Not ‘the Revd’ — but still called to ministry

by
11 November 2016

A Reader seeks a healthy parity of esteem for lay and ordained ministries

THE principles set out by the Lay Leadership Task Group’s report are a huge encouragement to those who feel called, as I do, to licensed lay ministry (which is also known as the ministry of Readers).

The report (News, 14 October) was scheduled to be presented to the Ministry Council yesterday, and a church spokesman has commented that it asserts that “until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifts and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship and equal partners in mission, we will struggle to form Christian communities and evangelise the nation.” It also speaks of the need for “right and healthy relationships between lay and ordained”.

I was 11 years old when I first became aware that God was calling me to discipleship. I went on to become a teacher, while remaining fully involved in church life as a choir member, youth-group leader, lesson-reader, and chalice assistant. By my 30th birthday, I was regularly preparing young people for confirmation; in the years that followed, I became involved in baptism preparation, speaking to Mothers’ Union groups, and prayer ministry.

When I sensed that God was calling me to preach, I was taken aback. I assumed that this required one to be ordained as a priest, but the Church of England, at that time, did not ordain women as priests. Nevertheless, I began to prepare by embarking on theological study and exploring the deaconess ministry.

During parts of the discernment process, I felt disappointment, confusion, and rejection. I concluded that I had been knocking on the wrong door.

I discerned that God’s purpose for me was to be found in lay preaching, as a Reader — neither an ordained ministry nor a stepping stone towards it. When I affirmed, in my Admission to Office service, that I believed that God had called me to this ministry, I had no sense that this was a lesser gift or calling than ordained ministry.

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Indeed, I was filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of a ministry “in the world, but not of the world”: an ordinary person, authorised by the Church to teach, preach, and live out the gospel under canonical obedience, without the status of a clerical collar, simply looking to the Holy Spirit to use me and make my ministry fruitful.

 

WHEN ordained local ministry (OLM) arrived on the scene, more than 20 years ago, it seemed to be a path worth exploring. But, as I prayed it through, I was surprised to discover that, in my heart of hearts, I did not want to give up my identity as a lay minister, and that I would mind, intensely, ceasing to be part of the fellowship of licensed Readers, with all the deep bonds that there were between us. Yet I did make a vow to God that, if the parish ever asked me to explore ordination, I would (reluctantly) do so.

Some years later, after I had retired from work, and was present in the parish all week — taking funerals, engaging with the local community, and attending staff meetings — my priest asked me directly if I would consider ordination. Remembering my vow, I agreed. I was willing to share the load of early-morning communion services, weddings, and baptisms, as well as the other responsibilities I would have, if the Church wanted me to; and to accept it as a call from God. But my heart was not set on it.

So I entered the discernment process once again. My incumbent, and members of the congregation whom I consulted, said that I was already accepted fully as part of the parish ministry; adding a sacramental ministry would not change that.

My diocesan director of ordinands (DDO) presented ordination as a glittering prize that would give me a new identity and a new way of being — a vocation to be set apart from the rest of the world. It would change my relationships with friends, church, and parish.

But I could not, with integrity, accept this idea of a rigid separation of ordained from non-ordained disciples of Christ; of vocation to the priesthood as a higher calling than vocation to any other work within the Body of Christ. We are all fellow workers, carrying out the work he gives us to do, through the gifts and indwelling of the same Holy Spirit.

My DDO’s discernment that my calling from God was to remain lay was, I believe, right and true — although I still question the hierarchical view of ministry and discipleship which came across. While no one questions that we have different functions, for too long there have often been unhealthy attitudes (from both sides) between the lay and the ordained, which have not furthered the life or mission of the Church.

As a Reader, my calling has included being alongside ordained people as they have coped with the spiritual and practical pressures that they face, and being a role-model to enabe other lay people to visualise and enter into the many new forms of lay ministry which have come into being over my lifetime.

But I still value being seen as just an “ordinary” person — “Mrs”, not “the Revd” — who is a follower of Jesus Christ, and has let him be the centre of her life. It has not hindered my part in the Church’s mission, but has been a help.

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