THE LEISURE OF ALL BELIEVERS

“...in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” - Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

“At first an idea had got abroad that when the Archbishop was no longer to speak at meetings, his day would be singularly free and unoccupied; but he made it known that he was at the service of his people, and he saw every one who wished to see him if he could help that person.” - E. M. Green, The Archbishop’s Test (1914)

In 1914, E.M. Green published a short novella called The Archbishop’s Test, in which a newly-elected Archbishop of Canterbury, immediately faced with calls for prayer book revision, instead suspends the work of not only the committees on prayer book revision but indeed all church societies and auxiliary organizations to focus instead on spending time with the resources they already have but do not use.


I am interested in this story less for what says about contemporary questions of prayer book revision than what it says what the clerical life should look like, and what a clerical life that foregrounds a particular sort of leisure might have to say to about the lives of the laity living in a world governed by the workplace discipline of late capitalism. In Green’s book, the Archbishop receives a letter from an urban priest, who has his conception of ministry turned upside down by the Archbishop’s directive:


"The activity in this parish had been great. We had Church Lads Brigade, C.E.M.S. Clubs for every age and class, social evenings, societies, guilds. The whole day was occupied, and we priests rushed from one thing to another, with little time to think.…Now there is plenty of leisure, and your Pastoral lays stress on prayer, but (it sounds a terrible thing to say) no one ever taught me to pray in the way I see now that one ought to pray. It is the same with thinking. There is plenty of time now to think, but it is an art not learnt in a day when the rush of a lifetime has driven it out."

The classical tradition of writing on pastoral ministry, one exemplified ably in our own Anglican context by Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today, foregrounds the clerical leisure which Green’s priest has discovered, one that is not sloth but instead the freedom to be for and with God and neighbor. I suggest that this clerical leisure provides a sort of icon for the priestly life that all Christians ought to share -- and moreover that this life is only possible for all of us beyond capitalism, when we are finally freed from the discipline of wage labor to be for each other and for God in a non-alienated way.

Ramsey, in his little book of advice for ordinands, emphasizes both the utter necessity of time spent in prayer and the flexibility that enables priests to adjust their plans to face moments of need. The work of prayer, he writes, is simply a central task of ordained ministry. In prayer, the priest is “with God for the people, and...with the people in God’s strength”, adoring and interceding in both set times of devotion and throughout the entirety of one’s life of participation in Jesus’ high-priestly ministry of prayer. Moreover, in a sermon on the ordination Gospel, he exhorts ordinands towards “an alertness which is ready to meet emergencies and interruptions”: “Do not be encumbered. Be ready to move, rapidly and unexpectedly.” A full, rigorously-maintained schedule is simply incompatible with the duty of the priest to accept gratefully whatever the will of God puts in her path over the course of the day, Ramsey believes. Although he does not use this specific language, it is, I think, fair to say that Ramsey sees freedom enabled by leisure as the vital prerequisite to the exercise of the ordained priesthood. To be a priest requires being free to be with God and with people in whatever way the day brings, both in hours spent on one’s knees in the sanctuary and in hours spent providing care in Jesus’ name. And this means that the priestly life must be characterized by leisure. Moreover, this emphasis is hardly unique to Ramsey. It is rather striking, given the reputation of George Herbert’s The Country Parson for making herculean demands upon the clergy, how often he enjoins the priest to simply stroll about town, interacting with his parishioners wherever he finds them. No day full of back-to-back committee meetings here! While Herbert’s account of the ministerial life is certainly taxing, it is far from over-scheduled. Consider as well the traditional use of the term living rather than salary for the material support given clergy by the church. This suggests that clergy pay is not wages for services rendered so much as support which frees clergy from the necessity of supporting themselves to be available as a representative of the Church to God, to church members, and to the world. That is, the life of the priest on this model is one of being set apart from wage labor and the particular demands of efficiency and structure which accompany it in order to be free to pray and to be alert to God and humanity.

But what does any of this have to do with the life of ordinary lay Christians, who are not in the same manner freed from supporting themselves with wage labor? Ramsey is again helpful here. He sets forth a conception of the ordained priesthood as “a gathering up of roles which belong to the whole church,” including “displaying” the priestly life of the whole church in being publicly set aside for service to Christ. That is, we should see clearly in the priest what we perhaps can only see ambiguously in lives in the workaday world: that Jesus’ total claim over our lives evokes a total response - and indeed a priestly response of being with God for the world, and with the world for God. Now, until Christ returns in glory, the Church will continue to set aside individuals to be ordained priests to be representatives of both Christ and the Church in their particular ways. The need for social reproduction will likely mean that most Christians will need to spend much of their time in other forms of activity than prayer, study, worship, and works of service. However, Ramsey is keen to stress that the life of every Christian is a priestly one, and that the particular charisms of the ordained priesthood are ordered towards the upbuilding of the collective priesthood of the body of Christ. And thus if it is precisely freedom from wage labor and its disciplines which enables the ordained priest to fulfill her priestly role, might not she show us how a world without wage labor would enable all of us to more fully live as priests before God and neighbor?

I think here of Marx’s famous line in the German Ideology about the unalienated human under communism hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and philosophizing in the evening. While I am not convinced that socialism will necessarily reject specialization or the division of socially-necessary labor in the manner which Marx here seems to suggest, I think he gets at something crucial about the shape which we Christians must demands that post-capitalist life take: the freedom for various kinds of activities within the whole course of life of the human person, not merely during “time off” or weekends or retirement. The leisure of a priestly life helps us see how the discipline of capitalist labor works against faithful Christian discipleship. Such a life limits our freedom to be with and for God and people in the way to which our common priestly identity calls us, whatever other vocations to particular work in the world we might have. For example, the hourly worker cannot generally take time out of her working day to pray or to attend to a friend (or stranger!) in crisis, even if her work is not particularly socially necessary, outside of the rare mandated ‘break’. It also shows us a glimpse of what a future of unalienated labor for us all might look like, wherein rather than subjecting a huge proportion of our waking hours to a mode of life which often prevents us from most fully fulfilling our shared priestly vocation, we might support each other in our needs so that we can be available for the work necessary to sustain our common life, for our neighbors in need, and above all for God’s call. That is, if we affirm - as we must - the priesthood of all believers, we must struggle for the leisure of all believers and a life beyond the wage system, because the leisure of the ordained minister shows us the freedom which is the necessary condition of the Christian ministry which we all share.


Benjamin Crosby

New Haven, Connecticut


95 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

© 2019 by TheHourMag