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Looking back on 20 years of OLM

28 September 2012

Prophetic essays, says Robin Greenwood

Ordained Local Ministry in the Church of England
Andrew Bowden, Leslie J. Francis, Elizabeth Jordan, and Oliver Simon, editors
Continuum £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT231 )

VERY clearly, this book states that its aim is a calm assessment of available evidence on the Church of England's experiment, lasting more than two decades, in ordained local ministry (OLM). The contributors to this report represent the key perspectives of the diocese, the parish, Academia, and the epis­copate, and claim a high measure of agreement among themselves on the issues.

This particular and limited topic is rightly set on the wider canvas of questions about the nature of the Church and the history of the local-ministry movement. This is com­plemented by exploring the context-specific narratives of local-ministry development in the Scottish Epis­copal Church, and in the diocese of Northern Michigan. There are also discussions of local collab­orative ministry as practised in Gloucester, Lichfield, and Lincoln dioceses, seasoned pioneers. Chap­ters on empirical research and ministry formation are followed by an episcopal perspective and, lastly, a brief, prophetic look to the future.

Succinctly, we are offered a por­trait of the sheer effort and organ­isa­tion by so many responsible for the OLM vision and schemes, and the discerning and formation of ordinands. I imagine, though, that few reflective practitioners will be looking merely for a chronicle of OLM. More critically than ever, mainstream Churches face the end of a ministry paradigm based on dependency on stipendiary clergy and a largely passive and in­articulate laity. History and observation need to be at the ser-vice of prophetic imagination. To what future journey is God calling the Churches now? In that light, what has this collection of essays to offer?

Graham James's emphasis on provocation, of the individual and the Church, is a central pillar of the book. Among the things that will  resonate with many is his recog­ni­tion of OLM's potential to reshape the theology of the corporate calling of the people of God as witnesses and disciples. But they will respond: "If only . . . "

The deeply earthed experience of Andrew Bowden is shown in his frustration when the Catholicity of the Church is fractured by succes­sive incumbents' deconstructing the intricate negotiations and work of previous years. His experience re-emphasises the absolutely vital link between the flourishing of OLM and collaboration between bishop, diocese, and local church(es). A recurrent question is: "if the case is generally accepted scripturally, theologically and pragmatically for a church char­ac-ter­ized by mutuality, what is hold­ing us back from embracing a thoroughly collaborative practice of ministry"?

Frequently, the writers em-phasise the importance of diocesan owner­ship, as opposed to mild tolerance. This is apparent in the accounts of individuals: for ex­ample, "Betty's Story", which high­lights a dissonance between the institutional and the often fragile and isolated journey of one called locally to priesthood.

If what Leslie Francis names as "this radical innovation in Anglican ecclesiology" has been more than a passing experiment, what are the benefits for the whole Church? Elizabeth Jordan demonstrates how the OLM, as local missionary-theologian, could contribute to the long-neglected development of congregations in spirituality, faith, ministry gifts, and leadership. She also lends weight to the argu­ment for dioceses and training institutions to develop further the intentional formation of the laity.

Oliver Simon's inevitably brief theological overview adds rigour to the enterprise. I hope that this will encourage others to continue to explore the realities of church life in the context of wrestling with God and God's desire for the world. The core values of local ministry, dis­tilled from the work of core prac­titioners, are sufficient reason to welcome this review. The reported disillusionment of many who feel let down by dioceses means that it is imperative for dioceses to revisit critically their vision and practice.

Things that I missed were an emphasis on the Holy Spirit's draw­ing disciples to God and leading the Church always into new truth. A Spirit-led understand­ng of the Trinity adds to earlier Trinitarian reimagining of the mutual and liberating nature of the Church.

The Spirit is often palpably present at local-ministry gatherings, and has also been the energy for a much wider and more intense inter­national dimension to local ministry than is evident here. So I would have looked for a greater intercultural dimension to the bibliography, and the inclusion of feminist writers.

I would commend this for study by all taking part in the continuing urgent conversation on the future of the Church of England.

Canon Robin Greenwood is the Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Monkseaton. His recent book, with Sue Hart, is Being God's People (SPCK, 2011).

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