Lord God, our heavenly Father, please teach us from your Word, so that this church will be built up for the glory of your Son, our saviour, Jesus. In his name we ask it. Amen.
Now, it's very good of you to take your seat and give me twenty minutes or so of your valuable time this morning so that I can speak to you. I appreciate it! But what gives me the right to ask that of you? What gives me the right to stand up here and expect that you'll pay attention to what I have to say? What does this collar signify? What is more, it's not just a matter of the next twenty minutes, is it? What gives me and those few others of us who stand up here week by week wearing a similar collar the right to provide leadership to this rather extraordinary and wonderful body of believers that we call Jesmond Parish Church, which is such a key part of so many of our lives?
Well, after a detour last week for Mothering Sunday we're back to our short series on the Articles of the Church of England called 'What Christians Believe'. These Articles are 39 short statements of doctrine, or teaching, to which we are committed as Anglicans, but above all because they're faithful to the teaching of the Bible. So going through them a few each year is useful, both because they help us to get a grip more fully on a wide range of aspects of our faith, but also because they make us focus, once in a while, on significant issues that otherwise we might neglect. So they help us to have a more thought through and rounded grasp of the faith and the life of the church, of which we're a part if we've put our trust in Jesus, who is the head of the church which is his body.
You can see sermons on all the previous Articles from 1 to 22 on church.org.uk. And today we come to Article 23, which has the title, 'Of Ministering in the Congregation'. And it deals with exactly the kind of issues that I've just raised. So although it might, at first sight, seem rather left field and not altogether relevant to daily living, in fact if we're committed members of the church, and the church is central to our lives, as it should be, then these issues are highly relevant and have a real week-by-week as well as long term impact on our lives. So it's very helpful to have them clear in our minds.
To that end I've set out this Article 23, in somewhat modernised English, on the outline that's on the back of the service sheet. And you'll also see there my six questions for this week, which should help us to tease out its significance for us. Here's the modernised article:
Ministering in the Congregation
It is not right for any man to take upon himself the office of public preaching or of administering the sacraments in the congregation before he has been lawfully called and sent to perform these tasks. The lawfully called and sent are those who have been chosen and called to this work by men who have had public authority given to them in the congregation to call and send such ministers into the Lord's vineyard.
So, question number one:
1. What is this Office of a Minister?
The Article speaks of "the office of public preaching or of administering the sacraments in the congregation". So this is an 'office', not a contract of employment. That might seem an obscure distinction but in fact it's fundamental, and it's one that we're careful to uphold. The dictionary definition of an office is "a position of authority or service, typically one of a public nature". A contract of employment is an exchange of labour (whether mental of physical – usually both) for payment. That is not what ministry in the church is about. And that applies to all kinds of 'offices' – all kinds of ministries – not just ordained ministry, and not only paid staff. Those of us who have an official role, so to speak, in the life of the church are not merely fulfilling a contract. We are serving Christ. We are not working contracted hours. We are living as members of the Body of Christ, as servants of the One who came not to be served but to serve.
And this office of a minister is public not private. This clerical collar is a symbol of that, and therefore, though it's not necessary, it's helpful, in the right contexts. It's recognised not only within the life of the church but also in the wider culture to indicate that publicly recognised office.
And it's in the congregation, not isolated. A good way to think of that is that ordained ministry only makes sense when it's seen as being one member of the Body of Christ – a vital member, but no more vital than all the others. The Bible says (1 Corinthians 12.18-20):
"God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body."
And it's a ministry of preaching and administering the sacraments. It's not only that, but that is at the heart of it. By 'preaching' it is meant teaching and applying the Scriptures, the living word of God, the Bible, not only on occasions like this but in many different contexts. By 'the sacraments' it is meant those instituted by Jesus himself, that is the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, and baptism. These are both what the great early theologian Augustine of Hippo called 'visible words', that themselves preach the gospel when they're properly understood. That's why preaching and administering the sacraments publicly in the congregation go together.
2. What is the Biblical Basis for this Office of Minister?
Is it there in the New Testament and in the Spirit-anointed, Christ-authorised teaching of the apostles, or is it only a later development, however useful, that has no Biblical warrant? Such ministry is very clearly present in the New Testament and taught by the apostles. Different words are used which refer to the same office – especially elder or presbyter, overseer or bishop (but put out of your mind most of the images of bishops that you might have from the modern world), and pastor or shepherd.
Here are a few examples. What are called 'the Pastoral Epistles', that is the letters of the apostle Paul to younger ministers on his team, Timothy and Titus, have sections that relate to what the apostle calls 'the office of overseer', or elder. So for instance he says to Titus (Titus 1.5-7):
"This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order and appoint elders in every town as I directed you … an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach."
And to Timothy he says (1 Timothy 3.1-2):
"The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach … [and so on.]"
Similarly, the apostle Peter, in his first letter, speaks to those in the churches who have been appointed to this office, using the language of shepherding – of pastoring, in these terms (1 Peter 5.1-4):
"So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, … shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory."
The apostle Paul used that same pastoring language when he spoke so movingly to the elders of the church in Ephesus when he met with them for the very last time. A summary of what he said is there, very wonderfully, in Acts 20.29-31. So he spoke to them of his own example, and urged them:
"Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…"
It is deeply challenging apostolic teaching such as this which is the foundation and the Biblical basis for this office of minister in the life of the church.
3. What are the Qualifications for This Office?
In my role on the national executive committee of the Anglican Mission in England I've had some involvement recently in assessing men for ordained ministry and church leadership. And essentially the qualifications are the same as they are for any office in the church, only more so. I find the three 'Cs' that are often used to summarise what's needed to be very helpful. What are they? First, character. Second, convictions. And third, competence. What you're like. What you believe. And what you can do. Character. Convictions. Competence. That's exactly what you see Paul setting out more fully in those Pastoral Epistles. So he spells out what Titus should look for when he's appointing elders like this – listen out for those three 'Cs'. Titus 1.6-9:
"if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it."
These are searching words, and over and over again they drive me, for one, to cry out for mercy and for a fresh empowering of the Holy Spirit for this ministry. Note that they say nothing about social or academic background. The test is what you believe and what you do, not what exams you've passed.
Note also that there is an apostolic requirement to be male for this office of minister. There has of course been much discussion of that, and we don't have time to pursue it now. Let me just make two brief comments. First, there is something fatherly about this role in particular within the life of the church, in the wisdom of God, that requires those who are presbyters to be male. And second, if that is something you would like to think through further, there is a valuable resource in David's two sermons on 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. You can find those through the website, and there's a reference there at the foot of the outline. Next question:
4. What Starts Someone in This Office?
There are four steps in the process. It begins with being called by God. It is of course true that every disciple of Jesus is called, and called above all to a life of repentance and faith, loving, serving and following Jesus. But part of that call is God's particular plan and purpose for our lives, which he knows but which is only gradually unfolded to us.
So speaking personally, I thought for a long time that I was called to be an engineer. And that is a magnificent and Godly calling! But looking back, I can see that God always had another plan. I remember that as a teenager there were times when I would kneel by my bed and pray earnestly to the Lord that he would make me a preacher, despite the fact that speaking in public was my worst nightmare. So where did that come from? From God. He was calling me, though it took me many years to realise it.
Then the next step is becoming qualified. Developing that character, those convictions, and the necessary competence takes time and a degree of relative maturity that can't be hurried.
Then there is being lawfully called – that is, in line with the law of God in the Scriptures, and the laws of men in the life of the church, so in accordance with appropriate procedures.
And finally there is being publicly called and sent. That's the function of ordination – the public laying on of hands with prayer and exhortation, setting someone aside for this office of minister – of elder/presbyter, overseer and shepherd/pastor within the life of a particular local church family.
So this is not, and must not be, the initiative of the man concerned. This comes from God, and from the church, with the collaboration of the individual. So our Article 23 puts it like this:
"It is not right for any man to take upon himself the office of public preaching or of administering the sacraments in the congregation before he has been lawfully called and sent to perform these tasks."
So then …
5. Who Choses and Calls Someone to This Office?
Well, this is how the Article continues, and answers that:
"The lawfully called and sent are those who have been chosen and called to this work by men who have had public authority given to them in the congregation to call and send such ministers into the Lord's vineyard."
So the calling and choosing – the discerning of the call of God – is not done by just one man, but by more than one. Indeed it is, in significant part at least, an activity of the whole congregation together, represented by, in the words of the article,
"men who had public authority given to them in the congregation to call and send such ministers."
Note the wideness of the way that is put in the Article, which accommodates a range of particular ways of organising this process of calling men to ordained ministry. And note what could be called the succession of authority, from one generation of leadership to another, all ultimately under apostolic and Biblical authority. And note too that in Anglicanism these principles are worked out in practice by the involvement of the local church in the choosing and calling, and by the ordaining being done by a bishop. So:
6. What is Our Role?
Here are five things we can all do, whatever our own particular calling within the Body of Christ.
- Pray for those who have been called to this office of minister, of presbyter, in the church of God. I speak from the heart when I say that we need it.
- Pray that the Lord would overrule the calling process within the life of the church. Pray that we all, collectively, as the Body of Christ and the Household of God and the Temple of the Holy Spirit would have the Lord's wisdom to discern, by the Holy Spirit, which of our number is being called to this ministry. And pray too for those who are specially authorised to do the calling, humanly speaking. So pray for those involved in processes of assessment, and for bishops. I value your prayers for my own small part in that, on behalf of us all.
- Pray about whether you or someone you know is being called to this. There are many who have had their eyes opened to what God is calling them to through a thoughtful brother or sister in Christ challenging them to think about it. And maybe you can begin to see that you yourself are becoming qualified. Maybe the Lord is saying to you, as to the prophet Isaiah, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?" and you need to reply, "Here I am! Send me." If you're beginning to think that could be you, get in touch with me, or one of the other presbyters here, so we can talk it over with you.
- Be ready, as we all need to do, to live in Godly and appropriate submission to those who have been called and authorised to lead the church. The Bible says – this is Hebrews 13.17:
"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you."
We are in this together. We need one another. I am very aware that very soon I will be standing before the Lord Jesus and I will be required to give account for how I have followed his call. And so will you.
- Serve faithfully in whatever way the Lord is calling is you, whatever particular member of the Body of Christ he is asking you to be.
Let's bow our heads to pray. And let me pray a modern version of a prayer from the old Book of Common Prayer service of ordination:
Almighty God, giver of all good things, by your Holy Spirit you have appointed various orders of ministry in your church. Look in mercy on your servants who are called to be presbyters; fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, so that by word and example they may faithfully serve you in this office to the glory of your name and for the upbuilding of your church through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.