Ordained by God

Edward Dowler responds to the recent ‘key limiting factor’ controversy by reminding us that all Christians – ordained or lay – are called to find their place in the whole cosmic order with the angels and saints, in praise of God and in service to his Church.

‘O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Ferocious storms have recently blown over Anglican Twitter after remarks of Canon John McGinley, about the establishment of lay-led churches, were reported in the Church Times (2 July, 2021).  Canon McGinley, head of church planting development at New Wine, was quoted as saying that ‘lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors.  When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church… then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form.  It also releases the discipleship of people.  In church planting there are no passengers.’  

Within hours, a number of clergy had inserted ‘Key Limiting Factor’ or ‘KLF’ on their social media profiles, whilst one theological college proudly boasted that it had been ‘proud to have brought you key limiting factors since 1876’.

It was perhaps slightly unfair to take Canon McGinley’s words quite so personally, since surely it is the overall system, rather than clergymen and women themselves, that he believes to have ‘key limiting factors’.  However, it was also questionable for Canon McGinley to equate the ordained ministry itself with buildings, stipends and a particular form of education.  Whatever the value of these things may or may not be, they are quite separate issues from that of lay or ordained leadership.  It was also symptomatic of a deeper institutional confusion that such a statement should be aired at the exact time of year when bishops are busily ordaining men and women up and down the country.

I was shown a way through this farrago of confusion and misunderstanding when I laid aside these reports to prepare a teaching session on the Sacraments, and gratefully turned to a recent essay on ‘The Sacramental Life’, by David W. Fagerberg, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.  Fagerberg writes from within a Roman Catholic context, but his comments are pertinent for Anglicans, albeit acknowledging a degree of reserve about some aspects of sacramental theology.

Fagerberg reminds us that three of the sacraments: baptism, confirmation and ordination, are traditionally believed to confer a particular character upon the recipient:

‘A seal is called sphragis in Greek, Latinized as character, meaning an engraved mark that is indelible and permanent.  In the ancient world, this word was used to name the brand on a sheep, the tattoo a soldier received on enlisting, or the brand on slaves indicating to what house they belonged.  The seal marks a state of belonging.’

The character that is thus bestowed places a person in a particular relationship to God and to the Church.  As Fagerberg writes, ‘baptism increases the visible Church by one, confirmation establishes an individual Christian to serve within the Church, and holy orders places a… person in ministerial service to the Church’.  

Significantly, Fagerberg notes that ‘in this sense, there is no “unordained” member of the Church’: all baptised Christians take their place within this overall order. The collect for St Michael and all Angels, quoted above, indicates the same point on a cosmic scale, that God has ordained and constituted the service of angels and human beings in a wonderful order.

By contrast with this, the differentiation between ‘lay-led’ and ‘clergy-led’ churches sets up a flat-footed distinction between clergy and laity which may inadvertently reinforce the very clericalism it seeks to combat.  Such a conception tends to establish a zero-sum game in which, as one side goes up the other necessarily decreases in value.  The collect sees things differently: the whole cosmic order has been richly ordered in a wonderful way, with each part contributing to all the rest.  As individual Christian men and women, we are all ordained; all called to find our particular place within this ordering, which of course also includes the angels, and the saints who have gone before us.

Twenty-six years after my own ordination to the priesthood, this dispute has made me reflect on some uncomfortable truths about the extent to which I may have reinforced these crude binary distinctions in my own ministry.  To use Canon McGinley’s terminology, I have often seen myself as a driver with the laity as my passengers; as a businessperson trying to attract the ‘punters’; as a producer with church congregations as the ‘consumers’.  I have little doubt that such an approach may indeed have been a key limiting factor to mission, growth in holiness and encounter with Christ.

The solution, as indicated by Professor Fagerberg and by the collect, is to find a deeper and richer appreciation of beauty, harmony and mutual gift in God’s service and in his praise.  Within such a framework, if we believe it is part of God’s overall ordering that a particular person should plant, nurture and sustain a Christian community, then de facto that person should be ordained, with the outward and visible signs of laying on of hands, anointing and prayer.  To do anything else makes no sense.

The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and priest in charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough in the Diocese of Chichester.

3 thoughts on “Ordained by God

  1. I found this article in the main to be balanced and fair. But what I have a few responses to which I would be keen to the author’s response and others.

    Firstly the phrase that states that the sacraments “are traditionally believed to confer a particular character upon the recipient” – of course this is true in part but this rather assumes this to be universally believed. Perhaps it is not, nor indeed as it always been understood thus. This ontological change idea appears to be the premise of all that follows so let’s allow it for now, but note that it is inferred by the author.

    Secondly, as someone with over a decade of experience in ministry and ordained in another tradition, I find it confusing how in an Anglican context, priestly ordination is often see us the moment at the end of a long period of personal discernment, an academic education, an ordination to an entirely different office, a curacy/extended formation and training period and then another ordination. Perhaps God’s ordaining is not the issue but rather how we have ordered ordination!

    Finally, there was the sudden turn in the road in the last sentences. I am troubled by the disempowerment that this means for lay people (lay lay), and indeed lay ministers; I fear for what it means for ecumism, remembering that many Catholics may already define the CofE as merely an “ecclesial community”, and wonder. how do you see free churches, are they not really churches at all?

    But a further question arises. Ok so if they are to be ordained… I wonder how you would feel if the argument being made was that it was in fact deacons (distinctive rather than transitional) who should lead and plant churches, I am not sure if anyone is arguing this but would we feel equally disvalued by that idea? And would ordination as a deacon require the same process as ordination of a presbytyer (who are of course ordained to be overseeing elders, not congregational leaders). Have we minimised the role of deacons to serving tables forgetting that while Stephen started that way he was soon standing before the crowd preaching, and was the first to be martyred. Deacons could be selected locally, trained locally by priests/presbyters and we would still be an ordered, episcopal and catholic church would we not?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “It was also symptomatic of a deeper institutional confusion that such a statement should be aired at the exact time of year when bishops are busily ordaining men and women up and down the country.”

    I mean surely that is the perfect time to describe them a KLFs? Why is it worth celebrating – or paying the expense – if they aren’t key and if a lack of them do not limit the good that the body can do? When the KLF for my plants is lack of sunlight, I do not get out the watering can.

    Surely – and as I think about this more, I am more worried that this is the case – people are not reading ‘key limiting factor’ as a factor that is key for keeping the church from growing? As if the fellow is comparing the ole of the ordained in the body to the role of those hormones in the human body that prevent giantism. He wants growth. His talk is about growth. It is a pity that any suggestion that the church could employ its buildings, its courses and its priests in a more effective way – that the current way is not the perfect way – is considered a gross personal attack.

    Perhaps every church should have a beautiful building and a personal priest. I think that’s a respectable position to hold. If one looks at rural ministry then one can observe that they’ve already missed the boat, but that’s fine. But it should be argued, not by repeating a phrase like a gaggle of schoolchildren.

    If the suggestion that the nurturing and sustaining of a Christian community is done by the whole body and not by a particular (ordained) person (and likewise planting being done by a team) causes such a clamor, then clericalism must already be present. And if we really must have one person doing the planting and sustaining, perhaps people who are offended by the phrase ‘key limiting factor’ are not the people to trust with key decisive decisions.


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