Are ordained people “special”?

Last week the Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College went to the Bield for a 24 hour ordination retreat at which we read and discussed the URC’s ordination vows. This discussion reminded me of and clarified for me a tension in our theology of ordination of which I think it is important to be aware. In our conversations this tension crystallised around the question “Are ordained people special?”.

I was reminded of this when I read the resolution from Wessex Synod to the 2012 General Assembly of our denomination. It proposes we consider the establishment of “locally ordained ministry”, of people ordained to the full ministry of Word and Sacrament” but only in a specified locality (one or several local churches). In the supporting material this is explicitly related to the proposal for presiding elders that was brought forward in Patterns of Ministry and rejected at that time. It suggests that locally ordained ministers should not be expected to undergo as extensive a programme of training as our current stipendiary and non-stipendiary ministers.

I am personally strongly in favour of this proposal and will be disappointed if it is rejected but I am also aware that it raises some real potential difficulties in regard to the tensions over the nature of ministry referred to above. I think it is well worth spending a little time examining those tensions and relating them to this proposal.

In our SURCC conversation two “poles” emerged in terms of the way ministry is conceived which one might call “high” and “low” theologies of ministry. Some people (whose theology I will call high) are attracted to a “priestly” view. This entails the idea that those ordained become a different kind of person (“special”) who are able to play a role in the mediation of grace that others cannot. From this follows an inclination towards a sacramental view of ordination itself, to the point that some are willing to say that they think we may be wrong not to see it as a sacrament (in the way Roman Catholics do).

Others (including me) tend towards a “low” view which sees the ordained minister of Word and Sacrament as simply designated (or authorised) to perform certain functions on behalf of the Church (primarily preaching/teaching and administration of the two sacraments we recognise). On this basis ordination is not a sacrament and more akin to a licensing process. The change in the nature of the person is not substantially different from that of someone enabled to practice a profession like law or medicine.

Related to all this are a set of possible views of the relationship between ministers, ministry and the Church. A fully priestly view (like that of episcopal Anglicanism, for example) sees the Church as constituted by ministry. Priests are ordained at cathedrals because it is the bishop who constitutes the Church and priests act on his (or her) behalf, with his or her authority. The local congregation participates in the churchly identity of the episcopate through the mediation of the priest and becomes fully Church only through this mediation.

At the other pole is an ecclesiology like that of the Churches of Christ or some Congregationalists which sees the gathered people of a local congregation as constituted fully as Church by Christ’s presence with them as “two or three gathered in my name”. No authorisation from a wider ecclesial body, whether ministerial or otherwise, is required. The formally authorised ministry then becomes useful but not essential. Church is the people gathered, minister or no minister.

This relates not only to the ministry but to a complex of ideas about where and how the Church exists. Presbyterians share something of the episcopalian intuition that the local church occurs as an instance of and under the authorisation of the wider Church while Congregationalists (like Baptists) see the Church as constituted directly by the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) and deny the fully Churchly character of bodies beyond that of the congregation.

The suggestion that ordained ministry could be bound to particular localities raises these tensions whether we want it to or not. It also, not coincidentally, reduces the distance ordination establishes between “clergy” and laity. If some are recognised as ordained, but only in some places and with a less rigorous requirement for training, they resemble an order “between” the ministers and the rest of the Church. Does their ordination make them “special”? And if so how can they be special in some places and not in others?

As one who sees ordination as authorisation I have no difficulty with this. The ordination of locally ordained ministry would authorise them to ministry in specified places. I do, though, recognise that the URC is not straightforwardly Congregationalist (or a continuation of the Churches of Christ whose theology of ministry is different again) and that even Congregationalism had a range of views on this (P.T. Forsyth for example having a very “high” view).

In making a decision about this proposal we should take the opportunity to revisit and clarify our theology of ministry in an ecumenical setting. Both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have similar things. This implies that there must be a way to make it acceptable to those with “high” views of ministry in a URC setting. Let’s look at what these other denominations have done with care and respect to shape our own way forward so that all of us can affirm it.

  1. Nope, can’t agree with you there; it’s not about high and low, it’s about strength of vocation/calling, length and quality of training to prepare people for the task. The proposal of Wessex is inconsistant with current policy of candidates for word and sacrement being required to be prepared to travel anywhere to minister. That is the question that needs sorting out. This resolution could be a backdoor solution to allowing people to be ministers in geographically restricted areas. However, it would be better to address the issue properly, as it creates even more anomalies, and potentially lowers the bar. Like you I would take the ‘low view’ of ordination but would rather see people allowed to geographically restrict their ministry, and still expect a rigorous training and selection. Hope the retreat was good, keep thinking…Diana

    • But why would any of these things (training, geography) be matters of principle in ordination and what difference does ordination make? As I see it we’re talking about a standing authorisation to preside at the Eucharist and not much else since we don’t currently restrict preaching to the ordained.

  2. zamwalker said:

    My view of ordination does not fit neatly into your categories. On one level I have a high view as I do think that you are made separate (isn’t that what ordination means – being set apart?) and have specific responsibilities. Also the phenomenological reality is that ordination does put you in a separate category and the vows rightly impact on all areas of life, especially so because your life is in the public arena (whether you like it or not: see the fuss about the Anglican minister and the comments on FB). But I would agree that this recognition and mandate comes from the community so in that sense it can be akin to licensing. When asked I usually summarise it anthropologically that it is a shamanic role. Once ordained you will discover – it may have happened already – that people ask you to pray for them/their concerns and, although you may point out that they are perfectly capable of praying directly themselves, it is pastorally insensitive not to do this.

    Re the Wessex proposal: I have very mixed feelings. One thing that defines our ministry has been that it is a learned ministry so that to dilute requirements is the start of a slippery slope. On the other hand I do not think people should be deprived of Communion so would have no problem with people being trained in eucharistic theology and praxis so that they can be authorised locally to be able to celebrate. In other synods in which I have lived and worked this is currently the case.

    • I think most people will have a position intermediate between the extremes I identify (I think I do myself).
      Ordination doesn’t really mean “setting apart” so much as “setting in order” and is thus consonant with a view of the ministry as primarily about church order (the classical Calvinist view).
      The Wessex proposal is different from our current arrangements for allowing people not ordained to preside in that it is permanent and doesn’t rely on “pastoral necessity”. In this respect it is more akin to the way the Churches of Christ operated.
      Don’t much like the shamanic comparison, myself, altogether too priestly for me.

  3. I struggle with it from an unusual perspective, I have a vocation and it is NOT to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I have done everything to test a vocation to Word and Sacrament barring going to Assessment Conference and come away with a consistent NO! This is a relief to me. I am also cynical enough to suspect I might have been accepted at Assessment Conference, the mistaking of my vocation for that of word and sacrament by others has happened repeatedly through out my life.

    For the life of me I can’t see why anyone would want to go forward for the ministry, everything else being equal. It is a role that requires a huge amount of commitment and huge spaces to feel inadequate in, with a continual critical (in the sense of theatre critic) audience. I would put my survival in the ministry without a mental breakdown at six month.

    But I said I had a vocation and if I am honest I would be equally stupid if I believed that my vocation was somehow easier than the ministry. My job gave me twenty twenty vision into the pitfalls of the route, it no more followed my natural inclinations than did the ministry. So why follow that and not the ministry. In the end because I could not not do it. Yes I tried for probably about a decade.

    To that extent I understand a person being a minister while equally knowing I would not do it for toffee. Yet if this calling is that intrinsic to the role that it can’t be done without it and will be done regardless of pitfals with it, what does this say of the nature of ministry? It pushes me towards a more high understanding.

    Secondly I tend to think lay people can do most things a minister can. That does not make them ministers. I have participated in lay led communions and felt them integral with the lay person leading them. Lay preaching happens and whether someone does it well or ill often depends on skill, effort and other things more than the laying on of hands in a ceremony.

    I think I was around thirty when my father asked me ” Then why have the ministry?” It took me another decade to go beyond my sense that there was something important. This is what I would say today: Within the local Congregation your eldership represents your church local, your minister represents your church universal. Together they make up the leadership of the local church. That is the minister acts as the connection between what goes on in the precise situation and with the Church through out all space and time. As such it is right that they should be in a special priveledged position with respect to the Sacraments and Teaching. They are the marks of the Church, the sign the local is part of the global, but that position need not be exclusive.

  4. I think I agree with you on more or less everything, Jean, other than your feeling that ordained ministry is an especially difficult path for those called to it. I would say, rather, that if this is one’s vocation any other path will be too hard. I admire your integrity in seeking to discern what your true calling is and wish you the very best with it.

    I’m strongly inclined to your view that there are no specific functions or actions that are absolutely reserved to the ordained minister of word and sacraments. I, too, have participated (preached even) in services where an authorised elder has presided at the sacrament and not felt any lack in it.

    I also sympathise with your suggestion that the primary role of the minister (and this accords with a Reformed emphasis on church order) is as the representative of or mediator of the universal communion of the Church in or to the local congregation (which is itself an instance of but not the totality of the Church catholic).

  5. The problem as I see it, is if ministry is something you need a vocation to do, whether that makes it easy or not, it does seem to be more ontological in nature. If we as a tradition look for people with a vocation to serve as ministers of word and sacrament, then that says something of our understanding of the what it is to be a minister. We may be recognising something in them rather than creating something by ordaining but we are suggesting there is a difference.

    • Unless, as you and I seem to agree, ministry is not unique in being a vocation. I believe strongly that Christianity itself is a vocation, that all of us who are baptised into Christ have been called to the Church by God, chosen or elected to play our parts in God’s work as enacted through the Church. The minister has received a further call but so, for example, have the treasurer or the church secretary.

  6. Was the church ever meant to have an us and them mentality? Are dog collars a sign of control? Is the ordained ministry an excuse for others to sit back? Why be super educated? And are we educated in the right stuff? Why ordain someone on a local basis only? Can they move around like nationally ordained? Are we making it easier or harder for people to get involved in ministry at all levels? Ordination gives me permission to do what I want to do but I am working on the ministry of all. But I am frustrated when good people are held back because of rigorous educational requirements. I wish we were more flexible and trust God more. After all if I chose the people who became ordained there are a few I wouldn’t pick. And there are those who wouldn’t have picked me! Although I love what ordination allows me to do I do struggle with the pedestals. I guess I am a very low person.

    • With you all the way, Sarah. I do favour the practice of ordination (including education) because I think there’s a place for order in the Church but I also want to see us promoting the ministry of all God’s people. I think the proposal going to URC GA is an excellent step forward and pray it is favourable received.

  7. Elliot Vernon said:

    Is the idea of the universal ministry a historical hang-over from medieval practice?

    Perhaps the Bible might be of assistance here? It is clear that not every sheep is to be a shepherd – the New Testament uses three words for a minister – an elder, an overseer and a shepherd – all words that indicate a person who is set over others, albeit for their benefit. Indeed, Titus 1, provides a pretty good rule (coming as it does from an Apostle) on what a minister should be (if we make a exception to the gender specific aspects of that letter).

    However, and this is where I am with you – I can’t see that the Cretans in Titus’ mission were necessarily going to be ministers of every church in the church catholic. Indeed, that does not seem to have been the way of the Apostolic era church – the introductions of the post-apostolic letters of Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch all suggest that the elders were specific to a particular church.

    Even if ministers do not necessarily need the equivalent of theology degree, Paul makes clear in Titus 1:9-11 that ministers need to be sufficiently knowledgeable in the faith to silence the ‘meaningless talk and deceptions’ – and as 1 Timothy 5:17 makes clear the ministry earns its double honour for not only ruling but also teaching.

    So here is the model I see – the Bible requires an ordained ministry (who have the necessary level of knowledge to teach and to act as stewards of Christ’s kingdom) – but I see no biblical objection to a local eldership ministering over one congregation or collection of congragations – and if its OK with the Bible, it must be good (or perhaps I am just reverting back to congregationalism…)

  8. pinksheep3108 said:

    I can see your argument about viewing ordination from a low or high point, and therefore whether as an ordained priest someone is ‘special’ so to speak. I tend to agree with others who have commented on the point of ordination being more about vocation and calling though. Depending on where or what type of church you are called into, you will either be viewed in a more priestly sense or an authorised sense. Either way, for me the ‘special’ aspect is that you are following your call in the way that God intended. I do worry that if training processes were less rigorous for anyone, it could have a number of implications. A local ordained minister needs to be equipped to preach and pastor just as much as stipend/non-stipend ministers. Geography may mean that congregational needs are less diverse on the one hand, but you never know who is going to walk through the door and what their needs might be. With regards to preaching, I feel that people who preach need to be selling their product in a way. I don’t mean becoming an entertainer, but more bringing the word of God alive, as a teacher brings his or her subject alive in a classroom. This is a gift that some are born with, but it still needs careful nurturing and I don’t feel that should be rushed.

    • The question, though, is how someone is equipped. I value my training and am glad to have had it but this doesn’t mean that I think it’s essential to all ministry. In the Congregationalist tradition that is one of the roots of the URC there was (and is) a strong belief that the congregation is the communal body that is empowered by the Spirit to discern the will of Christ. This discernment can then be brought to bear on the call of someone to serve that congregation in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: