Monday, February 28, 2011

The Future of Ordained Ministry in the Anglican Church in North America

By Robin G.Jordan

One reader in a comment in response to the article, “St. Mary's Episcopal Church to Close Sunday After More Than 50 Years,” raised the question as to whether the revival of the practice of weekly celebrations of the Eucharist had really benefited the Episcopal Church. Episcopal churches were closing because they could not even afford to pay the salary of a part-time priest and the diocese was no longer willing or able to subsidize them. Congregations had lost members to the point that the diocese no longer regarded them as viable.

A number of factors have contributed to the loss of members in the Episcopal Church. These factors vary from region to region. The liberal policies of the Episcopal Church and its image as a gay church have negatively impacted churches across the United States, in some regions more than others, depending upon local attitudes toward homosexuality and homosexual practice. But other factors are also affecting the Episcopal Church as they are affecting a number of denominations.

Among these factors is a declining interest in the general population in organized religion. This is not to say that Americans do not have religious beliefs or even a form of spirituality. However, they see no benefit in membership in a religious community such as the congregation of a church, synagogue, or temple or in participation in corporate worship or other communal religious activities (e.g., group meditation). What needs that membership in such a community or participation in such activities might meet are met in other ways or go unrecognized and unmet.

This development has implications not only for the Episcopal Church but also for other denominations in North America. It also has implications for the Anglican Churches that breakaway groups of Canadian Anglican and US Episcopalians have formed during the last 35 years, including the Reformed Episcopal Church that was formed in the nineteenth century. With less people taking part in any form of organized religion these Churches that, like the Episcopal Church, have appealed only to small segment of the general population are going to have greater difficulty in recruiting new members. They are going to find themselves without the kind of financial base needed to maintain a building or to pay the salary, benefits package, and travel allowance of a part-time pastor, much less a full-time pastor.

The revival of the practice of weekly celebrations of the Eucharist in the Episcopal Church and the widespread sacramentalism in the breakaway Anglican Churches compounds this problem as do the expectations that the minister administering the sacraments must be seminary-trained and episcopally-ordained. Anglicans and Episcopalians have professionalized the vocation of pastor to such a degree that more and more churches are going to find it prohibitive to procure the services of such a professional. Today’s weak economy exacerbates the problem.

One proposal is that we ratchet back the professionalization of the vocation of pastor. Instead of expecting to meet a church’s staffing needs with full-time, paid, seminary-trained, professional ordained minister, we make greater use of part-time bi-vocational or retired, locally trained, non-professional ordained and licensed ministers. This entails reassessing and rethinking how much training an individual needs to function as a pastor and how he receives that training. What does he need to know before he begins pastoring and what can he pick up once he has started? This itself entails reassessing and rethinking what the function of a pastor is. It means asking the difficult question, “Are we giving too many tasks to the pastor? What tasks might the members of the congregation themselves perform?”

The role that New Testament envisions for a pastor is largely to preach, to teach, to pray, and to guide, not to administer the sacraments, to manage the church’s finances, or to carryout any number of tasks that he is now expected to perform. These tasks fell to the members of the congregation, to the church elders.

In the Episcopal Church and the breakaway Anglican Churches the administration of the sacraments is, due to the sacramentalism that pervades these churches, seen as the chief task of the pastor. He consecrates the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper and blesses the water in the font for Baptism.

Scripture does not assign the administration of the sacraments to anyone in particular in the local church community. In the New Testament accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper Jesus in his words and actions devotes the bread and wine to a specific purpose—to serve as a memorial of himself. This is the understanding of consecration that the Scriptural narrative supports—a setting apart of the elements for sacramental use.

Some Anglicans conclude from these two facts that an ordained minister or priest is not essential to the administration of the Lord’s Supper. This view is controversial because it goes against a longstanding tradition in the Anglican Church and the sacramentalism of a number of Anglicans. In the view of the latter the valid consecration of the elements requires not just an ordained minister—the Reformed position—but also a priest ordained by a bishop in a particular unbroken line of episcopal succession traceable to the apostles—the Roman Catholic position. Otherwise, the elements will not confer the grace that they signify. This is a major obstacle to the reassignment of the administration of the Lord’s Supper to someone other than an episcopally-ordained priest. In light of the strong negative reaction to Sydney’s proposal to license deacons and lay readers to administer the Lord’s Supper, it is likely to remain a major obstacle for the foreseeable future.

The sacrament of Baptism does not present the same problem as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Deacons and laypersons have long been recognized as proper ministers of the sacrament along with bishops and priests. The concern is that the proper form and matter should be used.

Other tasks presently assigned to a pastor, however, may be reassigned to the members of the congregation. While he was the rector of St. Aldate’s in Oxford, Michael Green appointed lay elders to work alongside him as the pastor of the church. They shared with him a number of tasks that have over time been assigned to the pastor.

The Bible tells us that New Testaments had more than one elder. They had what the Patristic writer Tertullian describes as a “bench” of elders. These elders taught and provided spiritual guidance and care. They performed other tasks, for example, anointed the sick and prayed over them.

Whether the appointment of church elders is desirable is something that every church must decide for itself. But if members of the congregation are going to take on tasks that the pastor has been performing, they do need to be equipped for such work. This raises the question of what training do they need and how are they going to receive it.

In 1984 the Diocese of Singapore launched a highly effective Diocesan Lay Training Programme. Since that time other Anglican dioceses have experimented with programs of their own. A number of these programs consist of a diocesan ministerial training school that offers classes at night or on weekends, sometimes weekly but often monthly. In the latter case the class may consist of a series of intensive weekend seminars with homework and reading assignments that the participants must complete between seminars. While these programs have brought the ministerial training school to the diocese, they have yet to bring it to the local congregation where it is most needed.

The experience of a number of cell group churches around the world show that equipping can be done in small groups at the local congregational level. It does not need a traditional classroom or lecture hall. A number of cell group churches have developed training programs for this purpose. These programs focus upon discipleship, leadership development, and spiritual formation. They are supplemented by courses on the Old Testament and New Testament and other specialty courses.

Like the Singapore Diocesan Lay Training Program the typical “equipping track” of a cell group church is comprised of a number of modules. As an individual completes a module, he moves along the equipping track. In addition to studying the material in a module and completing any additional reading, the individual meets with a mentor. The mentor provides him with guidance and encouragement and monitors his progress. The individual’s participation in a cell group is also a part of the equipping process. This approach provides cell group churches with a steady supply of leaders.

A number of the mega-churches have adapted this approach to train their own staff who are usually recruited from within the church rather than from outside it. In this way new staff has already been exposed to the culture of the church and they are familiar with how it operates. They also have connections with the community that the church serves. They do not have to spend months and even years building relationships in the community.

The days of the conventional church that can maintain its own building and pay a full-time professional to pastor it are numbered. If the Anglican Church faces a different set of conditions in North America than it does in Africa, Asia, and South America. In these parts of the world the conventional church, adapted to local conditions, may continue to flourish. But even in Africa, Asia, and South America, this is increasingly not the case, for example, in the Diocese of Singapore, and the Anglican Church is turning to other models such as the cell group church and the house church.

Unless the North American Anglican Church wrestles with these issues and adopts new approaches to “doing church,” it is likely to go the way of the dodo bird. The dodo was large flightless bird that was not particularly bright but survived as long as its environment was free from threats to its survival. It quickly became extinct when its environment became filled with such threats. North America is rapidly filling with threats to the survival of the Anglican Church and unless it shows adaptability where it counts, it will join the dodo on the extinction list.


  1. Something that might help: young Anglican married couples need to breed like rabbits, and be instructed in such a way they take the faith seriously. This can happen by: 1) the priests themselves living as examples for the people. 2) know basic standards and intensely catechize, amping Anglican distinctives. 3) use all offices of the prayer book and impress the importance of double duty on Sundays, i.e., a cloistered people.

  2. This was how conservative-confessional Presbyterians increased church numbers in tough towns that were very liberal. It actually worked very well. But you first need ministers who have a 'confessional identity'. Trick #1.

  3. Perhaps my above points were off topic, but the REC has a number of learning programs that can be accomplished online and are self-paced for lay people. These should be considered. I agree, parishes need to be more pro-active in calling men for ministry and their discipleship.