From Mediators to Shepherds

The years following the Protestant Reformation were a time of great transition in Christian theology. However, a transition in the practice and role of local church leadership also redefined centuries-old views on the alleged special access the clergy had to God. Church historian Winthrop S. Hudson (1911-2001) wrote that for all the changes in thinking that occurred in this first century after the beginning of the Reformation “nowhere can this [change] be seen more clearly than in the altered view of the clergy.”[1]Hudson’s contributing chapter “The Ministry in the Puritan Age” in The Ministry in Historical Perspectives charts this massive shift in how the local church led people to fear and follow God.[2]Reflecting on this evolution in thinking towards English clergy specifically, H. H. Henson (1863-1947) published this assessment in 1939:

The sacerdotal aspect of the ministry was not in express words disallowed, but it was so effectually obscured as to fall out of general acceptance. The word “priest” remained, but it was carefully explained by Archbishop Whitgift to mean no more than presbyter, and it was carefully avoided in official documents. Except when referring to the Ordinal, the Canons of 1604 invariably employ the word “minister” instead of “priest.” The suggestion of the official usage was emphasized by the destruction of the altars in the parish churches, […] and the abandonment of the Eucharistic vestments.[3]

As Henson points out, the initial change began with a re-branding campaign of sorts, and as time passed, the word “priest” became redefined by the new roles the men preformed. However, it is clear that the term carried so many preconceived notions that church leaders thought best to label this new type of churchman by what he actually did as well as leading them to abandon their popish attire. Hudson comments further on Henson’s work by adding: “Formerly the clergy had been “priests,” finding their primary responsibility at the altar; now they were “ministers,” with preaching and pastoral care as their pre-eminent duties.”[4]

No longer serving as the human gateways to God, these men and their office became reborn as shepherds of the flock of Christ. In this era, we see the rise of the pastor as we know them today. By the end of Hudson’s “Puritan Age,” it was firmly established in title, practice, and clothing that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” and the congregation looked to their “minister” to point them towards Him.[5]

 *Cover photo is the interior of Langely Chapel, still boasting its early 17th century interior. For more visit: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/.

[1]H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams, eds. The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (New York: Harper Brothers, 1956),180. Winthrop S. Hudson was a Professor of the History of Christianity at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York from 1948-1977.

[2]Ibid., 180-206.

[3]H. H. Henson, The Church of England (London, 1939), 149. Henson was an Anglican priest and bishop at both Hereford and Durham during his lifetime.

[4]Niebuhr and Williams, 180.

[5]I Timothy 2:5 (ESV).

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