Over the years I have served as a priest, one word continues to return again and again as a descriptor par excellence of this vocation: parson. It is the one word capturing the lived meaning of priesthood. This term, redolent to many of an idyllic pastoral churchliness of another era, holds a very specific – and non-romanticized – meaning for me.
William Blackstone, the eminent English jurist, wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the “parson, persona ecclesiae, is one that has full possession of all the rights of a parochial church. He is called parson, persona, because by his person the church, which is an invisible body, is represented.”
Blackstone, of course, goes on to develop this with regard to legal issues, but the meaning for me lies in that phrase: “by his person the church, which is an invisible body, is represented.”
This is, of course, ultimately true of each Christian. In a sense, the Church’s mission is represented in the person of each disciple. Yet, the clergy have a particular iconography, a distinct call to embody – imperfectly – the body of the Church to the world. This call is, at its deepest stratum, to become in the fullest sense a person. Indeed, Christ’s Incarnation and our participation in his fullness of being through baptism and the life of grace is a call to full personhood. The priest is meant to embody this by a lifetime of growing in the knowledge and love of God. The priest then shares that journey with others as parson, or a person who is open, accessible, vulnerable to others in their own response to Christ’s call: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The parson’s greatest gift is that of time. Time to listen. Time to share. Time to reflect and synthesize. As the priest grows in parsonhood – personhood – that priest becomes one who has time in a world dominated by the scarcity of time. The parson’s luxury is to be a representative of Christ who is available when the organization, institution, or “system” is not.
The priest as parson is decidedly out-of-step with our times. The parson is not chiefly a means of delivering spiritual techniques, though the parson may know a good many stories and examples of the applied spiritual craft. The parson is not primarily concerned with delivering “products” or “tools that work,” though the parson does seek to assist others in their healing and growth in holy wisdom. The parson does not, in our celebrity culture, even seek to be emulated or “affirmed,” as the parson’s whole life and ministry is there to point to Christ who is the fountain of true human personhood.
Astoundingly in our day, this way of being is chiefly marked by having time yet being in some profound way timeless. It is a quiet form of revolution, a subtle protest, a whispered subversion of the “order of things” in a broken world.