Thursday, 20 February 2014


‘It would be a grave mistake for us [Twelve] to neglect the word of God in order to wait at table. Therefore, friends, look out … men full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and we will appoint them to deal with these matters.’ Acts ch 6 vv2,3 I think it’s fair to say that the general public see clergy as performing four main roles: promoting supposedly comforting but actually unbelievable doctrines, maintaining old buildings, re-enacting picturesque ceremonies and being informal community workers. Church folk might reframe those same activities as maintaining the doctrinal and physical foundations that have shaped our culture, and serving the unseen God and working to create his Kingdom on earth. Clergy certainly perform the activities thus variously described, and in doing so they may make at least as useful a contribution as many other professionals in society. But as with most professions there is a purpose, a logic, to ministry that may not always be obvious to on-lookers. Ministers have to know what they are trying to do and understand the assumptions on which they operate, not just carry out the visible activities associated with ministry. First, ministry helps people find the strength and will to face challenging situations in their lives – failure for example, or bereavement, betrayal, serious disappointment, or impending death. The minister assumes that the resources we need to deal with these situations are available to us, but because we sometimes find it hard to access them we need support and help in doing that. Second, the minister helps people learn to love, to appreciate and respond with love to the real people behind the facades that it takes no effort to see. The minister begins with the assumption that every human being is capable of love, and that this capacity can be activated by feeling loved. Third, and perhaps even less obviously, ministry serves truth, even if truth is something that we can perceive only in a shadowy and ever-changing way. The assumption here is that people can be better and happier to the extent that they grasp truth – truth about themselves, about society, about everything. The faith that mysterious resources, love and truth have this central role in human life is at the heart of ministry; it is probably the most important thing we can mean by saying that someone ‘believes in God’. Insofar as someone is exercising ministry, their actions and words must relate to one or more of these three activities. I have no quarrel with anyone being interested in ancient buildings or music or ritual or doctrines, or getting involved in politics or business or art or sport, though it might take a bit of effort to convince me that such activities are part of ministry. But I am persuadable, because I recognise that helping people to access spiritual resources, to feel loved and to value truth are not things that can be done straightforwardly. There is rarely a one-to-one connection between action and result in any complex field of human activity, certainly not in ministry; that may be one of the lessons of the Parable of the Sower. But at least the sower knew what he was trying to do, as ministers need to know what they are trying to achieve through their ministerial activities. And no doubt the sower tried to evaluate his sowing technique in the light of his success in raising a crop. In real life, ministers – ordained or not – don’t always find it congenial or easy to evaluate their success in terms of the three ministerial objectives. This is especially true if those who support them financially are measuring their performance in terms of their success in the visible activities – bringing in the numbers, maintaining old traditions, and so on. If ministry – real ministry – is better served by abandoning the lovely old buildings, the gorgeous finery, and the other accoutrements of religion, abandoned they must be, or at the very least be relegated to hobby status. Notice the ‘if’ there, but don’t let it fool you. Pleasing the folk who go to church is not the way to judge ministry. It’s how ministry impacts on individuals in the wider community that matters to any religious outfit that wants to be more than a sect, a hobby-church. It’s therefore what the wider community makes of the religious accoutrements that really matters, not whether church-goers like them or not. After all, it is entirely possible that church folk are exactly the group that has become most attached to the accoutrements of religion, because they are the ones who attend services week by week. None of that is to downplay the importance of some traditional tools in the minister’s tool-bag; indeed the ability to use those tools effectively in achieving the objectives of ministry is what defines the minister. Rituals and sacraments, prayers and preaching are the main tools, but in every situation they have to be used appropriately and honestly, and sometimes creatively too. It’s no good performing traditional ceremonies just because we always have, or peddling traditional ideas that have had their day. That is why, strictly speaking, there is a distinction between the minister and the priest. The minister may use traditional forms to help people lead richer, fuller, happier lives; the minister’s personal experience and understanding must inform whatever is done to help others access spiritual resources, learn to love, and follow truth. By contrast the priest performs traditional rites and recites traditional formulae, and might claim to be doing so because this is what God wants, or simply because they are traditional; there is no requirement for the priest to bring personal experience and understanding, or even faith, to bear, because the rites have a stand-alone validity that does not depend on their effectiveness in improving human lives. The minister will abandon traditional forms if they don’t work in particular circumstances; the priest by contrast insists on performing the traditional forms, come what may – and if they don’t make people’s lives happier, it’s the people not the forms that have to change. That states the contrast too starkly of course: many ‘priests’ are in fact good ministers. But that’s because they have come to understand that all religious institutions, not only the Sabbath, are there to serve humanity, not the other way round. Maybe ‘waiting at table’ is the real heart of ministry.

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