Chapter 56: the abbot’s table


The abbot will eat with guests and travelers.

What does it mean to have ‘a calling’?

I have spoken at length on my understanding of ordained ministers within the life of the whole people of God. The tension, it seems to me, is most obvious around questions of holiness. By holiness I mean ‘set apart-edness’ of the clergy from the laity. Some would say that ontologically, the very substance of the ordained is different from the non-ordained, while others see no division accept in the function of the clergy. It comes down to an opinion on whether the clergy are changed into something particular by God’s Holy Spirit, distinctive from the other members of the Body of Christ. Where you stand on that idea will mark out how you respond to the particular calling on certain people that differentiates them from others.

So what does it mean to have ‘a calling’?

The Bible is full of God singling out a particular person for a specific task. Some of these tasks are on a temporary basis (e.g. Moses leading the people out of Egypt to the Promise Land, Ananias welcoming Saul/Paul in Damascus) others are permanent (e.g. Abraham being the father of many generations, Peter to ‘feed [my] sheep’). God calls his people, as a collective, to particular tasks (to be holy, faithful, loving, etc.) but there are specific tasks to specific people.

It is clear from the Bible that God calls all people to himself to know and love him and to become his disciple. Once someone has responded to that call they are a disciple, allowing God to transform them, by his Holy spirit, into the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ. After that God will call them to additional tasks or lifestyles to grow into alongside and in conjunction with the life’s work of discipleship.

What task, then, is given to those called to be ordained?

This is a contentious issue and it depends on who you ask. Some would say it is into a leadership role within the church, others would emphasise a pastoral, serving role, others will create a particular cocktail of various functions and characteristics which define ‘ordained ministry’ but there is no concrete definition because God calls many people to it from different backgrounds, upbringings, experience, personality types, etc. Ordained ministry will look unique to each person who tries to live it out.

The added complication comes when you distinguish, in the Anglican Church, between ordained deacons, ordained priests and ordained bishops. The Anglican Church ordains people into three forms of ministry and they have different functions, roles and some would argue, characters. We confuse it even further by ordaining one person as a deacon, a priest and (in some cases) a bishop, all of which are unique a separate callings but are held together. I am, for instance, both a deacon and a priest simultaneously.

God, it seems, calls us both into tasks (temporary and sometime repeatable) and into way of life (permanent and evolving). Trying to discern one of these is difficult enough but then distinguishing between the two becomes even more difficult. It is for this reason I struggle with the simplistic view of ordained ministry as synonymous with ‘leadership’. ‘Leadership’ is a task, a role. At some point you will cease to be able to function as the leader or you may find that in a particular context you are called to follow and not to lead. If you are ordained as a ‘leader’ then it means you must always lead or, otherwise, your status as ‘ordained’ must be able to be revoked when you don’t ‘lead’.

Take a hypothetical scenerio: you are ordained and you lead a church congregation. You go to a conference and are put in a group where you are being led by someone else. In this instance you are not ‘leading’ therefore are you ‘ordained’ if the definition of your status is ‘leadership’?

Ordained ministry for me is about a specific ‘way of life’. What that looks like needs to be clarified in general across the Church of England. We have fallen into a complicated situation of defining ordained ministry as so many different things that it is not any one thing; it’s subjective. The problem with it being subjective it can no longer be institutionalised and therefore anyone can say they are ordained. We have so many different forms of ordained ministry that I’m not surprised when people are dismayed when they are not selected to be ordained.

Throughout the Rule, St. Benedict distinguishes certain roles within the life of the community but establishes those roles within the way of life of the call to be a monk. The call is to be a monk and within that God may have a particular job, relatively temporary, to perform (e.g. dean, cellarer, infirmarian, etc.). The call of the abbot, however, seems to be different. In modern day Benedictine monasteries the abbot is clearly one of the monks with particular responsibilities and tasks to perform (outlined in the Rule). Here, in this chapter, it paints a picture of the abbot living a separate life to the community, welcoming guests in his own dining room.

Earlier in the Rule, St. Benedict indicated that the table was a symbolic place for communal life, it is around the table, as well as in the oratory, that the community grew. In separating the abbot from them at the dining table puts a division between the abbot and the other monks. I am glad to say that this chapter never really worked out and, in modern day monasteries it is not held to.


It is easy to fall into the trap of setting the ordained ministers away from the people. They are to be set apart for their particular roles, which the non-ordained may not, for unspoken reasons, participate in. It is all too easy to settle for the ‘this is tradition’ argument for why only the ordained may preside at Holy Communion or why only the ordained may baptize.

Having walked the discernment process through with several people now, and having gone through it myself, I have discovered the process is far from uniform. Some are ordained for one reason which, seen in another person, is the reason they are not ordained. The deep questions of calling have become muddy to the point at which it is harder to discern the difference between ordained and non ordained ministry.

For what it’s worth, from this ordained minister, I feel a re-examination of the parish church to fit a model of monastic life may lead to a greater understanding of ordained ministry from the ministry of the people of God. The abbot is the symbol of ordained ministry and the callings and tasks of other officers in the church are valued with equal honour.

Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me whatever you will.
Whatever you may do I thank you.
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me and all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul.
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart.
For I love you Lord and so need to give myself,
surrender myself into your hands without
reserve and with boundless confidence
for you are my Father.

Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)

Come, Lord Jesus.