Do we need to rethink Word and Sacrament?

During this year’s Church of Scotland General Assembly, a discussion arose over the nature of Ministry of Word and Sacrament. It was inspired by a request from the Presbytery of Aberdeen & Shetland that the normal process of training for ministry of Word and Sacrament be adjusted to suit a particular circumstance. The Assembly ruled against this concession and this was understandable given that ‘exceptions make bad laws.’

But this discussion, and others, clarified an issue within the Kirk with regard to the understanding of ministry of Word and Sacrament. The phrase ‘full time ministry of Word and Sacrament’ is often used when what is meant is ‘parish ministry.’ But in the increasing mixed economy of recognised ministries the two are not interchangeable.

How might we recognise that Word and Sacrament is a wide concept encapsulating various ministries? Perhaps we could start by recognising that little training is required to conduct the sacraments. In fact, a strong Christian faith and a steady hand are the most important characteristics. The training of parish ministers, in my time, featured little about the theology or conduct of the sacraments. I didn’t particularly feel that this was an oversight.

Despite a previous convenor of the Kirk’s theological forum nearly passing out at the thought of elders conducting communion, it’s not difficult, it doesn’t require a minimum of six years training and there’s little good reason not to allow others to do it. I’m not suggesting a free for all, but it would be very easy for Presbyteries to offer a short training course and then commission people to a sacramental ministry.

When it comes to ‘Word’ ministries a greater degree of training is required. However in recent years not all of the universities have taught homiletics and many candidates for ministry probably received little training for preaching.

Few university biblical studies classes teach much that a congregation would benefit from hearing. Instead they fixate on textual transmission and reconstruction, never reaching questions of what God might be saying in his Word. And again, I wonder whether God is able to work to a far greater extent through the preaching of a humble but committed believer over a biblical scholar with theological sophistication but uncertain where to find God’s Word within its biblical ‘container.’

Let’s return to the concept of ‘Word and Sacrament.’ If we separate out the constituent ministries eg parish, OLM, pioneer etc why not also ordain as ministers of ‘Word and Sacrament’ chaplains and theology academics, many of whom have studied as much or more than most parish ministers? And why not ordain some elders to ministry of Word and Sacrament too, recognising that this does not make any of them parish ministers.

We do need highly trained ministers of many kinds. But the necessary training relates to dealing with fragile people, managing churches, leading teams, engaging theologically with the world, handling the word of God and planting churches. A ministry administering the sacraments to God’s people does not require even close to the same level of training. And if we are to more forward into the Kirk’s new structure where parish ministers will be few and far between, the sooner we share out the tasks of Word & Sacrament the better.

Is it worth the effort?

“…the Free Church…like the Church of Scotland but with Christianity.”

The Spectator

This is how a recent Spectator article depicted the Church of Scotland: a Presbyterian denomination devoid of Christianity.

It’s exaggerated and harsh but one of the Kirk’s most esteemed prophets does petition the Lord for the ability to “see ourselves as others see us.” And while it’s not an accurate statement, I suspect the CofS will not be suing for libel. In fact a recent tweet suggested that the author may have formed his opinion based on watching the essentially humanist communion at the General Assembly 2021.

The question is, how do you know when you are no longer a Christian denomination? Is it similar to an individual falling away from the faith? What belief or course of action would indicate that you had crossed the line into unbelief? Do you have to consciously choose to give up following Jesus or do you slowly drift until finally you realise you don’t believe anymore? Perhaps we’ll know we’ve reached that point when like the decreasing number of people in the Scottish census we tick ‘Christian – Church of Scotland’ but only attend once a decade.

We might ask, for example, don’t the Kirk’s history and core beliefs clearly identify her as Christian? That raises another relevant issue for this years General Assembly. Does the Church of Scotland have core shared beliefs? A previous Theological Forum Convenor once pronounced that the Kirk was no longer a confessional church. But the current forum is asking instead whether we can indeed affirm a shared core theology.

One suggestion is that the Kirk drop the Westminster Confession and replace it with some of the more ancient statements of faith such as ‘The Apostles Creed.’ That seems eminently sensible but I’m not sure whether, even here, we will find wide agreement. How many years will it take to decide if we believe in ‘God the Father’ let alone creator, heaven, virgin, resurrection and everlasting. And even if we agree to this position it would be unenforcible. In living memory, has the Kirk challenged any minister or elder based on their handling of core Christian theology?

Another suggestion from the forum is that we consider writing our own doctrinal statement. Thankfully this is not their preferred option because most of us would be dead and buried before that particular document was approved. Also, even if we could agree a bespoke statement of faith, the product would likely struggle to affirm a theology of God (or “the sacred we know as God”). Instead areas of general agreement such as creation care and social justice would become the only central tenets of the Kirk’s faith.

All this leads to the title of this blog; is it worth the effort? In a year when the Kirk is being asked to reduced ministers by another 20%, to reduce Presbyteries down to around nine and to consider the value of Presbyterian governance, is it worth also trying to define our faith? If we’ve not satisfactorily defined it since the 1560, what’s the harm in waiting a few more years?

And forget the progressive wing of the Church; when was the last time conservatives turned to the Westminster Confession for clarification on theology? More importantly, when was the last time, amongst quoting C S Lewis, J I Packer, Tim Keller or Tom Wright, you quoted a theologian from the CofS? In fairness, I’ve nearly made it through the first chapter of Torrance’s Incarnation. But the point being, we seldom look within our denomination for a theological lead. In terms of central support from the Kirk, it’s not the theological pronouncements that are useful but HR, the safeguarding, press and legal offices, the clerks and the General Trustees.

These are genuine questions. Do we need a shared theological statement? There is clearly an expectation that we should have one, but is it necessary or even possible? Would it be wrong to simply remove the expectation of a shared confession? Would it be more honest to share an administrative structure and not pretend that there is a coherent theological position? For clarity, I’m not saying this would be my dream situation, far from it! But would some of the angst and contention be removed if the Kirk stopped trying to define its theology and simply shared administration? Like Better Call Saul, separate firms with a shared reception.

So what about call?

Recently, I’ve been trying to think through some of the questions that new ministry structures raise for the Church of Scotland.

And there’s a big one around the issue of ‘the call’!

For some their ‘call’ has an almost sacramental significance. They return to it for comfort and assurance in the same way as Luther reminisced of his baptism. Others are more pragmatic or even dismissive; believing the call to ‘word and sacrament’ has been raised too high above the general calling of all Christians.

I also suspect high and low views of call transcend the traditional theological boundaries of progressive and conservative. But no matter how sacred we consider ‘the call’ the likely restructuring of the Kirk will challenge all of us.

The language of call is of particular significance in the CofS because in the absence of Bishops the call functions as our Presbyterian sorting hat. An Individual may discern a call, but central committees must affirm it, congregations must echo it and Presbytery’s must confirm it.

Calling therefore operates on multiple levels from a personal sense of vocation to the fulfilment of a perceived institutional necessity, ie this vacant church requires a minister to function effectively. For example, I felt a strong, if uncomfortable and unwelcome, draw towards ministry in the Church of Scotland. But my particular background meant that I’d never heard of ‘Word and Sacrament’ or thought about ‘Parish Ministry’. Which is the authentic call; the personal conviction or the available institutional expression? What are we called to?

This is significant because until relatively recently ministers in the Kirk were generally called to a particular charge. But what will we be called to in the the unfamiliar territory of a post covid, post Christian and post GA 2021 world and an increasingly congregational Kirk?

And if we object to a redefined concept of call. Will we be on strong biblical ground, or simply expressing a preferred historical approach to filling institutional slots? Can we redefine ourselves as called to a region or a social subcategory? Can we consider ourselves called to something other than a parish and still be considered a ‘real minister’? The pioneer minister pilot assumed that we could as do different forms of chaplaincy.

And lastly, many of the concerns from my previous post about hubs are relevant here. Working in teams is a good idea, in theory. And deploying ministers over larger areas and multiple congregations and ministries may be a necessity. But can it work in our specific context and can it be bluntly applied based solely on geographical proximity or current vacancy?

In the case of call, these may be even bigger questions. Because, while congregations may be often less concerned with theology than function, it’s the nature of theological practitioners to really care about theology.

Planning for failure?

The introduction of ‘hub ministry’ to the language of the Church of Scotland was met with the expected range of responses. At one end of the spectrum, there was eye rolling and the rehearsal of the long list of restructuring proposals that have come and gone in the last 20 years (parish groupings anyone?). At the other end of the spectrum was enthusiastic early adoption by those striving to reverse the downward spiral of the CofS.

While initially it appeared that hubs were about cooperation, it became clear that they had an additional task; to make accompanying efficiencies and staff reductions.

Hubs were soon renamed clusters or networks, but the aims remained the same and this dual purpose means that they have an inherent contradiction which may challenge their effectiveness. In fact there are a number of issues with hubs which, if not inherent, relate to their current application.

Dual Purpose

To cooperate with a neighbouring church requires trust. Trust between Christian communities is, of course, desirable. But in a Presbyterian context, it is vital because cooperation is near impossible to enforce. In the Kirk, cooperation must be ‘encouraged’ because it cannot be ‘instructed’.

Real trust between churches can be rare. I enjoyed participating in one of the, apparently few, ‘Parish Groupings’ that worked. However, that success was based on serious intent, pre-existing shared core theology and vision and conducive personalities. Removing one of those characteristics would have seriously challenged effective cooperation.

The theological broadness in the Kirk can make building trust with neighbouring congregations a, possibly insurmountable, challenge. But even where churches have similar theology and vision, simple competitiveness, or complacency, can ruin trust.

And this is where the dual nature of hubs comes into play. Hubs require cooperation but by being agents of a ministerial cull they also build mistrust. How can we expect trust from people vying for the same post?

If we want effective, successful, hub ministries we need to remove from them the accompanying expectation to identify which partner congregation should lose its minister or MDS worker. It would be better for unity to have all members in a hub working together to challenge an externally proposed reduction in staff, rather than them fight against one another to save their minister.

Geographical Evenness

Another potential problem with hubs is found where they aim to reduce ministry staff in a particular geographical location without reference to what is happening elsewhere. For example, should we ask a cluster of healthy growing congregations to reduce their staffing levels in order to reallocate ministers or MDS workers to hubs where the churches are in long term decline? Or should that same healthy hub reduce staff when the required Presbytery reduction can already be found through forthcoming retirements across the Presbytery?

This form of planning may be grounded in the apparent geographical evenness required by the Third Article. But while the aim to bring the good news of Christ Jesus to every part of our nation is laudable, it should not be at the cost of wise planning. Surely it is better to invest where there is growth and prune where branches are dying? Should we leave parts of Scotland without a witness to Jesus? No! Growing congregations should be encouraged to plant where other ministries and congregations no longer exist. In fact such a missional culture is one indicator of a healthy church.

Theology & Geography

At the recent Theological Forum event to discuss the Westminster Confession of Faith, we were told that the Church of Scotland had no stated definition of ‘the substance of the faith’. And in practice it does appear that, apart from a few, often secondary issues, the Kirk is essentially a theological free for all. This may be too cynical but perhaps the CofS is now held together only by shared legal and fiscal systems, by charity law, safeguarding and GDPR policy.

It is possible that neighbouring congregations can cooperate in these more practical areas for example with a shared safeguarding officer or treasurer. But for real trust, effective mission and long-term shared worship a deeper basis of unity is necessary. It is institutionally naive, or evidence of a long term goal to impose theological beigeness, to assume that, in general, neighbouring churches can achieve more than shared administration.

It is very unlikely that the theological factionalism of the Kirk will disappear any time soon. Therefore if hubs are to work at a deeper level, they will have to move beyond the blunt imposition of cooperation between adjacent parishes.

A last thought

Having said all of this, hubs themselves will not save the Church of Scotland. At best they may allow more efficient management of our demise. Surely the Kirk will only be saved if she rediscovers her founding mission; to live for the salvation of Scotland’s people and the glory of Jesus Christ. Indeed only when this replaces her current mission of self-preservation will she be worth saving.