I’m thinking a lot lately about my vocation and what it means for me to be an ordained pioneer minister. I have a lot of issues to grapple with around the priesthood of all believers and who the church hears and gives voice to, who it allows into power etc, and why God has called me to this vocation – what does it really mean for me to live it out – and is there a conflict between that and what the church wants or expects in terms of role?
I was at a gathering recently about mission and evangelism and what methods should or could be employed to share the good news of the Gospel more effectively. I tried to express the view that the theological training colleges needed to think more broadly about what is taught as the standard model or expectation of priests going into a parish, if we were to see culture change in the wider church. It raised conflict – and made me ponder on how I can articulate this without causing offense and seeming to trash everything about the inherited church and its traditions, which was not my intention.
There is loads that is great about the church, and a lot I have learned and benefited from about the CofE, and I think there is a definite need to join up pioneers and new forms of church with the inherited so they can support, shape and understand one another better. But the reality is that many traditional churches (outside of the large ‘civic’ churches anyway) still see the ‘occasional offices’ as the only necessary/legitimate means of doing mission and the rest of the time are serving the needs of their congregations. The percentage of weddings and funerals done by the CofE is ever dwindling, as new options are available, and the numbers of people baptising their children is down each year. So the opportunities for mission are getting smaller each year if we rely on these only.
It seems that we need to be able to be honest about what the accepted/assumed demands on parish clergy are, the ways in which they work and what could be put down to make time for mission? As the system gets stretched and teams are covering bigger and bigger areas, the Anecdote to Growth report indicates that decline becomes ever more rapid, so people are working harder to stand still. Surely it is time for some radical thinking, experimenting and trialling of new models and ideas so we can learn for the future. It is very hard for pioneers, still perceived as ‘outsiders’ by some, to offer these kinds of suggestion without being the spectre at the feast – there still seems a reluctance to admit what is happening and look beyond it. Should we be more bullish and prophetic, and less listened to, or more friendly and get alongside in order to speak? Or should we mount the experiments ourselves and talk about what we are seeing and learning, showing possible new models?
I also note that because the priestly role is defined as that – a public role – it comes with a lot more baggage and assumptions that start from a place of power and expectation. Of course it is a serving role, but there are expectations about public activity and the demands of a congregation that work to make it more fixed and unmalleable. Whereas in pioneering, one goes out usually with no role, badge, expectation, often no recognisable work space or uniform, often no salary and much more of a skeletal brief around listening to the context. The work and role shape over time and are often not replicable in other places. It is a much more invisible vocation, more fragile and with less power or assumption around it, other than that new disciples will be formed in some way in a new place. It feels that at this stage we must find ways to keep sharing what we are seeing and doing and making clear the connections – and differences – to parish ministry, and to monasticism, mysticism, practical theology and other disciples that intersect pioneering more tangibly than that of parish ministry. It’s a tricky business to remain connected to but free from the constraints of what has gone before. Anyone with answers, on a postcard please….