With Pentecost comes the season of calling and gift, words that are often conflated with ministry. Like ministry, the word ‘gift’ can be deployed to elevate the most ordinary activity into something approaching the sublime. You can have a ‘ministry’ to song, or to routine admin, or even, as a friend of mine was once told by her mother in law, a ‘gift’ for stacking – stacking plates, apparently. It is also the season for talking about God in a way which can sound controlling and manipulative of God, and sometimes of other people, as if God is there to be told what to do. From this, follows a distorted perception of calling. We talk about God ‘calling’ us to a particular ministry or course of action, one which can often coincide with our particular life plan or which conveniently melds with our own fantasies; in the case of the ordained ministry, the lure of status and of a degree of power over others.
Despite these vanities, the call to the ordained ministry is real. It is every bit as hard core as the ministry of Christ on which our own priestly ministry ought to be modeled. It is sacrificial, in an ordinary and everyday context. The best priests go largely unnoticed, except by those they serve with love. The ordained ministry is also a unique gift, not because it sets a person apart from others, but because it confers a responsibility on that person to embody the gift of God into the world, beginning with the people they are called to serve.
The priest or deacon is called to be in the world but not of it. Here, ‘the world’ can be understood to also mean the system or organisation. When the church behaves like an organisation, and systematises calling, those who are called to serve it as priests and deacons must embody a resistance to the system itself. Resistance to the system is part of their calling to be as Christ to the world, in the way he saw and loved the world and its people. It follows that the specific ministry to which they are called is likely to be felt way beyond the confines of the institutional Church.
Smaller worshiping communities, who may already feel somewhat out on a limb in regard to the wider Church, can feel slightly abandoned when a talented person ‘graduates’ to the ordained ministry, unless, of course, that person returns to serve them after ordination. Parishes need their returning ordinands (OLM’s), not only to prevent further numerical diminishment, but because these new clergy will bring energy and love, two attributes of the Holy Spirit, to a community that already knows and loves them for who they are. If they are returning to a liturgically orientated worshiping context they will be at an advantage, having something of the enlivening Spirit that has shaped prayer over the centuries and that will continue to give substance and depth to their calling.
Traditional worship, drawing on the enduring faith of centuries, shapes a person’s life in God, and in the context of eternity. This suggests that the future of the Church lies in a greater sense of the eternal, of the ongoing nature of the worship that has been handed down to it and that becomes part of a local church’s collective subconscious. This in turn suggests that the Church needs to select those candidates for ordination who visibly demonstrate a life that is lived from within God. Such a life will be vulnerable to the pain of others and to the rejection that they will experience from those who view them as a threat to the status quo, because their detachment from power makes them all the more powerful. They will become truly inspirational leaders, as opposed to individuals with a given set of skills that can be honed in such a way as to lead to their own preferment within the existing hierarchy, or even to surviving in one that has professionalised the role of the parish priest almost beyond recognition.
Such poor spiritual resourcing also leads to an increasingly introspective institutional mindset. To many people, the Church seems unclear about its meaning and purpose. It becomes lost in detail, or in issues that are only tangential to its life in God, so obscuring the face of God from the people it is called to serve. In the life of the institutional Church this suggests a need to review the way status and hierarchy appear to have become detached from the idea of genuine servanthood. Those who feel out of touch with the Church are often people who feel distanced from an over busy parish priest, from a bishop whom they seldom see, or from issues being debated that should, and perhaps have, been resolved long ago.
This is when the most justifiable cause can make the Church seem out of touch and irrelevant to the world, to people who are desperately seeking a sense of the sacred in a world governed by pragmatism and the need to achieve and be recognized. The battle for recognition of women in ordained ministry has been fought and largely won, in organizational terms at least. The battle for recognition of the full humanity of LGBTQ+ still has far to go. In the case of people with disabilities it has barely begun. In all of these areas urgent work remains to be done in re-building bridges and learning to re-establish trust between those who have been hurt by the past, and by the ongoing hurt being suffered by many in the present. It is a contemplative task which should define the institutional Church to the world and be at the heart of its calling.