Sentinels and Stewards

Stephen Cottrell – On Priesthood (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020)

The Anglican rite of ordination describes priests as servants, shepherds, messengers, sentinels and stewards. Bishop Cottrell’s new book examines each of these terms in turn.

Only a Bishop could have written this book. As the one who ordains, he has been required to give the definition of priesthood more thought than the average minister. The raw material of the book, in fact, has been drawn from sermons given during ordination ceremonies.

This gives the book both a weight of authority and a homely familiarity; like words of advice given from a patriarch to his grown-up sons over Sunday dinner. It’s a wise book.

Which is not to say that it is not also a moving read. At times funny. At times profound.

Of particular merit are Cottrell’s stories of his own mistakes and misunderstandings in the past. The woman who left the room as he delivered communion to her dying husband; the young Cottrell assumes she is opposed to religion, when she was in fact listening through the wall and following along, not knowing whether it was permitted for her to do so.

The hiking trip where sacramental wine was shared in a red plastic picnic cup. This one struck me as particularly English: bordering on both the sacrilegious and the ironic, but still meant wholly and truly.

From the royal family to imperial measurements, the British love tradition, and remaking tradition. Finding the modern relevance of practices that, on the surface, seem like anachronisms.

This is why Cottrell’s framing device – three words (messenger, sentinel, steward) laid down in 1550, and two (servant and shepherd) added in 1980 – is so impactful. His interpretations, like the red plastic cups, are very contemporary, very open-minded, sometimes a bit general, but they are held down by these old words. Like sails on a ship’s mast.

What are we to make of “sentinel”, for instance? A word with such a seventeenth century flavour that I admit to encountering it more in science fiction than in religious writing.

Cottrell carries us effortlessly through Biblical translations, tying our sentinel to the watchmen and sentries of the Old Testament, and the idea of seeing and vision so prevalent in the New. St Paul’s “visionless vision” points us to a sentinelship of the soul. We are the watchmen.

But who watches the watchmen? Well, the Bishops I suppose! And Cottrell is certainly an astute observer.

The Anglican Church has a tremendous resource in its King James Version. In my own Church, modernisation too often means the removal of poetry from religious language, done under the name of simplification. But God is not simple, and the care of our souls certainly isn’t.

On Priesthood captures some of the magic of old words, and does so through a clear and accessible modern style. In doing so, it implicates us and our calling in the eternal Word; unchanged and unchanging since before time.

A wonderful book. Compellingly readable and containing much food for thought. I would recommend buying the hardback too, as it’s a lovely object and a pleasure to carry around with you.

Demetrios Kanapka

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