Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thoughts for NYNO on ‘Reformed, Reforming, Emerging, and Experimenting’ (5)

(5) Being a ‘Real’ Church

Towards the end of the report, the question of ‘structures’ is addressed, and in particular membership and sacramental validity. The mixed-economy model offers diversity within the church, and the prospect of emergent churches sitting alongside traditionally ordered ones with equal respect and validity. This shouldn’t mean conformity to one shape of church and should allow developing emergent congregations to be valued and nurtured for what they are, rather than what they are not.

So, with regard to membership, the report has this to say:

In the final analysis, if people whose only ‘real’ church is an emerging group are then required to become members of traditional churches, this is not only a denial of the ethos of the mixed economy church but is also a recipe for ensuring the non-sustainability of emerging groups, and for those that begin without the support of an existing parish, the question will be more urgent still.

For NYNO, as it works within Stockethill this is less of a problem. Stockethill Parish has worked hard to develop a multi-congregational understanding of its parish ministry. The origins of this probably lie in the decision to be a parish church without a building. Once this decision had been made, and many different meetings, potentially with different people at each, make up the life of the church, then it’s far less obvious where the ‘centre’ of the church is. And further, when it comes to membership in Stockethill people are committing to a local group of people that exists as part of something larger. We become members of the parish church, but the parish church is composite body of many congregations. It is, if you like, the pattern of relationship that exists between the Church of Scotland at a national level and an individual parish church repeated within the scope of the parish with its constituent congregations. This really is a mixed economy, where new congregations are peers of other congregations. In this case there is no compromise with having to join a traditional church; in Stockethill we’re joining a wider body than merely ourcongregation – and everyone in every group has to do the same.

As I’ve explained, this works well in Stockethill parish. Things will become less clear if NYNO groups are created in other parishes. We can’t worry too much about that right now. If we come to deal with it, a lot will depend on personal relationships between ourselves and any hosting parish. I’m guessing that it may also prove helpful if at least one elder of the local session decides to be part of the leadership team for that new group.

There’s one other, perhaps more important, issue that I want to address here. This one, I fear, cuts to the heart of the difficulties facing emerging ministries in the Church of Scotland. In the Church of Scotland, and indeed according to the Westminster Confession (27.4; 29.3), only the minister is allowed to administer the sacraments. At the same time, it probably wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the whole point of emerging ministries is that it should facilitate and acknowledge the latent gifts of the laity in the church in order to multiply the times and places where the church is able to meet with the world and witness to Christ. A not insignificant benefit of this approach is that it doesn’t require the expense of a minister of Word and Sacrament, at least as we currently conceive of them as parish ministers with a stipend.

So, we have a whole discussion focussed on advocating the use of the anglican-birthed expression ‘mixed-economy’ in the Church of Scotland, and so a search for new forms of church to sit alongside our traditional parish congregations, but in the Church and Scotland, and according to a significant aspect of the reformed confessions, the celebration of the sacraments is a necessary mark of any church and this is forbidden the leadership of every single one of these emerging churches unless they have been ordained. As far as I am aware, this isn’t possible for a local leader, committed to developing an emerging church for their local context without them having their attentions distracted from their church by the challenges of the selection and education procedures for ordination that purposely take place outside of the local context. As far as I can see this is still the case for Ordained Local Ministry, which would potentially see pioneer ministers working on behalf of the presbytery to create new forms of church.

Emerging churches, to be churches in the fullest sense and perhaps in the smallest sense, need to be able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This is not optional. Emerging churches are meant to be flexible, to innovate and be inspired by the energy and ideas of laity. It is impractical to ask a pioneer of an emergent community to have to occupy themselves with ordination and education and then to come back to their project when all the criteria has been fulfilled, especially when their funding is likely to last for a maximum of three years. I suspect as well that there are cultural issues surrounding the ministry of word and sacrament that involve social status, hierarchical ministry and the perceived aggression of the presbyterian court system that would make many emergent pioneers run in the opposite direction.

What solutions might there be? Well, it seems to me that the reservation for the ordained of the administration of the Lord’s Supper is a sensible ordinance. The Lord’s Supper is the act of unity amongst the church; it wouldn’t make sense for anyone to be able to celebrate whenever they wanted to. Reserving its administration to the ordained is a hierarchical way of forcing the church to come together and acknowledge its unity. However, if this is the rational for this Reformed law (that’s speculation on my part, I haven’t researched it) then there is nothing ontological in the minister that means he or she is the only person who can preside. If this is so, then it should be possible for a minister to grant another to preside in his or her place. No authority is lost, the authority can be withdrawn, the authority could be delegated specifically for individual celebrations rather than given to an individual in perpetuity.

The other option would be for the church to become far more flexible over the selection and education procedure for Ordained Local Ministry. Emerging Ministries in the Church of Scotland is putting its weight behind the Mission Shaped Ministry Fresh Expressions Course. This is fine, but I don’t think there’s any likelihood of this being sufficient preparation for ministry. The course is also, to my mind, not a theological course. It offers more functional guidance than theological reflection.

In summary, if emerging churches are an essential part of the Church of Scotland, then the sacraments need to be at their heart. Two options occur to me. Firstly, allow delegated authority for the administration of the sacraments. If not this, then I’m guessing that the church needs to offer a path to ordination that is directly targeted at giving education and training for the work that a candidate has embarked upon. I should add as well, that the dual demands of pioneer ministry and education would be significant, and that it would be impractical to ask someone to do this in their spare time while working for a living: there should be the option for these candidates to be supported for the important task to which they are called.