The priesthood: no other life?


Brian Moore, No Other Life, London: Flamingo 1994. Paperback 216 pages,
ISBN 9780006546924.

In W.A. Public Library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Brian Moore (1921 – 1999) was a well-known writer of the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote the 1991 screenplay based on his novel, Black Robe, exploring the Jesuit missions with Native Americans in frontier Canada. Moore was short-listed three times for the Booker Prize.

In No Other Life, the black robes of Jesuits are exchanged for the white robes of the White Augustinians, and the cold places of Canada for the warmth of Ganae. a desperately poor Caribbean island.

The Augustinian Fathers run a school where the mulâtre (mixed-race) elite educate their children. The noirs, the blacks, are kept in wrenching poverty by corruption. The island has always been run by a mulâtre dictator backed by the army.

Father Paul Michel wants to increase the number of black children at the school. He rescues a talented boy, Jeannot, from abject poverty. Jeannot is a single-minded boy who declares he wants to be a priest like his mentor. He eventually joins the Augustinians but runs a parish for the poor rather than work in the Order’s school. Jeannot’s oratory raises the hopes of the poor and he is elected President. But the effects of his leadership are ambiguous: is he an old-style socialist rabble-rouser, or is he a saint? The locals think he is their Messiah.

When the Augustinians expel Jeannot, he turns to his mentor. He implies that he would rather give up everything than be stripped of his priesthood. There is ‘no other life’.

Father Paul finds himself at the heart of a dilemma: is a priest an educator of the rich, or the servant of the poor?  Is faith a pre-requisite for the priestly life, and what happens if a priest loses it? From the moment he meets Jeannot he feels a bond with him, but as their friendship grows, Father Paul learns how to love. When violence and chaos erupt from the actions of his friend Father Paul asks how far does loyal love extend?

This is a gripping and beautiful story, written with a sure touch. The events on the island of Ganae are presented in a fascinating manner, but the themes of ambition and identity resonate everywhere.

No Other Life is certainly a book for priests. What is the core of Christian priesthood, and by extension, Christian practice? Is there ‘no other life’ that we can imagine for ourselves? And if not, that goes to our vocation and identity.

But is also a novel that will draw in any person and open us to the love that is in our midst even when we feel it is absent.

The ghost of Melchizedek


At my ordination as a priest in 1975, one of my Anglo-Catholic friends gave me a card congratulating me that I was ‘a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek’. This is quite a common sentiment among the more catholic of my friends; and, as far as I can judge, for many of them, is no more than a sentimental statement that priesthood is for ever, or ‘indelible’ in the jargon of sacramental theology. And for Anglo-Catholics there is the additional frisson of belonging to an ‘order’.

I know enough Hebrew to know that the Psalmist (in 110:4) was not thinking of a religious order. ‘You are a priest forever according to the word of Melchizedek,’ is the literal translation, and in this case the Hebrew dibrati דִּ֝בְרָתִ֗י (from dabar) more likely means ‘in the manner of’, than any idea of a company or group.

But to be a priest ‘for ever’ binds one psychologically in a fascinating way. From the moment Archbishop Sambell laid his hands on my head, my identity changed. From then on, whatever else I might become, I would be always a priest. That sense of being called to communicate God to people has indeed remained with me for these 36 years.

And so has Melchizedek, that strange priest-king who appears to Abram to offer him bread and wine. (The account appears in Genesis 14:18-24). Melchizedek has been haunting my prayers, not least because I am reading through Hebrews at Morning Prayer and Melchizedek has quite a role there.

When I re-read Genesis, I am struck by how little can definitely be said about this king. His name, made up of two parts, means literally ‘my king-righteousness’. Some of the Rabbis take this to mean ‘Righteousness is my King’, and I would be proud as priest (for ever) and a human being (for ever) to take this a motto.

But other commentators differ: for them, ‘Melchi-‘ refers to the priest’s actual status as a King. He is named as King of Salem. No-one knows where this ‘Salem’ is. Is it Mount Gerizim (the sacred mountain of the Samaritans), or is it what Jerusalem, Jeru-Salem, was known as before David named it? In any case, the word ‘Salem’ is related to ‘shalom’, the peace and prosperity that we will know when God restores Israel.

So for me, a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, the second connection is with ‘peace’. I am to be one who is a catalyst for God’s peace. I am called to bring people together – with each other and with God, to be a channel of God’s peace, as that wonderful Franciscan prayer expresses it.

Righteousness, peace: these accompany the ‘ghost’ of Melchizedek, and I am glad of their company.

Melchizedek offers Abraham ‘bread and wine’. These are the common tools of my priesthood too. The Eucharistic bread and wine, and the hospitality that they symbolise, are the means by which I can live in righteousness and peace. My purpose in life is to invite people to feed on the rich generosity of God Most High.

In a striking image, the Rabbis also believed that Melchizedek brought to Abram the letter he (ה֥) which completed Abraham’s name. As a priest after the manner of this Melchizedek, I may also have the opportunity to reveal to people their true name, to complete something about their self-understanding. What an extraordinary privilege! God Most High, help me discern the letter ה֥ when I need to bring it into a person’s life.

In Psalm 110, and on my Anglo-Catholic friend’s card, I was told I was a priest ‘for ever.’ That is a wonderful affirmation. For all of us, the new identities God gives us in baptism, in ordination, in confession and reconciliation are not passing gifts: they are permanent. I rejoice in the ongoing nature of my priesthood. But the text is not as clear-cut as that. ‘For ever’, in Hebrew le-olam (לְעוֹלָ֑ם) can indeed mean ‘eternal’. But is also means ‘for the Eternal one’. I can grasp too greedily at God’s gifts. God is generous and will not revoke his gifts; but it’s not all about me and my status before God. My service as a priest is for God, le-olam, and it is God who benefits first from it.

Melchizedek sits with me in my prayer-room recalling me to the generosity of the Most High. His presence speaks to me of:

• The righteousness and peace that I receive from God and am to channel in the service of God’s people.
• The hospitality I am invited to bring to others; in some people’s lives, maybe even bring the letter that will complete their name; and
• the privilege of serving the Eternal one.

May I be grateful that the Most High calls me to be a priest for ever in the manner of Melchizedek.

36 Years a Priest


Ordination of deacons 1975 - Diocese of Perth

In the year 1975, November 30 was also Advent Sunday; and that’s not the only reason that Feast of St Andrew was a red-letter day. Along with fellow-deacons Len Firth, Chris Albany and Peter McArthur, I was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell in St George’s Cathedral in Perth.

This year, 2011, 36 years, is not a special anniversary, but like all the other occurrences of November 30, it is significant to me.

Underlying a wide range of ministry activities since that day my identity as priest has flavoured and conditioned everything I do. My prayer was – and is – that my priestly identity gives glory to God and serves God’s people well.

I started my ministry as a locum parish priest, but moved quickly into school chaplaincy. In those early years, I believed that the harder I worked the more effective my ministry. I say now with shame that at Christ Church Grammar School, I worked 90 hours a week and neglected my small children. My picture of ministry was that if I put in the majority effort, God would top it up to achieve God’s aims.

Despite my folly, I recognise that God did work through me. I just over-estimated the value of my contribution!

A key date in my life as a priest is March 11, 1992: the ordination to the priesthood in Australia of the first women. I participated as a priest of the diocese, and remember my eyes welling with tears at the conclusion of the rite of ordination. The applause lasted more than five minutes – you can check the duration on recordings of the event – and while the prime focus was on the nine women and one man ordained, I felt a strong sense that my priestly identity was completed.

Firstly, and most obviously, the number of potential colleagues in priestly ministry doubled on that day. The team, or at least the team positions, had grown by 100%. I gave thanks to God that God’s church was no longer persisting in ignoring the talents of half the human race, and probably 70% of the Anglican race! The presence of women in our collegiality meant that new sorts of collaboration could take place.

Secondly, ordaining women affirmed me. I had learned (first from the holy bishop Brian Macdonald) that Jesus exercised the feminine part of his personality, and was able to do that as a man secure in his masculinity. Ordaining women gave me permission to make available in a conscious way for ministry the feminine side of my personality.

This helped me to see, first in practical terms, the importance of being a human being. There was no sin in taking time for myself, and there certainly was no blame in giving real priority to my wife and family. Being present as a husband and father was good ministry in itself!

Beyond that, the ordination of women has helped me to practise more effectively the priority of being over doing. It has helped me undo some of my social conditioning as a man whose job is to get things done.

As ill health forces me to be less active, especially in specifically priestly ministry, I now found I need to draw more fully on the principle that my priesthood is primarily about being. Being present to my wife and family; being present in my community; being present (as much as I can) in my parish. These are the ways, please God, I will continue to give glory to God and serve God’s people well.