Leadership and authority in the Church: not one thing.

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEAI’ve been thinking about leadership and authority in the Church this week:

  • we had a fascinating discussion at Area Committee that touched on some work going on the clarify the denominations (or at any rate the Synod’s) approach to people with experience of church leadership outside our structures coming into fellowship with our congregations and exercising their gifts and callings without having been through any official training or accreditation process with the URC.;
  • there was an interesting thread on Facebook about styles and types of leadership, especially with relation to lessons to be drawn from the commercial world, where “leadership” is such a hot topic among those who write on business
  • I’ve been working through the 5 part course on the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order with one of my Bible study groups, Biblical authority last week, creeds and confessions this week;
  • I’m preparing for a retreat day for the eldership at one of the churches where I serve to look at forming a vision and a mission plan;
  • I’ve been reading Oliver O’Donovan’s Self, World and Time and remembering how powerful I found his distinctive, and distinctively Anglican, approach to questions of authority when I had the great blessing of his teaching and his supervision of my Master’s dissertation.

All these things have had me thinking again about what it is to be a leader in the Church and its connection to the sources of authority that the Church recognises.

To begin with the discussion at Area Committee. It would be entirely inappropriate to write about any particular occasion for this but what fascinated me as I thought about it afterwards is the ambiguities we were negotiating about where authority resides in the URC and what it means to be part of the denomination. Some of us instinctively tend to think that the local church is the body with primary authority and that whatever the congregation thinks or does, within the very broad limits set by the Basis of Union, is to be accepted. Others tend to a more Presbyterian view in which the higher courts or councils have broad authority to direct the local church and a denominational identity or norm sets a pattern to which congregations should be expected to conform.

Of course both these tendencies have roots in our traditions and practices and they are not incompatible poles. Everybody will believe both that there are common things to which everybody has to conform to be part of our denomination and that there are things the local church has the responsibility and vocation to decide for ourselves. The differences will lie in what things are allotted to which category and in thinking about the best structural or organisational arrangements express the dynamic negotiations necessary.

What would be likely to emerge, I think, if we had the patience and the time to explore the questions fully is that different conceptions of the sources of authority and the way they interact are at play.

In our denomination we are clear that the supreme authority is “the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”. What we don’t specify is how the work of discernment should be undertaken, especially corporately. The authority both of General Assembly and of Church Meeting are recognised but we have no robust way of articulating them with one another (Revd Dr Romilly Micklem’s doctoral thesis provides a careful and convincing exploration of the sources and the difficulties of this problem).

In addition to this difficulty about the source of institutional authority there is a systematic ambiguity about the authority of “tradition”. The creeds and confessions that are so important in the core Reformed tradition are recognised but not straightforwardly recognised as authoritative. The Basis of Union says that some in our past have valued these documents as “as stating the Gospel and seeking to make its implications clear” without committing the denomination to doing so.

It is clear to me that there are multiple sources of legitimate authority in the Church and in that part of it in which I seek to follow Christ.

  • The revelation of God in the Biblical text is, as the BoU says, the supreme authority.
  • The deposit of the post-apostolic tradition in the documents and structures of the Church is extremely important. The creeds in particular, expressing the wisdom and inspiration of the Church catholic occupy a very prominent position for me.
  • The structures and regulations of the denomination are essential to a disciplined discernment (and the prominence of the BoU in this piece relates to my sense of this).
  • Each of us individually is called to a work of discernment using all the gifts we are given and relying on God’s presence to us in the Spirit.

Which brings us to the question of the responsibility and privileges of ordained ministers and others called to leadership in the Church.

My view is that we who are ordained to ministry of Word and Sacraments do well always to return to the core ministries to which we are called. The ministry of the Word is a ministry of speech. It is a ministry of proclamation above all else. It involves and borders on a variety of other related forms of speech and action, teaching, prayer, encouragement, advice, consolation, but these have to serve rather than replace or displace our central responsibility, to proclaim Christ, and him crucified. This is a form of leadership but one that directs people to Jesus, not to any lesser aim or goal and not to any particular form of action. Our ministry of the sacraments is also a form of leadership, of presidency, but one limited to two actions, taking the communion meal and baptism.

In no other kind of leadership than these two does our ordination confer any special status. When it comes to directing mission, guiding the life of the community of believers, organising the activities of the corporate bodies of the church, any authority has to come from elsewhere than ordination and is as open to any other member of the Church as it is to the ordained.

These sources of authority are many and not all of them are particular to the Church. In thinking about our money (something we should be more enthusiastic and less apologetic than we often are) an accountancy qualification is a legitimate source of authority in the Church as it is elsewhere but the supreme authority remains the same. Experience, expertise and imagination are always relevant.

It would help us when thinking about leadership to be clear that different people are qualified to lead in different ways, for different things. There is no one answer to the question of “who can and should lead” and no one answer to “how should we decide”. We need to be open and flexible in this as in other matters and to be ready to demand to the demands of our situation, our time and place, while remaining rooted and connected in the tradition and above all the dynamic wrestling with God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments.


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