Yet again I feel the need to emphasise that all God’s people are called to ministry. Only recently I reviewed a book with the title Edgewise? Experiences of some Anglican lay women. This should not be, I thought. Here we are in 2021: surely by now terms such as ‘laity’ and ‘lay’ should belong to the pages of history. The whole church is the laos, the people of God. The whole body of Christ is priestly. It is a theological nonsense to speak of the clergy on the one hand and the laity on the other. We are all called to serve God. Ministry, a term derived from a Latin word for ‘service’, is the prerogative of all God’s people.
This doctrine of every-member ministry is based on the New Testament as a whole, but comes to the fore in particular in Eph 4.11-12 where Paul writes of the Risen Christ: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (NRSV). Ministry for Paul is ministry of the whole people of God – it is not confined to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Furthermore, as Eph 4.11-16 makes clear, the body of Christ can only be built up as Christian in general are “equipped” for the work of “ministry”. Indeed, one can argue from the word Paul uses here for ‘equipping’ that without every member ministry the body of Christ will not function aright. For the underlying Greek word katartizein in other contexts is used of the setting of broken bones and the mending of broken nets: i.e. we can infer that where Christians in general are not fulfilling their ministries, the church can be likened to a hopeless cripple or to a fisherman seeking to catch fish with gaping holes in his net!
In many ways it is unfortunate that in Britain the ordained are known as ‘ministers’. The New Testament teaches the ministry of all and the leadership of some. It is even more unfortunate that so many Anglican ministers call themselves ‘priests’. The New Testament teaches the priesthood of all believers. What is more, by calling themselves ‘ministers’ or ‘priests’, leaders in God’s church are effectively disempowering God’s people.
The fact is that all God’s people are gifted for ministry. This is the teaching of Paul in Rom 12.4-8 and 1 Cor 12.4-12, as also of Peter in 1 Pet 4.10-12. For example, Paul prefaces the list of gifts in 1 Cor 12.8-10 with the words “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12.7), and concludes “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12.11). In a very real sense all Christians are ‘charismatic’. Hence the need to hear again the words of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, an agreed theological statement published in 1982 by the World Council of Churches: “All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent”.
Notice in this statement that every-member-ministry is not restricted to the church, but is also to be exercised in the world. Indeed, I would go further and say that for most Christians their primary place of ministry is in the world beyond the church. Instead of sucking the energy of God’s people into the church, church leaders should be encouraging their people to put their energies into serving God in the wider community, in local government, civic leadership or a trade union.
Perhaps even more, church leaders need to emphasise that for working people their primary sphere of mission and ministry is in the world of work. Work is not just a way of earning money. It is there that God’s people need to serve as priests, representing God in the world.. In the graphic words of Edward Patey: “All orders are holy. Plumbers are as much in holy orders as the clergy, serving God and their fellows… Electricians, park-keepers, doctors and typists are all working as much with the things of God as the priest with the sacrament.” Or as Mark Gibbs and Ralph Morton put it in their Christian classic, God’s Frozen People: “There is no fundamental difference in calling between an Archbishop and his chauffeur, between a prime minister and a parish minister – providing they are both in each case faithful and committed Christians”.
Unfortunately, we tend to make unhelpful distinctions between these various callings. As Mark Greene wrote with tongue in cheek: “SSD [the ‘Sacred-Secular Divide’] leads us to believe that really holy people become missionaries, moderately holy people become pastors, and people who are not much use to God get a job”. He went on: “Beyond that, SSD teaches us that there is a hierarchy of holiness even among the 98 percent of non-church-paid Christians. SSD teaches us that people involved in the caring professions – nurses, social workers, teachers – are holier than those involved in industry or commerce. Indeed, it’s because of SSD that the church has historically treated business with some distaste, failing to recognise that the poor need jobs, not just aid, and that there is no poverty without wealth generation. As one businessman put it: ‘The church appreciates my tithe but not the enterprise that gives rise to it’”. Or to quote Richard Broholm, “What we have often failed to see is that the contractor who builds houses, the lab technician who tests for cancer, and the postal worker who bridges the gap between other distant friends are all engaged in a caring ministry even though it is unlikely they will ever intimately know the persons they serve”.
In summary, ministry is not the preserve of the ordained. The church – and, of course, the world – would be a better place if the ordained encouraged, affirmed, honoured and supported the ministry of all God’s people.