A View from a Member of the Common Priesthood

Any Pietist should hesitate to write critically about Catholicism, since anti-Catholicism is so deeply rooted in our tradition. For all his desire for Christian unity and his disinclination to engage in nasty polemics, Pietist pioneer Philipp Jakob Spener was as hostile to the Catholic Church as most other German Lutheran pastors in the era after the Reformation. In Pia Desideria, the 1675 booklet that became a Pietist manifesto, Spener addressed the low state of Protestantism — but only after he first lamented “the distress of those members of the Christian church… who dwell among heretics in the Babylonian captivity of anti-Christian Rome.” In 1842, the Swedish revivalist Carl Olof Rosenius warned that a true Pietist would “not waste time or wear out his weapons by fighting with brothers in faith” — Protestants, that is, whom he likened to the army commanded by Gustavus Adolphus “against the popish retinue” in the Thirty Years War. In the 20th century, the pietistic Baptists who founded and still sponsor my Pietist university were staunch advocates of church-state separation: not only because politically coerced faith contradicted their belief in soul liberty, but because they saw Jefferson’s wall of separation as a bulwark against Catholics gaining and wielding political, educational, and cultural power.

So I approached Christina Wassell’s essay eager to learn about a way of following Jesus that Pietists too easily disdain. Unfortunately, her autobiographical focus left no room for her to discuss types of Catholic piety that have the most obvious resonance with the instincts of Pietism: the spiritual disciplines and intentional fellowship of monasticism (or at least the practices of lay communities like the Brethren of the Common Life or the Franciscans’ Third Order); and mysticism, whose transformative, ecstatic experiences appeal to the Pietist desire for relating to God in ways that transcend intellectual understanding. (One forerunner of my tradition was Johann Arndt, a Lutheran mystic of the early 17th century.) But Wassell’s description of “a robust Catholic life” experienced with family and friends certainly rang familiar to this Pietist, both because we share an appreciation for living out our theological beliefs “‘on the ground’ with our community” and because it’s dismaying to find the intensity of that experience of the Christian life sometimes evaporating into “what happened” on Sunday.

I’m glad, then, that she and her family found their way to a more meaningful experience of sacramental worship. But, much as I wrote in response to David Ford’s essay on Orthodoxy, I can both appreciate the ancient beauty and counter-cultural power of the liturgy in Wassell’s parish and yet still struggle to shed my version of Spener’s concern that “the service of worship that outwardly is correct may still not be a service of worship.”

I don’t want to belabor a problem that I’ve already addressed in some depth, especially since I don’t want to leave the impression that the sacraments are unimportant to Pietists. In his new book on German Pietist leader August Hermann Francke, Peter Yoder points out that Francke preached six times on the Eucharist just in his first full year of pastoral ministry. But as highly as he esteemed that sacrament, Francke also inaugurated a view of worshipful ritual that has never disappeared from Pietism: that communicants ought to take Communion not out of custom or habit — let alone what Francke called “hypocrisy” or “ignorance” — but as a personal expression of repentant obedience to Christ that brings the believer deeper into union with him. 

So even as the religious historian in me reads Wassell’s essay and thinks back to less enthusiastic accounts from Catholics less moved by worship before Vatican II, any follower of Jesus Christ should rejoice to hear Wassell describe her experience of the Traditional Latin Mass as drawing her and her family “deeper into the wonder and mystery of the Eucharist and of following Jesus.” I wish I had had a chance to read her description of what happens during that liturgy before I attended a Latin Mass several years ago with my students. Instead of feeling hurt and frustrated at being left in silence while the priest prayed alone to God, I could have availed myself of a chance for a kind of meditation in which “we learn to unite our own sacrifices to Christ’s on the altar.”

May all our experiences of worship so deepen our experience of Jesus Christ! 

But what comes next? I’ll try to develop this idea at much greater length in my own lead essay, but this seems like a good moment to introduce one key point: even if Pietists find that their “experience of Christ flows out of” a sacrament — and I think most Pietists would more likely say that it flows out of Bible study and prayer, we’d be far more interested in asking what flows out of that encounter into the rest of our life. How does our experience of Christ lead us to follow Jesus into the world, to make disciples of all nations and to love our neighbors whether or not they follow Jesus — healing their wounds, slaking their thirst, feeding their hunger, and rectifying the injustices that create their suffering?

Because of other obligations, I needed to finish writing this essay before Wassell could submit her follow-up comment about Catholic social ethics. But while I can understand the challenges inherent in summing up a Christian tradition in just 1,500 words or so, her original choice of emphasis is itself important. For my part, I expect to say almost nothing about Sunday morning worship when my turn comes — save a few lines about hymnody — and will instead focus on how Pietists try to follow Jesus during the rest of the week.

Before I close, I have to acknowledge that Wassell’s chosen emphasis on the Traditional Latin Mass also points to one more clear disagreement with my tradition, about the nature of what Pietists like to call the common priesthood.

It’s not just that my spiritual forebears were so antagonistic to a magisterial, episcopal hierarchy headed by the bishop of Rome. (A figure unexpectedly unnamed by a Roman Catholic whose parish is affiliated with a religious fraternity that chose the name of the first pope “in order to express their gratitude, filial love, and loyalty to the Supreme Pontiff.”). Pietists’ “antipathy to authoritarian forms” was their “greatest contribution,” concluded Dalphy Fagerstrom, one of my predecessors on the Bethel history faculty, since it helped inspire both religious and political “democratization.” By contrast, as we can see from one paragraph in Wassell’s essay, you don’t have to be a Pietist to recognize the potential for concentrated ecclesial power to be abused.

But even in the best version of an episcopate, it’d be hard for a Pietist to relate easily to a way of following Jesus in which a single person plays such a central role, to the point of standing in persona Christi during worship. For we are all priests, Pietists would argue, with Jesus (as Wassell agrees) our “one true priest.”

Not all of us have spiritual gifts to be honed through professional training in theology and ministry, but Spener thought Martin Luther right to reject the “presumptuous monopoly of the clergy” and instead emphasize a “spiritual priesthood, according to which not only ministers but all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts [1 Pet. 2:9].” Some more radical Pietists even rejected Spener’s reservation of public offices (preaching especially, but also the sacraments) to a professional clergy. Historian Jonathan Strom has observed that the German Pietists’ concern for the common priesthood faded after Spener, but it was central to the 19th century Swedish revival that is the chief influence on Pietism as I have experienced it. Those Scandinavian Pietists gave considerable autonomy to lay preachers like C.O. Rosenius and to lay leaders of Bible studies that defied a law requiring clergy oversight of spiritual activities. (Rosenius’ successor as editor of the journal Pietisten, Paul Peter Waldenström, was a priest in the Church of Sweden, but he argued for lay preaching as a hedge against pastors seeing themselves as “a new estate of the clergy, a hierarchy, which is separated off from the laity.”) And even Pietists who share Spener’s concern for “orderly” worship would strive with him to decenter the role played by those few priests who happen to have been ordained, lest “the so-called laity [be] made slothful in those things that ought to concern it,” especially “the office of the spiritual priests to let the Word of God dwell richly among them (Col. 3:16).”