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Yes…Minister?: Patterns of Christian Service – Jim Cotter

April 28, 2014

yes ministerWhat is really going inside someone when they think they have a ‘call’ or ‘vocation’ to ordained ministry? Given that many churches put an unhealthy stress on priests as being somehow ‘special’ :Press the question home to that point within you that seeks a `place’ in the world, a ‘status’. For if you are already accepted by God, created by God, delighted in by God, loved by God for ever, whatever, without conditions, whatever your twistedness out of true and however deep your wounds, and if you accept and receive that truth, if you say Yes to this God, then you live in the givenness of the only status that matters — friend, partner, lover of God.

Discernment takes time and is a learned skill: Be loyal to what you most deeply believe to be the will and way of the One who draws you by the still small voice, the voice which is often crowded out and which you find hardest to hear.

We are not very good at supporting those who are ‘turned down’ by a selection conference: If you find yourself excluded from public ministry for reasons you do not regard as valid and yet are seeking to live your life by following Christ, you are bound to find it painful to remain a member of the Church. But it is still your Church as well as everybody else’s, for the Church is that part of humanity which has already recognized, however partially, its centre in Christ. To leave the Church would be to leave humanity. You would be committing a kind of ‘spiritual suicide’. It may feel impossible at times to bear the tensions involved. But in whatever form it is laid upon you, the necessity of being priestly will exert its pressure.

We are often unaware of the extent to which we already exercise a priestly ministry (from the royal priesthood of all the baptised): Hiddenness and secrecy have always been marks of the story of the People of God, not least in times of persecution…….High walls of protection and a measure of secrecy, away from the glare of publicity, are needed when a relationship or a project or a community are young and vulnerable. We should expect not to hear too much of new life in the Church, stirring in small and hidden cells, germinating slowly, far from great occasions in large buildings and arenas — especially when the latter look as if they are too akin to displays of earthly power and glory.

Jim quotes Petru Dumitriu’s book Incognito, which became famous at the time because Bishop John Robinson alluded to it often: A vein of hiddenness needs to run through every Christian life, especially in those who exercise public office…..Our eyes need to be sharpened in order to see God in dark places, in others and in ourselves, wherever we human beings take faltering steps in our confusions. For all of us time is needed, a refining of the dross far from the public eye.

With shrinking congregations, clergy are tempted to rely more and more on lay people to do churchy tasks. The term ‘lay ministry’ gets misused to cover all sorts of stuff, a special temptation to lay Readers. It cannot said too often that: The place of that ministry for most Christian people is some part of the secular world. And the first demand of that ministry is that we do as well as we are able that which we have to do. Such work for the common good is our proper and significant contribution to be valued equally with — if not more — than any contribution we might also make to the life of the Church. Dorothy Sayers thought it both a waste of energy and even a sacrilege to deflect people from the secular into the ecclesiastical.’…. An American Christian writes: . . . my basic frustration is that I can’t see anywhere in the Church a recognition of, or much support for, my ministry as an engineer in a large corporation. I’ve come to think of it as an invisible ministry, not only to the church, but also to myself most of the time. It’s a difficult and lonely ministry at best, but even more so because generally it isn’t even seen as a valid ministry at all, or at least that’s my impression.” Bonhoeffer (urged) Christians to live in the secular rather than creating a religious ghetto.

For those who are called to ministerial priesthood while continuing in a secular career, the structures which treat them like training curates and move them around, with no understating of the cost to their family and working lives, may be ordained local ministry is the answer: there will be some leaders who are indeed content to exercise their ministry on a small scale in one locality for a number of years, not least because another commitment (per­haps as a farmer) keeps them committed to that specific parish.

Maybe such priests don’t have to be taken out of their working context to have an academic education: the Church is often far too literate for people who are not academic and who learn visually more easily than verbally. Professionals with words can, often without realizing it, oppress the inarticulate.

Yet: For those with any sense of catholicity, however small the ‘c’, it is important to be reminded that they are more than a local congregation, not simply a private club choosing its leader from an inner core of activists. Moreover, villages and inner cities contain a mixture of people who easily cross over parish boundaries: local communities are not all that ‘local’ any more, in the sense of being static and self-contained. And sometimes an ‘outsider’ is not identified with this or that section of the local community and may be more effective in bringing together the different parts of that community.

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