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The Stabilizer and the Shatterer

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The Charge to the Minister at the Ordination of George Huntston Williams

at the Church of the Christian Union, Unitarian, 

Rockford, Illinois, on November 14, 1940.

We have often heard him spoken of with extravagant praise. We have heard him mentioned also with contempt. We have heard him castigated as an agent of anachronism, of sluggish cultural lag. From the lips of two of our university professors, I have heard him characterized as having practically no significance for good or for evil. Of course, I am referring to the minister.

It is doubtful if any profession occupies a more ambiguous position in the esteem of men than does the ministry. What with the writings of Chaucer and Isaak Walton, Emerson and Robert Ingersoll, such an anthology would not only include some of the greatest writers; it would also be as largely compounded of satire and criticism as of praise and adulation. But we do not need to go to literature and history for these paradoxes. Even ministers themselves are not always confident of the necessity or value of the profession. I have known young ministers who even consider it a compliment to be told that they do not look or talk or act like a minister.

Not so with the other professions, like the law, medicine, and science. Some men may doubt their own fitness for one or other of these professions, yet they seldom, if ever, question the significance of these professions themselves. In a mass culture like ours, the artist and the teacher may not be held in such high esteem as the lawyer, the doctor and the scientist, yet both are generally conceded to have some proper role in the scheme of things. The minister belongs in a class by himself. In many quarters, he is on the defensive precisely because he is a minister.

What is it about the ministry that makes it appear to some people as the highest calling and to others as the lowest, most contemptible? Various are the answers we might offer to this question. To be sure, some people would deny that the ministry does occupy this ambiguous position in the minds of “right-thinking people.” Hence, they are prone to say that only sinful and irresponsible men, only men estranged from God and church, doubt the significance and value of the ministry. There are others who say that the minister may once have played a proper role in society, but that religion must now yield to science (or something else) in order that it be no longer a drag upon human progress. Harold Laski, for example, insists that the ideal society to be worked for will be the completely secularized society.

I am not so much concerned now with what people of this sort say, but with what the minister himself feels. The average minister not only knows that he is both respected and despised in the world, but he even views himself in this ambiguous fashion. And we ask, why?

The answer is: because of the very nature of the profession. For the minister—or at least the liberal minister—plays a dual role in society. He is, or is supposed to be, both a priest and a prophet; he is the representative of both the stabilizing and the disturbing forces of history. He is devoted to the task of proclaiming the divine imperative that men should give the forms of love and justice to human life and encourage those who are engaged in this universal endeavor. But he is also committed to the divinely demanded task of criticizing and shattering certain of the forms of meaning and meaninglessness in society. He is the apostle of both divination and prophecy. He celebrates the joys and sacrifices of the common life, he is the professional guide for Christian nurture; but “under the great Taskmaster’s eye,” he is also bound by duty radically to criticize the frustrations and perversions of “Christian” nurture and even of the “Christian” ministry. He is called upon to produce the social cement of human association, and yet if he is true to his prophetic function, he is also bound to stand beyond merely human associations, to be a man of conscience—a dangerous creature—and thus to be a pulverizer of encrusted forms and barriers. He is called to follow the Master of those who love by being the friend to all, but he is called also to follow that same Master right into the Temple of respectability and become seemingly the very enemy of society and religion.

Because the liberal minister must in love and in good conscience play this dual role among us, his profession by its very nature inevitably makes him elicit the scorn of certain of his contemporaries, for the minister cannot by any means whatsoever avoid arousing the scorn of men. If he does not wish to be scorned among men, he should be warned not to enter the profession. Indeed, he will bring more scorn upon the profession if he possesses an undue love for appreciation. Like it or not, the profession of the ministry is made only for those who expect to be despised and rejected.

Let the minister be more of a priest than a prophet. Does he thereby make his path easier? Not one whit. He still has his conscience to deal with, he has to square himself with the traditions of prophecy; and if neither of these forces is active, then he will have to meet the scorn of sensitive and responsible people both inside and outside the church. This scorn from outside the church is not always the sign of a hostile secularism; it is often the expression of a prophetic spirit that the world may have caught from the prophets. No doubt Emerson reflected this spirit when he wrote his lines:

I like a church; I like a cowl;
I love a prophet of the soul;
And on my heart monastic aisles
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
Yet not for all his faith can see
Would I that cowled churchman be.

Emerson did not shrink from wearing the cowl because he had a distaste for piety, but rather because he thought the besetting sin of the ministry is its artificial and hollow conformity. We learn from his essay on “The Preacher” that it was the scorn of ministerial cant and insincerity and pretense, the using of big words for trivial ends, that he feared. “What sort of respect,” he asks, “can these preachers inspire by their weekly praises of texts and saints, when we know that they would say just the same things if Beelzebub had written the chapter, provided it stood where it does in the public opinion?”


Let the minister be more of a prophet than a priest, even then he will not escape those who sit in the seat of the scornful. Far from it. Let him detach himself from the immediate demands of the age, let him substitute “Thus saith the Lord” for “Thus saith the age.” Let him refuse to be the hireling priest for the age, let him inspire the church to fulfill what Dean Inge has called its major function—the refusal to cooperate with the spirit of the age—and he will only find himself again confronted with scorn, scorn of a different sort but of an equally bitter taste with the scorn of the hireling priest. Let him bring universal truths down to their application for the age, let him call by name those forces that make men terribly at ease in Zion, and (even if he is both justified and tactful and even if he speaks in love), he will find that he is not wanted, that he has stepped beyond the boundary of permitted detachment.

Even at his best and truest, then, the complete minister is a marked man, urging others also to be marked men, urging them to be wanderers as well as sojourners on the earth.

Why then is the minister in this precarious position, why always to be despised or rejected whatever he does? It is because he is called to be the proclaimer of the living Word of God, of the Word that is at the same time a consuming fire and an inflaming love, a shattering and a creative power. He is the proclaimer of a kingdom that is in this world but not of this world. Thus, if he fulfills his calling, he must expect derision from one group, and if he does not, he must expect it from another. The question is not whether the man of God will be despised and rejected. The question is, By whom?

In all this the minister is, of course, subject to no peculiar fate; he shares the fate of all, the fate and the privilege of living in a world in which the promise and the splendor of life find their ingression into history only through the cross. For the cross is not merely a beautiful ornament on a watch fob or merely an adornment for the altar. It is at the heart of all meaningful living. It is, in short, the one indispensable means of grace.