Irregular & Unlearned

The Last Supper – By Leonardo Da Vinci
The Last Supper where Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist, the jewel in the crown of the Church and its most important sacrament.

In the light of attempts to hold irregular ordinations without the Eucharist, the Rev’d Dr James Hadley suggests it may be a sign of the lack of depth in current theological thinking and formation in the Church of England

When General Synod revised the Ornaments Rubric in 2017, many stated that there was no theological agenda behind the move. It was simply to recognize the fact that in many parishes, or fresh expressions, vestments are not worn; it was presented as a matter of cleaning-up law to reflect practice. Yet, in the light of recent developments, one may be forgiven for thinking that this was, in fact, a first salvo against a theology of Orders. The online-world briefly lit up again a few weeks ago on Ian Paul’s recycled opinion (which I responded to here originally) that bishops’ mitres should go because an Anglican theology of the episcopacy is incongruous with the practice. Clerical dress aside, the more astounding claim was that episcopal ministry was basically one of oversight – a matter of jurisdiction – the highest ‘line-manager’, if you will.

Another situation popped up recently when the Diocese of Chelmsford sent out plans for the ordination of deacons, indicating that the rite would take place in a ‘non-eucharistic’ service. The Chelmsford decision has now been reversed so that the ordinations will take place as prescribed in approved liturgical books and according to canons. The impact remains, however, even with the about-face; such an arrangement completely ignored the ancient ecclesiological and sacramental premise that the Church is made in the Eucharist, and that the relationship of bishop, presbyter, and deacon is first brought about and defined in the context of Eucharistic fellowship and ministry. The most famous iteration of this principle being St Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote: “Be careful therefore to use one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union with his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do you may do it according to God.” (Letter to the Philadelphians 4). Nevertheless, another Diocese – Truro – is attempting to do the same thing.

Contrary to the appearance these events may give, the fact is that the Church of England has a robust theology of ‘sacramental’ Orders expressed most explicitly in both Synod papers and ecumenical statements: Anglican-Roman Catholic Statement on Ordination (1973), The Eucharist, Ministry and Authority (1981), The Priesthood of Ordained Ministry (1986), Eucharistic Presidency (1997), Anglican-Methodist Covenant (2001), among others. The situations and opinions mentioned above should be a surprise to ministers within the Church of England, and to our ecumenical partners. Prima facie, it would be odd that, if the Church of England considered itself essentially Presbyterian or congregationalist, it should have gone out of its way to argue for the legitimacy of both its Orders and Eucharist according to Roman Catholic definitions – which it did in its response (Saepius officio, 1897) to the papal declaration of the invalidity of Anglican Orders.

One wonders whether many current theological statements are not indicative of theological slippage in the Church. Anders Bergquist, a former member of the Liturgical Commission, seemed to anticipate as much with regard to Orders when he wrote of the special importance of the Common Worship ordination services as an anchor of theology and praxis “in the context of the increasing prevalence of a discourse about ordained ministry which sees it as a category of employment, to be organized, appraised and resourced on the analogy of secular employment” (God’s Transforming Work, 63). His insight is more broadly applicable – what is properly a theological question should not be transformed into another type of discourse – and I would suggest that this is precisely what is occurring in the Church. Diverse trends, which are both causes and outcomes, are coalescing around, and putting pressure on, the ‘doing of theology’.

I’d like to identify three key issues in this regard:

Lack of in-depth theological education

As well as training institutions operating within increasingly limited means, the Church is progressively opting for a system of ministry formation that puts in place pastoral-functionaries, rather than pastoral-theologians. Recently Robin Ward, Principal of St Stephen’s House, speaking in a lecture for the Church Union about training, highlighted the problem, pointing out that asking ordinands to do ‘theological reflection’ when they have never studied theology is rather nonsensical. Such is indicative of a system, which, primarily for financial motives, seems to trust that pastoral earnestness is going to win over one of the most well-educated, and secularized, laity in history. The real risk in not enabling robust theological study before undertaking ministry is that we are becoming a Church that is incapable of explaining what it is we believe in a coherent and convincing fashion. We seem to have misunderstood that theological education is for the sake of competent, fruitful ministry – not an optional tack-on.

Management and sociology as theology

While contemporary theology is eager to accept the perspectives and insights of other disciplines, when ministry is not driven by informed theology, praxis can quickly be taken over with management and statistics – as if we can measure the Kingdom. Too often the temptation is to flatten questions of truth and meaning, and replace them with a focus on cultural trends and approaches to issues based in hyper-contextualization. An approach to theology that privileges the social sciences over theology tends to further transactional characterizations of ministry. The object of faith and inquiry is no longer God but a transient ‘snap-shot’ of cultural identities which become the judge of faith. The downside of this trend is that knowing numbers does not make people know Jesus, and knowing a culture does not mean knowing hearts, nor necessarily the will of God. It ultimately weakens witness, by assuming that if everything is just organized and analysed better, then the Spirit will be present. Giles Fraser pointed out the sad outcome of this trend, noting that the primary impression given by the Church to the nation at the start of the COVID-19 crisis was not to use its position to speak of hope and faith in the suffering Christ, but to go home and manage church property.

Emerging structures and organisation militating against theology

As training and funding move ‘down-stream’, away from national to diocesan level, with an increasing focus on the contextual, what we are seeing is a trend towards a Church that is Presbyterian/congregationalist or non-denominational in character, because it is lacking in the stability provided by a strong grounding in truly Anglican theological principles. The Church of England risks becoming a place where any minister may claim anything as long as he or she can identify a vague scriptural warrant or cite an example from another parish. This is an understandable default response in a ‘do-it-yourself’ ministry environment, but Anglican polity has always put itself forward as catholic and reformed. This has never suggested an existence of independent units that think and do as they please, but rather a system in which a negotiated consensus, or at least balance, was reached. Such an ecclesiology relies upon, and gives rise to, a theology that takes seriously the Church as local, diocesan, and universal, not fundamentally individual. It assumes a shared theological enterprise as the life of the Church. If structures continue to evolve as they currently are, the mechanisms that promote a theology of Anglican identity and institutional coherence will hyper-fragment in short order, leaving us with a new Babel and a very different Church of England.

Admittedly there are no easy solutions to the issues raised above. Yet it seems to me that appreciating theology anew as the language of faith, and as the Anselmian mechanism of “faith seeking understanding”, is a good starting place to rehabilitate any recent lack of sensitivity to the task of theology. If the Church is to give witness to the kerygma in fresh and convincing ways, this must be done in the realm of theology. All of us in the Church need to know what it is we are on about, both for the sake of the Church and the world.

The Rev’d Dr James Hadley is Curate of the Parish of Harpenden. His academic interests include liturgical and sacramental theology, and religious art.

3 thoughts on “Irregular & Unlearned

  1. “…what we are seeing is a trend towards a Church that is Presbyterian/congregationalist or non-denominational in character, because it is lacking in the stability provided by a strong grounding in truly Anglican theological principles”.

    Perhaps. However, it is also because the clergy are no longer funded by their own resources or taxation (the classical combination of glebe and tithe). That formula came to an end because the returns from glebe were often insufficient to cover clerical costs in a protracted agricultural depression and because tithe was politically contentious. There was then a shift to supporting the clergy by subventions from central Church funds. That, too, became unaffordable. Since 1998 clergy have been financed via the parish share system and are, therefore, dependent upon the goodwill of the laity.

    The clergy have, therefore, lost their financial independence and, with it, a large portion of their authority. The laity now expect to get what they pay for: hence the drift to congregationalism. If you have a congregationalist system of finance you will, over time, have a congregationalist church, even if it is one that retains some of the trappings of the old system of ecclesial command and control. Since the value of theological erudition to the laity is very uncertain (if not practically non-existent), it is little wonder that seminary education has also drifted towards giving the laity what the authorities perceive the laity want. Clergy who endeavour to return to the command-and-control attitudes of the past (which, owing to the old power of church rate payers, vestries and patrons was never as great as many suppose) are liable to get short shrift; a parson who attempts to exert ‘authority’ as a supplicant for funds from the relevant congregation is likely to plunge into his/her own credibility gap.

    So it really is about the numbers (‘bums on pews’): no numbers = no finance = no stipendiary clergy. If the clergy who protest this tendency were to agitate for a return for a modified form of the pre-1998 funding arrangements they might have some slight chance of regaining their authority and, perhaps also, their erudition. However, what I suspect they themselves realise (if not actually then instinctively) is that the Commissioners would fight a strong rear-guard action against any such agitation, for the parish system is the main bulwark against the diminution of the Commissioners’ endowment, and its prospective growth. The Commissioners believe sincerely, but wrongly, that the waxing of their endowment over the last generation is due to their own genius for investment, rather than the waning of the parishes by dint of the implicit regressive subsidy by the parishes of the Commissioners via the parish share. The bishops (who are themselves Commissioners, and who are the pensioners of the Commissioners [no conflict of interest there!]) sometimes seem almost blase about the fate of the parishes, except as small trusts holding assets which can be ‘realised’ in due course. Rather as GM or Ford have been characterised as enormous pension liabilities with small and failing auto companies attached, so the Church of England risks becoming a substantial central endowment with a moribund parish system attached (actually, we have probably come to that pass already).

    By failing to agitate for a different system of funding (possibly in default of there being a credible alternative in the context of collapsing attendance), the bulk of the clergy are complicit in the erosion of both their theological erudition and their conception of themselves as a distinct caste. Once the conventional parish system finally evaporates we will probably be left with a few ‘successful’ evangelical churches whose clergy will place a massive premium on their expository (as opposed to their priestly) functions, and a number of online ‘house’ churches led by mainly lay ‘enthusiasts’ (most of which will fade away quite quickly) as part of a privatised Church *in* England. This is a future Church that will have negligible appeal to me.

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