The study package for the remit for One Order of Ministry is coming before the Pastoral Charges and Presbyteries this spring. It is asking us to consider changing the way paid accountable ministry in the church is structured, named, and employed. It sounds rather administrative, and some may choose to view it that way, but tucked away in the remit question is another, deeper question: why ordered ministry? If the way we organize ministry is due for a change, I suggest we may also want to re-examine why we have ordered ministry in the first place. Ordered ministry is not the only way God’s mission can be carried out, nor is it the only way that ministry is done, but it has a long history and a deep tradition that has served the church well.
In a time of great change in society and in the Christian community, we are called to examine who we are and how we do what we do, to see what needs changing for the purposes of serving God’s mission. The history of Christianity shows that one focus of concern in times of change was the ordering of ministry. Two documents from the early church, The Didache (c.80 CE) and The Apostolic Tradition (c.215 CE), serve as useful examples because they were written in a context similar to ours: a diverse society with competing languages, cultures and beliefs; control by a secular empire; and on the fringe, a small religious community whose survival was hoped for but not certain.
Ministry in the early church was shaped by the urgent need to communicate the message and meaning of Jesus, and to pass these on with confidence to people who had known neither Jesus nor the apostles. It was also shaped by two crises of faith: the postponement of the parousia, and the failure of the mission to the Jews. Within decades of the first Easter, the fledgling church re-oriented itself towards a long-term mission to a population that had no familiarity with Judaism or its monotheistic and prophetic tradition. The consequent misunderstandings of the Christian message and the limited ability to manage communication forced the church to begin tasks of developing faith statements (creeds) for the purposes of evangelism and teaching, and of assuring the soundness of those who evangelized and taught.
It was in this environment that the leadership of bishops and deacons emerged. The Didache shows the church as it began working towards a unified identity and a shared, coherent proclamation. Regarding ministry, the Didache says:
“[Y]ou should welcome anyone who comes your way and teaches you all we have been saying. But if the teacher proves himself a renegade and by teaching otherwise contradicts all this, pay no attention to him. But if his teaching furthers the Lord’s righteousness and knowledge, welcome him as the Lord (11: 1-2).”
“You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried. For their ministry to you is identical with that of prophets and teachers (15: 1-2).”
These passages indicate that a level of commonly held belief was expected of and by leaders, and show the growing importance of the teaching office of the church for the health of God’s mission.
By early third century CE, the three-fold order of ministry – bishop, presbyter, and deacon – was taking hold. This ordering of ministry was useful for managing the mission of a rapidly expanding church. Its focus was not control as much as authority for ensuring the unity of the community through a commonly held faith and practice. The opening paragraph of The Apostolic Tradition says,
“[N]ow, led on by love for all the saints, we have proceeded to the summit of the tradition which befits the churches, in order that those who have been well taught by our exposition may guard that tradition … and remain firm … and … how those who preside over the Church should hand down and guard all things (1).”
The bishop’s ministry was that of a high priest – prayer, sacraments, and governance – and it included the administration of the sacraments for all Christians in his area of jurisdiction. Presbyters, or priests, were the bishop’s delegates, ordained to “help and govern” God’s people and to celebrate the Eucharist in the bishop’s absence. This became more important as dioceses grew too large for one person to provide Communion every Sunday. Deacons, unlike bishops and priests, were not ordained to the priesthood but to the service of the bishop and the church, including advising the bishop of those who were ill. Together, these three orders of ministry conducted what we tend to think of as the “official” business of the church: leading worship, administering sacraments, pastoral care to the sick, teaching, governing, and administration. Bishops in particular exercised the teaching office.
But the church was much more than its teaching. The Apostolic Tradition recognizes the importance of non-ordered ministries of the church: Confessors, who had “confessed” their faith publicly at great personal risk; Widows, appointed for prayer and a special ministry to women; Readers, important when literacy rates were low; Virgins; and Subdeacons to assist the deacons. There were also lay teachers who, alongside the clergy, instructed those seeking baptism.
This quick look at the early church shows that ministry was not confined to ordered ministers, but that ordered ministry developed to meet a specific need of the church in that time and place: to safeguard the unity of the community.
As we prepare for the remit on One Order of Ministry, I invite us to consider these questions: Is there a compelling message or unity that The United Church of Canada feels called to uphold and communicate? Is there a motivating spirit that is uniquely United Church that we want to safeguard? If so, how should our ordering of ministry serve those aims?
Wendy Kean serves the Canadian Armed Forces as a United Church chaplain.