I enjoyed a wonderful retreat in August, a chance to get some time to reflect and pray. I’d recommend it to anyone, it’s particularly good to stand back so you can see the wood for the trees.
One thing which occurred to me as I read a book about ministry, is that I have particular beliefs and assumptions about my role – what I think a priest is for and does. Parishes likewise have beliefs and assumptions about the role of a Vicar, formed in part by the models given them by previous clergy. And as the Church of England is a wide church, it’s quite possible that our assumptions may be different. It’s worth reflecting on what a priest is for.
The traditional Anglican English model is the priest as a religious or holy person. Someone who represents the people before God, in offering worship and prayer, and who represents the things of God to the people. The pastoral care the priest offers demonstrates the love of God, the teaching mediates His Word, visibility and presence at village events symbolises the interest of God in everyday affairs. People want to know their priest, because in doing so there is a symbolism that God knows them and cares for them.
In this model the role of lay people, such as the PCC, is clear: the lay members of the church undertake mainly practical tasks which relieve the clergy of burdens, setting them free to concentrate on the spiritual.
It’s very important to recognise that lots of people, perhaps subconsciously, hold this idea of the priest, or one similar to it. The wider community, in particular, may hold these expectations, which creates opportunities for mission and mean that unexpected doors may be open to someone in a clerical collar. So we need to respect what is good in this traditional Anglican model and work with it where possible. This model has at times been very effective, it has a strong grasp on our imagination and it is probably true that many, like me, were deeply inspired by it when they first explored ordination.
Nonetheless it has its flaws. It tends to push ‘doing God’ onto one person, perhaps relieving the rest of us of responsibility for our spiritual growth. It was a model for an era where there was one priest per village, easily accessible, and who would know every one of the three or four hundred souls on his patch. The visibility and accessibility is hard to maintain in an age of multi-parish benefices.
Perhaps most significantly though, it is not a strong model in the New Testament, nor is it the practice of the Early Church. As we heard in our reading from Ephesians Chapter 4:1-13, we are all part of the body of Christ, and Jesus has given us various gifts so that we might build up one another. So ministry is the possession of all, not just the priesthood. We share in different roles by virtue of our baptism.
What has sometimes been seen as the role of priest – representing God to the rest of the world, is actually the role of the church. Lay members of the church are at the cutting edge of God’s mission. You are out there in the world, in the workplace, school and home. You have opportunities to serve and witness that the clergy never get, and what you do and say can have an immense impact.
So what then is the role of the ordained? I see the priest as a theological resource: teaching, training, pastoring and discipling God’s people so they may be closer to him; helping discern the will of God. The priest gathers the community and leads us in worship, resourcing us by word and sacrament for the week ahead. And the priest is a collaborative leader – one who works with others to further the Kingdom of God.
This has several implications for the work of a PCC. The church exists to worship God and witness to him in the world – to know Christ and make him known. Fundamentally therefore our task is not about the preservation of the church, but God’s mission. As the governing body of the parish church, the PCC works together with the clergy to decide priorities, vision and activities for our church, and coordinates the doing of them. The PCC aims to widen ministry, not just by involving others, but by developing them.
In all of this the emphasis is on working together as a ministry team, sharing God’s work and dividing up tasks according to our respective gifts. Whatever our role, as disciples of Christ we are called to follow him, and make him known in the world.