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.

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