“And after they had appointed elders for them in each church . . .” Acts 14:23
Which of us is a minister? If we turned to the pages of Scripture, we might get a surprise, every single one of us has been given a gift to use in the life of the church. In the Letter to the Romans Chapter 12 Verses 6-8, Saint Paul puts it like this, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” We would be very strange Christians if we denied having any of those gifts; if we denied even that we could be generous or that we could be compassionate, then what sort of example would we have learned from Jesus?
If we read the New Testament, we see the way in which ministry developed. The Greek word for disciple was “mathetes”, it meant a “learner”. A disciple was someone going through a process of learning. In Saint Matthew Chapter 10 Verses 7-8, we read of the tasks that Jesus gave those first learners, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” The first ministries that Jesus gives to his followers are simple, preaching and teaching the good news and healing those who suffered in any way. Sometimes we might wonder if Jesus would not question the way that ministry has unfolded.
As the church grew, the number of disciples, the number of those learning the faith grew, and the pressure on the church leadership grew. In Acts Chapter 6, we read that widows who were not from a Jewish background claimed they were being neglected and we read of how ministry began to be divided, Verses 2-4 tell us, “And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.'” There was recognition that different people had different gifts, the seven were going to deal with administration while the Twelve continued their ministry of prayer and preaching.
By the time of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, the church has developed titles for particular ministries. In Chapter 1 Verse 1, Paul writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” If we read the First Letter to Timothy Chapter 3, we read of the qualifications required of the bishops and deacons. There might have been particular people with particular roles, but ministry was still the work of the whole church. When he writes to the church of Philippi, Paul is mindful of the ministry of all of that church, he says to them that he is thankful, “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Sharing in the good news was something that was the task of every member. As we look back on the church in those times, can we say that Saint Paul would look at us and say he was thankful for the ways in which we shared in the gospel?
In the centuries that followed, the church lost sight of the fact that every member has a ministry. In the early church, every member’s calling, every member’s vocation was valued equally, but by the time of the medieval church, the idea of having a calling, of having vocation became very specialized. A vocation was about a calling to ordained as a priest or about a calling to pursue a religious life in a monastery or a convent. Ministry became focused upon a small group of people; the person responsible for the ministry in the local church was the ordained person. Worship was about what one person did, the parish was centred upon one person.
When the Reformation came in the Sixteenth Century, it was meant to reform the church along biblical lines, to recover the idea of everyone having a calling, to have a church where everyone’s calling was treated equally. The church itself ensured such a thing would not happen, clergy were not going to cede power and privilege, and, for some, prosperity, in the pursuit of a church that would have been recognized by the first disciples. Except for small radical Protestant groups, ministry remained mostly the preserve of clergy.
It has taken us centuries to gradually shift back to an understanding of ministry as something that is responsibility of all. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Church of Ireland began to produce reports on how we might move to ministry as something for the whole church; there hasn’t been much progress.
The Church of Ireland constitution entrusts the material things of church life to those who are not ordained. Finances, at parish, diocesan and national level are under lay management. Church buildings are the responsibility of the people of the parish; the care of church property is the task of various committees where lay people play leading roles. We have constructed a church where most of what is shared is about the organisation; much of the role of lay people differs little from the work of secular organisations.
When we look at the ministry of the Twelve, the ministry of preaching and teaching is something that has been shared, but it has been shared with those who have been licensed as lay readers by the church. The idea that anyone might stand up from the congregation and read the Scriptures and then speak, as Jesus did in the synagogue, is something that our church would not countenance; the nearest thing we accept is lay people leading the prayers. Lay people may be trusted with the music, which is a significant element of our worship, but not with the words.
If the ministry of the whole church in preaching and teaching is limited, the ministry of the whole church in pastoral acre is minimal; partly due to the conservatism of church leadership, but more due to the feeling among those receiving pastoral care that the ministry of an ordained person is what really matters.
The ideal remains for most Church of Ireland parishes remains having a stipendiary rector who will conduct the services and provide pastoral care for the parish. It was a way of doing things that maintained the church for decades, but now no longer works in the way that it did.
We have to ask what is going to happen in the future? Who will do the work of the church? We have fewer clergy, fewer people, and fewer resources, and we have to ask what God is saying to us. I think he is saying that we must recapture the ways of the early church. I think he is saying that we need not more clergy, but stronger local leadership. I think he is saying that we need to look at ordained local ministry and how it might strengthen our witness in the communities where our churches are present. I think he is saying we must look at pastoral care by the whole church, as happens in Africa where the church is vibrant and growing. I am confident about the future, because it is God’s church.
Who does the work of the church? All of us, you and me, each and every one of us.