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.