IT is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.
And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.
I’ve just completed my final Postgraduate Diploma module, which was on Leadership and Collaboration. Now I know that there is a lot of resistance against any use of management language from clergy, especially when it comes from out of date business models, but I have found it a thought-provoking exercise. Even so, if I had the chance to do it again, I would seriously consider basing my reflection on the leadership recently demonstrated by Gareth Southgate. His leadership (and note, whilst he is the Manager, it is his leadership I am thinking about) of the England football team at the 2018 World Cup was an example of providing an encouraging and supportive framework, all within a positive narrative.
However, none of that stopped others from chipping in with their opinion of how the England team should have been managed. My favourite example is a self-depreciating tweet which summed this up, from @JusticeTrousers: “I just shouted ‘stop ****ing about’ at the telly while watching trained athletes at the peak of their game. I am drinking cans in a vest.’ A perfect example that having an opinion is not at all the same as having the true authority to lead a situation! Mr Southgate not only had the lived experience and training to be the manager, he was the person chosen and employed to lead them. Furthermore his character and approach showed him to be their leader, unlike all of us who sat on our sofas shouting at the screen.
What does any of this have to do with the Articles of Religion? Well, Article XXIII is all about authority. What does it mean for Church of England ministers to be “lawfully called, and sent to execute the same”?
For the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries, this must have been a rather contentious issue. The power and authority of Rome had been successfully challenged, but it wouldn’t do for just anyone to be able to preach and teach. Therefore, despite the growth in numbers of preachers amongst the Reformers, authority remained, in the Articles, as something which must be given by the central Church. So why is authority so important?
I think there is a triangle of factors: authority, responsibility and accountability. If anyone of these elements is not present, authority becomes open to abuse.
Authority alone can become dictatorial. It becomes all about control. Responsibility reminds priests of what they are meant to be doing in the care and nurturing of their flock; and accountability reminds them of who they will have to explain their ministry to (and I speak both of the higher Church authorities, but much, much more importantly, of Jesus).
For those in the pews, having a preacher who is authorised should give them the assurance of listening to someone who is rooted in Christ, formed in orthodox training, and enabled by the Spirit and the Church to speak. Their words should be reliable. They can trust in their teaching.
Now the world has moved on since the Reformation, and there are plenty of wise and faithful Christians who preach and teach without formal recognition from a Church body. These voices are particularly important when they speak out of experiences which the Church has been slow to hear or to include at the tables of discussion. However, for such people, those who listen to their words must give additional attention to discern for themselves what theology the teaching is grounded in (for example, conservative or liberal, or with a specific focus), and if they think the theology is wrong or even dangerous, there may not be a higher authority to appeal to. For example, this blog contains my own personal reflections as I continue my own education in the Christian faith, but I remain under the oaths I made at my ordination, to be under the authority of the Bishop. If I were to write something far outside orthodox Church teaching, it would be reasonable for someone to report me to my Bishop, and for me to have to explain myself.
This is why the discernment process for ordination or lay authorised ministry is so important. It is not enough that someone wants to be a priest, deacon, Reader or worship leader. Having something to say is not a good enough reason for someone to be allowed to say with the full authority of the Church behind them. The calling to public ministry needs to be discerned by the individual as one coming from God, and confirmed by the Church. Too much damage can be done by someone wielding authority without humility, without care for those in their charge, and the task of being sent into the Lord’s vineyard is one that is both a great privilege and a great responsibility.
We live in a culture where everyone can make their opinion heard. We can shout at the tv, we can tweet and post our views. But having leaders, in whatever field they are called to, who work with grace, dignity, responsibility and care, they are the ones with true authority, and we know such a leader when we see one. May the Church be blessed with such ministers to lead us into the future.
O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ
didst give to thy Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts,
and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock:
Make, we beseech thee, all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word,
and the people obediently to follow the same,
that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Collect for Saint Peter’s Day, Book of Common Prayer