Over the past few weeks there have been a number of articles, letters
and comment columns in the weekly Church Times newspaper concerning what model the ministry of clergy in parishes
should take in today’s world. Are priests there for those who are not yet members of the Church of Christ, to witness
to them and call them into the fold of God’s love (whether they come or not)? Or are clergy there to build up the flock
of the existing faithful, offering them teaching and pastoral care? Angela Tilby, a priest (and former BBC producer who once
filmed me in conversation with the late David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham, for an Everyman programme
– and then cut all my bits from the finished programme!), wrote in her column in the Church Times:
In the Ordinal, priests are described as servants and shepherds.
In moving language they are told to model themselves on the Good Shepherd; they are entrusted with Christ’s own flock,
and accountable to the Lord for their stewardship. Pastoral priesthood is being sidelined. Priests are told to see themselves
as leaders, evangelists, and entrepreneurs, who empower, train and manage others.
Part of the struggle to decide which model is right for clergy today
is related to the slide in congregational numbers, and aging congregations: inevitably there’s a concern to stem the
tide in declining membership. The argument seems to be that ‘doing’ pastoral care for people is not going to bolster
attendance figures, whether that pastoral care is for current members or for those beyond the fringe of the Church. We need
new outreach projects, planned mission activities and strong leadership to manage all this: this is the task of modern clergy.
While there is some important elements in such thinking, it casts
a very narrow light upon the Gospel of Christ. As I’ve always understood the ministry of Jesus, it was about revealing
God’s abundant love and generosity to the world. Jesus heals 10 lepers; only one even says thank you – we’re
not told if he became a follower of Jesus. We see him bringing healing in all manner of ways, to all manner of people: some
follow him, others don’t. In other stories, we do see Jesus teaching people and challenging them over their faith and
their understanding of God; we see him pointing out people’s sins but also telling them of the wideness of God’s
mercy and love. Jesus’ ministry was about hope and salvation and the revealing of God as being more surprising than
we ever could have imagined.
Is the Church’s ministry today about making people members of the Church, and nothing more? Indeed, has the
Church ever been about that? When we consider its tradition of providing healthcare and education, welcome and sanctuary,
nourishment of soul and body, we can see, I think, that there is an intertwining of the two – attempts to draw people
into the Body of Christ as members of his Church, but also a desire to reveal God’s love and justice to all his people
and the whole of creation, regardless of what faith they have, if any. Christian Aid, for example, has been clear for the
past 70 years that it is aid offered BY Christians, FOR anyone who is in need, regardless of creed, colour
or situation in life.
I have always seen my priestly ministry and encompassing both of these ends of the spectrum – and many points
between: Evangelistic and Pastoral, for the existing congregation and the wider community, to make new disciples but also
to reveal to the world the generous love of God. Like Mary Magdalene, I believe there will be those who experience the healing,
welcoming love and power of God and follow Christ, just as much as those who follow him because they have been taught about
him. Pastoral care is surely as missionary as things like the Alpha Course or Sunday School.
Ultimately, God will work in and through his clergy if they are faithful
in prayer and administration of the sacraments, if they are good ‘messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord’,
as the Ordinal says. But the Ordinal also says, ‘With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s
love.’ I believe there are many ways to tell the story of God’s love, and many ways people will respond to
that telling, as they did when Jesus told the same story 2,000 years ago. We clergy tell it, along with all lay members of
the church, not just in word but also in deed, not just in missionary teaching and outreach but in pastoral care and generous
love shown to people, whether they are entered onto the Church’s Electoral Roll or not. If clergy today are being told
that we need to be ‘leaders, evangelists, and entrepreneurs, who empower, train and manage others’, then
all well and good. But not at the expense of being Christ-like in the exercise of pastoral care for all God’s people,
and His wider creation.
With my prayers,