One 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:
- Clearly differentiated categories of human being, with significant rites and processes marking the transition from one category to another.
- 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:
- 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?
- 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:
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.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?