But I’m still glad we don’t have one.
For the sake of this discussion, I’m not concerned with the technical definition of “priestcraft.” I’m using it as a shorthand term for “something about another church that isn’t just different (like having crosses on their steeples) or incorrect (baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion), but a form of institutional wickedness.” Hiring and paying a pastor is different and maybe incorrect and definitely subject to abuse, and since it involves priests and money we usually take a dim view of it, but I don’t think it’s institutional wickedness.
I’ve recently read the memoirs of a pastor in the United Church of Christ (or rather, one of its precursors) at the turn of the twentieth century. As the son of a pastor himself, he grew up in impoverished circumstances: his mother sewed shirts out of old sheets for his father to wear while attending seminary, as a child he tasted ice cream only when a wealthy parishioner bought it for everyone at a parish picnic, his proseminary and seminary tuition was waived, and, like Harry at Hogwarts, he was one of the students who stayed at school over the Christmas holiday because a train ticket home and back was too expensive. In his own pastoral career, he served in a series of rural parishes that paid a few hundred dollars a year. In return, he not only preached once a Sunday, or twice when trying to establish a congregation in a new location. He also visited parish members as needed during the week, met with the parish council, and taught the one-room parish school and its confirmation class four or five days a week and also summer school where possible. He was in effect something like the bishop, seminary teacher, local school teacher and elders quorum president all in one (and at times an organist and music teacher as well). One parish paid only $200 per year, but he was thrilled to also have use of a 10-acre farm where his family could raise food, and farming parishioners were committed to supply him with food and firewood. This is not priestcraft, only the provision of sustenance for someone engaged full time in the Lord’s work. It’s not much different from how our missionary funding eliminates financial worries for missionaries, which I benefited from and appreciated, or what our general authorities enjoy today (and which I think is entirely appropriate, but a topic for another post and not something I want to spend time on here).
But after reading the same memoir, I’m glad we approach the training and support of local clergy and congregational finances differently. A lay, unpaid clergy and centralized finances lets us avoid:
- The pastor’s wife having to go door to door to collect parish members’ dues so she can feed her family.
- Unscrupulous pastors angling for significant payment from the family for performing a baptism, wedding or funeral.
- Parish council members having to visit wealthy parishioners to convince them to contribute according to their actual means for church building maintenance or expansion projects.
- Parishes being on the hook financially for debt incurred in building projects.
- Inequality between parishes, with some able to afford organs, stained glass and projectors for silent films, while other congregations have to scrounge to afford second best.
- Suspicion and scandal when checks get lost in the mail.
- Acrimonious debate over how much of the proceeds from donations to keep for local needs and how much to forward to the synod to support its institutions and further its external mission.
There are some things that might reasonably arouse envy of how other churches work. The financial structure that makes academically trained clergy and professional preachers possible is not one of them.