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More on priests with Gary Wills

More on priests with Gary Wills

Erik Campano interviews Garry WIlls, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and a National Medal for the Humanities, and author of the very public Why Priests? A Failed Tradition.

In his opening question, Campano asks Wills if his thoughts refer to only Roman Catholicism:

Erik Campano: It’s not only Roman Catholics who have priests. So do Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox [Ed.’s note: I acidentally omitted the Mormon priesthood.]. And Anglicans, in particular, have more liberal stances on social issues like sexuality and so forth. But they also, like Roman Catholics, sometimes wear colorful vestments, and Anglican-tradition high churches — like St. Thomas here in New York — have more elaborate ceremonies than most Roman Catholic parishes. And they also claim that it’s only the priest who can enable the Eucharist, and so forth. So are priests as undesirable in the Anglican or Eastern Orthodox traditions?

Garry Wills: The idea of a separate Christian priesthood is as invalid for the Anglicans as for the Catholics because it, too, is based on the Letter to the Hebrews, which is riddled with fallacies. The basic point of my book is this: it comes from Luke 9, when the disciples try to stop someone from casting out devils in the name of Jesus and he says, why do that? They’re doing it in my name. If they’re doing it in my name, they’re not against me. Well, the priesthood has, in all cases, Orthodox or Lutheran or Anglican or Catholic, has been a way of saying, stop, to people who don’t have the priesthood, of dividing the body of Christ. Owning Jesus can be claimed by lots of sorts, but it’s especially claimed by priests who are exclusive in their worship credentials.

The Episcopal Church gets mentioned specifically in another question:

Campano: Your word monopolization connotes economics. And priests are people who make a profession out of their religious beliefs. Literally, by “professing” Christianity, they are able to survive. After ordination, they’re often almost guaranteed housing, food, and medical care for life, and in some cases — you point out, for example the the Bishop of Pittsburgh — they live in opulent palaces. An Episcopal Bishop in New York has a compensation package which amounts to around $300,000 a year. That’s an upper-middle class lifestyle. Nowadays, and historically, what economic incentives have there been for people to become priests and for the institution to survive?

Wills: In the past, the second or third son would become a priest to advance the careers of the first sons. Often the first son would go into law, administration, government — that sort of thing — the second son into the military, and the third son into the priesthood, because he gets more than he gives, in economic terms. That was true of nuns, too. With Medieval and Renaissance nuns, it was often the case that the first daughter has to be married, and so all the money for the dowry has to be concentrated on her or the second daughter, and the third daughter, who wouldn’t have enough money for a dowry — she’d likely enter a convent and if she were to come from an aristocratic family, likely become an abbess. So it’s always had an economic bolstering effect on families who devoted their children to religion.

Read the whole interview on


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Rod Gillis

Tobias, I think that’s pretty much it. I’m sure Wills’ book is interesting and provocative, and there is real value in that, especially in the church. The down side is that a lot of average folks will read only Wills’ book but not be all that interested in looking at the issues from a more balanced scholarly point of view.

I watched the clip of Colbert interviewing Gary Wills, and of course its not a symposium, more of a theatre of the absurd really, but Wills could have be challenged on some of his basic premises right out of the gate. Some of the conservative blog sites have had some really good rejoinders to Wills’ assertions, but they are written by other eggheads, and don’t represent a general audience. Reading books like the one Wills has written doesn’t make one a theologian, any more than Google makes one a doctor.

A former teacher of mine once told us, the problem with reading Aquinas is that you are lured into letting him do your thinking for you. It can be a more universal problem.

tobias haller

You are correct, Rod; it’s the Latin version of an Anglican ordination prayer, with rather early roots (and opposition from Puritans!). So this is an old controversy, and Wills is merely one in a long succession of opponents of a “priestly” office.

Rod Gillis

Tobias, that is [also?] the Latin for the prayer of consecration of a priest in the old Canadian (1959) BCP. And, I believe, one of two options in the old 1928 BCP.

“Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven;and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God, and of his Holy Sacraments; in the name of etc.”

The current ordinals have something different. The Hebrews text is not a feature of a normative Anglican view, ancient or modern, in terms of a survey of the relevant documents. A reading from Hebrews is not included in the list of readings. The current prayer of consecration of the priest does describe offering “spiritual sacrifices” (plural).

Of course, we belong to a tradition that is very adept at the Humpty Dumpty school of hermeneutics. After all, the Oxford Dons managed to interpret some of the Articles of Religion so as to read from them the virtual opposite of their intent.

Fascinating little controversy!

tobias haller

My recollection is that the chapel inscription is the RC prayer for ordination: Accipe Spiritum Sanctum in officium et opus Sacerdotis in Ecclesia Dei, per impositionem manuum nostrarum jam tibi commissum. Quorum remiseris peccata, remittuntur eis: et quorum retinueris, retenta sunt. Esto etiam fidelis verbi Dei, et sanctorum ejus Sacramentorum Dispensator: In Nomine…

Rod Gillis

Can’t speak to Gen’L Sem.,which one of my mentors and NT profs attended, but its not in line with a classical Anglican view.

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