Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
This video is released on the first day of our ordination retreat. On Saturday I’ll be ordaining a bumper crop of priests and on Sunday three new deacons. It is always a joyful occasion and marks the end of a journey of significant sacrifice for many of them. Their stories of call are as varied as their personalities. Some experienced a gradual warming sense of vocation. For others it was quite dramatic. I still remember very vividly my own call to follow Christ into ministry. I was at a Christian conference in the summer of 1990. The speaker was speaking from John’s Gospel and said, “some of you will be called to exercise your Christian ministry in the work place, family and community; some in overseas mission; and some in full time church leadership.” I somehow knew at once that the final category referred to me. It was not something I sought, or even remotely considered. I was living in a delightful rose covered cottage in Wiltshire at the time, working as an agronomist, which most of the time felt like being paid lots of money to go for walks in the country. I tried to shake it off but it wouldn’t go away and I reluctantly gave in. Thirty-two years later I find myself here, regarding my ecclesiastical career with some bemusement!
The danger with having a ‘professional’ clergy is that they can become regarded as the most important people in the Church, particularly if they wear pointy hats to services. Not only does that potentially downplay the vital contribution of our self-supporting ministers, but more dangerously cause laity to feel second class citizens in the church. The word laity is derived from the Greek word Laos, meaning people of God. However, in the New Testament this is not a subset of church people, it is all of us. Those called to specific ministries are a subset of the Laos, not a separate caste. So, in a real sense we are all laity, but each of us has a particular role within the overarching group. Although this has been re-discovered over the last few decades in the Church of England, there are plenty of the vestiges of clericalism remaining and we must be on our guard against them.
One of the gifts ordained clergy bring to the church is theological training and a capacity to teach and apply God’s word. But Readers and licenced preachers bring that too. They also bring skills of leadership, but many of the people in our churches will have similar gifts honed over many years in their professional lives or as a natural charism. They also bring gifts in pastoral care and are given an authority and validation in exercising those gifts. But many non-ordained people also have those gifts and exercise them quietly and without a need for specific authorisation and commissioning, building up the life of their communities. Indeed, as a key plank of our strategy over the next few years we plan to bring a deeper level of training, equipping and enabling for non-ordained people to exercise worship leading, teaching and pastoral care.
So, you might ask, if most of the tasks that clergy do can be done by other people, in some cases better than the clergy could, why do we need them? The question reduces the church to the local and the functional. But its much more than that. Jesus describes the church as his body, that is in some sense continuing his own ministry of declaring, modelling and inviting people into the kingdom of God. The church is much bigger than its local, geographical expression. Its much bigger, even than the church of our time. The writer to the Hebrews exhorted the early Christians who were struggling under persecution with the words, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” There are many things one could say about the unique contribution that ordination makes to the health and well being of the church. But to focus on just one it is in this representative role, living for Jesus, pointing others to him and especially through the charism of ordination to the priesthood to share him in bread and wine. Through the celebration of holy communion, we are united with Christ and with the church in every place and time: past present and future. This is an extraordinary gift, both to those who the Church discerns to have been called to it and to all of us who receive this ministry. Article 26 in the BCP even reassures us that the sin and frailty of ministers doesn’t remove the effectiveness of the sacraments they celebrate!
So, do join me in praying for those who enter into this ministry this weekend. They carry a joyful burden, but in carrying it they do not diminish the gifts of the whole people of God. It is together, with each playing their part, that we make Christ known to a broken and hurting world.