I’m glad to see my earlier posting on lay celebration sparked at least some discussion, both here and on other blogs — such as here and here.
Whilst much of the attention of the Church of England (including my own) is understandably focussed on issues of human sexuality and also on the introduction of women bishops, the question of lay celebration is, to my mind, not at all peripheral to issues of mission. And in the practical doing of mission I believe we will actually address these other issues.
It is through conversion that people enter into a right relationship with God, and it is in a right relationship with him that his word, and the doctrines it entails, becoming living and vibrant influences in their lives.
Thus, as others have pointed, the question of women bishops is indeed a ‘missiological’ issue. But this means that it can also be addressed missiologically, as well as having implications for our mission. In other words, as the Church becomes mission-focussed, so good theology will tend to come into play to challenge the bad.
And it is as a missiological issue that I raised the question of lay-celebration. So in this post I want to take that further and try to explain why I think it is so important.
To begin with, we must go back as far as possible ‘ad fontes’, to the basic biblical concepts which ought to control our thinking. But what are they? I would actually distinguish three separate, but inter-related, strands, namely ‘priesthood’, ‘ministry’ and ‘sacrament’.
Clearly, in the Church’s history and practice regarding the Lord’s Supper, the first and the last have become closely interrelated. Indeed, in some minds they are inseparable. But where does each begin — what is the ‘root’ from which they grow?
The roots of priesthood
How far back in the Bible must we go, for example, to lay the foundations for our thinking about priesthood? Our first instinct would probably be to look in the Law — perhaps Leviticus or Deuternomy.
Interestingly, however, the apostolic doctrine circumvents the Law, going instead to the example of Melchizedek, the mysterious figure with whom Abraham meets in Genesis 14. Yet he is the one who sets a precedent for the priesthood of Jesus since, as the writer of Hebrews observes,
No one takes this honour [of priesthood] upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:4-6, NIV)
So at very least we can say that the origins of priesthood lie outside the Mosaic Law. But we can go back further than this.
In Genesis 2:15, Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and keep it” (ESV). ‘Working and keeping’, however, was also the ministry of the Mosaic priesthood. Thus in Numbers 18:7 we read how God says to Aaron,
And thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priesthood for everything of the altar, and for that within the veil; and ye shall serve ...(Num 18:7a, ASV)
Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him. And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle. And they shall keep all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. (Num 3:6-8, KJV)
Thus it has been suggested, rightly in my view, that Adam’s original commission in the Garden is essentially priestly in character. And indeed this would fit both with what Genesis 1 has to say about the nature of humankind and with what they are commissioned to do.
In Genesis 1:26, we read that God made Man in his image and gave mankind dominion over the living creatures. And then in 1:28 they are told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.
As God’s image-bearers, human beings stand in the place of God in his creation and thus their commission is to continue his work of creation by conforming the world to his will. In this sense, therefore, by mediating God to the world and the world to God, they act in an entirely ‘priestly’ fashion.
Most importantly, however, we must understand that this first ‘Great Commission’ is fulfilled christologically. It is Christ who is the true image of God, and it is he who fills the earth and subdues it. But he does this in and through the Church. Thus Ephesians 1 is echoing Genesis 1 when we read,
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:22-23, ESV)
And this should help us understand the priesthood of all believers, for this ‘priesthood’ is to be understood not in ‘Levitical’ terms, as a demarcation within the people of God, but rather as what the people of God are meant to be, as the new humanity standing in a priestly relationship with everything else in creation (including the as-yet unredeemed).
Like the Old Testament law itself, the Levitical priesthood is a stop-gap, in no way setting aside the covenant previously established with Abraham and awaiting its fulfilment in Christ (Gal 3:16-18). Unlike some the early church Fathers, then, we must not look back to the model of the Levitical priesthood for an understanding of ministry within the people of God.
As members of the body of Christ, we are one with him. Insofar as he is Prophet, Priest and King, so we are participants in that same prophethood, priesthood and kingship. This is the actual point being made in Galatians 3:27-29:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring [Gk, sperma, ‘seed’ singular], heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:27-29, ESV)
There is just Christ — a singular ‘seed’ — not ‘seeds’, some being Jew, some Greek, some slave, etc.
But what, then, of the ‘ministry’? Here, the idea of the ‘body of Christ’ provides another useful framework for our thinking. On the one hand, there is only one ‘body’. On the other, a body has — indeed needs — many parts.
Thus within the New Testament Church there is a division of labour. Not everyone has exactly the same gifts. But here is where biblical thinking so often departs from our own, for according to the biblical analogy all parts of the body are essential, and none is capable of operating as ‘the body’ without the others.
It is an undeniable fact of history, however, that the structures the Church rapidly developed, and which the Anglican church certainly left substantially unchanged at the Reformation, puts all the emphasis on one part of the body, and leaves the others as the ecclesiological equivalent of ‘vestigial organs’.
Hence we see the difficulty the Church of England has had in changing the ‘one man band’ model of ministry, despite (since the end of the Second World War) decades of serious and genuine efforts to do so.
And here we must point to the missiological implications of our ecclesiology. If we say that we believe in ‘every member ministry’ (member in the biblical sense of ‘limbs and organs of the body’), but in practice find ourselves seeing Christian communities constantly dominated by one class of individual — namely the ones in dog-collars — shouldn’t this be telling us we’ve got our ecclesiology wrong, and until we get it right, we will struggle with our missiology?
Word and sacrament
Now some will rightly come back and say that in the New Testament we do find a ministry of leadership, and that this is closely associated (indeed, arguably identical with) the ministry of the word. Ought not our own structures to reflect this?
And indeed I believe they should, because this is what we indeed find in the pages of the New Testament. To take but one, albeit particularly famous, example, in Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul writes how Christ gave,
... the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ ... (ESV)
There are, however, a number of features we should note here when considering whether this is what we find being put into effect through Anglican orders.
First and foremost, the ‘work of ministry’ (ergon diakonias) is the task of the Church, not the task of those given as ‘gifts’ to the Church by Christ — the people itemized in v11.
Secondly, the way that the saints are equipped for the ‘work of ministry’ is through the efforts of ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers’, all of whom in some way are ‘ministers of the word’.
This is why, when Timothy and Titus are tasked with the appointment of elders, they are to look for those who are “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) and “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit 1:9). There are other qualities which these elders need to possess, and other things the elders do as well as teach, but if there is any distinction to be made between New Testament ‘deacons’ and ‘presbyters’ it is probably at this point of teaching ability.
There is no mention in the New Testament, however, of what we might call a ‘sacramental ministry’. Indeed, when it comes to this ministry, the Apostle Paul is remarkably (indeed almost embarrassingly) ‘hands off’:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor 1:17, ESV)
Not, of course, that Paul was ‘anti-baptism’ (even here he mentions Crispus, Gaius and the household of Stephanas as people he did baptize). If we are to make sense of what he says here, however, it suggests that baptism was generally left to others — which if people responded in any great numbers to Paul’s preaching was perhaps for practical reasons.
Nevertheless, it does suggest that what we treat as a closely-regulated aspect of the Church’s life and discipline was something the Apostle would happily delegate.
Some have quoted the opinion of Calvin against baptism being performed by women. But part of Calvin’s argument is that Christ “appointed the same persons to be preachers of the Gospel, and dispensers of baptism” (Institutes IV.xv.22), and much as I hate to disagree with the great man, I find this hard to square with Paul’s own words quoted above.
Indeed, I have already referred to Luther’s contrary view, that women can indeed baptize, and that on the grounds that there is only one ‘priesthood’ in the Church, in which all participate.
Luther’s argument, however, depends not just on his understanding of the priesthood of all believers, but his understanding of the relationship between word and sacrament. And here again I believe he has something helpful to say.
In Anglicanism, it seems to me there is considerable confusion as to how the sacraments ‘work’. Cranmer was keen to exclude the notion of a sacrifice from the Lord’s Supper, and in this he succeeded, but what we are left with sometimes seems like simply a ‘doctrine of the real absence’ in place of the former doctrine of ‘real presence’. In other words, it is less clear what we are doing than what we are not.
Luther resolved this problem through his doctrine of the Word. For Luther, it is the Word of God which does the work of God, and the sacraments are no different, for in the sacraments we just have a word made specific to the individual through the instrument of an outward sign.
A ‘sacrament’ is, in this sense, no different from a sermon. However, where a sermon may be long and may not have the desired impact on everyone, the sacrament is brief and to the point: “The body of Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”
Once we see things this way, however, we realize that the benefit of the sacrament comes to us entirely in the same way as the benefit of the sermon, or indeed the benefit of hearing the gospel preached to us in any form — namely by us hearing the word with faith.
Luther’s doctrine of the ‘real presence’ may be a stumbling block to Anglicans at this point, since it would seem to imply a benefit deriving from a change wrought in the substance of the elements. But this is not how Luther himself viewed things. For him, the point about Christ’s presence was the need on to avoid mysticism based on mere ‘calling to mind’ or ‘introspection’ regarding our own faith or faithfulness. Faith in the ‘real presence’ of Christ was, in his view, a necessary safeguard. Nevertheless, as the following quote shows, the efficacy of the sacrament lay in the word:
If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ ... in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross. Therefore, Luther has rightly taught that whoever has a bad conscience from his sins should go to the sacrament and obtain comfort, not because of the bread and wine, not because of the body and blood of Christ, but because of the word which in the sacrament offers, presents, and gives the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for me. (Against the Heavenly Prophets, LW 40:214)
Notice how for Luther ‘sacrament’ and ‘gospel’ are synonyms! The sacrament is thus the word of the gospel.
Now we need not accept everything Luther says, any more than we must accept everything said by Calvin, Cranmer or the Church Fathers. However, I suggest that Luther’s insight is helpful, as is his conclusion that the priesthood of all believers is granted through the word, which belongs to all believers.
And once again this has significant missiological implications, as Luther observes:
The first office, that of the ministry of the Word, therefore, is common to all Christians. This is clear, from what I have already said, and from 1 Pet 2, “You are a royal priesthood that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” I ask, who are these who are called out of darkness into marvellous light? Is it only the shorn and anointed masks [ie medieval ‘priests’]? Is it not all Christians? And Peter not only gives them the right, but the command, to declare the wonderful deeds of God, which certainly is nothing else than to preach the Word of God. (LW 40:21)
Is it not the strength of evangelicalism that we have encouraged all Christians to evangelize — to declare the praises of God, whether they are ‘ordained’ or not?
But do we not undermine this encouragement of the whole people of God in evangelism by our retention of a ‘sacramentalist’ model of ministry?
This post is already far too long! I therefore want to conclude with an observation from history, namely that where the gospel has empowered what we wrongly call the ‘laity’, it has actually proved most effective in transforming both Church and society. And this is particularly so when it comes to that great unreached section of our society, namely the working classes.
For all its faults, and they were substantial, it was Methodism that reached the ‘workers’ when Anglicanism did not. And yet historically ‘lay preacher’ is something we associate with ‘Methodist’ more readily than with ‘Anglican’.
I began posting on this topic out of the conviction that the Church needs radical change just at the point where our society needs radical help. This is not about ‘iconoclasm’ — tearing down what has traditionally been part of the Church to satisfy a destructive urge.
Rather, I am looking at our lack of impact evangelistically and asking whether we are not actually our own worst enemies in this respect.
This is why I think the question of lay celebration needs to be aired — because it is in the end a part of our preaching, both in what we say and in what we do.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: