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Minding the Gap

By David McLachlan.

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David McLachlan

I was ordained in 2002, and I will face my fortieth birthday in a few months’ time. Yet in many ways I still feel like one of the younger Ministers in the United Reformed Church. Although my hair is rapidly turning silver, I serve as honorary Clerk of our General Assembly, and I’m part-way through a Ph.D. on Nonconformist church history, so I suppose I’m not as junior as I often feel. So these are my reflections upon what seem comparatively traditional styles of ministry from a comparatively young Minister in a 21st century context
The nature of the ministry
The first points I want to make are about grammar. That may seem an odd place to begin, but I don’t believe this is merely a parlour game for pedants. Rather, it says some quite fundamental things about the nature and style of ministry. These are things that matter to me, because they say something about what I believe about my vocation.
First, I was ordained to the ministry. In the United Reformed Church, I often hear people talk about ‘ministry’, without the definite article. I think they are trying to honour the priesthood of all believers by acknowledging that all Christians have a ministry because of their baptism. Of course I agree with that, but I don’t think minimising the role of those ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament helps that. David Peel, a United Reformed Church theologian, explains it thus:
“All too often, though, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has become synonymous with a problematical understanding of ministry which ends up doing justice to neither church members nor ordained ministers. It is used as a licence to authorize anyone to do anything in the church, with scant reference to calling, ability or preparation. The motivation for this lies less in the precedent of the New Testament or Reformed traditions than in a liberal spirit of egalitarianism which rightly is outraged by the hierarchical abuses to which some ministers have succumbed.
But one cannot imagine a better way of impoverishing the church than by risking lowering the standard of leadership through diminishing the role of ordained ministers…We do not honour this precious doctrine by undermining the important distinction between the ordained and commissioned ministers of the church (Ministers of Word and Sacrament, Church-Related Community Workers and Elders) and the vocation of the whole people of God. In fact, we encounter as serious a problem when we collapse this distinction as we do when we attribute vocation solely to the ordained and commissioned.
Few things are more important, therefore, than the ordained and commissioned being given proper, designated and accountable roles in the church’s life, and that those roles are not undermined by any hierarchical and oppressive practice of the ordained and commissioned themselves.” (Reforming Theology, David Peel, London: United Reformed Church, 2002, p.240)
Second, I am styled ‘the Revd’. This is because ‘Revd’ is a style, not a title (For more information see Debretts: church-england/anglican-clergy). That is to say, it is short for the Revd Mrs/Mrs/Miss/Dr etc., which is why in conversation I am addressed as ‘Mr Hopkins’, not ‘Revd Hopkins’. This may seem trivial, but the less universal use of ‘the Revd’, and greater use of ‘Mr’ etc., means something to me about not being put on a pedestal, and remaining human. Although these points might seem arcane, even abstruse, to some, they matter to me because they say something about the nature of the ministry.
You are what you wear
This brings me on to clerical dress. My hackles always rise whenever I hear anyone speak of ‘dressing up’, ‘fancy dress’, and the like. To my mind, distinctive clerical dress is a uniform – nothing more and nothing less. Dressing up is, to my mind, a serious misunderstanding of the nature of a uniform. I would not have much confidence in my dentist if they were wearing ripped jeans and a dirty t-shirt; likewise I would not have a lot of confidence in my chimney sweep if they turned up in a meticulously pressed brilliant white overall, and left just as clean after sweeping the chimney. Uniforms are a case of the right clothes for the job. I find wearing a distinctive uniform enables people to have confidence in me.
Bernard Lord Manning, a Congregational writer in the first half of the twentieth century, explained it this way:
If you are to get the preaching that you need, you must think highly, and you must teach your minister to think highly, of his sacred office. It is then absurd to think of the ministry as if it were simply of human creation, an arrangement made to suit the convenience of the Church, to be maintained or to be done away with as we may think proper. The minister, on one side, is an officer of the Church; but on the other, he is not. The Church in a particular place may ordain the minister. The minister in another place, by his preaching, may create the Church.
The truth is that there are two aspects of the ministry, the manward and the Godward, and we must overlook neither. A Church which thinks of the minister as its paid organiser does not know what a minister is or what a Church is. Remember them, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God. Congregationalism, because it rests on a high doctrine of the Word, has always held a high view of the minister who declares the Word. A learned ministry has always been held in high esteem among us; and woe betide us when we are content to try (as some would have us try) to do our work without it.
For this reason Ordination services and the laying on of hands and the use of a distinctive ministerial dress are good Congregationalism. The ancient Protestant dress of the minister of the Word is a gown and bands; and it is good Congregationalism to use that dress. It is, I think, degenerate Congregationalism not to do so. This is not priestcraft. It is not the first step to Rome and the Scarlet Woman. It is the very symbol of Protestantism (Why Not Abandon the Church, Bernard Lord Manning, London: Independent Press, 1939, pp.44-45).
I almost always wear a black clerical shirt and suit when I am ‘on duty’ and ‘customer facing’. People always know who I am and why I’m there. I don’t bother to put my uniform on just for internal church meetings because people all know who I am and why I’m there. To lead worship, I almost always wear either a black cassock with Geneva bands, and a gown, or a white cassock alb and stole. I have found that people ‘tune out’ and cease to notice what I’m wearing, which is the whole point. After all, I rather want them to focus upon God. People sometimes say that black can be rather forbidding, and I have some sympathy with that up to a point, but once people have got used to a uniform, they don’t really notice it. The big advantage of black is that it isn’t a ‘party’ colour, just neutral, and it has been the traditional colour for ‘priests’ for many centuries, so does have some weight behind it (and within it, in my case).
My theology of worship tends to the ‘liturgical’, ‘high’, and ‘sacramental’. I am certainly committed to worship that is both inspirational and dignified. I find it helps people to encounter the living God if worship is structured, usually according to the traditional ‘approach, Word, response’ pattern, although I do work flexibly within that, particularly for all age worship. I struggle to meet God in worship that is too informal – to be sure, God is not an over-formal stuffed shirt, but the worship our Maker is no casual entertainment either.
Many Nonconformist churches celebrate Holy Communion once each month. I find this to be the worst of both worlds – one misses out on the possibility of this celebration being at the heart of the main act of worship each Sunday, which seems to meet the spiritual needs of many people in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches; and it also misses out on the old Presbyterian practice of celebrating very infrequently, often quarterly sometimes even less, and making a big fuss of the celebration. A monthly celebration seems both anodyne and unhelpful. Likewise, I have never met anyone who finds the Nonconformist practice of individual Communion glasses (invented in the Edwardian era) any positive spiritual help whatsoever. Yet, I have consistently failed to persuade any Church Meeting on any of these points.
There is also the vexed question of projection. I can see many positive ways to enhance worship with good use of well planned and executed projection. However, I have seen it used very badly too often, which neither honours God nor the congregation. Indeed, on occasion I have been led to wonder if it is the medium itself that is being worshiped. I can see a place for projection done well, for good reasons, but I am unsure it always as helpful or well done as some of its proponents sometimes argue.
Pastoral Care
Following worship, I see the next task of the minister as pastoral care. It is not the task of the minister alone – others share in this work - but it is the task of the Minister to take a lead, and despite egalitarian claims that a visit from anyone is a visit from ‘the church’, there remain times and situations when a visit from the minister is helpful. I try to visit everyone housebound once a month, and offer Holy Communion. I try to get around people in residential homes at least every couple of months (I find most care homes have a regular Communion service). I try to visit people in hospital once or twice a week. I try to visit people in other crisis situations and life events as needed. Beyond that, I do my best to keep an appropriate contact with everyone else. My larger church has a café open all week, and has become a community church open all week. I often meet church members and members of the public at the church while the building is open. I see pastoral care as an appropriate encounter, rather than always being a visit at home, so a proper one-to-one conversation with some in the church café counts as a visit in my book. When stretched, a card or phone call is better than nothing, but can’t replace a visit indefinitely.
Church organisations and events
I try to attend as many meetings of church events and organisations as I can. Obviously some of these are a greater priority than others, and I am more successful at some than others. Calling in to a toddler Group and taking time to talk to the parents/carers is always going to count for more than a meeting spending all evening discussing the drains. A colleague of mine describes it as ‘flashing the dog collar’. I hope the point of this is two-fold: on the one hand taking the trouble to show some interest, and on the other helping to build up the community of Christ.
I should also add that I don’t ask people to do things that I wouldn’t do myself, so I arrange flowers once a year, not very well, in order to demonstrate everyone’s contribution is welcome. I once rodded some drains, but we decided to employ a professional firm after that!
Community involvement
On the same basis, I try to get involved in the wider community in the same sort of way. I walk around the town in uniform, including popping in to shops, talking to people, smiling, and trying to be known. I belong to the Rotary Club, and I call in on the Town Council, trying to get to know some of their staff, and sometimes saying prayers at the Town Council meetings. I feel this is important because it enables me to show people that the church is concerned with engaging with the community beyond its walls, and it also helps to build links and networks.
Relationships amongst the clergy
I also try to make a point of making friends with the other clergy in my community. This often involves joining Anglicans at their churches to say Morning Prayer. It clearly means my being pro-active and also meeting people on their terms. That requires me to put myself out, but I think the fruits that are borne of such friendship are worth having.
I think there is also value in trying to build up friendship and support among Ministers of my own tradition. As the average number of members in a United Reformed Church has shrunk, ministers have spread thinner across the country, and our structures have been slimmed down. This means we are further part geographically and meet less frequently. I am not convinced this is helpful in a number of respects. I have encouraged our local group of ministers to meet regularly for a pub lunch, to build relationships and support. I also started a Facebook Group for URC Ministers to support one another.
Some concluding thoughts
You will have gathered from all of the above that I don’t really believe in short term ministries. The kinds of strategies and tactics outlined above lend themselves to a ‘slow burn’ approach. Building up relationships in the wider community to the point where people ask you to take their spouse’s funeral are not achieved in months. Short term ministries have a particular role, but they are not something that I can offer.
I should add that I believe in staying in one place for an extraordinarily long time can also bring disadvantages. I was told of a Minister who stayed for 35 years in the same church, and by the end of his ministry only long established members could understand the sermons, because they had become a conversation between friends.
I suspect that much of what I’ve written consigns me to the file of ‘dinosaur’, despite my chronological age, and makes me an object of ridicule in some quarters. I do not write intending to be deliberately provocative, or to denigrate those who have chosen a different style, but simply to set out my style as a matter of interest, and perhaps some small help to someone else.
To those who disagree with my approach, I can only respond that it seems to have borne fruit. Since I arrived in Farnham in 2005 the membership of our congregation has fluctuated between 110 and 120 people, but over 40 people have been received into membership – we seem to be recruiting new members at about the same rate that people leave, die, move away, or take umbrage. That might not sound much achievement, and I’m not sure that it is, but it seems a better result on membership numbers than many Nonconformist churches achieve.
There are countless books that have helped me think more deeply about the nature and work of ministry. Classically, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor must rank pretty high on my list, alongside Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today. From more contemporary publications, Kathleen Hendry’s two books Don’t ask me why, and Who would be a Minister? helped me to understand many things from a perspective that I might have otherwise missed. Fred Levison’s A God to Glorify made many helpful points from a Church of Scotland parish minister. Obviously, an English Nonconformist church is almost always by nature a gathered congregation to a greater or lesser extent, and there can never be any formal or legal responsibilities in the sense that the Church of England has them, but as some readers may have worked out from this article, I have tended to operate very much a parish ministry. From North America, Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor presented me with some very thought-provoking material. Above all these, though, is one book which has helped me ground my ministry both practically and theologically, and that is John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of Priest. I certainly don’t see myself as a priest in the sense of a special representative of God, or someone with a privileged relationship or access to God, but I do see myself as someone, but not the only person, whose role is to help people to see God and who helps them to find God.
When I was at school our chaplain once described me as ‘a Protestant Jesuit’. I think I’m beginning to understand something of what he meant. I may be a dinosaur, but dinosaurs outlived a lot of other creatures that came and went.

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You are reading Minding the Gap by David McLachlan, part of Issue 68 of Ministry Today, published in July 2016.

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