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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.

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This week I attended my last URC Education and Learning Committee as student representative. A lot of the meeting was taken up with discussion of the 2013 E&L budget and the implications on it of the current squeeze on the finances of the denomination. I felt genuinely privileged to take part in what was (in my view) an impressively mature and sensible conversation. As I have written here before I think we in the Church are generally too reluctant to take finance seriously as part of God’s gifting and vocation.

It is not this I want to write about today, however. There was a session on a proposed competency framework  which would describe what the denomination expects its ministers to be and to be able to do. In the course of this I heard again something I have heard several times recently in various URC contexts. This is the suggestion that the core of the URC’s identity is or should be that it is “Reformed”. I disagree with this and would like to say why.

What, then, would it mean to say a church was “Reformed”. I have been studying in a university (Edinburgh) at a college (New College) which could be seen as central institutions in the history of the Reformed tradition in the English speaking world and as a result my view of what it is to be Reformed is heavily shaped by a Scottish Presbyterian context, but I think it reflects the views both of theologians who call themselves Reformed and of those of other Christian traditions who have reflected on the Reformed tradition.

As a proper noun “Reformed” primarily refers to that part of Protestant tradition that derives historically from the magisterial reform of the Church in the city states of Switzerland and the western part of the Holy Roman Empire. Its two most important early centres were Basel and Strasbourg where its leaders were Zwingli and Bucer respectively. Its most decisive definition was given to it be Calvin, who lead the reform of Geneva in the next generation. It spread to the Netherlands and Scotland in this Calvinist Genevan form and was an important influence in the English Reformation where Bucer was a key figure and Cranmer can be seen as a Reformed leader.

It is distinguished from Lutheranism and can be seen as standing further from the mediaeval Catholic tradition in a number of ways:

  • it is more suspicious of hierarchy and differentiation within the Church, rejecting the spiritual authority of bishops in most cases
  • it stresses the priesthood of the whole people of God and regards its ministers as having a functional character rather than a change in fundamental nature and relationship to God
  • it rejected more completely the idea of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (communion) as involving the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ

In its classical Calvinist form it is associated with a number of ideas and practices

  • Calvin’s notorious stress on “predestination”, the idea that God alone chooses (elects) who will be saved and who will be damned with human will and action being determined entirely by God’s choice and making no positive contribution
  • the related emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty and rule
  • a stress on “covenant” as a central theological theme
  • government of the Church by councils (Presbyteries in Scotland and churches originating in Scottish migration, elsewhere sometimes church meetings in Reformed congregational churches)

As well as being distinguished from Lutheranism the Reformed tradition is identified with it as part of the “magisterial reformation”. This refers to their common dependence on the “civil magistrate”, in modern language the government or state. The Reformed churches in its home cities were linked to the rulers of those cities by close ties. They were “established” churches that did not tolerate dissent. This was true too in Scotland and the Netherlands.

The classical statements of Reformed faith (“confessions”) written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generally reflect this. The Westminster Confession, the founding and definitional Presbyterian document, is quite clear that the Church should be bound by tight links to the civil authority.

This “magisterial reform” is distinguished in turn from the “radical reformation”, a distinct tendency that rejects this state establishment. The radical reformation is attached to the idea that the Church is a body called out of the world, that it is something one joins intentionally or voluntarily rather than one that one comes into automatically by being a citizen of a particular geopolitical entity. This is one reason why many of the churches derived from the radical reformation reject baptism of infants.

It is this latter distinction that leads me to question how much sense it makes to describe the URC as “Reformed”. English Congregationalism, one of the major historical sources for our current denomination, did have at one foot in the Reformed tradition, it is true. But I would suggest that its other foot was planted pretty firmly in the radical reformation.

The “independency” of the seventeenth century, those churches that rejected Presbyterianism as a form of Church government, was in part also rejecting establishment (although not all would do so, given the existence of established Congregationalist churches in the American colonies). The line between Baptist and non Baptist Congregationalists was drawn later and was not an absolute one.

One part of our history and tradition is definitely Reformed (especially the English Presbyterianism that has its roots in the movement to England of Scots in the nineteenth century) but another is not, is deeply influenced by rejection of the magisterial solution to the problem of reform. I value this radical tradition very highly and think it deeply influences our nature.

On the other hand I think being a “United” church is a new and important thing, dating in our case from 1972. If we are to stress one part of what we are as definitive I would rather it was this and not our connection to a Reformed tradition which is something we share with others in the three nations.

I’ve been thinking a good deal of The Church, churches and denominations. To define these three terms:

The Church is the one we talk about if we say the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one church, holy, catholic and apostolic”. To be a Nicene Christian is to believe (amongst other things) in The Church. Some Christians believe that the communion they belong to simply IS that Church but you don’t have to believe this. Many Christians (including me) believe that The Church is divided with the institution they belong to (in my case the URC) being only one part of it.

When I talk about churches I mean the local gatherings of Christians who come to together to worship, serve and most especially share in the Eucharistic meal, the Lord’s Supper. Each of these communities is, in my view, completely The Church, constituted by Christ’s gracious presence with them when they break bread (however one interprets the nature of that presence).

The body I struggle to make sense of is the denomination, the organisational form that links together some churches in various ways and for various purposes but which is not The Church. After all The Church is one (unified) and catholic (universal and all-encompassing). No denomination combines these two characteristics, and therefore none can be The Church. In fact almost all denominations manage to be neither.

My last post (on marriage and unity) occasioned a very active discussion on the URC’s Facebook group which reminded me of that. A number of my fellow members in that denomination made it clear that they regarded my stress on unity with a good deal of distrust. They wanted a denomination in which LGBT Christians could be sure of a welcome throughout and if this meant division so be it. This shows again that we are not united and some people on both sides of our division on sexuality would find it impossible to worship in some of our local churches.

We are not The Church (we make up only a very small proportion of the Christians even in our own country) nor are we fully united in love.

So what should we make of denominations? The URC was founded in 1972 out of the union of two denominations, the Congregationalists of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England (which confusingly had a few churches in Wales but was overwhelmingly Scottish in origin and ethos). Subsequently it was joined by the Churches of Christ (across England and Scotland, I’m not sure about their presence in Wales) and by the Congregationalists in Scotland (or at least a large part of them).

Its self-image and purpose as explained in the Basis of Union which occupies the place a confession would in a more confessional denomination (here) makes clear that the bringing (back) together of The Church is the prime mission and purpose of the denomination. It strives to do everything The Church would do if it had a concrete expression but it recognises that it is not The Church and cannot be so until all are brought together.

In the meantime each of its local churches is fully part of The Church, is fully a church but the denomination, failing to be The Church is, I suggest, partial and flawed, as is every other denomination.

Some denominations (the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox) meanwhile claim to be The Church. I’ve been reading the official Roman materials on ecumenism that came out of Vatican II and subsequent reflection on it. These make clear that while the rest of us are recognised as Christian other than the Orthodox our churches are denied recognition as churches (our Eucharist is not seen as the real thing). I think they’re wrong about us. We are part of The Church, Christ is present at the Eucharist in our churches and this means that they, too, are part of The Church but aren’t it.

Some other denominations (e.g. The Church of England, The Church of Scotland) are founded on the idea that it would be possible to be The Church in a particular country. I think they’re wrong, too. A national church cannot, in my view, be The Church, since catholicity is not bound to political or ethnic limits.

This is the value of Catholicism, the truth Rome bear. However the national churches also express a truth. Catholicity embraces all parts of life, it cannot be localised to a Christian community withdrawn or set apart from those around it.

The national churches express the truth that The Church has to be deeply involved with the world it serves, to permeate all parts of it with its love, to be the praying and worshipping action of the world, not just of some people.

And so I could go on. I have come to believe that every fragment of The Church exists for some purpose, embodies some truth, is responsible for some task, has, to express it in brief, a vocation. Each of our denominations (and I am so bold as to include Roman Catholicism) has been called into being by God as part of God’s redeeming action.

None of the denominations can, in the immediate and present moment, aspire to be The Church on its own any more than any individual Christian can, in fact less so. The Church is what we all, every Christian, every local church and every denomination, participate in. It is not the sum of our parts either. It is the ground of our being church and it is also the goal to which we are being drawn.

My denomination, the United Reformed Church, has as its vocation, as I currently discern it, the task of reminding all of that ground and goal in a unity that does not now have any institutional expression other than the rather attenuated one of the ecumenical bodies. We have to give it some form of life in our being church together towards unity. That’s why I feel so strongly that it’s up to us to live with our differences not to try artificially to resolve them. That living with means suffering them as well as celebrating them. It means really hearing and really experiencing that some of our brothers and sisters think what we think, what we do, who we are, is just wrong and then loving them and ourselves anyway.

Over the last week I’ve been involved in two conversations about the relationship between the Church and the State in England. The reading for the first session of my course on “Church, State and Civil Society” was an article by Luke Bretherton suggesting that a “new establishment” was being created in England embracing a range of denominations and faiths and tending towards a subordination of all religious groups to the state and its purposes.

I also took part in a discussion on Philip Baiden’s blog on the legacy of the “Great Ejection” of 1662 in which Church of England clergy who refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer were thrown out of their parishes and livings. The majority of those who were caught up in this were “English Presbyterians” and thus committed (unlike the Independents and Separatists who are the historical forerunners of English Congregationalism) to the idea of a national and established church.

Between them these two have reminded me how suspicious I’ve become of the Reformation idea of a “national church” and how glad I am to belong to the tradition of non-conformity or dissent.

Of course the nationalisation of the Church wasn’t an entirely new one at the Reformation. Kings had long striven to assert control of the Church within the boundaries of their jurisdiction; one thinks of the suppression of the Knights Templar at the instigation of the French King or of the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett at the hands of Henry II. But this royal ambition was always constrained by the idea that the Church was universal and under the sovereignty of Christ.

The “magisterial Reformation” changed this by drawing the boundaries of the “church” along the same lines as those of political power. The “national church” was born in close relationship to national political power.

I can understand the historical reasons for this and I’m no advocate of Papal supremacy but I can’t see it as an unmixed blessing for Christianity. Whether the Church became an agency of the Crown, as in England, or contended with it for power, as in Scotland, it was deeply marked by the experience.

There is, of course, a deep continuity with the link between Church and Empire in Rome after Constantine, and it has become fashionable to talk about a Constantinian fall of the Church, but this isn’t really my problem with the national church.

Rather I suspect that the Church has been tempted by this formation to see itself as performing a function for the nation rather than as serving the divine kingdom. There are conservative and radical versions of this: either providing a force for cohesion, continuity and law-abidingness or a “prophetic” voice of social criticism. Both of these have their place but I think they sometimes substitute for the central task of the church.

This is the proclamation of Christ’s rule, of the coming of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom without boundaries and recognising no national differences. A kingdom in which sin and death are vanquished rather than ameliorated or accommodated.

This is in flat contradiction to a Church coterminous with a state or a nation. The Kingdom we serve has no end and no limit.

That’s one of the strengths of Congregationalism. By saying the local congregation is a complete instance of the universal church it is able to avoid any hint of the idea so strong in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism of the holy nation. The Scots Confession (and this is one of the few times I think Barth got something completely wrong) is a much worse document than the Westminster Confession (and that itself is far from perfect) because of the greater prominence in it of the idea of Scotland as the new Israel.

The national church is an idea with some good aspects but overall is disastrously bad. I’m constantly bewildered when I come across Church of Scotland people whose idea of their ministry is dominated by service to their parish (especially in the provision of funerals and to a lesser extent weddings). Weddings in particular are first and foremost a state activity (as becomes clearer and clearer, this is a subject for another time) and ministers conduct them as agents of the state. Funerals, too, are increasingly devoid of Christian content and approximate to a ceremony of civil religion.

By focussing too much attention on these activities we run the risk of losing sight of what Jesus set out as his programme, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.