Who has pottered by this way, then?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Body of Christ - valuing all its members?

I've noticed, among the legitimate celebration of the Church Growth figures, notably among things labelled Fresh Expressions and Cathedrals, a strong seam of anti-clerical sentiment. There seems to be a sense that we are involved in niche-marketing of the faith in some respects. This isn't true of most Fresh Expressions, mind you - when you look at the more successful ones, they tend to be very aware of their local communities, meet local needs but integrate getting alongside people with gathering as a church across the whole communities.

However, alongside all that is worth celebrating in these figures have been comments which imply that clergy are no longer welcome in the Church of England, as reimagined by some lay-led groups. "Why do we need a priest or a bishop to do baptisms when our own elders can do it?". A bit of selective re-translation of episcopae into elder rather than bishop and Bob's your Church Leader. There is a sense in which whole-community churches on traditional models and clergy as leaders and overseers of mission are seen in some circles as problems to be overcome rather than intrinsic to God's Mission.

So where did this strand of anti-clerical sentiment originate in this latest form?

The Turnbull report's response to the Church Commissioners losing most of the C of E's money in the 80s and early 90s was to create a new narrative: one which means that the mission of the Church is equated with a marketing model. But we're not selling membership, we're about introducing people to Jesus and leading them in discipleship. The problem was that there was no pot of money to pay clergy pensions - even the existing ones - so the thought of recruiting clergy at traditional levels filled the accountants at Church House with dread. Understandable. But hardly missional as an approach. Alongside this, the very scriptural understanding of the 'priesthood of all believers', and the model of active discipleship rather than passive affiliation were widely discussed. Now the latter were, and remain, good things. Churches grow not when there is a Vicar-shaped Church but when the whole Body of Christ in that place discerns together how to communicate the Good News of Jesus and lets the Holy Spirit get to work through them. Alpha, Pilgrim and other courses emerged, at least in part, to re-energise the Church - to invite Christians into deeper discipleship and break away from any sense that faith was something best left to the clergy. And of course these helped church communities reach out to people too and they became followers of Christ as a result - praise God! So there were lots of things going on, parallel developments, but a deep financial malaise at the centre.

We now say we cannot afford clergy as if this is Gospel truth. It is only true if we make it so: it is a choice.  If we are serious about being a missional Church, serving our communities, we need to continue to discern who is being called to be priests - not forgetting that this is only one aspect of vocations: we need to help everyone in the Church listen to what their vocation is: "how do I serve? what now, Lord?" should be a prayer for all believers. It is not enough to look for managers, elders, marketers, group leaders, administrators, worship leaders, preachers, pastors etc and say that church leadership is all sorted.  These are important roles in the Body of Christ too. But so are those of priest, deacon and reader. The Holy Spirit is still ordaining deacons, priests and bishops and the Church is continuing to acknowledge and affirm these callings. We have certainly neglected the concept of "priesthood of all believers" and Church-as-Body-of-Christ will all called to a vocation of mission and ministry in the past.  It is a nonsense though to say of a body that, since we have historically undervalued elbows we now no longer need feet.

It is tempting I know, to rewrite early Church history in romanticised ways to pretend that an episcopally-led, sacramentally worshipping community led by deacons and priests was not part of how the Holy Spirit moulded the Church over the first few centuries. It is our heritage, which is not to say it is set in stone as how the Church must always be, but we need to have a reason to change better than simply "it's old". Reimagining the C of E as growing out of a Mediterranean housechurch movement with lay leaders does have a certain appeal, but it's a romance, at least in the way we now seem to be reimagining it.  Rewriting things that way does make us all feel more affirmed - and that does indeed highlight a problem: that we have ended up with a hierarchical view of the Church with lay people at the bottom and clergy (in a hierarchical structure at that) at the top. This is of course absolutely wrong, unscriptural, and FX has been an excellent way to challenge that mindset.

But if we ditch Anglicanism to embrace a lay-led housechurch only model, we will find that we're reaching out to people and welcoming them into an empty shell: a Church created in society's image alone and not that of Christ. We do need to pursue a generous vision of vocation for everyone in the Church: where do we fit in the Body of Christ? To what are we called as disciples and servants of Christ? Priests and Deacons are not any more indispensable than anyone else in the Church. But they are called to a specific function in the Church. They are no more indispensable to the Body of Christ than any other member. But they are no less.

Let's pray for a Body of Christ which grows, reaches out and nurtures each of its members to discern its vocation. Some leadership is lay and let us affirm that. But let's not continually discourage our clergy by denying their vocation to their place in the Body.

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