A Clerical Reduction?

Lent provides an historical impetus to reclaim the treasured foci of Christian devotion. The Scriptures always exceed our deepest reflections and surpass our broadest experiences. Measured Christian reflection involves intersections between the biblical witness and the attempts of God’s people, past and present, to engage with the ideologies of the world while remaining faithful to the essential teachings of Christianity. Humility, sacrifice, self-denial, servanthood- these fruits of the Spirit resonate with the tenor of Lent and keep us in tune with the mind of Christ. They also afford us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of Christian service generally, and the pastoral ministry, in particular.

The late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in reply to an Anglican friend regarding women’s ordination, proposes that the idea is driven by clericalism. “It is indeed almost entirely dominated by the old ‘clerical’ view of the church and the double ‘reduction’ in it. The reduction on the one hand, of the church to a ‘power structure’, the reduction on the other hand, of that power structure to the clergy.” (Concerning Women’s Ordination- a letter to an Episcopal friend) What are we to make of this?

I doubt that many proponents of female ordination would agree the agenda is driven by a return to clericalism. It would seem to contradict an increasingly functional view of the ministry as popularly understood: The pastor performs a set of duties or ‘functions’ and these are not necessarily understood to connote any essential or organic connections to the Office of the Ministry. If pastoral ministry is primarily a practical vocation why can’t anyone serve in this capacity? Isn’t the pastor basically just the man charged with keeping things organised? Aren’t the tenets of egalitarianism not only pervasive in, but also beneficial for, our communal Christian life?

I believe that many who would support women’s ordination, and also those who don’t, would quickly dismiss Schmemann’s claim of clericalism. But should the entire critique be so easily brushed aside? To relate to Schmemann’s claim it might be helpful to substitute his reference to clergy with that of leadership. Do we understand those in positions of leadership to be primarily facilitators of power structures within the church, or at least the main participants therein? In a Western mindset dominated by the mantras of personal rights and equal opportunity these considerations resonate with us. Is the opportunity to participate in such power structures an inalienable right for believers? If so, what does this say about our understanding of the meaning of service and the manner in which the church is governed?

Few would dispute that the pastoral ministry is fundamentally a vocation of serving. Ministers mirror the attitudes and actions of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 4:16) The words of Christ are not only descriptive, they are definitive for His saving work, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) Is not Christ’s service (and that to the point of death) more than exemplary? Is it not more than a model for us? Is it not the very manner in which He is continually in communion with His Bride, the Church? Is it not the antithesis of all human exercise of power?

God requires that things in the church (including the processes of institutions) be handled in an orderly fashion. (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40) But Christ emphatically eschews power-structuring as a way in which the church should operate. (See Matthew 20:25-26) There is no conflict here. The wind blows where it will, but the church’s ministry is not to be disorganized or haphazard. Yet the request of the mother of James and John that they sit on Jesus’ right and left was not only presumptuous; it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the apostolic ministry to which they were called.

Service and self-sacrifice are not personal choices, as if we could decide to exercise these options as expressions of Christian obedience. They are incumbent on the baptized, and especially on those who occupy the pastoral office. They are fruits of the Spirit. Christ suffered in the flesh. Do our lives not reflect His incarnational presence precisely to the extent we bear the burdens of others? Such bearing never courts recognition; never seeks power.

Is there a need to exonerate ourselves from Schmemann’s criticisms?

The full text of Schmemann’s letter can be found here: www.episcopalnet.org/TRACTS/ConcerningOrdination.html

Pastor Darrin Kohrt, Lent 2014