The Church of England is currently engaged in discussion and action which is pulling in rather different directions in relation to the importance of its clergy, and these debates were exemplified in the latest meeting of the General Synod in York over the weekend.
One of last debates, held on Tuesday morning, concerned the follow-up to the 2017 report Setting God’s People Free (SGPF). The report was commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council as part of the Renewal and Reform programme, and it was led by Council member Matthew Frost, who had formerly been the Chief Executive of TEAR Fund. The overall aim of the report, which has generated a programme of activity across the Church, was to recognise that the ‘church’ is actually comprised of all Christians, not just as they gather together to worship on a Sunday, but as they go about their daily occupations Monday to Saturday. It emphasises that ‘lay ministry’ is not primarily about lay people doing things in Sunday services, but engaging in discipleship in all the places God has put them. It does include a careful balancing of the role of clergy and lay, as set out in its introduction:
- It calls for a shift in culture – not a narrow, centrally driven strategy.
- It looks beyond and outside Church structures to the whole people of God at work in communities and wider society – not to ‘fixing’ the institutional Church.
- It seeks to affirm and enable the complementary roles and vocations of clergy and of lay people, grounded in our common baptism – not to blur or undermine these distinctions.
- It proposes steps to nourish, illuminate and connect what is working already in and through frontline parishes – not to institute a top down approach.
- It aims to see confident involvement, engagement and leadership of lay people wherever they are called to serve – not to devise lay alternatives to clergy.
This vision is careful not to dismiss the role of clergy, but it is very different from some highly clericalised views of the Church that still exist, such as that of Linda Woodhead who, in a critique of the whole Renewal and Reform process at its inception, stated that, if ‘all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight…the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue.’ It also sits slightly uncomfortably with more ‘sacramental’ views of ordination, which see the ordained ministry as somehow constitutive of the Church itself. In a supporting paper on the SGPF web page, Pete Wilcox, the bishop of Sheffield, in a really interesting paper ‘Let the Service Begin‘ on the biblical understanding of worship, ministry and work, makes this comment on Jesus’ ministry as depicted in Mark 1:
I dislike hearing the word ‘ministry’ used as a shorthand for ‘ordained ministry’. People still sometimes say, ‘They’re going into the ministry’. No! Ministry is service, and it’s expected of every member of the people of God. If you are baptised, you are by default a minister in Christ’s service. Ordained ministry is just one possible outworking of that baptismal obligation.
At least two other major discussions also pulled away from what we might call ‘clerical exceptionalism‘. One was the extended and vital discussion about safeguarding. This session of Synod reserved a special time for questions about safeguarding to be taken separated from questions on other subjects, and there was a presentation and discussion on safeguarding led by Peter Hancock, bishop of Bath and Wells, who is the national lead on this, and Phil Johnson, an abuse survivor. The repeated message from this discussion was that the Church must rid itself of clericalism and a ‘culture of deference’ to this in authority, whether that was in relation to clergy in parishes or bishops in their dioceses. Respect for authority must not give space for the failure to challenge and ask questions which has allowed abuse to continue unchecked.
A third strand was the discussion about ‘fresh expressions’ of church, 15 years on from the first presentation of the report Mission-shaped Church that came to Synod in 2004 (when I was previously a member) and marked the formal recognition of the value of church planting and non-traditional forms of meeting as a significant part of church growth, mission and evangelism. In response to the debate on Monday, Martyn Snow, bishop of Leicester, posted an extended comment on Facebook:
I believe fervently that the Fresh Expressions movement is the single most significant development in the church in this country for decades. Having talked for many years about the importance of evangelism and the ‘re-conversion of our nation’, this predominantly lay movement, has quietly got on with the task. Eschewing the big events, mass publicity and big spending of some initiatives, the movement is teaching us about what Pope Francis calls ‘The Church’s Missionary Transformation’. This wonderfully ambiguous phrase – is the church the agent of the transformation of others or is it the subject of transformation – leads me to suggest that there are three specific lessons for the wider church.
Firstly, this is predominantly a lay movement. Fresh expressions of church offer us a living model of what can happen when God’s people are set free to be leaders in mission, when clergy and lay work in partnership, with a genuine sharing of gifts and true mutuality. Clergy are set free to be enablers of others – lay people are set free to use their God-given gifts, and their experience in networks outside the church. Both are needed.
At a time when the church is being forced to recognise the very damaging effects of clericalism – where a culture of deference has contributed to abuse, and difficulties in the reporting of abuse, and the poor response to the reporting of abuse – our recognition of lay ministry needs to be more than a patronising, ‘isn’t that interesting’. We simply must find ways of learning from fresh expressions and enabling their approach to ministry to shape that of the wider church.
In response to an observation I made on the thread, Martyn offered further comment:
More and more, I am convinced that the role of clergy is to enable the ministry of others, but we struggle to do this for a whole mix of reasons. Unless and until the clergy are set free to do this, lay ministry will always been seen as ‘helping the clergy’ rather than valid in its own right.
On the other hand, there were a number of strands in the Synod session, reflecting other work going on, which seemed to put the focus more on clergy and their importance. One was the proposed Clergy Covenant, responding to concerns about clergy welfare and the challenges and pressures clergy face, which has been interpreted in some quarters as suggesting that clergy are distinct from laity in having unique needs which require special and unusual attention. The other strand is the focus on the role of clergy in church growth: one of the major goals promoted by Archbishops’ Council the growth of numbers entering ordination training, with a target of a net increase of 50% over a five-year period. This is significant not least for its impact on national budgets; ordination training is a major component of the national central budget, and therefore has a direct impact on what is asked for from the diocesans in terms of national ‘apportionment’, that is, financial demand. If lay ministry is so important, and lay-led ‘fresh expressions’ are the key to growth, why this emphasis on clergy numbers? The simple answer: research has shown that the number of stipendiary ministers (who will usually be ordained) has a direct impact on church attendance. If you want the church to grow, then appoint more clergy.
How might we resolve these tensions? Key to this will be to return to biblical reflection on the role and status of leaders in the church. We need to do this because of the mythology that all too frequently springs up in relation to the status of clergy. I thought this example, from Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute, fascinating. He defends the importance of wearing clerical collars on two primary grounds: first, the biblical theology of dress as a marker of office; and second, for the clerical collar as expressing a Pauline theology of leaders as ‘slaves of Christ’. On the first, I don’t think such a theology actually exists in Scripture, and Peter doesn’t offer any evidence of it—besides, clergy don’t appear to have had distinctive dress until around the 6th century, so this certainly wasn’t evident to the early church. On the second, this is shear invention; the clerical collar in its modern form was invented in 1865, and was derived from the earlier wearing of a white cravat, which was the general practice of gentlemen. So, rather ironically, the roots of this are to make the clergy blend in to the gentlemen class, rather than stand out from it!
My reading of the data of the New Testament agrees in large part with Martyn Snow’s. I regularly cite the compelling study of Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, in which he notes the distinctive contrast in the New Testament faith communities compared with both the Old Testament patterns of ministry and pagan religion in the surrounding world:
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)
There are several key texts which support both the unified nature of the community of Jesus-followers (the ekklesia, which does not have the institutional overtones that go with our word ‘church’), the most important of which is probably 1 Corinthians 12–14 which centre around Paul’s primary metaphor of believers as the ‘body of Christ’. The relation of leaders to others in the community is elucidated, in terms that Martyn Snow expresses, in Ephesians 4.11–13:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
So ministry is indeed the work of the whole people of God, and there are those who are set apart for particular kinds of ministry, and these are not to be an end in themselves, but are to equip all God’s people so that they might reach maturity. All this is within a ‘single status’ community without ‘ontological’ divisions of identity and rank.
These relationships are expressed in narrative form in Acts. The shape of Acts traces the way that the early Jesus movement shifts from a focus on the renewal of the Jewish people of God to being a largely Gentile religious movement, and a key moment in this is the establishment of a Jesus community in Antioch ‘where the disciples were first called ‘Christians” (Acts 11.26). But this came about, not through apostolic church planting, but through a natural ‘lay’ movement (though note that the distinction between ‘lay’ and ‘clergy’ is something that the NT does not recognise).
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11.19–21)
Here, it seems, is the original lay-led ‘fresh expression’ of church! Yet the immediate response of the believers in Jerusalem is to sent Barnabas to Antioch, and he takes Paul with him, in order (as per Ephesians 4) to equip and build up the believers there so that they might grow into maturity.
But it is very striking in Acts that, along with the emphasis on the ministry of ‘ordinary’ believers, and the way in which apostles and other leaders support and equip ‘ordinary’ believers, the leaders also have a distinctive ministry of pioneering, proclamation, and church planting themselves. This adds a third layer to Luke’s narrative depiction of ministry—one which has importance in its own right, though without being built on a clergy/lay distinction, without ‘ontological’ distinction, and without suggesting that in any sense these leaders ‘constitute’ the church.
Perhaps we do need clergy after all—though not always in the ways that are suggested.
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