Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Ministers of the Church

Who are the Ministers of the Church?

That’s how the June 5 essay “The Ministers of the Church Are…” by Bishop Pierre W. Whalon begins. The question, as you may know, is from the Catechism in our prayer book (p. 855). And the answer given there is
The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Whalon, a former Pittsburgher who is now bishop in charge of the convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and a frequent contributor to Anglicans Online, goes on to give his take on the proper roles of both laypeople and clergy.

Again quoting the Catechism, Whalon gives the official church postion on the ministry of the laity:
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.
From this point of view—the correct one I think, St. Paul’s is correct in heading the staff listing in its weekly bulletin with
Ministers, The Entire Congregation.
What then are clergy all about if they are not the primary ministers of the Church?

To answer this question, Bishop Whalon eschews the specific laundry lists of duties in the Catechism for more abstract analysis. Using a corporate metaphor, he speaks of the laity as delivering the “goods and services” of the Church. He describes this as the “creative edge” of the organization, which has to be managed if it is to retain its effectiveness. “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.” But, he warns, there is a danger. “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.”

Bishop Whalon sums up the task of the clergy this way: “The ordained ministry, of which episcopacy is the taproot, exists to serve the needs of the Church’s ministers.” Put another way, the job of the clergy is to empower the laity for ministry.

Application to St. Paul’s

Bishop Whalon’s essay led me to ask the question whether I thought St. Paul’s was equipping me (and other parishioners) for ministry. In some ways, it is. Lou’s series on homosexuality shortly after he came to St. Paul’s and the lay-led (but poorly attended) Saturday Bible Study come to mind. The Education for Ministry (EFM) program, which was recruiting students last Sunday, surely qualifies as a mechanism to empower lay ministry. (It, too, is lay-led.)

On the other hand, most people experience St. Paul’s most of the time in worship. The Eucharist surely provides “food for the journey,” as Father John is wont to say, but what about preaching? The sermon offers the most direct mechanism for providing support for mission. Unfortunately, our Episcopal tradition seems to downplay the importance of preaching, and St. Paul’s is well in line with that unfortunate tendency.

I cannot speak knowledgeably for other services, but I don’t generally feel empowered to carry out my mission as a Christian from listening to sermons at the 10:30 service. On Pentecost, for example, the emphasis was on our 175th anniversary and on being a welcoming congregation. Surely hospitality is part of ministry, but putting bodies in the pews is a narrow institutional view of the mission of the Church. As a worshiping Christian, I an looking for insights into how I should be living out the 167 hours allotted to me each week that I spend outside of church.

I am not suggesting that we need more preaching on doctrine to tell us what we should believe. Converts are seldom attracted by dogma. Instead, Christians are won primarily through how we live our lives and by what we stand for. “Christian” has come to be identified with tolerance for corporate corruption, education that teaches what is demonstrably false, limitations on speech and action, and taxing the poor to support the rich. In such an environment, what would Jesus have his followers do? Isn’t this the sort of question for which sermons should propose answers?

Of course, well-prepared ministers also need to know about the Bible and the Church. How many parishioners know that, for example, Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him, that the Bible contains many irreconcilable contradictions, and that there are other gospel books that were not accepted into the Christian canon? How many parishioners know that the doctrine of the Trinity is not set out in the Bible, that Christianity was more diverse in its first three centuries than it is now, or that the Church showed little interest in marriage for a thousand years, except possibly to discourage it?

I was perplexed on Sunday when Lou cited the two stories about the gift of the Holy Spirit and suggested that we could simply choose between them. A teachable moment passed, and some worshipers surely left the church confused over two stories that seemingly could not both be “true.” Those folks were not empowered for ministry.

I suspect that being “welcoming” at St. Paul’s includes avoiding giving offense to anyone. Sometimes, Christianity offers clear answers, but, sometimes, sincere Christians come to very different conclusions. (The abortion issue comes to mind.) Avoiding controversy, however, whether involving societal issues or theological ones, is not a means of empowering the laity for mission. A church that offers refuge from the world is avoiding mission, not facilitating it. We are in danger of being the lukewarm church of Laodocia spoken of in Revelation 3.

Parishioners should demand more challenging preaching at St. Paul’s. If worshipers leave the church arguing among themselves about what has been said, we will be showing signs of success in creating excitement about being Christian in a broken world.

No comments: