It is arguable that the greatest challenge currently facing the C of E is not to do with sexuality, not related to changes in culture and moral values, and unconnected with Church-State relations. It actually arises from a decision made around the time I started ordination training in 1989, that candidates needed ‘more experience of the world’ and so should be encouraged to start training later in life. I noticed this very quickly; when I started training at age 27 I was at about the median age within my cohort. When I returned on the staff 10 years after leaving, I was still near the median age of those in training. The most common question I was asked during my first six months was ‘Which course are you doing?’
Having been trained as a Personnel Manager, and therefore used to undertaking cohort analysis, I realised that this was catastrophic. It means that those being ordained have largely been selected from one particular generation of Christians, since the average age of ordination went up by around 10 years over around a 10-year period. And this then means that many will be retiring around the same time. Overall, it is stated that 40% of current stipendiary clergy will retire in the next 10 years, but this total figure masks the local impact. I have been given to understand that in some dioceses, particularly those which are largely rural, it could be that 85% of clergy will retire. This is going to completely change the face of the Church.
All this is fairly well known, and it is one of the major drivers behind the Renewal and Reform programme, in particular the goal of the RME process to increase significantly the number of candidates for ordination training. But this steps over a prior question that needs answering for the medium term (since it will take some time for new candidates to come through the system) and the longer term: should future congregational leaders be lay or ordained? There are two main answers to this.
The future’s bright; the future’s lay
Under the leadership of Paul Butler, Southwell and Nottingham Diocese signed up to a ‘2020 Vision’ for ministry some years ago, and this made a commitment to retain posts even if we lost clergy. This has meant, when clergy move on, undertaking a review of the role, and either making it a half-time post and allowing for lay support for the role, or appointing lay people to lead the congregation rather than appointing another clergy person. There are examples of both of this happening in my deanery. With Paul’s translation to Durham, I understand that that diocese are now following a similar process.
This has a number of advantages. It offers a clear sense of commitment to ministry in a particular place; it can create flexibility in deployment; and it affirms the notion of lay leadership and ministry. Perhaps most importantly, it offers a commitment to maintain stipendiary ministry even if that is not ordained, since there is clear evidence that loss of stipendiary ministry leads to (greater) decline in congregations. It’s also worth noting that, in larger churches with staff teams, many of the roles undertaken by lay ministers (youth and family workers, pastoral visitors and so on) would have been undertaken by members of a clergy team, including curates and associate ministers, even 20 years ago.
The principle objection to this, particularly in rural areas, is the loss of a president at Communion services. The two most common answers to this—have Communion by extension, or mostly have non-Communion services—haven’t been well received, the former for theological reasons and the latter for reasons of tradition. (There is some irony that many urban churches have more non-Communion services than Communion services, even though they are not without ordained leaders).
An alternative approach is to adopt lay presidency at Communion. Andrew Atherstone argues in his Grove booklet for this, on the basis that the BCP sees the ministry of Word and Sacrament as equally important, and if we are happy with lay preachers why should we be unhappy with lay presidents?
If the ministry of the word can be delegated from presbyters to lay leaders without undermining the nature of the presbyterate, then the ministry of the sacraments can be delegated on the same basis… The historic prohibition on lay presidency at the Lord’s Supper has long since outlived its purpose. For the Church of England in the twenty-first century it is time to move forward. These reforms [would be] a consistent development of traditional Anglican ecclesiology and the increasing scope of public lay ministries over the last generation. Lay presidency is no threat to proper Anglican order. (pp 22, 24)
Set apart for ministry
The alternative view is to identify those who are already the de facto leader(s) of the respective Christian communities, give them some (local) theological education, and lay hands on them and ordain them.
The advantage of this approach is that there is a rapid development of recognised local ministry, and you avoid all the debates about presiding at Communion within the local community.
But it raises a series of other questions too. If such people are ordained to a local area, rather than being ‘deployable’ in what sense are they ‘ordained in the Church of God’ as is currently said in the ordinal? It could be argued that the most pressing question for the church at the local level is less about ‘keeping the show on the road’ and more about a vision for calling, growing and equipping disciples. Would such local leadership be open to such a vision?
And if you are going to ‘ordain’ all your trained and commissioned lay leaders, is there in the end such a thing as ‘lay leadership’ at all? Isn’t this the route of clericalisation of the Church? And why stop there—why not ‘ordain’ all those working as evangelists, with students, in schools and so on? (You could then allow them to entrepreneurially establish new congregations and have no hesitation about calling such meetings ‘churches’.)
Underlying the choice between these alternatives is a more basic question about our theology of ordination. If a lay person is commissioned, set apart for ministry, has some training for that ministry and then has hands laid on them, in what sense are they not ordained? In other words, what is the fundamental difference between these two possible scenarios? How do we distinguish, theologically, between the full-time, trained and commissioned lay leader and the ordained? I think this is a question that had dogged the Church’s approach to commissioned lay leadership over many years—be that in relation to Readers, Church Army evangelists or other forms of licensed lay ministry. We did try an experiment with Local Ordained Ministry about 25 years ago, but I think it foundered for want of a convincing answer in this area.
Where would we look for an answer to this? Clearly we need to look to the New Testament, but we immediately confront the fact that the NT doesn’t have a developed understanding of ‘ordination’ in the way we think about it institutionally. I am not convinced by arguments that this was an omission made good by the developments of later centuries; it appears to follow from the NT’s radical understanding of the priesthood of the whole people of God—an idea that has become more prominent in recent Anglican thinking.
We also need to look at the formularies of the Church of England and the way these have received the NT data. The BCP appears to regard the orders of bishop, priest (in name; theologically presbyter) and deacon as compatible with the teaching of the NT even if they fall short of being necessary derivations from it. But we are then confronted with a very different social context, that of Christendom, within which these orders of ministry could become professions.
Wherever we look for an answer, I think we need one. I don’t see how we can make a decision between these two alternative strategies without a theological framework—not least because different dioceses appear to be either implementing or planning to implement each of these approaches.
Answers on a postcard…?
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