'Ear to the ground'

Michael Fisher on unholy homogenisation


Thus begins the Preface to the Ordinal in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It was there too - surprising though it might seem to some - in the Edwardine Ordinal of 1552, showing that even in the most radical period of the Reformation the Church of England was careful to preserve the Catholic orders of bishop, priest and deacon, and to testify to their sound scriptural basis.

Last Friday afternoon, while travelling between a hospital and a nursing home, I turned on the car radio and found myself listening to a discussion programme called Ear to the Ground (BBC Radio 4). The participants were talking about religion as the subject of satirical jokes, and where, if at all, a line should be drawn. One member of the panel was an Anglican clergyman who thought that the institutional side of religion was fair game. After all, he said, there was nothing in the New Testament about bishops, priests and deacons.

I reached mentally for my Bible. Surely, I thought, St Paul’s First Letter to Timothy has a whole chapter devoted to bishops and deacons; and what about the account in Acts of the origin of the diaconate, and the ordination of the seven deacons by the apostles themselves? Not even the most sanitized of modern translations could have excised altogether such significant chunks of the New Testament. I concluded therefore that the reverend gentleman had chosen to erase from his memory those portions of Holy Scripture which happened not to accord with his own whims and fancies. Such practice, so I am led to believe, is not uncommon amongst those who have made the most solemn affirmations of faith in Holy Scripture and in the historic formularies of the Church.

That radio programme came in the wake of some other bad news. A member of our church, having attended a selection conference to test a vocation to the permanent diaconate, had been informed that the selectors had not recommended him. The gentleman concerned is a Reader of many years’ standing, a former member of the General Synod, secretary of the local Council of Churches, and currently in the final stages of a theology degree undertaken in his own time and at his own expense. He also happens to be a member of Forward in Faith, but in a Church where ‘inclusiveness’ has become the flavour of the month, doctrinal orthodoxy and fidelity to catholic order should not have weighed too heavily against him. I could not help feeling, therefore, that it was the whole idea of the permanent diaconate which had foxed the selectors. Could this candidate do anything as a deacon that he could not already do as a Reader, they might think; and if not, why go to the expense of training him?

The functions of a deacon are clearly set out in the Prayer Book Ordinal and its equivalents as assisting the priest in the administration of Holy Communion, reading the Gospel at the Eucharist, preaching, baptizing in the absence of a priest, catechizing, and sharing in the ministry of pastoral care. Now it is a matter of fact that the growth of lay ministry has, in recent times, led to almost all of these functions being performed by laypeople. I encourage and support lay ministry in the widest sense, as sharing in the royal priesthood of Christ, but lay ministry is not primarily or exclusively to do with the Liturgy, and it is certainly not about the clericalisation of the laity. It is this latter trend, I fear, which has eroded the concept of the diaconate, making it seem ever more like a year of marking time before ordination to the priesthood. Yet the permanent diaconate has been revived successfully within the Roman Catholic Church, and I know several who are either in training or who have already been ordained. The Roman Catholic Church has also seen the blossoming of a variety of lay ministries, and in some ways they are more advanced than we are, but there no is attempt to clericalise the laity or to assign to them the liturgical roles which pertain to the priest or deacon. The liturgical role of the deacon has indeed never been lost or alienated. The reading of the Gospel at Mass is strictly reserved to the deacon, or, if there is no deacon, to the celebrant; likewise, preaching at the Eucharist is reserved to the bishop, priest or deacon, thus preserving the integrity of the Magisterium. By contrast, within the Church of England, the whole concept of a united Magisterium is in shreds as clergy like the one I heard on on Radio 4 publicly discard those portions of the Sacred Scriptures which they happen not to like, and as the pulpits of some churches are turned into the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘open mike’.

If the pulpit is up for grabs, we may be sure that the altar will not be far behind. Lay Presidency is already being debated, and there are those who will use the shortage of priests as a smoke-screen for their real agenda which is the eradication of the catholic priesthood. I had a taste of this in February 2004 when I was invited to speak in opposition to a motion put before the Stafford Deanery Synod requesting the Church to begin the necessary legal processes for the authorization of lay presidency. The motion was decisively defeated, but what alarmed me was the size of the ‘yes’ vote in the House of Laity and, even more, the blinkered attitudes of some of the lay proponents of the motion whose detestation of all things Catholic was matched by an appalling ignorance of basic Anglican faith and practice. One of them made what was, from his standpoint, the not inaccurate observation that, since most of the Communion service could now be led by the laity, why not the Eucharistic Prayer too. ‘After all’, he said, ‘it’s only just one prayer, isn’t it?’ Someone else suggested that eucharistic presidency could be passed around the congregation on a weekly rota basis. This was backed up by another speaker who, while pretending to take pity on a priest who had to celebrate in four different churches on a typical Sunday, declared that the job could be done far better, and with more dignity and reverence, by local lay-presidents. The gratuitous cant and opprobrium were more than slightly shocking.

Running parallel with such exercises in reductionism and derogation, there is a constant and deliberate blurring of the edges. ‘Priest’ has become an appellation of last resort; ‘resident minister’, ‘minister-in-charge’, ‘assistant vicar’ are increasingly the order of the day in diocesan mailings and the Church Times vacancies column. Maundy Thursday at the cathedral has become abhorrent even to some of the ladies and their supporters because the renewal of priestly and diaconal vows has been replaced by a general ‘affirmation of ministries’ in which the clergy are lumped together with everyone else who holds a licence for anything, with the Blessing of Oils removed from its historic context. If the concept of priesthood is being smothered under a blanket of ministerial homogeneity, what serious hope is there for the recovery of the diaconate as a distinct and permanent order?

How different - how refreshingly different - it is within the See of Ebbsfleet (and I dare say in those of Beverley and Richborough too). No-one attending the Chrism Mass is left in any doubt as to what the ordained ministry is, or where it finds its focus. The bishop delivers his charge, the renewal of priestly and diaconal vows is done with forms of words which are both explicit and pertinent to the particular order; and the concelebrated Mass makes visible what the Preface to the 1662 Ordinal expresses verbally, with the three orders of apostolic ministry united around the altar. The laity are there too, not just as spectators, but as sharers in their way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ - the lay apostolate. If I have a ‘black dog day’, when I am angered by clergy who commit apostasy over the airwaves or by laity who demean the apostolic ministry in local synod meetings, or when good men are rejected by bishops’ selectors, then I think of the Chrism Mass. The warmth and the joy and the wonder of it return, and the darkness recedes. I think also of that splendid text from Revelation 3.11 which formed the basis of the eulogy at Bishop John Richards’ funeral Mass: ‘Hold fast to what you have, and let no-one rob you of your crown’, and I say a thankful Amen. I look also to the future; to the prospect of a Free Province with its own arrangements for the selection and training of ordinands, to the fundamental re-alignments that will inevitably follow the enthronement of Bishop Kylie, and to the resumption of serious ecumenical dialogue with the great Churches of the East and West. Amen, I say to all of that too. Amen, Alleluia!


Michael Fisher is parish priest at St Chad’s, Stafford, and a writer and publisher of architectural history

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