Are clergy and laity fundamentally different?

3940---base_image_4.1424268388One of the key challenges facing the Church of England is the decline in numbers of clergy, and the language expressing the urgency of addressing this has sometimes suggested that the Church cannot exist without clergy. This has in turn raised the question of the status and importance of lay ministry. I have therefore written this paper for the part of the Renewal and Reform process considering lay ministry and its future, and will be presenting it at a consultation next Saturday. Any comments, criticisms and observations gratefully received—and will shape the final presentation.

When the C of E Comms department posted a comment on the importance of ‘vocations’, a well-known lay leader in the Church gave it none too warm a response:

As someone not a vicar, this article makes me feel I have no right to a vocation to non-vicar work. And actually, I have got one, as do many thousands of non-clergy Christians. Come on C of E, we need the whole people of God. Not just vicars. Lay people are worth far more than a passing parenthetical phrase.

A further communication about the importance of ‘vocation’ within the Renewal and Reform programme elicited a similar response.

‘New ministry statistics released’. Two columns about ordained ministry. Lay people get one mention in the final paragraph, and that’s the rather dismissive ‘whether ordained or not’ rather than a more positive ‘whether called to ordained or lay ministry.’

Part of the problem arises from the unqualified use of the word ‘vocation’ to refer to ‘vocation to ordained ministry’, since it suggests that lay ministry is something that you are called to when God doesn’t call you to anything more important. Another issue is the suggestion that ordained ministry is the esse of the Church, rather than its bene esse—that, without clergy, the Church does not exist, so that a decline in the number of clergy threatens the Church’s very existence, rather than just its health. This idea reaches its most extreme form in the proposal that, even if the Church had no congregations, ‘it would continue to do most of its essential work.’ But even without that reductum ad absurdum, the language here conveys the notion that lay members of congregations make little significant contribution to the mission and ministry of the Church.

Underlying this is a more deep-seated idea, but one that is very rarely identified or articulated explicitly. This is the notion that humanity is fundamentally stratified rather than unified—that is to say, that there are some fundamentally different categories of humanity that we need to consider when thinking about either ecclesiology or ministry. This stratification is defined by two phenomena:

  1. Clearly differentiated categories of human being, with significant rites and processes marking the transition from one category to another.
  2. A sense of permanence about such transitions—that it, when someone has made the transition from one category to another, the change is permanent and is normally irreversible.

Within the Church of England, the most basic stratification is between laity and clergy; when I have been counselling those involved in ordination training, who are following a slightly irregular path, my counsel has been ‘Whatever you do, make sure you get ordained as soon as you can’. This advice springs from my observation that, in many practical ways, until you are ordained you are invisible to the Church, precisely as was interpreted by the person commenting on the reports above. It also springs from the normal irreversibility of the change of category; whatever else irregular happens in the training path of the person concerned, they normally carry the fact of their ordination with them.

This basic categorisation has a finer structure than the simple binary, since the Church has inherited the historic ‘three-fold order of ministry’ of bishops, priests and deacons, and for the last 150 years or so has added lay readers, now known simply as readers. In addition, many dioceses have a category of licensed lay minister distinct from readers, creating a six-fold stratification: ‘ordinary’ laity; licensed lay ministers; readers; deacons; priests (or presbyters); bishops. The three ordained orders all exhibit the feature of permanence; once you enter this order you do not usually leave it, in contrast to other denominations’ understanding of orders of ministry which relate to one’s current role. The two distinct stratifications of lay ministry have less formal permanence, though in practice they have a strong sense of permanent identity.

Debates about these stratifications have tended to focus on two main issues:

  1. In what sense is ordination a ‘functional’ or an ‘ontological’ change? Does it mark a change in role for an individual within the Church, or something more fundamental about the nature of their human being?
  2. How does this stratification within the Church, the body of Christ, relate to the more fundamental marker of baptism? Is it possible to be a baptised member of the laos, the people of God, and in any meaningful sense not be commissioned for ministry?

These two issues are connected by the question: does ordination involve an ontological change comparable with the ontological change that occurs at the moment of baptism? Those (reformed) churches which believe in the two sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion would normally answer ‘no’. Churches which believe in seven sacraments, including ordination alongside baptism and Holy Communion as sacramental ordinances, normally answer ‘yes.’

Behind these issues lies a bigger question about theological anthropology. Does Scripture and Christian theology primarily picture humanity as unified, with shared identity, characteristics and status, or primarily as stratified, with some common identity but with a differentiation which gives the different categories of humanity distinct statuses and roles? The biblical narrative overall moves between these two ideas, and offers a mixed picture, parts of which are in tension with other parts.

The creation narratives differentiate humanity into male and female from the very beginning, but this is done in a way which powerfully unifies the two sexes, both at the level of the shape of the narrative and in comparison with other ANE creation stories. In the first creation account, the unity and differentiation are held together tightly by means of poetic parallelism, with a three-fold repetition of bara (Heb ‘created’) running through:

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

In the second creation account in Gen 2, there is a similar dynamic expressed in narrative form. The adam needs a helper kenegdo, both equal to and differentiated from him. It is clear that the animals will not do, since though differentiated from him they are not sufficiently similar to him. It is only ‘flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bones’ which elicits the existential recognition of such a ‘suitable helper’. And it is then only in the ‘fall’ in Gen 3 that a differentiation of power is introduced, as the woman will now ‘desire your husband, and he will rule over you.’

It is this entry of sin and rebellion into God’s perfect creation which introduces another kind of differentiation into humanity, in the form of those who stand apart by dint of their virtue and obedience to God. Noah is introduced in this way in Gen 6, and he and his family become the archetype of the ‘faithful remnant’ which reappears later in the biblical narrative in different forms. Abraham then fulfils this role from Gen 12 onwards, and his dynasty eventually becomes the nation of Israel, a community which expresses the most deep-seated stratification that runs through the right to its end: the difference between the ‘elect’ and the rest of humanity, between those within and without the people of God, and ultimately between the saved and the lost.

In Exodus, we meet the figure of Moses, who looms large over the Pentateuch and all of Jewish self-understanding. Moses introduces a stratification within the people of God (and not just between them and the rest of humanity) both in his person and in the teaching that he receives from God and passes on to the people. First, he functions as one uniquely positioned to hear what God is saying who is then commissioned to pass these words on, and so functions as The Prophet for the people. Secondly, he is the intermediary between God and the people who pleads the people’s case in God’s presence in a priestly fashion. Thirdly, because of his wisdom acquired from his time in the presence of God, he is able to rule over the people as a king. It is striking that the language of ‘judging’ is used of him (Ex 18) which is then used of the sequences of ‘judges’ of Israel, who are themselves cultural progenitors of the kings of Israel later in the Deuteronomistic history.

These three ministries of prophet, priest and king continue as distinct categories within the stratification of the people of God through the major part of the story of God’s people, with the features mentioned above of ritual transition and permanence in different forms. Different parts of the narrative focus on the importance of each of these three, for example Levicitus (as its name suggests) highlighting the centrality of the priestly ministry, and the histories (in the Hebrew Bible the ‘former prophets’) often focussing on the interplay between the king and the prophet in the nation’s life.

From the despair of the failure of this three-fold stratified ministry to keep the people of God faithful emerges a new prophetic voice of hope in God’s restoration. This vision often re-introduces the distinct category of the ‘faithful remnant’; see, for example, Ezekiel 9 and the promise of Is 10.21, whose promise ‘a remnant shall return’ provides not only the name of his own son (Is 7.3) but also the name for a modern kibbutz settlement in northern Galilee, ‘Shear Yashuv’. But it is striking that these visions also, for the most part, offer a vision of a unified, restored humanity, either implicitly or explicitly eliminating the need for stratification and so rendering the categories involved as of penultimate rather than ultimate importance. In Jeremiah, this is integral to the promise of hope itself; the presence of God with his people does away with any need for intermediaries:

“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31.24)

Even Ezekiel’s priestly vision, culminating in a new temple, has a unified vision of the people of God who have a ‘new undivided heart, a heart of flesh and not of stone’ (Ez 11.19, 36.26). This is now accompanied by the presence of the Spirit of God, who previously had come on prophets, priests and kings for occasional moments, but is now poured out on all, either marginalising or eliminating differences. This reaches its clearest expression in the later (likely post-exilic) text of Joel:

And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2.28–29)

The ultimate vision of the prophets is that, in the restoration of God’s people, the unified vision of humanity in creation will be recovered and restored, as a sign to all of humanity of the faithfulness and power of God.

These movements significantly shape our understanding of the New Testament. The theology in John’s gospel of Jesus as the tabernacle and temple of God implies that the OT priesthood is of penultimate importance as a distinctive category within the people of God. In fulfilment of the role of Moses, Jesus becomes prophet, priest and king, and Paul’s theology of the people of God as those incorporated into Christ (the ‘body’ of Christ) confers an undifferentiated status on each member. Paul’s theology of the Spirit, as the unifying, proleptic and eschatological gift of God’s presence to his people continues Peter’s appropriation of Joel 2 in his Pentecost speech. The gifts and work of the Spirit are distributed on all people, regardless of sex, ethnic identity or social status. Thus it is that Robert Banks sums up Paul’s understanding as the elimination of all stratification amongst the people of God:

Paul’s dissolution of traditional distinctions: between priest and laity

Within the church, distinctions between priest and layman, mediatorial and common service, cultic ritual and secular activity, do not and cannot exist…

Between officials and ordinary members

Paul rejects the idea of certain members of the community possessing formal rights and powers…

Between holy men and common people

Paul has no place in his view of community for the traditional distinctions between its members along cultic, official or religious lines… (Paul’s Idea of Community chapter 13)

Paul does still see some differentiation in the gifts given by the Spirit and the ministries that people are called to (most notably in the gift lists in Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12, and the identification of the four- or five-fold ministries in Eph 4) but these fall within the unifying work of the Spirit. Unity does not mean uniformity. The most significant differentiation that Paul introduces (assuming that the pastoral epistles are Pauline) comes in his instructions for the appointment of elders (presbyteroi from which the English word ‘priest’ is derived). The qualified importance of elders is shown in the fact that only in his letter to the Philippians does he make mention of them (with deacons) in the opening epistolary address. A key debate for later ministry is whether the introduction of elders represents a trajectory of stratification from the unified vision earlier in Paul, which is then expressed in the historic three-fold order of ministry in the Church, or whether it should be read as a practical and pragmatic measure which must sit within the more controlling unified vision.

The final vision of the people of God in Revelation 21 draws on a wide range of OT themes, and sits within this NT theological vision. The maths delivers the theology: the size of the city as 144,000 stadia both identifies it with the people of God (the 144,000 in Rev 7 and Rev 14) just as its shape (a cube) shows that it is not just the temple but the Holy of Holies at the heart of the temple. The place of the very presence of God, previously accessible only by the most stratified in the stratification, the High Priest, and that only once a year, is now the dwelling place of all God’s people (Rev 21.3, in fulfilment of Ezek 11.20); the elimination of the differentiation of physical space is used to express the elimination of stratification amongst the people of God.

How do we make sense of this variegated vision, particularly in the New Testament? The most important theological key is the partially realised eschatology of the NT documents, which we find expressed in a wide variety of contexts. The ultimate, eschatological vision of God’s people is the unified one we find both in Gen 1 and 2 and Rev 21—though in Rev 21 the basic division between the faithful and the sinful remains (even if in a qualified form) since we are seeing here fallen-and-redeemed humanity, not pristine pre-lapsarian humanity. However, the people of God must live out that eschatological vision in the pressing realities of this age, which has not yet passed away. Stratification and categorisation might, then, be a practical and pragmatic necessity, but it can never be accorded ultimate significance or importance. Within the story of God’s people, stratification appears to be necessary at key moments, but they are often moments of disobedience, crisis or judgement. They function as staging posts, necessary as steps towards a unified goal, but not expressive of it.

This suggests that there is a strong case for seeing what stratification does exist (both in the NT and in the contemporary church) in something other than ontological terms. There might well be a practical and pragmatic necessity—even a pressing necessity—for different formal categories of ministry, but these should not be considered to be of the essence of the people of God. This provisional recognition of their importance allows (for example) the possibility of full ecumenical relations with non-episcopally led churches.

But this also has important implications for our language of ‘vocation’ and the way we deploy it. The term can only be applied to certain groups with the whole church in the context of applying it to all. It might well be the case (demonstrated from research on church growth) that having sufficient ordained leaders is vital to the health of the Church. But this emphasis on vocation of one stratified layer of ministry is not unique, in the sense that it takes its place alongside the vocation of all the baptised that arises from the ultimate, unified vision of the people of God. The call of God to ordination cannot be separated from the call of God to his whole people—as Higton and Alexander eloquently express in their triangular understanding of the role of leadership in the Church. It also means that the answer to the questions about lay ministry and lay leadership should not be sought in additional stratification of the laos of God. Indeed, this should be entirely unnecessary.

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32 thoughts on “Are clergy and laity fundamentally different?”

  1. No, fundamentally not different.

    I’m a bit confused by part of what you say about Jesus.

    “The theology in John’s gospel of Jesus as the tabernacle and temple of God implies that the OT priesthood is of penultimate importance as a distinctive category within the people of God.”

    I don’t read it like that. We have the indwelling Holy Spirit, today – you and I – and ever believer is the tabernacle of God. We have created a theology around the priesthood (and continue to do so around our buildings) that seems to retain much of their role from OT + in some places, we seem to have stitched up the curtain and hung it back up! With Jesus as our High Priest, the curtain torn in two . . . any can come in to his presence. There is no “mediator” between God and Man (1 Timothy 2:5) except Jesus.

    The stratification thing is strange, it feels like confirmation. A thing we have created that is nebulous and in need of a decent theology – yet we persist with it. Seriously. “Holy Men and Common People?” This is the opposite of what the Bible teaches me about life in Christ, I”m part of a “Holy People and a Royal Priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9)

    There is no stratification in Christ, there are different roles as we find our place in the body (where Christ is the Head, and the ONLY Head) . . . the problem is not our understanding of priesthood, its our grasp of leadership and what it needs to look like . . . we can’t, it seems, manage without a lot of “little heads”.

    When things were getting going in General Synod around the time bomb of clergy retiring etc . . . I heard a Bishop arguing for more bishops . . . “we are declining” therefore we need more people in charge seemed to be his argument.

    WHILE we had clergy numbers up over 9000+ The Church of England haemorrhaged young people through the 90s (at the start of the 90s, 300 young people were leaving the church every week, by the end of the 90s it was 1000) . . . How LOUD do I need to say it – for those that think growing our ranks of clergy will secure the future of the Church, you are wrong. Having ordained people is not what makes the difference!

    We have “canon” stuff for readers, we have “canon” stuff for church army evangelists . . . why? Because these roles can be easily (ish) stratified and placed in some kind of hierarchical, ordered structure. Reading the “Anecdote to Evidence” report (which as it is now two years ago I am hearing less and less about) who did it say were the most effective lay workers for a growing church?

    “children’s and youth workers”

    Where do they fit in the neat stratification of the church? Maybe they don’t. If you think laity in general don’t feel valued . . . try being a children’s, youth and family worker! Seriously, stories that would make you weep for the Church. Thing is, whilst the work load for priests might be heavy depending on their congregation and context – I think it is easier to say, “this is what a priest is, this is what a priest does” than it is to say that of a children’s, youth and family worker.

    Want to REALLY do something that changes things?

    Tackle this form of “stratification” (or rather what I would call unjust and verging on abusive) ::

    – Terms and Conditions for salaried children’s, youth and families workers. Agree some national standards, agree some terms that Diocese’ and parishes HAVE to abide by. It would need canon, but it is about time – we have had salaried workers in these roles for 25+ years in the Church of England. Here is the unjust bit – it is common to see “adverts” for children’s youth or family workers where there are full time posts (I don’t know anyone in a full time post like this who does less than 50 hours a week . . . . ) and the pay offer is somewhere between £18 – 23,000. That is it. No house (unlike stipendary clergy), No water rates paid (unlike stipendary clergy), No council tax paid (unlike stipendary clergy), No decorating budget from the Diocese (which lots offer their clergy). Yes, have a look at that salary again . . . that is also less than a stipend in many cases. Now, afford a mortgage or buy a house from that . . .

    THIS is the stratification in the Church of England. It is a choice. More and more churches too are offering part time roles or paying by the hour because they cannot afford to pay for these workers (and churches wonder why it is difficult to appoint people!)

    Why have I banged on about this? Because children’s and youth ministry is a calling to serve the church, just like a priest. In fact, for many children and young people their youth worker is “de facto” their priest. They preach and teach, they create amazing programmes, they lead, equip and train volunteers . . . in some of our churches they are leading more children and young people week by week than most of our clergy have adults in their churches.

    In my own practice I grew from 60 children and young people to 300+ in seven years. Had I done that as “clergy” with a congregation, I’d be delivering growth seminars and be considering starting my international ministry 🙂

    Sorry, but the stratification thing is wrong.

    God’s people were not happy with their prophets, they wanted more – they wanted to be like other nations. “Give us a King”, God relented and said “OK”. I don’t know how we have got to where we are that is continues to be news if “clergy” do stuff that ordinary people just do all the time (you know, oooh clergy abseiling, clergy on a motorbike, clergy dancing . . . Bishops dancing at Pentecost . . . . with, you know, loads of other people dancing too – but, hey, never mind them . . . look clergy! look Bishops!)

    Meanwhile the catalysts for change in many churches are unseen, unvalued laity who are just getting on with it.

    Want a vibrant, forward looking, Spirit filled Church – value the laity in equal measure to those ordained and give national terms and conditions for churches looking to employ laity so they know what valuing them needs to look like.

    • The reason for the focus on the clergy in the news that you pick up on is that they are the recognised leaders. Recognised leaders doing things is always more newsworthy than others doing it – that’s just the nature of leadership, recognition and news. You can’t change this – whatever categories we use and achieve wide recognition for specifying leaders will mark out their activities as more newsworthy.

      In terms of paying youth workers like clergy – in an ideal world we’d pay everyone equally well. But in the world we live in of limited resources, we should just I think be grateful that we can still afford to pay clergy in a way which, on the most part, helps to attract talented and capable people and retain them. I don’t think the church should start imposing unaffordable national standards of pay on parishes.

      • Will, your suggestion simply doesn’t work.

        Readers are also recognised leaders, indeed I ran a Church plant as well as being a Reader. Yet Readers are paid nothing at all.

        This chimes in with the total mess and confusion in the Church where NSM clergy are not paid anything either but are not as well supported as stipendiary clergy.

        The CRC (Central Readers Council) is being disbanded by the CofE at the very time that clergy numbers are in crisis the Church shows their support for Reader ministry by giving up on it.

        The reality is that the hierarchy at the CofE is completely messed up and confused at a time when people in the Church need supporting.

  2. This is an interesting and helpful paper.

    My first thought is that you are unclear about what you mean by ultimate, as in ultimate significance, and what you take it to imply in terms of ontology. Your argument seems to turn on an idea that something can’t be ontological if it isn’t ultimate, and since the ultimate reality for Christians is an ‘unstratified’ redeemed humanity no other categories can be ontological. But this doesn’t seem to allow for non-ultimate ontological categories. Yet isn’t that what we understand male and female to be? The final reality has no male and female (and no marriage) yet male and female are surely ontological categories. And if we take one flesh seriously then so is marriage. Why shouldn’t ordination be a similar non-ultimate ontological category? Perhaps what you are reaching for is an ordering of ontological categories, in which some are more ultimate or important than others, so that although all are “real” (i.e. ontological) it is clear which give way to others for certain purposes – and which will outlast others into eternity.

    Personally I think you get into tricky metaphysical waters when you start trying to declare some categories real (ontological) and some merely nominal or conventional. For what really divides the ontological from the conventional? If a leader is bestowed with a status to which authority attaches and respect is due, how can we categorise that as ontological or conventional? Much better I think to speak in terms of categories (all equally real or ontological) which have differing levels of importance or relevance in different contexts, and so to ground an underlying equality or unity in a higher level of ontology rather than in a binary this is or is not ontological. It loses the neatness of the argument, of course. But the gain is in better reflecting the world and its phenomena (such as leadership and authority) as we experience them.

    • Thanks Will. I will think further—but I am not convinced that male and female sex difference will disappear in the resurrection. I am currently writing an academic paper on this, so will have a better answer in a couple of weeks! But in the meantime answer me this: was the risen Jesus still a man?

      • Thanks Ian. You may well be right about male and female, so it was perhaps an ill-chosen example. I don’t want to lose sight of the basic point though about non-ultimate ontological difference. Ordination seems to me to be in many ways a spiritual parallel to something like a doctorate or other academic award. While there is a functional component to it, and it qualifies you for certain roles, it is also a status change which doesn’t disappear when you are not in a particular job or role or performing a particular function.

        For comparison, we could ask whether the bestowal of a doctorate constitutes an ontological change, or whether it is just conventional. It certainly has some pretty significant real-world effects. But aren’t they just social constructs? But isn’t everything in one sense? Both ordination and doctorates are just for this age (we can presume). Perhaps the main difference between doctorates and ordination is that the former is validated by man and the latter by God. Does this theological consideration make an ontological difference? Maybe it does. But then we can ask whether God recognises doctorates (and other human dignities). It would seem a pretty mean theology of the world to say he was indifferent to them. But then what is the real difference between a change that God recognises and an ontological change?

        Perhaps then the question is whether God really acknowledges (or indeed institutes and validates) status changes in ministry of an ordination-type kind. But if we accept status changes in society (e.g. knighthood) and academia, why not in the church? Or do we oppose all concepts of status, save perhaps for some function they might perform (the utilitarian approach)?

        I think marriage remains an interesting case study here. Not a sacrament in Anglicanism of course, it is still surely an example of a God-instituted and ordained status change, one which Jesus says should be regarded as all but unbreakable. That seems pretty ontological to me.

        Perhaps though the question is why ordination is supposed to constitute an ontological change when becoming, say, a reader doesn’t. Maybe this is similar to asking why you receive a masters but become a doctor. It seems linked to the authority you receive to do something new rather than just a role you currently play: preside at communion; ordain people. Not sure what it is for deacon. Or maybe the answer is that becoming a reader is an ontological change.

        Anyway, this response has gone on quite long enough. My point really is that ontological change may be more varied and less ultimate than your paper seems to allow, leaving room for ordination to involve ontological change (and that being a useful way to think of it) without it needing to reflect something grander than it really is.

  3. There is no difference between clergy, ( including bishops and deacons, priests who are not vicars… ) and laity. We are all potential called to do Gods work, we are all equal and are empowered by the same spirit.
    One troubling word perhaps is vocation. Vocation started, I believe, as a christian expression but has been expanded into other areas. However vocation seems to have been selectively used for ordained in the church which somehow is perceived to place it above others. We can all be called or have a vocation.
    Specifically as a Reader I was called and it is my vocation.

  4. Some interesting thoughts here, thank you.

    A couple of further thoughts: the CofE clearly works with an ontological view of ordination (Canon C1(2): “No person who has been admitted to the order of bishop, priest, or deacon can ever be divested of the character of his order'”) and yet we only have two sacraments, so that paragraph might need to be amended?

    And I wonder if Revelation gives us a sense of both ontologically stratified/divided and ultimately united; the various groups who worship at the throne are delineated – not least in Rev 7 with those from Israel and the great multitude. Might it be that ontology remains but we are united in function (the worship of God)?

    BTW I’m very much in agreement with Ali Campbell that ministers to the young ought to get better recognition for what they do. Could it be that most clergy (and therefore bishops) have never been very good at work with children, and so they tend to undervalue it to explain to themselves why it was “OK” for them not be good at it? Better recognition that we all have different but important gifts from the Sprit for the building up of the Church would help.

    • Thanks Bernard. I don’t read Canon C1(2) as implying ontological change, only permanence of ministry, which is in contrast to, for example, methodism. There is nothing at all in the ordinal which would justify a belief in ontological change, and the very fact that ordination is not a sacrament does in fact confirm this.

      I believe that a right reading of Revelation 7 is to see the 144,000 (that John *hears*) as the same group as the ‘multitude from every tribe, language people and nation that could not counted’ which John *sees*.

      • I read C1(2) as implying ontology for two reasons. First, in direct response to you, if permanence of ministry were meant, why does the Canon go on to state, by way of contrast to the permanence of orders, the circumstances in which a minister may relinquish or be deprived of the “exercise of his orders” (i.e. the actual ministry)?

        The second is the use of “character” which has its roots in this context in the discussions of ordination by such as Thomas Aquinas – it is imprint as in wax, making a change in the person ordained. The imprint is presumably made by the action of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand’s soul, and the laying on, or (im-)pressing perhaps, of hands shows this. That’s the thing in the Ordinal which justifies this understanding, I would say – though I can see you might well not.The ultimate Christian justification for the use of this idea is Hebrews 1.3, as I’m sure you’ll already know, and I’d be interested in your comment on that.

        Read in the wider context of Christian discussions of ordination, I would say “character” screams “ontology.” I don’t see how it can mean anything else.

        I’m interested by your reading of Revelation 7, and get the “heard/saw” point, but I’m struggling to see the rest of it: how can the (counted)144,000 “of the people of Israel” in verse 4 be the same as the “multitude that no one could count, from every nation” of verse 9? What am I missing?

  5. Lots of stimulating material, Ian. One observation – which may be a criticism – is that you are generally working with a dichotomy between ‘stratified’ and ‘unified’. To me, ‘stratified’ suggests hierarchy, and layers on top of each other. But ‘differentiated’ (which you mention a few times) is not necessarily the same as ‘stratified’, as you can have diverse and varied ministries alongside each other. I.e., by ‘unified’ it’s unclear whether you mean ‘not arranged in strata’ or ‘not differentiated’.

    • We need hierarchy so we know who is in charge, otherwise there is confusion and we can’t get things done. Fundamental equality is basic, but that doesn’t translate into equality in every sense and in every respect – not least because we clearly aren’t all equal in every sense and in every respect, and if we were there would be no room for leadership. Life would also be extraordinarily boring and unhuman if there was no possibility to grow and excel and take on greater responsibility – which obviously implies inequality in certain respects. The Bible is quite clear in its affirmation of certain kinds of inequality, including those connected with leadership and authority. Paul is clear that he expects his office of apostle, like other offices of leadership, to come with its own authority.

    • Anthony, thanks, yes, I was aware of that. But I have to confess that I have not come across many churches where ‘differentiated’ does not in fact mean ‘stratified’—and certainly not the C of E!

  6. There is no difference between clergy, ( including bishops and deacons, priests who are not vicars… ) and laity. We are all potential called to do Gods work, we are all equal and are empowered by the same spirit.
    One troubling word perhaps is vocation. Vocation started, I believe, as a christian expression but has been expanded into other areas. However vocation seems to have been selectively used for ordained in the church which somehow is perceived to place it above others. We can all be called or have a vocation.
    Specifically as a Reader I was called and it is my vocation

  7. Ian, if you can persuade people to stop using ‘vocation’ when they actually mean ‘vocation to ordained ministry’ (and for that matter ‘ministry’ when they actually mean ‘ordained ministry’) you will have my eternal gratitude! Stratification is a human tendency – it may be practically necessary (though I’d argue against this), it’s not handed down on tablets of stone. Stephen Pickard’s book on Collaborative Ministry has some interesting comments on what he describes as the difference between a functional and a charismatic view of ministry.

    I’m sure you’ll have a stimulating day on Saturday.

    • Mandy, I am continually correcting people who talk about ‘the ministry’ and point out that they mean ‘one particular form of ministry’ almost as often as I point out that ‘preach’ is a verb and not a noun!

  8. I feel very much that the answer to your question, posed in the title of this blog, is not that simple.

    In one sense the answer is a clear “no”. I do not believe that God’s ‘creation intent’ was for stratification of humanity and believe the NT evidence asserts the intention of God to ultimately reinstate and reinforce this ideal, as you indeed highlight in your exegesis of Revelation and of Paul. In the meantime though, the Bible (and all of world history) can be seen as a troubling catalog of humanity’s repeated and varied attempts to impose a stratification upon itself for our own ends. We must recognise the current reality of a fallen world, but seek to live in a proactive expectation and anticipation of the future; living it out now! This is what Paul is pushing for and one of the principle points of difference between the church and the world that we should seek to model.

    That said, the answer to your question both can and should be “yes” as well. While in Christ we acknowledge there is no difference in the fundamental importance, value and equality of every human, there is a marked difference in role. One of the key areas I’m not sure you’ve covered in this regard is that of “anointing”, the recognition of someone being marked out for a different purpose, and the willing submission of others to that authority.

  9. I too was called to be a Reader. The out working of that call in rural ministry, as opposed to the suburban ministry I first was involved in, has raised many questions in my mind regarding the relationship between ordained and lay ministry. Effective ministry in multi-parish benefices relies on Spirit-enabled, well-trained lay ministers working in partnership with ordained clergy. I believe church growth is linked to continuity of minister, whether lay or ordained, embedded in the Individual parish working in a team with the attributes of ‘anecdote to evidence’ at the forefront of our minds – all of course undergirded with prayer!

  10. An unhelpful practice which highlights any supposed difference between clergy and laity (I’m not qualified to say whether there is or there isn’t) is, in my opinion, the use of ever grander personal titles for clergy; Revd, Very Revd, Right Revd, Most Revd, along with Venerable, Canon etc. I would be surprised if this didn’t appeal to the vanity of at least some clergy (cf Labour MPs accepting peerages and the titles that go with them). Instead, how about using job titles that merely describe what the person does, rather than giving the person a ‘handle’? – Sally Smith, Dean of Ruislip; John Smith, Bishop of Harrogate, and so on.

  11. Growing up in New Church circles there certainly seemed to be a fundamental difference between those ‘In Leadership’ and those in the plastic chairs. Within the world of ‘In Leadership’ there were three clear orders of general leadership, eldership and more apostolic roles. A threefold order.

    The difference coming into the Church of England was that ministry was seen more as the action and work of God through the whole church, (in particular in the grace of orders) rather than the wider church being subject to the leadership of gifted ‘anointed’ or charismatic (general not theological) individuals.

    As I have matured in ministry I have come to a more nuanced view that sees elements of both as required in the ministry of the church. And irrespective of theology we can have healthy or unhealthy views of that ministry.

    Paul to me wrestles with the same issues. The universality of ministry and access to the intimate presence of God is held in balance with the ordered church where not all are presbyters, deacons or overseers.

    The chronological development of first Apostles (the only ministry ordered by Christ), then the Diaconal ministries of Prophet and Evangelist and finally the Presbyterial role of Pastor-Teacher is seen in the New Testament as well as expressed in Paul’s theology.

    But also Paul embraces a rich model of charismatic ‘Body Ministry’ where everyone contributes (unless perhaps he is complaining about that state in Corinth), as inspired by the Spirit.

    Yet the language of the Body does speak of a fundamental difference between parts. A hand is a hand. An eye is an eye.

    I cannot escape the idea that Paul expected everyone to be in ministry, but also others to be called to particular fundamental roles. Be it through ontological ordination or charismatic anointing – and I suspect both. To be frank although I hold to catholic orders in the ideal I recognise that throughout history not all bishops have fulfilled the ministry of apostle, and other people have fulfilled that ministry without the grace of episcopal orders.

    So where does that leave ministry and vocation in the church today (general or particular).

    1) Much ordered lay ministry in the church seems to be diaconal in character. Our structures do not recognise this. Much as they do not recognise the apostolic roles of some presbyters. We should ordain people according to their gifts.

    2) Attempting to equip lay ministry without a widespread renewal of the charismatic gifts is probably fruitless. However the charismatic does not guarantee ‘body ministry’.

    3) If lay ministry is empowered by the spirit and expanded, true diaconal ministry recognised and expanded, then presbyterial and apostolic ministry are also likely to be expanded. So yes, more bishops and priests but not in the current shape.

  12. A few comments:
    1 Totally agree with Ali (1st comment).
    2 Would this be an area where we could use “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) to work out if there is a difference? Do ordained people do the work that is expected of them any better than lay people? (You could use some data here if you wanted …)
    3 There seems to be an assumption that there is equivalence between the ordained person in a church and the leader in a church. In many smaller churches (and there are many smaller churches …) this isn’t the case, whatever the ordained person might think.

  13. The C of E has its structures all wrong, and until we change these lay ministry will continue to be sidelined.
    We have a Division of Ministry which deals with ordained clergy and also Readers.

    According to the New Testament all Christians are called to minister. Until our structures make this clear the recognition that ALL Christians are in Ministry will be a continued uphill struggle. But if it is to work the ordained clergy have a key part to play.

    Here are some suggestions about working with laity in Ministry

    Accepting the Biblical principle of Collaborative ministry is not the same as knowing how to do it.
    Do theological colleges teach how? It is not actually their job. New clergy are supposed to learn most of that when they serve their title. But some training incumbents have little or no experience of collaborative ministry.

    1) Coordination not control. Do not allow yourself to become a control freak.
    2) Working together with, rather than telling
    3) Regular sessions for planning, training, study & prayer
    4) Do not expect to agree all the time with all of them.
    5) They will not do things in the same way as you. Do not worry about it; it does not matter.
    6) Do much of your own training – then you are more likely to understand and trust them.
    7) Recognition by the wider church is wise i.e. Commissioning or licensing by the bishop.
    8) Try to discern their particular gifts – & encourage people to use them. We cannot all be hands or feet etc. Some will be good at pastoral care, others evangelism, the healing ministry, marriage or baptism preparation etc.
    9) Set them free to use their own initiative. They will make mistakes – as we all do.
    10) Do not overload people. Realise their limitations and other commitments.
    11) Try to find different people to do new things rather than relying upon the existing church leaders to do more.
    12) Do not be tempted to take over what they have been appointed to do; whatever the expectations of some of the church members might be!
    13) Appoint people to work together in pairs where possible. This means they are not expected to go it alone. It also helps in case of illness or holiday.
    14) A basic problem is how do you remove them if it does not work out? Perhaps appointment for a limited time (say 3 years) will help. I know of no easy answer!
    15) An inter-regnum can prove to be a great opportunity for growth. Plan to take full advantage of it.
    16) The new incumbent should be enthusiastic about collaborative ministry (Make this very clear in the parish profile) or, it will all collapse, or just be allowed to die out.
    17) Inheriting someone else’s team is usually difficult. Perhaps licenses should end when a new incumbent arrives – but that leaves him/her in the lurch! One year later might be more sensible.
    18) It is important that everything is carried out with the support of the PCC. Be prepared to wait until that is forthcoming. Do not expect the PCC to be unanimous. For schemes to be planned properly, questioning and opposition are essential. Effective government needs sensible opposition!
    19) The appointment and names of LPAs should be made public, so the whole parish (including those with no church connection) knows who they are and what they do.
    20) Confidentiality is important – how much should the lay ministers share with the clergy? Always ask permission to pass information on. Do not expect lay people to tell you things just because you are a priest. A good priest will often be aware of problems without actually being told.
    21) The long term aim (you will never succeed!) is Every Member Ministry. Many Christians also have ministries outside the church,and they must be encouraged It is important not to make ministry “church centred”.
    22) Do not ask laity to do things only when you are too busy. They have a ministry in their own right – they should not be treated as stop gaps.
    23) Do not ask people to do things that you are not prepared to do yourself.
    24) We are all different so lay folk may be better at some aspects of ministry than the clergy are!
    Do not allow yourself to be threatened – but instead rejoice.

    • another brilliant comment – many thanks
      Having asked Google about you, can I publicise your web resources at
      Having known of a place where two batches of successful children’s/youth work (10 years apart) were meddled with so much by newly appointed clergy that they ended shortly after the new vicar was appointed, many of Jimmy’s points above struck home.

  14. This is, as usual, extremely helpful. I have two thoughts to offer.

    The first is a theological, though not an insignificant one. You suggest that “The creation narratives differentiate humanity into male and female from the very beginning.” I’m not sure this is the case. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his “Theology of the Body” (and Rowan Williams implies in The Body’s Grace) gender didn’t arise until the creation of Eve. In other words, Adam was not male until there was a female. This has implications for your eschatology of course.

    The second is a missional challenge. You start with an assertion that “One of the key challenges facing the Church of England is the decline in numbers of clergy.” Although this is widely seen as a key challenge, especially by members of the clergy, I think it actually masks the real challenges, which are to do with the communication of the gospel in a secular age. The decline in numbers of clergy is only a problem if the church’s priority is the maintenance of its historic estate. I would suggest that the decline in numbers of clergy might mean something quite different. It may in fact be a direction from God – even part of God’s gentle discipline on a church that has become massively clericalised at the expense of its witness to the world. After all, what would it look like if God were saying “I want less clergy and more lay missioners in y church?” I suggest it might look like the current situation.

    I anticipate that God will continue to use the decline in vocations, in finance, and in public respect for clergy, until we learn to hear God’s voice on this and re-balance the church towards mission rather than maintenance.

  15. Thanks for this article, Ian

    Can I recommend an analysis by Harold Hill in my book: ‘Saved, Sanctified and Serving: perspectives on Salvation Army theology and practice’ (Paternoster, 2016). He examines the ‘clericalisation’ of ministry in SA

  16. Ian,

    As a fellow evangelical, I very much agree with the central points you are making, namely that:

    @ The distinction between lay and ordained is less strongly emphasised under the new covenant, with a greater emphasis on oneness established in baptism.
    @ Ordination does not continue into the new creation. When the chief pastor (Christ) appears, pastors will joyfully surrender their offices to him.

    However, I do think that ordination actually does involve a change of status, and that it is an important part of the new covenant. I don’t say this to undermine the central point of your article (that lay ministry is just as important as ordained ministry, indeed it is the main goal of ordained ministry to equip the laity). But consider another so-called sacrament, marriage. Marriage is also intended to be permanent as it creates a change of status in two people, making them one flesh. Likewise ordination changes the status not only of the one ordained, but of the laity in relation to them.

    Key old testament scriptures which need to be considered would include Malachi 3 and Isaiah 66:21. The new testament hope for the people of God includes a hope for ordained ministry. Hence the apostle Paul’s instructions regarding appointing leaders are not an innovation, but are entirely consistent with the old covenant promise.

    I say all of this not as an anglo-catholic, but as an evangelical who only believes in two sacraments. In your article you seemed to suggest that only an Anglo catholic could affirm this, but I don’t think that’s true. Whilst there is a concern for gifting in the new covenant, there is also a concern for offices, which is not always the same thing.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, I do agree with your main contention that lay ministry should be given better recognition.


    • Great comment, completely agree. The emphasis on change of status is key – avoids confusing talk of “ontological” change, which I think sounds overly grand.

  17. the dogmatic stratification between laity and clergy is a major reason for the current decline in the Church’s mission and influence, the arrogance of many traditional clergy who treat their congregations with contempt is a major problem that the Church of England seems reluctant to address. I can think of no other role in society where the bullying behaviour of clergy obsessed with their own self-importance and a desire to belittle the role of others would be tolerated. There needs to be a clear expectation for clergy to work with their congregations, for clergy to develop their theology in a manner that promotes mission and for priests to recognise that this not an opportunity to berate those who dare to disagree with them.

  18. Are they fundamentally different? Just to look at this question in the context of another question: what is the truth, what are the truths, about God, about Christ, about the human race, about the condition of the human race in the sight of God and Christ, about knowing God, about salvation, about how to live as Christians?
    Which of these two questions is the more important? I think the second question is more important. I surmise (I might be wrong) that most people would agree with me.
    When we consider this second question we find (challenge me if you think I am wrong) that the clergy, who, speaking generally, have all undergone (if that is the right word) the same process and the same rite of ordination, differ fundamentally about the answers to the second question. And if we consider a subset of the clergy, those who have a ‘high view’ of the Bible, we find the same fundamental differences. So both clergy and laity are in the same position when it comes to reaching a conclusion, in conscience before God and Christ, about what are the true answers the Bible gives us to the second question. We all have to confront ourselves with the strongest arguments from all sides, allowing our most cherished convictions to be challenged by the strongest arguments.
    To seriously consider these strongest views is perilous. It forces us to understand views we disagree with at their best, and exposes our own convictions to the strongest possible challenges. Our convictions may survive those challenges, or we may, in self-critical honesty, be forced to change them. We all know how traumatic and humbling that is.

    Phil Almond


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