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Election 2015: Christian comment from KLICE

The excellent Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) has a new page devoted to the 2015 (general) election.

You can read all about it in their recent KLICE Comment: Beyond Pantomime Politics: KLICE pauses for thought before May 2015.

Here’s the introduction from the page itself:

KLICE is commissioning a range of thought-provoking election pieces between January and April 2015. These will provide serious theological reflections for readers as they prepare to engage with the election issues and reflect on how to vote. Our major offering is a special series of eight Ethics in Brief on the main British political parties. These won’t advise you how to vote but may help to think more critically about your political allegiance.

Make sure you sign up for KLICE Comment for email updates.

Steel Angels: the personal qualities of a priest

Magdalen Smith: Steel AngelsThe Church of England puts people forward for ordination based on nine criteria. Those criteria form the basis for this 2014 book by Magdalen Smith, who is the new Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) for the Diocese of Chester.

Such a book could potentially be extremely dull. It could end up reading like an interminably long ‘person specification’, with essential and desirable characteristics of the successful candidate sprawled out for page after page. It could be like this or this, but only longer.

Mercifully, that is not the approach of this book. Rather than stating what the criteria are, Smith instead shows us what they look like. Vivid images, such as ‘steel angels’ (a reference to The Angel of the North) are combined with real-life anecdotes to give us an attractive portrait of the kind of person the criteria are intended to select. As such, I found the book had the effect of opening up possibilities and stimulating my imagination, rather than restricting and narrowing, as dry criteria can easily do. It makes me want to pursue ordination, rather than just giving me a huge list of reasons why I might not be suitable.

The book has the fairly standard parish priest in mind; it might not be so relevant for people serving or seeking to serve in less typical contexts.

On feeling called to be ordained

Francis Dewar: Called or Collared?The most helpful parts of Francis Dewar’s book Called or Collared? are those dealing with the idea that you must believe that you are ‘inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost’ in order to be ordained. (These words, from the Book of Common Prayer, have been removed in more recent ordination services, I’m pleased to note.)

This requirement, Dewar explains, ‘is relatively recent in the history of the Church’, not appearing ‘in church ordinals before the sixteenth century’ (p. 9). He quotes H. L. Goudge, who described it in 1938 as ‘nothing less than a disaster’:

It has probably lost to the ministry hundreds of men who might have made admirable clergy; and it tends to cause painful searchings of heart in times of depression to many rightly ordained (p. 11).

Instead, Dewar emphasises the role of the church in the process of ordination:

Remember, you do not choose yourself for the ordained ministry. Nor does it depend on your personal feelings about it. ‘You did not choose me: I chose you.’ It is Christ in his Body, the Church, who chooses you. Rest in that assurance, and know that if you are chosen, he will be with you in your heart and beside you in those who are, please God, pastors to you (p. 116).

What of the rest of the book? This kind of thing:

Blessed are those who follow the deepest law of their God-given nature (p. 89).

Most of the book is not far from saying, ‘God calls you to be true to yourself’. Now, there is undoubtedly something to be affirmed in our culture’s longing for individual authenticity. But to make that the heart of Christian spirituality, as Dewar appears to, strikes me as somewhat, well, syncretic.

Ministry in Three Dimensions

Steven Croft: Ministry in Three DimensionsI’m writing this from the Bible Belt of the Netherlands: a strip running from the south west towards the east of the country, in which there are many conservative Protestant Christians. As a result of the pillarisation of Dutch society, for well over a century, there has been a whole ‘pillar’ of society shaped by Protestant or Reformed Christian thinking. Many or most Christians send their children to Christian schools, read Christian newspapers, listen to Christian radio stations, watch Christian TV stations (or don’t watch TV at all), and vote for Christian political parties. This has allowed the church to remain strong, even in an increasingly non-Christian society, and has allowed it to continue to operate largely in what Steven Croft refers to as ‘inherited mode’ in his book, Ministry in Three Dimensions: Ordination and Leadership in the Local Church.

Steven Croft was Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham when he wrote the first edition of the book (1999). The second edition (2008) was written while he was Archbishops’ Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions. Since 2009 he has been the Bishop of Sheffield.

The ‘inherited mode’ he refers to is a legacy of Christendom. Church congregations are sustainable and largely self-perpetuating. Children are born into the church, nurtured in the faith, and remain in the church into adulthood. In the Dutch Bible Belt, or in certain towns and villages in England, the churches are large and exist comfortably as part of an existing community, in which people encounter one another outside of the church context in their day-to-day lives, and in which church involvement is an accepted part of many people’s lives. Or in many smaller, conservative churches in England, the church family forms a closely-knit alternative society to the world around, and is largely self-perpetuating in the same way. In either of these cases, the pastor or vicar can focus almost exclusively on what Croft calls the ‘presbyteral’ dimension of ministry, which is centred around the ministry of the word and sacrament.

However, in many churches, and perhaps most Church of England churches, this kind of ministry has not been sufficient. (Nor is it likely to be sufficient in many others in the years to come, except in certain ‘magnet’ churches in prominent cities.) The faithful have been growing old and dying, and the younger generations have not replaced them, either because they have fallen away, moved away, or not been born in the first place. Some churches have simply been shrinking and closing. Others have sought to reshape ordained ministry as ‘leadership’, drawing on secular models of management. Neither of those approaches is ideal, for obvious reasons.

Into this context, Croft seeks to draw on the rich biblical material on ministry and leadership. In particular, he seeks to draw on two often-neglected dimensions of ministry: diakonia (service) and episcope (oversight).

Many will be familiar with the historic threefold ordering of ordained ministry into deacons, presbyters (elders, priests) and bishops. Croft is by no means opposed to this (and sees hints of its emergence even in the New Testament), but his purpose is to see these primarily as dimensions of all ordained ministry, with the different orders reflecting a different emphasis. So, for example, the ministry of bishops will have an emphasis on episcope, but will nonetheless be shaped by diakonia, and have a strong presbyteral dimension. This reflects the New Testament usage, perhaps most strikingly in Acts 20, in which Paul speaks to the elders in Ephesus, emphasising the importance of both service (diakonia) and exercising oversight (episcope).

The book deals with each of these dimensions in turn, first diakonia, then the presbyteral dimension, then episcope. In each case, the biblical material is examined, followed by the Christian tradition, and then many practical lessons are drawn for contemporary ministry, primarily for those serving in a local church context. All of this is extraordinarily helpful. However, the final chapter, added for the second edition, hints at how the book might have taken a different shape, had a rewrite of the book been possible.

On episcope, in this final chapter, Croft now places the emphasis on the ordained ministers watching over themselves (‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock’, Acts 20:28). Other elements of episcope include enabling the ministry of others, and giving vision and unity to a church while helping it to navigate change. For this essential dimension of ministry, ‘There is much that the Church can learn from good practice developed over many years in the commercial world or in the public sector’ (p. 27). However, this wisdom should be appropriated without turning ordained ministry into a form of ‘leadership’ modelled on the surrounding culture.

In particular, and in contrast to models of leadership and management, all ordained ministry should retain the dimension of diakonia: Christian service. This is ‘the most important of the three dimensions if ministry and leadership are to be truly Christian and Christ-like’ (p. 45). This will include simple, hidden, practical acts of service, service to the community, competent and careful administration, listening to others, humility and integrity.

The final chapter of the book takes diakonia in an interesting direction. Croft draws on the work of John Collins, who ‘argues that the root meaning of [diakonia] in the New Testament is actually better understood not only as loving service but also mission or agency. A diakonos is primarily someone who is sent on behalf of someone else’ (p. 202). Croft links this closely with the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement of the past decade or so, which is not so much about sustaining existing communities, as about ‘forming new communities through contextual mission’ (p. 201). Someone whose ministry is shaped by diakonia will be a pioneer, seeking to take the gospel beyond the world of the existing congregations and into new ground.

Like the church reflected in Ephesians 4, we need our pastors and teachers (the focus of presbyteral ministry) but also our evangelists (the focus of diaconal ministry) (p. 208).

The book’s final paragraph provides a good summary:

Like the apostle [Paul in Ephesus], we too are called to these different ministries within one body of Christ: to sustain existing communities through the ministries of word and sacrament; to pioneer new communities to connect with those who are right outside the churches and to exercise oversight over the whole church, connecting the different parts together and enabling the church to be built up and God’s kingdom extended. The calling of all of the ordained is to ministry in three dimensions (p. 210).

Do you feel called by God?

Michael Bennett: Do you feel called by God?You don’t need to!

That’s the main point of Michael Bennett’s 2012 book, Do you feel called by God? (Matthias Media). From the back cover:

When Michael Bennett took the first steps towards full-time, ordained Christian ministry, he dreaded being asked whether he ‘felt called’. Because in all honesty, he didn’t.

Many years later, and after extensive biblical research, he came to the conclusion that the common idea of needing to feel a subjective call from God before entering the ministry is misguided and unbiblical.

It’s a readable, short and engaging book. The substantial part is an examination of the biblical material. He notes that, in the Old and New Testaments, people do indeed find themselves being called by God, such as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, the Twelve Apostles, Paul and Jesus himself. But the call these people receive may be described as follows:

The word of God comes directly and personally to one of God’s people, specifically directing that individual to assume a defined role or task as God’s chosen leader, representative or spokesperson (pp. 37, 48).

As such, this kind of ‘call’ is clear, undeniable, and external or objective. It hardly needs to be said that elders (presbyters) in the New Testament are not appointed on the basis that they have received a ‘call’ of this nature. Nor is their appointment described using the language of ‘call’. And, crucially, nowhere in Scripture, Old or New Testament, is there any concept of feeling called.

You do not find Isaiah, for instance, saying later that he experienced an inward spiritual impression that he should take up the prophetic role (p. 40).

So if a deep, subjective, inner sense of call is not the decisive factor, then what are the qualifications that should be required of an ordained minister?

The helpful answer comes under two headings:

  1. He must be rightly motivated for ministry (p. 122), and
  2. He must be rightly tested for ministry (p. 125).

The less helpful answer verges on denying that there is such a thing as ordained ministry.

After pointing out that all Christians are called into ministry (compare the different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13), Bennett seeks to find appropriate words to describe the kind of ministry done by pastors. It isn’t ‘full-time’ ministry, ‘as all believers are in “full-time” ministry from the moment of conversion’ (p. 115). After some struggle, the best way he can find to describe this kind of ministry is ‘career ministry’ (p. 115).

By ‘career minister’, then, we mean a person who sets aside normal means of secular employment for the sake of being more fully devoted to gospel work, and who usually is supported financially in this work by other believers (p. 116).

I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. Admittedly, it is a small book, and this isn’t a major part of it, so I shouldn’t dwell on this. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood? But I do think some comments are in order. First, ‘career ministry’ unhelpfully excludes those ‘amateurs’ and ‘part-timers’ who have a secular career but labour away at pastoral ministry in their free time. (The Apostle Paul springs to mind: see 2 Corinthians.) Second, it makes no distinction between those who are legitimately authorised for their ‘career ministry’ by a church and those who are not. There are plenty of self-appointed charlatans who exploit the generosity of other believers in order to support their ‘career ministries’. And, third, it does seem that pastors (elders, presbyters) in the New Testament are nouns as well as verbs. For comparison, Jane believes that God wants her to spend today teaching, not only because she is good at teaching, but because she is a teacher. Jim believes that God wants him to spend today practising nursing, not only because he is good at nursing, but because he is a nurse. In the same way, John believes that God wants him to spend today exercising pastoral ministry, not only because he is good at doing that kind of thing, but because he is a pastor. There is a sense in which someone is objectively appointed to pastoral ministry, beyond simply being resourced to do the work.

So what should you say if asked, for example, ‘to articulate a sense of vocation to the ordained ministry’? I suppose you could simply speak about why you want to be an ordained minister. Why does the prospect excite you? There is (or should be) no need to gaze deep into your navel, searching for some illusive inner sense of ‘feeling called’.

God with us (in the lab)

There’s a post of mine on the Faith in Scholarship blog this morning. It begins as follows…

It’s hard to predict how I will feel at the end of the Christmas break. Will I be refreshed and eager to get back to work? Or will the thought fill me with dread? Or both?

It can be especially difficult when your day-to-day work is somewhat mind numbing. Every PhD has these phases. (If yours doesn’t, I want to know your secret!) How can you go from pondering the birth of Jesus Christ one week, to spend the next week wrestling with your data, poring over arcane ancient texts, fighting with test tubes, dredging through reams of articles, or debugging your spaghetti-like code?

It all depends on how we approach Christmas. …

Read more…

On women bishops

This week (in case you missed it) the Church of England announced its first ever female bishop: Libby Lane, to serve as the (suffragan) Bishop of Stockport, in my own diocese, the Diocese of Chester.

How are we to respond to this?

On a personal level, we should certainly pray for Libby Lane, that her ministry as Bishop of Stockport will be fruitful, and that God will use her to build up his church.

But we have to face the question of whether it is right for the Church of England to have women bishops at all.

I’m not sure that it is. And by ‘not sure’, I mean precisely that: not sure! On the one hand, there do seem to be significant differences between men and women, and those differences do seem to be reflected in how God’s people have been governed, for example, with male priests in the Old Testament, with the twelve apostles all being men, and with (it seems) male elders being appointed and given a specific teaching ministry in the New Testament church. (Can all this be explained purely in terms of the cultural context?) But, on the other hand, women do seem to be given a much more prominent role in the New Testament church, and there are hints of women being among the apostles, serving as deacons, and being recognized as elders (or eldresses, at least).

For what it’s worth, some articles I am pondering at the moment are:

However, despite my uncertainty on the issue, there is one thing I am convinced about: that that Church of England ought to be broad enough to embrace that huge constituency of the worldwide church that believes either that women cannot or should not be ordained as presbyters or consecrated as bishops.

First, there are those who believe that women cannot be ordained. Can they remain in the Church of England?

Forward in Faith, as part of a commentary on the Church of England’s five guiding principles on the issue of women bishops, make an interesting distinction between the office of bishop and the order of bishop:

If the Rector of Barchester is a woman, we don’t say that the office of rector is vacant. She is the true and lawful holder of that office. She is the rector, but we cannot say that she is a priest. There is in in fact much precedent for church offices that were originally held by clergy being held by people who are not priests: there have been lay rectors — and, in cathedrals, lay canons and lay vicars.

Similarly, if the Bishop of Barchester is female, she will be the true and lawful holder of the office of diocesan bishop. We cannot say that she is a bishop in the sacramental sense (order), but as ‘holder of the office of diocesan bishop’ she will be a bishop in the other sense (office).

Second, there are those who believe that women should not be ordained. Can they remain in the Church of England?

In this case, it ought to be possible to say that, even though a certain woman is your bishop, she shouldn’t be your bishop. This is not dissimilar to having a male heretic as your bishop: he is your bishop, but he shouldn’t be. And churches have muddled through in those cases where they have found themselves with a bishop who shouldn’t be a bishop on the grounds of his theology or teaching. Shouldn’t it be similarly possible to muddle through if you believe your bishop shouldn’t be a bishop on the grounds of her being a woman?

The fourth of the five guiding principles mentioned above reads as follows:

Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.

I sincerely hope that this will prove to be the case. I would love to see the Church of England being a church in which all who sincerely love the Lord Jesus can continue to find a home.

Theological reflection: a theological reflection

1. Experience

I wrote a theological reflection. You are reading it.

2. Exploration

This seems so simple!

3. Reflection

Are there any theological reflections in Scripture?

  • Psalm 73 (NIV).
    • Experience: “I envied the arrogant” (1-3).
    • Exploration: “They have no struggles” (4-15).
    • Reflection: “I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (16-20).
    • Response: “I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (21-28).
  • 1 Samuel 28 (NIV).
    • Experience and exploration: “When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid” (3-5).
    • Reflection: “He enquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him” (6).
    • Response: “Saul then said to his attendants, ‘Find me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go and enquire of her.’” (7).

It seems that the latter is an example of a bad theological reflection!

4. Response

I like theological reflection. It is better than either (1) experience without reflection, or (2) reflection disconnected from experience. But there is such a thing as bad theological reflection. It isn’t a magic bullet.

Models of the Church

We live in an age of ecclesiastical chaos. Never before have so many wildly different kinds of churches existed side by side in the same towns and cities. And while these churches are invariably friendly towards each other, only occasionally do they think of each other as being basically on the same page. On the contrary, they generally view each other with a bemused sense of bafflement, wondering how on earth what they do week by week can in any sense be thought of as being ‘Church’.

Avery Dulles: Models of the Church Into this kind of situation a book such as Models of the Church by Avery Dulles (1918-2008) is extremely helpful. He sees the Church as ultimately being a mystery, that is, a reality ‘of which we cannot speak directly’ (p. 2). As such, rather than searching for tight definitions, we have to employ images, or analogies, or types, or models. Viewed in this way, our radically different understandings of the Church might each contain some elements of truth, and might be able to complement and sharpen each other, rather than being in direct opposition.

Dulles was an American Cardinal, theologian and Jesuit. His book was first published in 1974, then extended in 1986, and then published again in 2001, with a new appendix. It is largely written in the context of Vatican II (1962-5), but, as an ignorant Protestant, I still found it fascinating and illuminating, both for my own understanding of the Church, as well as being an enlightening glimpse into Roman Catholic thinking.

The book is built around five models of the Church (with a sixth introduced in the final chapter of the 1986 edition). I’ll deal with them in a different order, to suit a more Protestant audience.

First, then, we have Dulles’ fourth model, that of the Church as herald, which ‘sees the task of the Church primarily in terms of proclamation’ (p. 69). Following Barth,

The Church is … constituted by the word being proclaimed and faithfully heard. The Church is the congregation that is gathered together by the word (pp. 69f.).

This model has many strengths, but also several weaknesses. For example, it fails to reflect the biblical view of the Church as ‘a real, visible community existing continuously in world history’ (pp. 77f.). It also ‘focuses too exclusively on witness to the neglect of action’ and is ‘too pessimistic or quietistic with regard to the possibilities of human effort to establish a better human society in this life, and the duty of Christians to take part in this common effort’ (p. 79).

Perhaps we need to draw on Dulles’ fifth model, that of the Church as servant? While this model, in isolation, could be very weak, it does contribute some helpful insights. Evaluating the models in connection with eschatology, Dulles writes,

From the fifth model, finally, I would accept the thesis that the Church has the task of introducing the values of the Kingdom into the whole of human society, and thus of preparing the world, insofar as human effort can, for the final transformation when God will establish the new heavens and the new earth (p. 113).

The word-centred kind of Church with which I am most familiar would typically stress that the proclaimed word should give rise to a loving community, which fits closely with Dulles’ second model, that of the Church as mystical communion. This reflects the biblical images of the Church as the People of God, or as the Body of Christ, both of which ‘emphasize the immediate relationship of all believers to the Holy Spirit, who directs the whole Church’ (p. 45).

But again, this mystical, invisible understanding of the Church fails to do justice to its visible elements, such as its sacraments and structures of leadership.

Dulles’ first model of the Church as institution, sounds very much like the Roman Catholic model, from the perspective of an outsider. But, interestingly, it ‘has been displaced from the center of Catholic theology since about 1940’ (p. 21), and faces sharp criticism in the book. But it does have some strengths.

It is imperative for the members of the Church to be able to find the continued presence of Christ in the Church as a visible society. The institutional model has the great merit of giving due emphasis to the Church’s ministry of perpetuating the work of Christ as Teacher, Savior, and Ruler (p. 196).

The third model, the Church as sacrament, attempts to use sacramental theology to combine the visible and invisible aspects of the Church, highlighted by the first and second models, respectively. The Church, however imperfectly, is an effective sign of Christ’s presence.

Dulles initially singled out the sacramental model as the most promising starting-point for building a well-rounded view of the Church. But in the second edition he introduced a sixth model, that of the Church as community of disciples. This image relates well to the other five: the visible community of disciples was instituted by Christ, exists as a community, symbolises and embodies Christ, proclaims the gospel, and continues his work in the world.

Dulles book ‘[does] not constitute a rounded systematic ecclesiology’ (p. 195). But the vivid images developed in the book perhaps provide a constructive way of embarking on that task. They are certainly very useful as we seek to understand and relate to other parts of the Body of Christ.

The Provocative Church

Graham Tomlin: The Provocative ChurchA quick post, to remind you that I’m still here, and to draw your attention to an excellent little book about evangelism and the Church, The Provocative Church, by Graham Tomlin. I’m amazed that I haven’t had this book thrust at me constantly over the past 12 years since it was first published, as it really is a gem. It’s now in its fourth edition (2014), though I’ve just read the second edition (2004).

Anyway, enough from me. Here’s what it says on the back cover:

Sometimes Christians assume that people ‘out there’ are eager to listen to what the Church has to offer. But why should those we try to evangelize want to hear the gospel? Surely people will only be intrigued by Christian life and community when they see something provocative or attractive. Then they will want to know what’s going on.

The Provocative Church offers a liberating understanding of evangelism as a corporate activity, in which all the gifts needed to enact the life of the kingdom – to stir people into asking, ‘What does this mean?’ – are spread throughout the whole Church. It encourages the development of a theology of conversion that sees beyond ‘becoming a Christian’ to bring each individual life increasingly under the rule of God.