ, who should be showing forth the virtues of him who calls you into his wonderful and fearsome light.

Chuck Fager has written an excellent essay on the topic of Quakers as a peculiar people, a group selected for God’s purposes.3 In this post, I will focus more narrowly on Peter’s characterization of us as called into priesthood, contrasting Quaker and Catholic ideas of how that priesthood makes Christ physically present in the world. Please note that, as always, I use religious images in a theopoetical,4 not metaphysical, sense.

A priest is one who is called to offer sacrifice on behalf of a people; by extension, a priestly people is one that is called to offer sacrifice on behalf of the world. Quakers are a peculiar and priestly people in that, gathered into the body of Christ, we are members of the mythic cosmic king crowned with thorns, the royal high priest who sacrifices himself for the Kingdom of God. Our identity is constituted — founded and enacted — by our sharing in the self-sacrificing love of which Jesus the Christ is the archetypical icon.


Mass: drawing on the Treasury of Merits

The Catholic tradition, however, has defined priesthood as thaumaturgy and concentrated it in a clerical caste. And it has defined the people’s participation in Christ’s self-sacrifice not as real conversion of their own hearts and lives but as the reception of merit through the magical metamorphosis of inanimate objects by anointed priests.5

Through the bishops who ordain them, that tradition asserts, Catholic priests receive the supernatural “power” of the apostles of Jesus, and Catholicism has insisted that “Christ conferred on his Apostles and not on all the faithful the power to offer Sacrifice, distribute the Eucharist, and forgive sins.”6 Only the priests, therefore, can perform the Eucharistic rite (the Mass), which is said to be the very self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross, albeit “in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine.”7 In performing that ritual, the priest, whose ordination (another rite) is said to have caused an ontological change in him (i.e., a change in his very being or nature), acts in persona Christi — in the person of Christ. The laity (laos: people) are said to receive merit from that propitiatory sacrifice by “assisting at” or even simply by “hearing” the ritual.8

By repeating words attributed to Jesus, it is claimed, the priest converts (ontologically changes) the elements of life, food and drink, into the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ, which, having been offered to God as sacrifice, are then consumed by priest and people.9 By drinking the blood of the sacrificial victim, they violate an “old covenant” proscription: “Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh.”10 Their drinking of the blood (which for centuries was reserved to the priest alone in the Latin Rite) is, then, an attempt to partake — quite materially — of the divine life of Christ. But that gross materiality tends to suppress the sacrament’s theopoetic and spiritual potential.

As Friends and others have recognized, the Eucharistic ritual does not reliably produce evidence of divine life, agapē-love, in the participants. When it does appear to produce such fruit, the cause is likely in the participant’s desire and belief: she wants the life of love, believes that the ritual will convey it, and so feels that a measure of it is communicated to her by the sacrament. But the desire to love more perfectly is itself the movement of love in us; in Quaker theological language, we may say that the light of Christ already shines, if weakly, within each of us, and to turn to it is to be transfigured to some degree.11 In other words, the rite is unnecessary; moreover, by claiming to deliver spiritual life and power through thaumaturgy and to localize the physical presence of Christ “under the appearances of bread and wine,” it can divert and even alienate people from the Christ-light, the life and power of love, in their hearts.12

For the Quaker tradition, then, the Catholic cultus is a misappropriation of priesthood and a potentially harmful similacrum of sacrifice. The Quaker call is to participate in Christ’s life and sacrifice in actual praxis rather than in ritual re-enactment. In consonance with passages such as that from Peter’s letter, Friends have understood self–sacrificing priesthood to be an essential characteristic of all members of the body of Christ.

We are born into that body when, acknowledging the essential nothingness of self,13 we offer as sacrifice to love our (normal but nonetheless delusional) belief in self-centrality: communion follows baptism. Living then as members of Christ, we do indeed act in persona Christi, continually consecrating the elements of life — all of them, but in particular, food and drink for the poor — to love’s service. In so consecrating and offering ourselves and our goods, we, not a cleric reciting a formula nor bits of bread in a temple built with hands,14 are the physical presence in this world of Christ the high priest. As we live in fidelity to what the Quaker tradition calls our measure of Christ’s light and life within,15 we serve as theophanies of sacrificial love, as inbreakings of light into a dark, oppressive world. To act always in the person of Christ is our calling as a peculiar priesthood.

NOTES for “A Peculiar Priesthood”

[1] First Peter 2:9. The verse reflects older passages such as Exodus 19:5-6a (“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation”) and Deuteronomy 7:6 (For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth”), and it is reflected in other passages (e.g., Rev. 1:6) in the Christian scriptures as well.

[2] See Eph. 1:14; 1Thess. 5:9; 2Thess. 2:14; and Heb. 10:39.

[3] Chuck Fager, “Friends as a ‘Chosen People.'”

[4] The term “theopoetic” goes back at least to Amos N. Wilder: “[T]heopoetic means doing more justice to the role of the symbolic and the prerational in the way we deal with experience. We should recognize that human nature and human societies are more deeply motivated by images and fabulations than by ideas.” (Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976], p. 2.) According to Scott Holland, “[T]heology in our postmodern condition must be understood as a poetics, not a metaphysics…. [W]hether theology is inscribed in the genre of poetry, in the form of narrative, or in a thicker, theoretical style of prose, it remains a poiesis: an inventive, imaginative act of composition performed by authors.” (“Theology is a Kind of Writing: The Emergence of Theopoetics,” CrossCurrents, Vol. 47 No. 3, [Fall 1997], p. 319.) Both references are from an unattributed essay titled “Liberating Language: Rubem Alves, Theopoetics, and the Democratization of God-Talk” at theopoetics.net, a Web site managed by a Friend named Callid Keefe-Perry.

[5] More exactly, the Church claims to possess an infinitely large treasury of merits, earned by Christ and the saints, due to which various types of divine “grace” are available. (It can be said that Catholicism rests on a conceptual tripod of sin, redemption, and grace.) The grace is applied through sacraments and other actions. “Our Lord died to merit grace for us, and the sacraments are the chief means by which it is given,” wrote Thomas L. Kinkead in An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism of Christian Doctrine (p. 153). The Treasury of Merits doctrine supported the use of indulgences, according to which one person’s merits may be applied to reduce or remove the penalty for another’s sins, and was a factor in the Reformation.

[6] The Baltimore Catechism, Q. 1002, p 262.

[7] “The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine. The Mass is the sacrifice of Christ offered in a sacramental manner …. The reality is the same but the appearances differ.” — The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, p. 168.

[8] The phrase “to hear Mass” is used repeatedly in the Baltimore Catechism, in wide use in the U.S. from 1885 until shortly after Vatican II and still being used in places today. (A modernized version, The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, was published as recently as 1995; see previous note.) During the book’s heyday, the Mass, as it had been for centuries, was almost universally read in Latin, a “dead” language which many people did not understand. When I was a child in the pre-Vatican-II Latin Church, it was not unusual to see people praying the rosary or reading silently from prayer books, which may or may not have included a translation of the Mass prayers, during the ritual. Indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on sacraments taught that intention, not attention, is necessary: “By the intention man submits himself to the operation of the sacraments which produce their effects ex opere operato [that is, ‘by virtue of the action’], hence attention is not necessary for the valid reception of the sacraments. One who might be distracted, even voluntarily, during the conferring [of a sacrament] would receive the sacrament validly.” Even more interestingly, “In adults, for the valid reception of any sacrament except the Eucharist, it is necessary that they have the intention of receiving it. … The Eucharist is excepted because, in whatever state the recipient may be, it is always the body and blood of Christ.”

[9] The Catholic priest is said to “confect” the Eucharist: “As has already been recalled, ‘the only minister who can confect the Sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi is a validly ordained Priest'” — Redemptionis Sacramentum, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament, 2004 (quoting the Code of Canon Law). See also Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], Chapter III, which states that “acting in the person of Christ [the ordained priests] renew and apply in the sacrifice of the Mass … the only sacrifice of the New Testament[,] namely that of Christ offering Himself once for all a spotless Victim to the Father.”

[10] Relevant passages include the following. The second, from Leviticus, is especially interesting in context of the Eucharist.

Genesis 9:3-4: Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.
Leviticus 17:10-14: And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.
Deuteronomy 12:22-23: Even as the roebuck and the hart is eaten, so thou shalt eat them: the unclean and the clean shall eat of them alike. Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh.


[11] “As you trust, so let it become for you” (Matthew 8:13). To “believe in the Light,” as early Friends would say, to trust in the work of love within you, is to be changed. “While you have the light, be trusting in the light, that you may be becoming children of light” (John 12:36).

[12] I am noting that, in general, Catholic conceptions of priesthood, presence, and sacrifice tend to externalize spiritual life and power and thereby substitute ritual for inner change. However, I am arguing not that the Eucharistic ritual cannot be part of a faith that values and leads to sacrificial love, but that such loving is a result of the faith, which turns us to and gives us confidence in the love in our hearts, rather than a supernatural effect of the rite. An example of the phenomenon is found in an absorbing blog post called “Approaching the Death of God: A Good Friday Reflection” by a Catholic writer: it is evident there that, despite the author’s devotion to the Eucharist, the sacrament constitutes a supplementary element in a comprehensive, life-directing, narrative-based belief system — a perspective with which I’m sure many Protestants would agree. (I was initially intrigued by that post for another reason; namely, its presentation of the doctrine that God experienced death on the cross — which seems to suggest that a being could experience itself as not experiencing anything. But that would be a topic for a different post here.)

[13] I am reminded of Simone Weil’s “If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought. And this knowledge is extended to our sensibility only through suffering and death.” (Gravity and Grace, p. 37) — and of course Paul’s statement in 1Corinthians 1:26-31 (emphasis added): “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, [are called]: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, [yea], and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”

[14] “God, the one making the cosmos and all things in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, neither is worshipped by human hands, as if he demanded anything, he who is giving life and breath to all, who makes from one blood every people dwelling on the face of the earth … that they should be seeking the Lord and surely therefore feel him and find him, he being inherently not far from each of us, for in him we live and move and are … for we are his family.” — Acts 17: 24-28, my translation.

[15] The Quaker usage may harken back to Ephesians 4, particularly verses 7 (“And unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”) and 13 (“Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”). In verse 13, the Greek lacks the definite article (“the”) before the word rendered “measure,” as it does before the phrase rendered “perfect man”; a closer translation of the concluding phrases could be “into a perfect (or mature) person, into a measure of stature of the divine fullness of the Christ.”

5 thoughts on “A Peculiar Priesthood

  1. As my father explained it simply in non-theological terms for us as children, “for of such is the kingdom,” since we each are “ministers” then our silence before every meal, breaking of bread and drinking, is not to “call” Christ to us, but for us to “remember” that Christ is present in all “his” fullness at every meal and at each of our actions. (Thus it was in done “in remembrance of me.”)

    • “Theopoetics” is a term I picked up from John D. Caputo. (Although I was reading biblical criticism in 1976, when Wilder published his Theopoetic, I didn’t read him — and still haven’t.) Perhaps I shouldn’t be using it as freely as I do, given that it seems to belong to process theology, which, unlike me, is happy with the notion of “the divine.” Or I could take the view that my usage is helping the term broaden its self-understanding, if perhaps not as explicitly as might be ideal. So I wouldn’t expect a post dedicated to it, but maybe it will receive further elaboration within posts on other topics.

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