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an essay for Anglicans Online
5 June 2011

The Ministers of the Church Are . . .
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Question: Who are the ministers of the Church?
Answer: The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. (BCP 855)

I remember well my theology professor at Virginia Seminary, Marianne Micks, recounting that, when the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was being written, she had made sure of the wording of this question in the Outline of the Faith: lay persons first, then the clergy.

“Mixie”, as she was universally addressed, was a lay theologian whose books are still very much worth reading. She was proud that she did not need ordination to be a professional theologian. Consequently she was particularly concerned that her seminarians studying for Holy Orders get the point: the first Order of ministry is the laity.

It is fashionable these days to speak of “the ministry of all the baptized.” Who are these? If the phrase means the whole Church serving God’s mission in the world, well and good. Holy Orders is not at all about being ministers, as opposed to the rest of us. Baptism is the beginning of each one’s call to ministry, equipped as we are by the Holy Spirit with particular gifts to accomplish a unique task in God’s great ongoing transformation of the creation.

I do not know whether Mixie wrote the next Q & A, but it sounds like her:

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.

Aside from the last phrase, the work of the laity is in fact the work of the Church in the world. This is the most important aspect of the ministry of lay persons: they, not the clergy, are the Church’s agents, God’s representatives to the world (I Pet. 3:15), the ambassadors of Christ and ministers of reconciliation (II Cor. 5: 17-21), gifted by the Spirit for service to the Triune God.

Of course, the clergy are also baptized, and participate in this work. So what are we good for?

In fact, the question seems to be framed quite pointedly, these days. We could answer, following the next lines of the catechism, what bishops, priests, and deacons are supposed to do. What is not stated is why. Aristotle famously wrote that “to understand the whatness of a thing is the same thing as to understand the why of it.”

A small fraction
First, the word “clergy” has its origins in the Latin word for “fraction.” We clergy are a small fraction of the Church, set aside for a specific reason. That has to do with the fact that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” but he hasn’t done the latter yet. The reason we have the New Testament, the sacraments, the creeds, and the office of bishop is that the first Christians had to face up to the task of keeping the Jesus movement going as the first disciples began to die. As Charles Williams pointed out, the Church needs to re-invent itself every thirty years.

In other words, the first disciples of Jesus had to form an institution. In our age, we are heirs of institutions that are governmental, educational, military, economic, social, ecclesiastical, among others. These are instruments of common life that demand that we participate in them and submit to their regulations. It is commonplace to rail against them. How often we hear people talking about church by saying, “I don’t believe in organized religion”! (It would be rude to ask whether they consequently believe in disorganized religion...) All the other inherited institutions are under fire these days, as well. All of us seem to share a basic sense of disillusionment with them.

There is a classic cycle of any organization’s life, from a business to a club to a sports team to a government to a church. What makes for the flourishing of the organization is the goods and services it provides to a receptive audience, its creative edge. Providing these requires maintaining and improving the creative edge, as time passes. There is certainly no getting away from the fact that all organizations need managing if they are to have any chance of continuing to survive. The tendency however is to take more and more available resources away from the creative edge to the managing of it. Moreover, the law of diminishing returns strongly influences decision-making. After a while, the corporation, club, team, government, church, starts to find its creative edge is no longer working as well. “More and better management!” the cry goes up. This only accentuates the problem, and the organization falters. “Who’s to blame?” is the next cry to go up, initiating even further decline. Insofar as the churches have allowed their focus to move from investing in the creative edge, the ministry of the laity, to the management of an institution, i.e., the clergy, they have set themselves up for failure.

Does this sound familiar to Episcopalians?

To get out of this death spiral, there is only one solution: do whatever it takes to get back to the creative edge. In terms of the Church, this means re-emphasizing the truth that the laity do the work of the Church, and putting us to it. So we must fix the problem of clericalism — the triumph of management over production, if you will. But as we consider how to do that, we first need to understand why we have clergy at all.

A theology of the fraction
There is only one reason: you cannot stay on the creative edge without some management. Thus we read in Ephesians 4: 11-12, “Christ gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for ministry.” In other words, God is involved in the institutionalization of the Jesus movement. The Spirit gifts each of us for the upbuilding of the whole Church, participating in God’s mission over time for the life of the world. Most of us are called to minister to the world, in the world. Some small fraction of the whole is called to serve the needs of the ministers of the Church, so that they can be well-equipped for their work.

Another way of understanding clericalism is that it is the confusion of the fraction for the whole, turning upside down the hierarchy of the Reign of God. Some people recoil at the word “hierarchy”, because of clericalism, but hierarchy is natural, as the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman liked to point out. What is unnatural, that is, contrary to the will of God, is that we put the point of the pyramid at the top, instead of the bottom.

This is after all the way of the world. But as Jesus told his first disciples, “it shall not be so among you.” The passage comes after the request of two of the disciples to be recognized as greater than the others. “Jesus summoned them and said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10: 42-45, parallels)

Here is the antidote to clericalism. Of course, we constantly slip back into pyramid-style, “who’s on top?” thinking. Even after Jesus’ lessons and example, the disciples continued to argue over who was greatest — right up to the Last Supper (Luke 22:24).

In the Church’s relationship to the Risen Christ, it is not a democracy. We promise in Baptism to obey Jesus as Lord, after all. Priests and deacons promise to obey their bishops, and bishops promise to be, in effect, the servants of all. For if the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, can any of us pretend to be exempted from serving?

The recovery of the Order of the Laity as the primary ministers of the Church has already borne some fruit. We have finally and, I hope, forever done away with the idea that a bishop is a Prince of the Church, a prelate endued with power, arbitrarily exercised. A lot of animus against bishops is due, I think, to those excesses. Along the same lines, I think we have rubbished the practice of referring to the parish priest as “the minister” of the church. On the other hand, we are still working out what a deacon is, having only recently revived that Order.

How we developed the threefold ministry of deacon, priest, and bishop is a long story. It took well over a century after the Resurrection for the institutional features we name in the Lambeth Quadrilateral as essential to being church (Scripture, sacraments, creeds, episcopate) to develop into a form we can begin to recognize. In the explosion of the western Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christians tried other forms of church which have come down to our day. The instinct of the first Anglicans was to recognize that these had historical reasons and not try to “unchurch” them — an instinct we should continue to nurture.

But we should also see that these experiments were reactions to clericalism, that were attempted in order to get back to the creative edge of the ministry of the laity. And that none has worked better, in the long run, than those they replaced. Would-be reformers, take note.

So why deacons, priest and bishops, in particular? I have already mentioned Mixie’s lessons. They dovetailed well with the teaching of Charles Price, another Virginia Seminary professor at whose feet I was blessed to sit.

He taught us a scheme that continues to make a great deal of sense, at least to me. Every Christian is called to recapitulate the story of salvation in his or her own life and work. Taking the first couple, Adam and Eve, Jesus the new Adam, and the four Orders of the Church, Charlie pointed out that Adam served (literal translation of “tilled”) the soil of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Christ served the creation by redeeming it. He served our greatest need in doing so, and enjoined his disciples to follow him in serving. The ministry of the Deacon (Greek for “servant”) exists to enable the rest of the people of God to be good servants, and to embody that aspect of Christ to the rest of us (starting with bishops, I like to say).

Adam and Eve were the original mediators between God and Creation. They failed to do it well. Jesus the new Adam became through his death our Great High Priest (Hebrews), the last Prophet, and the Great Teacher. Acting as go-between for God and the Creation is the “royal priesthood” that we share (I Peter 2). We ordain Priests to enable the rest of us to realize this priesthood together, to help us to be prophets to the world and teach all that Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28). Like the Deacon, the Priest embodies these aspects of our common baptismal identity to stimulate them in the rest of us.

Adam and Eve were given “dominion” over the Creation. This means they were created to be stewards of it for God, not lording it over the Earth but tending it, pastoring it, if you will. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. We his disciples have by delegation and mandate the authority to exercise his continuing ministry on earth, baptizing, forgiving sins, blessing the Creation by binding up its wounds, and addressing the human race as ambassadors of Christ. The Bishop is supposed to enable the rest of us to claim and exercise that identity and that authority — revealed most clearly in the powerlessness of the Crucified — and to embody it. This happens first in the liturgy, which the Bishop presides with the priests, deacons, communion ministers, acolytes, musicians, readers and people. But the Bishop is also pastor and teacher, as well as evangelist, not to replace anyone, but to stimulate these in the whole of the local church, the diocese, and beyond.

All the baptized share in apostleship, priesthood, prophecy, instructing, serving, and so much more: the whole of the work of pastoring the Creation as God’s shepherds. Since the beginning of the Church, these aspects of the ministry of Jesus Christ have been embodied by individuals, but only partially. We are each a fraction of the whole. Each of us is a member, a limb or organ, of the Body of Christ. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote, “he or she is a New Creation.” The Church as a whole is designed to share in the mission of God in creation, its transformation into a New Creation.

As Craig van Gelder says in his book, The Essence of the Church, “it is not that the Church has a mission from God, it is that God’s mission has a Church.” The ministry of all the baptized is to participate in God’s mission, the Spirit’s work of creating a New Creation out of the Old. Baptism enables us to be part of that work, and we are to embody the Christ-character that Baptism gives us in carrying it out. The first means for developing that Christ-character is regular worship of the Triune God through participation in the Holy Eucharist, other sacraments as needed, and other services of the Word. And that is a matter for the whole people of God, lay and clergy.

Re-gaining our edge
In order to get back to this creative edge, indeed, to grow stronger and be more deeply rooted in it, we need to keep the hierarchy of the Church as it should be, with the pyramid’s tip firmly stuck in the ground. As Episcopalians, we have developed a polity that is designed to do that, by allowing the laity “to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” We do not need to invent something new, yet again. We need rather to re-commit to our way of governance, splitting responsibilities between lay and ordained at the local level, the regional level, and the international level. Our leaders, both lay and ordained, need to constantly reminded that we must seek first the will of Christ in our way of decision-making. If we complain that our vote in secular democracy is devalued, then the remedy is to begin to exercise it correctly in church. Our politics need to reflect our baptismal identity, not the tendency to factions that is the mark of the Old Way Of Doing Things. “It shall not be so among you…”

We have to have proper respect for the people that we have identified as called and empowered to embody certain aspects of our common identity so as to enable us to integrate them with grace and power into our individual ministries (Hebrews 13:17). Holy Orders is holy because it is God’s doing, an outside and visible sign of the grace given for the exercise of that Order. “Proper respect” means therefore not kowtowing to the clergy, but rather focusing on what God is doing through them to equip the rest of us for our ministries in God’s mission. This requires that the clergy also focus on that work, and they need reminding of it, as well.

Concerning us bishops, we need to remember that being servant to all is not just some slogan to be bandied about or twisted around. We have the ministry of the promotion of the faith and guarding of our unity: the Church is Holy, Catholic and Apostolic because the Church is first of all One. We are to embody and enable the Church to be one with the first disciples, and one with the Church around the world. The diocese we lead does not exist to serve its own institutional needs, nor our own. The ordained ministry, of which episcopacy is the taproot, exists to serve the needs of the Church’s ministers. The diocese therefore exists to meet the needs of its congregations that they cannot meet for themselves. Those needs are several, but they begin with unity.

Questions, questions, questions . . .
As we in the Convocation of Churches in Europe have worked to develop ourselves into a diocese, we have had to confront some basic challenges. Why a diocese? What is it good for? What follows is distilled from our ongoing experience.

If each diocese exists to serve the needs of its congregations that they cannot meet for themselves, what do we need to change in order to get back to that creative edge? First of all, there are several questions to ask and answer. Do we as the diocese think of ourselves and act as if we are the local church in our place and time? Do we foster unity in the diversity of our congregations? Are their other needs being met, for instance, means of forming their members to be “faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord,” “equipping the saints for ministry”? Are they being routinely challenged to look beyond themselves, to be salt and light to their neighborhoods, their communities, and “away to the ends of the earth”? Do they have adequate guidelines to tackle issues of local importance? Are they able easily to connect with the Church at the international level (The Episcopal Church) and the global level (the Anglican Communion)? Are they being encouraged to develop interfaith relations? Are new congregations being launched? Are clergy being raised up and formed to be able to serve the congregations’ needs, especially in a time of serious transitions and financial challenges? Is the corps of clergy encouraged and strengthened to persevere in faithful service to the laity?

Is the diocese adequate to these tasks? What needs to change, and what needs to stay the same? The same questions apply to the “national church,” the misnomer for the General Convention, Executive Council and the office of the Presiding Bishop. Are the needs of the dioceses that they cannot meet for themselves being met? Are bishops being raised up and formed for the work of “sharing in the leadership of the Church throughout the world”? Does the House of Bishops foster unity among its members —unity of purpose, not conformity of mind?

Do we clearly understand the division of labor between lay persons and clergy in our polity? Are we applying it effectively in terms of our participation in God’s mission, at every level of the church? Does the General Convention need to meet every three years? Is the number of Deputies too large?

Another question is whether we need so many bishops. Of the approximately 850 active Anglican bishops throughout the world serving some 80 million faithful, 150 serve the Episcopal Church. Do we need so many bishops, including (gulp!) me? The same question applies to the dioceses. Do we need 110?

The General Convention has dramatically cut its budget since 2009. How has that affected meeting the needs of the dioceses?

And when Episcopalians elect bishops, we need to use our conventions — which are actually synods of the local church — to try to seek out God’s will, as we should at every meeting at every level of governance. To vote for the best-looking candidate or the one who will make my faction happy or the one who will not challenge us is exactly what we should not do. Who can really be servant of all? Only One does that perfectly. The rest of us just try to follow, carrying our own cross that is our individual calling. So when we choose a bishop, we should choose the one who is most likely, so far as we can tell, to be called by God to be the best servant of our unity.

And the one who is most likely to keep us focused on the creative edge, the ministry of the laity in the world but not of it, bearing Christ to the four corners of the earth, and around the corner. The same approach needs to guide the bishops and standing committees as they consider consenting to elections. The canons are clear that this responsibility is not merely about validating that an episcopal election was conducted freely and fairly, though that is one question. (See Canon III.11.4(b). The procedure for challenging the validity of an election is set forth in III.11.9)

We need to try new approaches to old challenges. There are certainly pressing questions about financial and structural changes that need to be faced in these difficult times. As we strive to stay on the creative edge in our own time, some words of Evelyn Underhill, that great teacher and mystic, seem particularly apt:

The reality of the Church does not abide in us: it is not a spiritual Rotary Club. Its reality abides in the one God, the Ever-living One whose triune Spirit fills it by filling each one of its members. We build up the Church best, not by a mere overhaul of the fabric and furniture, desirable as this may sometimes be, but by opening ourselves more and more with an entire and humble generosity to that Spirit — God — Who is among us as One that serves and reaches out through His Church to the souls of [all people].[1]

Out on the edge, where the Spirit is, we shall see with our own eyes the marvels of the Reign of God breaking into this old world, as God “carries out in tranquility the plan of salvation.”

And all of us shall see it together as one, lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

[1] In An Anthology of the Love of God (Wilton, CT, 1976: Mowbray & Co.), p. 82

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. He welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at