Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The priesthood of all is a commisioning

I'm pondering the theology of Unitarian ministry in preparation for a conference in Oxford in two weeks where we're going to be discussing this issue.

It's very difficult to speak about professional ministry with a community that believes in the priesthood (and prophethood) of all members. We do not have a "high" or sacremental theology of ministry. We say that everything a minister can do, a lay person could do too. So why do we need ministers?

In British Unitarianism we do not even have the rite of ordination, which in other traditions, and other branches of the Unitarian family, provides a clearer picture of who is a minister and who is not. And as a small declining denomination we have relied increasingly on various forms of lay leadership. Today the majority of our congregations do not have ministers.

So what is a Minister is everyone ministers (verb)? Do we indeed really need Ministers?

If we believe in the priesthood of all, then why can't we all do the ministry of preaching, pastoring, organising?

But here's the point for me: the idea of a priesthood of all members is not a statement of the way things are by some sort of fiat or miracle. Hey presto: you walked through the doors of a church, and now you're a priest! Now you can do all the ministry you need to. Rather the idea of the priesthood of all is a challenge, a commisioning, something to aspire to.

Becoming a Unitarian does not make you a priest, already capable of ministering. Becoming a Unitarian means you are challenged to the best of your ability to develop your gifts in service to the congregation and the world. Becoming a Unitarian means you are challenged to go deeper into your spiritual life, to pray more deeply; becoming a Unitarian means you are challenged to learn more about Unitarianism and the spiritual traditions of the world; becoming a Unitarian means you are challenged to become more compassionate; becoming a Unitarian means you are challenged to discern where your gifts lie: in caring, organising, leading, supporting, cooking, preaching, praying, loving, singing, prophet-ing - and then to offer those gifts.

But how will you be able to learn all these things? How will you be guided into your priestly vocation? How about by someone who's full-time job it is to guide, teach, and pastor you in this way? We call that person a Minister.

The Minister is the spiritual resource for this learning and growing. The Minister's job is to remind the community of its deepest values, to teach and guide the community, to give people the fullest and widest education to become the priests they are called to be.

And if someone in the congregation has the gifts in the appropriate areas of ministry then they should consider putting themselves forward to be a full time professional Minister too.

The Minister is not the only one with a vocation. The Minister is not the only priest. But the Minister's vocation is to help all others to find their vocation. Without a Minister our spiritual searching is likely to get stuck and our vocation will fail to develop to the extent which it could. There are things to be learnt on the spiritual path. There are things to be learnt about how to care for people. There are things to be learnt about how best to organise a community. The source and resource for our learning is a Minister who is spiritually grounded and deeply knowledgable about such things.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Angela @ liveunitarianly.com said...

If we believe in the priesthood of all, then why can't we all do the ministry of preaching, pastoring, organising?
We can. It's just that we don't have the time, inclination, or possibly the skills. Frankly, I've met actual ministers who are rubbish at least 1 of those 3 so it's not like they're all that special either.

How will you be guided into your priestly vocation? How about by someone who's full-time job it is to guide, teach, and pastor you in this way? We call that person a Minister.
I have met several ministers who I have learned a great deal from. But none that I would trust to guide me in the way you suggest. I've actually found that it's the Unitarian community as a whole (lay and ministers) who fulfil this kind of role for me. I find my place by taking lots of different inputs and ideas rather that relying on one person.

The Minister's job is to remind the community of its deepest values, to teach and guide the community, to give people the fullest and widest education to become the priests they are called to be.
This I like - I think that's pretty much a minister's job description.

Without a Minister our spiritual searching is likely to get stuck and our vocation will fail to develop to the extent which it could.
I think this is not true. You do need to share your ideas and yourself with people in order to grow, but those people need not be ministers. Lots of Unitarians think deeply and develop their vocations without having a minister. And there are non-clerical denominations whose members grow and develop. Clearly they don't need ministers, and they're only human like the rest of us.

And if someone in the congregation has the gifts in the appropriate areas of ministry then they should consider putting themselves forward to be a full time professional Minister too.
Which kind of presupposes that those gifts are more important than any other gifts you might have. Or that you can afford to apply for training. Or that you have the stamina for full time service. If you have gifts for ministry, there should be more than one way of using them.

10:48 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

It may interest you to know that Wicca also has a priest(ess)hood of all members, but there are 3 levels - at the first level, you are a priest/ess unto yourself; at the second level, you can train others, and at the third level, you can run a group (in practice some people run a group at the second level). There is of course more to it than this; I have just given a brief summary here.

I think Unitarian ministers need to have a distinct function (so they feel that the training was worth something), but I do agree that there is a ministry of all members.

I like your post, Stephen, but I think Angela (above) has made some very valid points, too.

8:49 pm  
Blogger louiseandzoe said...

Thanks Stephen for this thoughtful piece. Here are my thoughts.

I believe that ministers are called to develop authentic soulful relationships with their community and the individuals within that. Ministers are the reminders that ours are sacred communities rather than social clubs. One of their main abilities should to speak in the language of the soul and be attentive to the spiritual needs of all the people not just those who speak the loudest or attend the most. They should be able to put into words our spiritual longing. They should also remind us when we are not behaving as we would wish to e.g. not being democratic or kind.

Ministers and their communities should develop together - they are integral parts of one thing - a faithful community. You cannot separate out ministers from ministered to - they should live and work organically together, co-creating. How ministry develops is as much to do with the ministered to as the minister. At my local faith community we have a part-time minister so the ministry of community members becomes more obvious but it is always there and should be recognised and appreciated.

Ministry is rather like parenting – when children are young you have to do a lot for them and as they grow you not only do less but you are more mindful that you are a role model for them. A good minister will understand how ‘old’ their community and the individuals within it are and act accordingly. A good parent wants to be good enough that their children attain adulthood as happy and whole human beings who, whilst being true to themselves, live by certain values and forever feel connected to and committed to their family.

Louise xx

10:38 am  

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