ANONYMOUS PRIESTHOOD: AN INTRODUCTORY SKETCH by Richard René

thineownIn July 2014 the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) appointed me the Site Chaplain of Kent Maximum Security Institution. In my conversations with parishioners, many assume that my job involves being an “Orthodox prison chaplain,” serving Orthodox inmates and proclaiming Orthodoxy to the non-Orthodox.

Is this assumption correct? No, and yes. In this essay, I would like to take this opportunity to explain the “no” and then elaborate a little on the “yes.”

As an Orthodox priest, I am called to be a “minister of the Word,” which I understand to mean the Logos, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I proclaim the Gospel of the crucified and risen Word, and then offer the Gifts of bread and wine to become His Body and Blood before the altar on behalf of the “royal priesthood.”

This is a very particular kind of work directed to a very particular group of people—the Orthodox Christian people of God. Orthodox prison chaplaincy in this sense would involve the same work, only to Orthodox Christian men and/or women (including catechumens and inquirers) who are behind bars.

There is indeed a term for this kind of chaplain in the CSC: demographically responsive, meaning chaplains who minister specifically to those who subscribe to their faith. They are not responsible for those who are not affiliated, unless it is to inform non-affiliated individuals about their specific beliefs. Demographically Responsive Chaplains exist mostly for the insiders of their faith communities.

A Site Chaplain’s job is quite different. In our form of chaplaincy, we are required to set aside the desire to promote and practice our own faiths, at least explicitly. We are forbidden to proselytize. Our goal is simply to smooth the way for the incarcerated men and women we serve to reach beyond themselves to something (or someone) that is inherently concerned about their ultimate human flourishing and well-being.

Put another way, Site Chaplains are ministers of the human freedom to reach for self-transcendence, regardless of the object they are reaching for. While DR Chaplains exist primarily for the insiders of their own faith or spiritual practice or teaching, Site Chaplains exist for everyone, outsiders and insiders alike.

That’s why, when asked if in my job as Site Chaplain I am an “Orthodox prison chaplain,” I must answer no, because in that capacity I have to set aside my specific Orthodox priestly mandate for a more general purpose.

(As an aside, I do conduct Orthodox prison chaplaincy properly speaking, but in a voluntary capacity, apart from my paid duties as a Site Chaplain.)

The nature of my Site Chaplaincy role has raised for me a larger question, with implications for Orthodox engagement beyond the Church’s canonical boundaries. In ministering to human beings reaching for self-transcendence, is there a way I can engage in a mode of service that does not vocalize itself in an explicitly Orthodox manner, but yet is rooted in the Orthodox tradition of the sacramental priesthood? I believe that the answer is yes, and I would define this mode of service as anonymous priesthood.

How does anonymous priesthood work? To answer, we must go back to the heart of the priestly vocation, which is the offering of the anaphoral prayer at the altar. In this prayer, the priest conducts anamnesis, a recollection and “making present” of God’s work among His people from the beginning, culminating in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus Christ. Having concluded the anamnesis, the priest leads the people (assisted by the deacon) to offer up God’s “own things”—His own redeemed work in creation—back to Him in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving:

Priest: Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us:  the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming…

The Deacon elevates the Gifts.

… offering to You Your own of Your own, on behalf of all and for all.

People: We praise You. We bless You. We give thanks unto You, O our God. And we pray unto You, O our God.

I would note two important aspects of what is happening here. First, the priest identifies those things which are God’s “own things,” that is, everything that is of Him and His work in the cosmos. Second, the priest leads the people in lifting up in thanksgiving those things which belong to God.

These two actions, central to the ordained priesthood, are also the key to anonymous priesthood. Just as the ordained priest names that which is of God explicitly at the altar—God’s oikonomia according to the Scriptures and the Gospel—the anonymous priest is called to discern traces of that divine work everywhere and in all things—in all beliefs, practices, ways of life where people are reaching for help beyond themselves, though the name of that for which they are reaching is unknown to them (Acts 17:23).

And just as the ordained priest calls upon the faithful to lift up God’s oikonomia in thanksgiving, so the anonymous priest is called to honour and rejoice in that which is of God in the things he or she encounters. Even those thing that as a whole are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Church, the anonymous priest’s vocation can find something that is God’s own and proclaim it as good and worthy of praise.

My own experiences as a Site Chaplain ministering to everyone who reaches for an “unknown god” have reminded me that every member of the Church is called to anonymous priesthood. After all, the ordained priesthood exists to recapitulate the royal priesthood of the people of God united in the single high priesthood of Jesus Christ—what Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has called the One, the Some, and the All.

Thus, what Some are to practice at the altar, All are called to practice in the whole world. In the process of discovering how to practice my own ordained priesthood anonymously—as one of the All—it has become clear that every member of the Body of Christ can and should go beyond the canonical boundaries of the Church to serve as anonymous priests in the mode of the anaphora—naming “His own” in whatever they encounter, and giving Him thanks for the presence of His Spirit, wherever they may find It.

Father Richard René holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Canada of the Orthodox Church in America, and conducts Orthodox prison ministry throughout the Chilliwack, British Columbia region. He has been published in The Wheel and on Pravmir, has podcasted on Ancient Faith Radio, and blogs at Anonymous Priest