Priestly priorities: inside out?

I want to engage with Kathryn’s comment on my ‘doomed’ post. Kathryn writes: “I’m just wondering what, under the “membership” model of church, happens to those who don’t see themselves as members anywhere, but who clearly value and engage with the ministry of their vicar. Far more of my time, & by far the most fruitful spiritual encounters here are with those outside the church, who see me as “their vicar” because they have a strong sense of local community. I totally understand that we have passed the point of no return with the current situation – but I cling to the idea that I am here above all to serve those who are not members of the church.”

This provokes several thoughts from me. Firstly I very much agree with Tim that “in New Testament Christianity the entity which is supposed to serve the whole community is the church, not the vicar” – in other words, it is the common vocation of all Christians to carry out such service, not the separate vocation of the ordained.

I don’t believe that it is possible to understand the role of the priest separately from that of the mission of the church as a whole, and specifically the function of the laity within the world. To understand the priestly role distinct from that of the laity is like trying to understand the purpose of a shoe without considering the sole, that which actually makes contact with the ground. I think this is a problem with many of the discussions about ‘models of ministry’ (including some of my own thoughts).

What then is the priority of the priest? Inside or out? By which I mean, should the work of the priest be centred upon those who gather for worship and teaching, or on those who have yet to hear the message? Not so long ago, within a culture which still assumed and shared much of the teaching of Christianity it was possible to do both – and this is reflected in the ordinal. Yet in the present context it is radically destructive to pretend that the ordained can carry out the same tasks in the same way as before. We need to choose, and to choose wisely.

According to Scripture (mediated here) the Biblical model for leadership involves three things, and three things only: being of good character, maintaining sound doctrine, and having the ability to teach. I believe that the church is suffering from a lack of focus on these elements, and that the poverty of sound teaching is one of the principal reasons for the withering away of faith.

Perhaps the point is to discriminate between those who are called to work within a church to ensure that the members are formed for discipleship, and those who are called to work outside the church as missionaries and evangelists. Both sorts might be priests, but let us call the first ‘pastors’ and the second ‘missionaries’. This ministry might overlap on occasion, but there are different gifts needed for each, and continuing to expect the one person to excel in all areas is likely to continue to contribute to our decline.

There is another element to be pondered here, which is the cost of such work. For how long should a particular congregation be expected to pay for work to be done outside of the church at the expense of work inside the church, if this means that the church itself is shrinking? (I take shrinkage to be the natural consequence of either insufficient or inappropriate pastoring.) Of course, the church must engage in missionary work – and such work is especially essential in England at this time – but missionary work is a sign and product of a spiritually healthy community, and the decline of the Church is eloquent testimony that such a description does not apply.

I would want to argue that the most effective missionary work is done on a small scale, from a Christian to a non-Christian, person by person. Such work can be fostered and encouraged by the right sort of leadership, but it cannot be carried out by them. It is when each individual Christian is given all joy and hope in believing the gospel that the gospel is inevitably shared and allowed to grow. I would see that as the expected consequence of a healthy ‘pastor’ type ministry, and that is why I would want to argue that the principal focus of the stipendiary priest of the Church of England needs to be internal work with the “membership” rather than external work into the community.

Taking forward the logic of this, however, causes much pain.

8 thoughts on “Priestly priorities: inside out?

  1. Well said, Sam. The church (the C of E and more widely) has largely lost sight of the fivefold ministry which the apostle Paul set forward in Ephesians 4:11. It has bishops who nominally have an apostolic role, and priests who serve as pastors and teachers, but only rarely does it have prophets and evangelists. Prophetic ministry is of course a separate contentious issue. But the church really needs a proper recognised evangelistic ministry.

    There is the Church Army, with which a friend of mine serves. But this needs to be renewed and enlarged, as well as more formally recognised, if it is to make a real impact. I suspect it is widely seen as a second class ministry, inferior to real priesthood. Perhaps these evangelists ought also to be ordained as priests while remaining set aside for non-pastoral work. But evangelism needs to be more than just the work of a few professionals: Paul saw the job of evangelists as well as of the other ministers as “to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service” (4:12).

    I am glad that our new diocesan bishop, here in Chelmsford, sees evangelism as a top priority. I hope he can find ways to put into it the resources it needs.

    • I am interested to observe that the Diocese of Madras, Church of South India (here at the moment) has around 125 paid evangelists, not far off the number of stipendiary ministers.

  2. Sam, while I am in agreement with your post, it doesn’t really engage Kathryn’s comment because she expressly stated that she was not talking about evangelistic ministry but rather what I would call ‘works of service’ – in the sense that an outsider might say ‘I don’t go to church, but the Vicar is still my Vicar and she’s there to help me’.

    More later – morning rush right now…!

  3. As far as evangelism or the ministry of witness goes, I have the following thoughts.

    1. All Christians are called to be witnesses for the gospel, and clergy are not exempt. What this means for lay people is that they use the contacts in their circle of influence and take the opportunities that come to all of us to speak a word for Christ. If clergy have no non-Christian friends (as often happens) then I think they need to get a life! My simple recipe for enabling a life of witness is ‘find something you enjoy doing, find some non-Christians to do it with, grow friendships and speak a word of witness when you have a chance’.

    2. I think it is possible that some clergy will have not only the pastoral gifts but also evangelistic gifts. I myself feel called in this way.

    3. I think Anglican people will not heed the call to be witnesses unless two things happen: (a) they themselves are truly converted to Christ (we tend to assume this, but often people are only converted to the church), and (b) someone shows them how. This means that clergy will need to develop their own witnessing skills in order to mentor witnesses in their congregations.

    4. This is all time-consuming but essential work, and I think one of the real problems in the C of E as I observe it as an outsider, Sam, is that you brother and sister clergy of mine have to spend such a large proportion of your time (compared to me, that is) baptising the children of non-Christians, giving Christian marriage to non-Christians, and doing funerals for non-Christians. None of this is in the job description of New Testament pastors, and the sooner the C of E divests itself of this cultural heritage, the happier and more productive its pastors will be. Hence the importance of the reforms you mentioned earlier.

    Right, back to Christmas prep!

  4. Coming at this from a Methodist perspective – which may be slightly different in some respects – I think a lot of the problem is the division between ordained and lay, which I regard as entirely artificial. We do the same jobs in the church as the ordained lot, after all! We split the church into first- and second-class citizens, and put all the burden on the odd half of a percent, who were stuck up on a pedestal. Maybe it worked in pre-industrial, pre-democratic times, but I don’t see it working now. We need a new model of church which actually resonates with the culture out there, as it is now, not as it was a generation ago.

    I think your analysis of church decline is on the right lines, but it’s not too late. We need to develop radically new ways of being church; not just changing the easy stuff, like developing new styles of worship, but developing new structures, new ways of being a community, new ways of making decisions, without letting everytihng be controlled by some clique of struldbrugs who’ve been there since Noah disembarked. While we’re about it, we’re going to need new theologies as well.

  5. Lots and lots to think about, both in your post & in the comments, Sam….and I suspect that “Little Christmas Eve” is not going to be the best time to focus…but I wanted to take issue with Tim’s implied comment that the time spent baptising/marrying/burying non Christians is a problem rather than a blessing. This year all my adult confirmation candidates came to faith via the experience of their marriage prep, visiting us to hear their banns read and realising that there was every reason to stay….while at last Sunday’s carol service I’d say 40% of those present came because they’d encountered our church via occasional offices, were touched in some way by that experience and wanted to explore in greater depth. Funeral ministry is, I’d say, arguably the most effective route to evangelism that I’ve encountered. There is, as you’ll know, no bullshitting in funeral families…and the raw reality of grief is the best place to encounter God that I know. It’s PRECISELY these opportunities that I value in the existing pattern of ministry…

  6. Thanks for all the comments.
    Peter – are you back in Chelmsford now? I thought you had gone somewhere up North… I agree that +Stephen is doing some excellent and very encouraging things here. I’m particularly looking forward to a Diocesan study day next month when all this is going to get thrashed out (and much of my writing here is me thinking things through so I can make a positive contribution!)
    Tim: agree with #1 – and I’ll make an extra effort to put it into practice; on #2 I find that my problem is being spread too thinly, and (partly under pressure of incipient burn-out) I don’t concentrate 100% on either the one or the other, so neither functions as effectively as it might do. A work in progress there; on #3, I completely agree; on #4 I think that there are many other elements of the job that need to be reviewed, eg everything to do with fabric – that needs a post on its own.
    Robert, what you say (and what Peter says about Church Army) I’ll take up in my next post on this theme. I would want to hang on to some difference between ordained and non-ordained, but it’s a discrimination sideways not upwards.
    Kathryn – I’m sure the work that you’re doing is essential and Godly and blessed by Him – what I’m wanting to worry out is how far it is the essential work of the local stipendiary priest, and how far it might be taken forward by (suitably trained) lay people.
    Have a wonderful Christmas one and all!

  7. Yes, Sam, we are back in Chelmsford, and at Meadgate Church, Great Baddow, after a year in Warrington. But this is only temporary – we have plans to move elsewhere in the spring. So you could say we are back “in” the C of E but not really “of” the C of E.

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