cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.

Assembly-sunday-worshipI attended a meeting of the Thames North Synod of the United Reformed Church on Saturday and on reflection I find I came away with some grounds for hope. I found what I observed of General Assembly (via the streaming feed and the written reports) rather dispiriting. The meeting on Saturday was primarily to report back from that Assembly so my hopes were not particularly high. However I was delighted to find that John Ellis, Elder Moderator of General Assembly, was giving an address, since his address to Assembly was the only thing about it that cheered me up.

John again stressed some thoughts that I believe are crucially important:

  • he reaffirmed the central significance of the URC’s ecumenical vocation, calling us to be sacrificial in our approach to ecumenical collaboration and cooperation;
  • he urged us to be more imaginative and daring in our vision of our denominational future, saying that stepping away from the bolder future “scenarios” by Mission Council was to be regretted;
  • he urged us to think carefully about whether and how we can justify our continuing separate structures (appearing to share some of my scepticism about the extent to which being “Reformed” can provide this justification);
  • he raised the necessity of more fully embracing the Presbyterian aspect of our inheritance in enabling more “strategic” approaches to the allocation of our resources, above all deployment of stipendiary ministry;
  • he suggested that our central and synodical functions and teams are too big for the current size of the denomination.

Even more encouraging (for me) was the report back from the Revd Dr John Parry on the resolutions brought by the Faith and Order Committee on the “Future of the Church”. I wrote at the time about how bitterly disappointing I found these. To point to church meeting and ordained eldership as features of our denominational life that can lead to its renewal and revitalisation seems absurd to me and the stress on being Reformed only very slightly less so. In thinking about the looming crisis we face they are an irrelevance and their occupying the space where we are supposed to be thinking about our future (along the lines suggested by John Ellis) is a tragic waste of the time we have before it becomes too late to do anything.

That John Parry said something along these lines (although much more moderately) as our Synod report back was, for me, hugely positive. I may not agree wholeheartedly with what seemed to be his proposed answer (which seemed to be a reaffirmation of Congregationalism and greater stress on the local church) but I wholeheartedly welcome his recognition that we need to do something different rather than try to stress some features of our common life we might imagine to be distinctive.

A decisive turn towards Presbyterianism would be a vital first step, in my view. This would enable us to recognise that ecclesial structures beyond the local congregation have their own legitimate and proper vocations and the authority to pursue them. We are evolving in this direction,anyway, with the move to grouping of churches and team ministries but unless those teams recognise themselves as genuinely corporate bodies (where the term corporate is intended to invoke the body of Christ rather than the legal personality of a joint stock company) they will not fulfill the role that is required of them,

In particular we in the URC have to recognise the need for more than one kind of ministry of word and sacraments. Our small, aging and declining fellowships (that is most of congregations) really do need ministry that focuses on preserving and enriching their communal spiritual life, that values it for what it is. Some of these fellowships can find paths to growth but many will not. Their faithful witness needs ministerial support and this is an important ministry for our denomination at this time in its history. This ministry will have particular shapes and forms in its proclamation of the word, its worshiping of God, its celebration of the sacraments and its pastoral care. Such ministry should be recognised and supported, valued and nurtured

At the same time we are an enormously wealthy denomination in terms of capital assets and we also have a range of distinctive, dynamic and vigorous fellowships and missions, of a variety of types, styles and locations. We also have within our current roll of ministers people with all kinds of gifts and callings. Alongside our ministry of care and witness in the large numbers of shrinking “traditional” URC congregations we should be equipping and supporting ministries of other kinds without looking for any return. The Special Category Ministers were a sort of attempt at this but one from which we appear to be retreating.

I am suggesting that a properly Presbyterian URC with a properly sacrificial approach to ecumenism and a properly strategic view of the use of its capital assets could do much, much more. If we looked across the landscape of the Church catholic in this country and identified gaps or opportunities where the deployment of our financial and human resources could make a real difference then the next period of our life together could be very exciting indeed, This would mean us giving up the idea that the URC of the ’70s could or should be recreated and even that the URC as a separate and distinct denomination needs to be preserved but in the freedom this surrender gave us we might hear God saying some very interesting things indeed.

In the UK United Reformed Church we are in the midst of a discussion about whether to pass an enabling resolution that would allow those of our churches that wish to register for same sex marriages to do so. The agreement of the denomination is required under the legislation in order for any church to proceed in this way. The Baptist Union has already expressed such agreement on the grounds that their understanding of church polity is such that this is exclusively a matter for decision by the local church. The URC has taken the view (almost certainly correctly) that our ordering by our manual means that a positive decision by the denomination that we are prepared to allow local churches the decision is required.

In brief I am uncomfortable with what we in the Church may seem to be saying about sexual difference and gender by accepting same sex marriage although I am quite comfortable with our affirming and blessing same sex relationships. This is chiefly because of the very bad arguments being presented by many of those in favour of this development. I thus find myself in favour of something while rejecting almost of the reasons put forward for it, indeed of finding those reasons harmfully misleading and thus in the difficult position of being able neither wholeheartedly to support nor to reject the suggestion that we enable same sex marriage in churches.

The core of my unease revolves around two problems that I have:

1) I think the arguments of those who reject same-sex marriage about the historical and traditional character of marriage are much closer to the truth than those of the people in favour. I further believe that the interpretation given of the relevant sections of the Bible offered by these opponents are more credible as statements of what those passages mean;

2) I think the arguments of those who favour same-sex marriage lead us in the direction of a way of thinking about the significance of sexual difference as dangerously misleading as that of their “complementarian” conservative opponents.

It is my considered opinion, after much reflection on this matter, that marriage has its origins in the ordering of the bearing and raising of children and in particular of making definitive patriarchal lines of descent. These origins are both historical and theological. In fact I would suggest that any attempt to distinguish sharply between history and theology is a profound mistake in the context of Christian faith. Our faith is in a God who is the creator and agent of history and whose decisive presence within Creation is one localisable in time and space and thus itself historical. To understand what marriage is, has been and will be we do indeed need to take the word of God in the Bible, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as our highest authority, but it cannot be interpreted outside of and against history.

One of the things this means is that we need to take seriously the variety of forms and expressions of marriage in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and their treatment there seriously as guide to our reflection on the best contemporary accounts of the nature, development and variety of marriage through history and in the contemporary world. One thing that is clear from this is that forms of marriage dissociated from the legitimation of children and the making arrangements for their care and socialisation, from the transfer of property and other rights and the setting of their status are highly exceptional and unusual. Such forms may have existed in the past but rarely and in situations far removed from the historical experiences that have shaped the legal arrangements of the United Kingdom.

It is also clear that over the last 50 years there has been a very rapid development in the UK in the direction of this dissociation. The distinction between children legitimated by marriage between their mothers and their fathers and children not so legitimated was clear as recently as the 1960s and is now almost gone. If it is true that the core functions of marriage were, in the period before the 1960s, this legitimation and the enforcement of paternal responsibility for their support, and I believe this to be the case, then this collapse of the link between paternity and marriage is a matter of great import. Indeed I would suggest that it leaves marriage as a legal status with almost no real function, from the point of view of the state and of society. This is reflected in the ease with which marriage can now be dissolved. Where once the state acted as if it mattered that marriages endured and social pressures were brought to bear to reinforce this endurance divorce is now routine and without great stigma.

We can identify a great many contributing factors to this development but I can’t see how anyone could doubt that the achievement of a much higher degree of legal and economic autonomy by women is the key one. Women no longer necessarily need the support of a man to support and protect them. The Biblical texts. where they discuss the relationship between the sexes, assume the dependency of women on men, which has been a key feature of almost all known societies (again there are exception but exceptions are what they are) until very recently.

This is a change that we need to take into account when we read the Bible, even where we regard it as authoritative. One response, that of the “complementarians” is to reject these developments as inimical to the will of God. That the Bible assumes the dominance of men and dependency of women is taken as making this feature of past societies as being ordained by God. I will not take time here to argue against this view. I regard it as deeply and appallingly wrong.

Alternatively we have to develop an understanding of the authority of the Bible that can allow us to read and interpret it in ways that acknowledge that history did not end with the closing of the canon of scripture and that the texts we have are themselves historical documents through which God is revealed but which do not stand outside of time and cannot be taken directly to reveal eternal truth. The revelation is itself inside history and cannot be detached from it.

This means (to bring me to the second focus of my unease) we need, urgently, to understand how sexual difference is being transformed and what this means theologically and historically to the Christian church. The arguments of those in favour of the recognition of same sex marriages tend strongly towards accepting the default liberal position that individuals should be regarded as the abstract bearers of rights, understood essentially in terms of property rights. On this basis marriage is a private matter between two abstract individuals with all concrete characteristics of these individuals being irrelevant. Its significance is not a matter about which society or the state need have any view, since their primary interest has always been in children and this interest is now dealt with elsewhere (in the complex web of legislation and other forms of regulation of child support and care which no longer takes much interest in marital status).

Here there has been a strong tendency for those in the Church favouring same sex marriage to play a leading role in the generation of a new ideology of marriage in which an emotional-psychological celebration of a form of bonding between two individuals is celebrated as a wonderful gift from God and put at the centre of human life. This ideological work is not in itself hugely harmful. There is something true in it and it is anyway only a theological gloss on the common sense of our time (as any acquaintance with popular culture will make clear). What does cause me difficulty is that it distracts us from some, what seem to me, urgent tasks for theological reflection.

1) What is now the  significance for us of sexual difference? A choice between a reactionary attempt to return to a patriarchal order or a liberal denial that there is any significance in this difference is dismaying. The sexes remain different and the relationships between them remain problematic. This is not to deny the reality and importance of those people who transgress this difference. In fact it is to suggest that we (all of us) need to engage properly with this transgressive experience to understand the boundaries being transgressed.

2) How should we respond to the radically new forms of family structure that are emerging? We all know that family is now actually something very different from what it was 50 years ago. This should be a matter of primary importance as we discuss marriage but if one did not already know it it would often be impossible to gather it from our conversations and debates. Our retreat from reality in this regard is a profound failure. We need either to embrace or resist these changes, at any rate we have to have something coherent to say about them. To affirm the permanently voluntary psychologised and privatised  “marriage” that is emerging as if it were the same historical institution with a few welcome improvements simply won’t do.

rings and bible

We’re talking about marriage, or more particularly marriage between people of the same sex, again. The URC General Assembly met on the weekend just past and unsurprisingly found it was unable to agree by unanimous consent that permission to register for same sex marriage be given to those churches that wish so to do. As a result a process of consultation has begun to decide whether the denomination should take this step at some (as yet not fully defined) future date. Has I been at Assembly, and I’m by no means sorry I was not, I would have favoured the passing of the resolution, but I would have done so somewhat reluctantly. This is for reasons similar to the ones that would have made me unwilling to commend the reports of the Faith and Order committee.

I have no objection at all to churches conducting same sex marriages. If the churches in which I serve wished me to conduct such weddings I would do so. My reluctance arises from my strong feelings of unease about the arguments offered in favour of this step by those promoting it. That is to say that I agree with their conclusions but find their reasons deeply unsatisfying and even misleading. even more so than the arguments of their opponents. So I would have to support their resolutions while feeling that in doing so I was appearing to give support to a set of propositions with which I not only don’t fully agree but positively disagree.

For the purposes of clarifying my own mind and in hope of being able to enter into conversation with others who can enlighten and guide me to a clearer sense of what I believe on this matter I offer the following these:

  1. Marriage is a thoroughly historical and social institution and it makes no sense to try to construct from its history a single ahistorical essence, although study of the history will point one to certain transhistorical continuities that are useful in understanding it
  2. The Bible reflects this historical development, with a wide range of marital forms being described within it, from the polygamy and concubinage of the Genesis stories, through the patriarchal marriage forms of the historical books, to the harem arrangements of the kings of both Israel and other nations
  3. The New Testament assumes and accepts the (slightly different but in many ways similar) arrangements of the societies (Jewish, Greek and Roman) of its time as normative for most purposes (especially in the pastoral epistles)
  4. All of the forms of marriage described or assumed in the Old and New Testament rest on the subordination of women to men and focus strongly on provisions for the legitimacy of children, the inheritance of property rights and the cementing of kinship relationships which almost all historians of marriage agree have been its primary social functions through most of social-historical time
  5. For the early Church (up to the middle ages) marriage was primarily a legal arrangement defined by the civil power and recognised by the Church. Until the time of Constantine this recognition was of a legal relationship which was not defined first and foremost by the Church (hence the apparent lack of any wedding liturgies until the 4th Century
  6. The New Testament witness, while accepting the legitimacy and acceptability of marriage is suspicious and sometimes hostile to it, presenting celibacy as a real alternative, and I believe, mostly seeing celibacy as preferable but not possible for all
  7. The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented crisis of marriage as an institution, through which it is being redefined in a fundamental way. Legal marriage is now an optional part of a menu of quasi-marital elements including cohabitation, joint ownership of property and shared parenthood. The choice of whether to add the legal partnership to some combination of these elements is a matter of choice and in most social contexts makes little real difference. There are few remaining social sanctions against the legally unmarried who share some or all of the other elements of marriage, and all elements are known by all participants to be permanently voluntary and thus inherently temporary.
  8. This means that marriage is either a largely irrelevant appendix to the concrete social reality of sexual partnership (if one reserves “marriage” to mean the legal status) or else its legal aspect has become just one (relatively unimportant) part of it.
  9. It is this that makes same sex marriage possible for the state. All the other elements of marriage (cohabitation, shared property, common parenthood) are now possible and generally accepted for same sex couples (despite residual resistance in some quarters, especially in the case of parenthood) so that extending the legal status makes little or no difference to anything
  10. Some churches have a huge problem with this process since they hold marriage to be a sacrament (or in some cases an ordinance) eternally set (at some point) and unalterable, which means that the churches’ definition of marriage now has an increasingly tenuous connection to the actually existing social institution. This is something new, since previously the churches’ understanding of marriage largely aligned to that of society, indeed I would suggest it was largely based on that social understanding

My problem is that both sides of the current debate argue for ahistorical definitions of marriage, one that generalises that which existed before the crisis inaugurated in the 1960s, the other that generalises the idealised self-image of contemporary voluntary and thoroughly liberal arrangements. Neither, in my view, has a real claim to theological integrity, since neither is faithful to the Biblical witness that marriage as such is a passing institution that belongs to the current age and not to the Kingdom.

The URC General Assembly is meeting in Cardiff as I write and among the things being offered to it for commendation is the paper “What is the Spirit saying to the churches? Affirming the United Reformed Church’s future”. I am not a member of GA and so do not have to express an opinion but if I were I would have to vote against this resolution. I cannot commend this paper but rather find myself bewildered and dismayed by it. It seems to me to be complacent and irresponsible and to evade the real questions that face us while answering the wrong questions with answers that are unhelpful and misleading.

It nowhere addresses either the real crisis of our denomination nor the opportunities this crisis opens up. It fails to take account either of our particular and unique history and identity nor of the historical trends that are shaping our present and our future. It nowhere acknowledges properly the changing contexts within which are set, both in terms of the shifting character of the societies and nations within which we are placed  and of the transformation of the worldwide catholic Church of which we are a part. As a result it offers no vision for the kind of change of direction we urgently need but rather encourages us to imagine that we can revive past glories that exist only in a nostalgic misreading of our yesterdays. All of this represents a terrible missed opportunity, particularly since some of the elements for the sort of bold discernment of what the Spirit is saying to us, but does not follow through with them.

The reality is that most of our local congregations are shrinking and aging. The rate of our decline, steady at about 3% per year since the early 70s may well be accelerating to something closer to 4% and since we now have 1/3 as many people in 3/4 as many churches there is an increasing tendency for stipendiary ministers to be spread across multiple churches just as those churches aging membership makes it more and more difficult to find lay leadership in them. As a result our congregations are either placed in a purely defensive position of maintaining the bare bones of church life or need to accept leadership from outside the denomination with attendant difficulties of their continuing really to be local expressions of any coherent denominational identity (which was always problematic for the URC anyway).

Church meetings are rendered increasingly powerless in real terms as the main locus of life for the stipendiary ministers who are to an increasing extent the backbone of the denomination moves from the local church (which is only one of several each serves) towards groups of ministers which have no coherent status within our structures.

This is against a background where denominations as such are much less significant in the life of the Church, with the growth of independent churches and of networks which structure themselves in ways that combine quasi episcopal authority of an extremely individualistic rather than institutional forms (“apostolic networks”) and the fragmentation of church life as new and unfamiliar forms of church, especially with Pentecostal backgrounds, grow.

Thus our denominational life simultaneously weakens overall (as we become smaller and less visible to others) and strengthens internally (as we become more centralised and local congregations lose their influence and the centre strengthens). This is likely to continue as more churches reach the point where they can’t continue and the money from their buildings flows to the 13 synods (to whom the property ultimately belongs). We can see this process very clearly beginning in my own synod, Thames North, where a mission fund built up from the sale of property is becoming an important source of financial support for missional initiatives. To be clear I regard this as unequivocally a Good Thing, but would like us to recognise the way it shifts the balance of influence within the denomination.

It seems to me that we urgently need to recognise that the denomination we were (or imagined ourselves to be) when we took the (in my view) mistaken decision to try to become a permanent institution in the 1990s, giving up the urgently ecumenical self-image of the 1970s, cannot be sustained forever, or even for much longer.

The great asset we have is not some elusive “Reformed identity”, nor the supposed uniqueness of our conciliarity or our practice of ordaining elders. Our assets are exactly that, our assets, and the flexibility our loose and incoherent structures give us. We are immensely wealthy (with property holdings in the hundreds of millions of pounds) and carry relatively little baggage. If we were bold enough to say that we accept that what we were (a network of mostly Congregational churches) is passing away in a world where it is no longer really relevant but that we will honour and take care of its remnants until their end comes we would be free to start imagining what might come next,

To say that we will try to preserve and renew the outward forms of a passing form of the church is preventing us from striking out into a future that will connect to, enhance and strengthen the Church of tomorrow, a Church that will be fundamentally different from the denominationalism of the churches of the Protestant Reformation.


Yesterday I attended a day of discussion for the ministers of the Thames North Synod of the United Reformed Church. It was hosted at the Synod offices and facilitated by the Synod Training Officer and was oriented towards how we can best develop the Synod policy of moving towards a general pattern of organising our churches into larger groups within which teams of ministers will serve. This is of particular interest to me since I am in transition from the two church pastorate to which I was called 18 months ago to being one of a team of three stipendiary ministers and one non-stipendiary minister serving in a group of eight churches. I have been resistant to this change since I feel I’m only just beginning to discern what my ministry would be in my current pastorate and am unwilling to change direction at a point when I’m feeling hopeful about what is happening here. The two churches have equally been fairly consistent in expressing their reservations about a change that can only feel like a threat to them.

In some ways the day confirmed my scepticism. When opinions were sought a clear plurality of the ministers present expressed a preference for a more traditional pattern while all agreed that their churches would prefer this. This makes one wonder how the Synod arrived at a policy that is against the wishes of both churches and ministers. A large part of the answer, of course, is that the old and much missed one church, one minister model is no longer at all possible for the URC. We now have about 1/3 of the members and 3/4 of the congregations that we had in 1972 meaning that our average congregation size is less than half what it was. These smaller congregations can, on the whole, no longer support a stipendiary minister each. We have a little over 400 ministers for nearly 1500 churches. An average URC minister works across more than 3 churches (this effect is reduced slightly by the practice of relatively long vacancies which means that at any time a proportion of our churches will be without any ministerial oversight or care, beyond the very minimal responsibilities of the interim moderator).

On the other hand I was reminded of the two real advantages of team ministry.

  • It is a reasonably good way of ensuring continuity in the contact between churches and the denomination via a minister during our continuing slow and steady decline.
  • It provides a way of providing support and encouragement to our ministers through the provision of a readily available and well known team of colleagues.

These two advantages should not be undervalued but they come at a price. Recent research seems fairly conclusive that team ministry of this kind is inimical to church growth. The research doesn’t tell us why this is but seems fairly convincing in showing that there is a strong correlation between a situation where responsibility for leadership is unclear or divided and stagnation or decline in numbers.  One can speculate about the reasons but the empirical link seems strong.

On the other hand, of course, having a minister doesn’t guarantee growth, or even stagnation, or we would not now be in the position we are in. In the early ’70s most URC churches had their own minister and decline was not markedly slower than it is now.

Be that as it may be, though, I can’t avoid the feeling that our shift to the new pattern is in large part a response to the reality that our congregations are getting smaller and as such is a good way of providing support to them in continuing their life and witness together but is likely to make even more difficult the nurturing of whatever growth is possible within the overall picture of decline.

This creates a problem if one takes seriously both the other recently adopted Synod policy of prioritising growth and my own limited and local experience that what our churches really want is precisely to find a path to renewal. This path cannot be an obvious or easy one, or the decline would not be taking place. Looking again at recent research the evidence seems to suggest that it depends on strong and appropriate leadership and takes a significant sustained effort over a considerable time (a minimum of 5-7 years is suggested by recent Anglican research). This is not the kind of thing that teams and groups are going to encourage and nurture.

It seems to me, therefore, that the move to this new way of managing the deployment of our ministerial resources is a sensible and pragmatic response to the denomination’s responsibility to care for all its congregations, and should be planned and discussed as such. There needs to be a well articulated and explained maintenance ministry aimed at sustaining and encouraging the existing life of our churches, as worshiping communities. These communities should be encouraged to understand themselves as what they mostly are, well established groups of disciples deeply involved with and committed to one another. We need to develop a way of celebrating and building up this pattern of Christian life together while finding the places where discipleship can be deepened and broadened within it.

This is rather different from other forms of ministerial service, aimed at reaching out beyond our existing communities, whether by finding missional opportunities for our existing congregations or by the planting of new ones. The two may well interact but they will not do so in all cases. We need to accept this and to help our ministers and those responsible for guiding and directing them understand it.

In particular we should begin to encourage discernment of the different gifts of different ministers and to find ways to enable these gifts the best contexts and settings. Some of us are probably best placed in caring for congregations without intentional efforts to reach out beyond them (although done well this can be a very good way of growing churches, as I’ve seen) while others of us may be better at finding ways to reach those outside the church (I certainly know people called to ministries of this kind). This balance is one we need to see and to work at encouraging.

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.