The summer holidays are a chance to worship away from home and experience a different congregational culture and worship style. This year the services we attended offered a smorgasbord of worship and preaching, and the chance to meet some genuine and friendly people. But the variety also caused some concern. I found myself reflecting on the messages I heard – and others I have encountered in recent times. I wondered, who is responsible for ensuring the Word that is preached is authentically Christian and aligned with the gospel it represents?
Let me describe a few situations, with an attempt to anonymise where possible. The first was a service led by a lay person with considerable experience in churches and ministry. It was a busy family time, so admittedly they had not put a lot of preparation into the message, a well-known gospel story. But the caveat was offered: “We are all adults. We can read the Word for ourselves. So what I have to say is offered in humility, and if you hear God saying something different to you, that’s fine”. I actually resonated with that. It fits with my theology of preaching, and my practice of bringing in other voices from time to time so the congregation gets a varied diet. I had often preached on that passage, so I was interested to hear another perspective. In fact, it was very acceptable sermon. It covered not only the main bases biblically and historically, but also some contemporary themes like gender. It had a clear point of application which had relevance for me personally. And it was presented in short chunks with songs in between, which lightened the cognitive load for summer holiday listeners. It’s good to listen with an openness that puts one’s own hermeneutic discoveries aside, and I have often been blessed by volunteer preachers like that. But not always.
Later in the service, we heard from another speaker. They were a visitor, but known to the leaders. Asked to bring a ‘Word from the Lord’, they shared their conviction that Donald Trump and Brexit are a sign of the imminent return of Christ, and that Jesus is on the side of the Zionists in Israel. There was no careful exegesis, just stream of consciousness prophetic announcement. Those listening seemed to embrace these ‘certain signs’ of the inbreaking kingdom, and I was thankful that no unchurched seekers were present. Sad to say this is not the only time I have inwardly cringed when visiting churches in holiday. Another lay preacher I heard scattered their sermon with gender-exclusive expressions like “God and man” and “my better half.” This irks me because I know our denomination has encouraged gender-inclusive language (for people) since 1993. Other leaders use sermon content off the internet, verbatim, without attribution or indigenisation. One preacher spoke about women in such a patronising manner that a listener said to me, I’m a mother but I’m also doing a PhD, and I don’t like being put in a motherhood box. The pulpit is not the place for political and theological partisanship, and the kind of theological naiveté that can misrepresent our faith and our heritage. However, these services are often in country parishes led by a Local Ministry Team, and there isn’t the regional leadership to assess every service. But I couldn’t help wondering how better oversight could be offered. Does the denomination know what is being said in its public services? Does it matter?
Well, it does to me. Ministers of the Word are trained to be aware of the context, to take account what groups and cultures are present, and what their sensitivities might be, and what the denomination has already stated about theological or political issues. They are also attuned to the communication needs of visitors who may be unchurched, or have poor English. That’s why I appreciate Gil Rendle’s claim that clergy, or other ministers who have undertaken theological training, are ‘custodians’ of the gospel. He was writing in 2002 about the rapidly changing context of ministry, a profession whose ‘jurisdiction’ has been taken over by new health and educational consultants; he didn’t mention the impact of social media and TED talks because they weren’t around in 2002! But the trajectory of ferment and creativity he described then continues, and the vocation of ministry today is even more of a challenge to both church and individual.
Postmodern society places authority and responsibility with the individual, and the task of hermeneutic is now seen as accessible by the ordinary Bible reader, as in the sermon introduction described above. In a world where everyone’s opinion counts, congregational leaders must be quite cautious in seeking consensus, and authoritative teaching evokes charges of clericalism. But Rendle says postmodernity fails to offer answers to recurring questions about meaning and purpose, and in this changing landscape, the work of the ministry is still to speak ‘the truth of faith’ across a broad range of human experience cite. Ministers are still the custodians of meaningful tradition, and curators of good tools for finding those answers. The spiritual disciplines of the faith – prayer, forgiveness, hospitality, Sabbath, discernment - are rich resources of ultimate meaning. Ministers, he says, need to locate themselves deep in the texts and traditions of faith, and bring the alternative paradigms of the Scriptures to everyday human experience (Rendle, 2002).
So how to deal with the bourgeoning numbers of small parishes who – due to size or remoteness - do not have a professional minister to lead and teach them? I found an intriguing answer in a little book I’ve been reading about women’s roles in church. Historian John Dickson works in the context of the Sydney (Australia) Anglican church where female ordination to leadership is still questioned, and even the issue of whether a woman can preach on an occasional basis is debated. His 2014 book “Hearing her Voice” is a careful examination by a theologically-trained historian who unpacks the specific meaning of the word teach (Gr didasko) in the epistles. Dickson concludes that the word translated ‘teaching’ (as in “I do not allow women to teach” 1 Tim 2: 12) is distinct from preaching, exhorting, or prophesying, and refers to the authoritative passing on of the oral tradition in the early church, before the New Testament was available. He parallels that teaching role – reserved at that time to male apostles – with that of the rabbis preserving the oral tradition in Judaism.
It remains to be seen what impact this work will have on evangelical Anglicans; there has been quite a backlash. But the intriguing sidebar to his (for me) compelling thesis is the question of what constitutes that authoritative role today, when we have the New Testament canon and most of us assign leadership roles to both men and women? He suggests the task of preparing the preaching roster is a good parallel to the authority given to the apostles. It’s a curator role that doesn’t require all preachers to be ordained males, and for me it offers a model for training and oversight in lay-led churches. Someone from within or beyond the local church is designated custodian – kaitiaki - of meaning (biblical and denominational), and charged with overseeing the service roster to ensure an appropriate range of Scripture is covered, that precious texts and ecumenical traditions are understood, and that the voices heard reflect a range of genders, generations and cultures.
Such a custodian role is both biblical and practical – and could safeguard both churches and individuals.
"And God chose me to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of this Good News..... I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.
Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you."
To think about: how could this notion be applied to the leading of communion and baptismal services?