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Clerical conundrum

12 February 2016

BENEATH the latest reforms in the encouragement, selection, and training of new priests lies an unasked question: what are the clergy for? In the Common Worship Ordinal, the bishop’s introduction to the ordinands is comprehensive and poetical, and thus imprecise. They are to be “servants and shepherds” (neither occupation is much experienced today); they are to “watch for the signs of God’s new creation”, and “be messengers, watchmen, and stewards” (ditto) of the Lord. We welcome the poetry — this is the bishop’s charge, after all, and not a job description. But, unhelpfully for our purposes, the ordinal makes no distinction between priestly and lay pursuits. Thus: “They are to baptize new disciples” (priestly — but also deaconly), and “declare the mighty acts of God” (everyone); “preside at the Lord’s table (priestly), and “resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor” (everyone). Despite the declining numbers, it is perhaps the sign of an over-clericalised Church that the report Renewal and Reform: Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) asks this question the wrong way round, stating: “. . . the development of a shared understanding about the place and contribution of lay people requires more focused work.”

The C of E appears to be entering a phase when the place and contribution of the clergy is so varied as to be unclear. Responsibility for training priests, and, more particularly, the money to do it, is being passed to the dioceses. As the RME report states, dioceses differ greatly in what they want from ordinands, seeking “different qualities in those who will be serving now and into the 2030s”. One of the RME five principles (essentially a shopping list) that next week’s General Synod will be asked to approve is a plan to recruit a cohort of candidates for ministry who are “more diverse and with a wider range of gifts to serve God’s mission”. As a consequence, the priests in one diocese might well be trained in a different way to others. The principals of the theological colleges, writing this week (Letters to the Editor) express a concern that, given control of the training budget, some dioceses will choose to avoid the more expensive residential option, and thus deprive some of their candidates from the training that suits them best.

One basic assumption about the clergy is that their ministry is underpinned by an active and thoughtful relationship with God. This is where theology fits in. But not every priest is a great thinker, and not every great thinker in parish ministry has time to reflect on the latest developments in theology. One result of the widening in ministerial models is that responsibility for theological understanding might pass more fully to lay people. Another excerpt from the Ordinal: “They are to unfold the scriptures.” Once again, this is applicable to everyone.

It is for this reason that we begin our new theology series this week. Contemplating the nature of God, and God’s purposes in the world, is a task for all Christians, one that has been neglected too often and for too long, to the detriment of the Church and its mission. We hope that our series will trigger a renewed spirit of intellectual inquiry — and a greater knowledge and love of God — among our readers.

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