The future of ministry: by whom and for whom?

future of ministry

Meet any group of Catholics today and within minutes someone will mention that their diocese or local area is undergoing a “re-organization”.

Parishes are being combined, the ordained ministers being spread more thinly around communities, and the access to gathering for Eucharistic activity is being curtailed.

The process is sometimes given an elegant name derived from analogies with businesses that are “down-sizing”, but this does not hide the reality that this is driven by two key factors: fewer and ageing presbyters.

Moreover, there is little prospect that this situation—even with the addition of presbyters from Africa and India (a practice that is itself a form of colonial exploitation)—will change any time soon.

In answer to this, we need to reflect on the basics of ministry and not merely imagine that what has been the paradigm of ministry in the Catholic Church since the early seventeenth century is either set in stone or in any way ideal.

Rather than being an ideal, it was instead a pragmatic response to the Reformation which, in terms of the Council of Trent’s vision of “the priesthood” (sacerdotium), was perceived as an officer-led rebellion that was to be prevented from recurring.

Liturgical ministry

Every religion, and every Christian denomination, has spiritual leaders, and these take the primary roles at its rituals. Moreover, ritual requires expertise, and the amount of expertise required is usually a direct function of the length of the group’s remembered tradition.

But there is a binary model at work here: a sole minister or small ministry group that acts, leads and preaches/speaks/teaches on one side and, opposite them, a much larger group that attends/listens/and receives ministry.

We see this model in a nutshell in the statement “the clergy administer the sacraments”.

This is a valuable and widely appreciated model because it fits well beside other expert service providers in society (e.g. medics providing healthcare to the rest of the community, or accountants providing financial services), and so full-time “ministers of religion” are aligned by society, and often by themselves, with those other experts.

Because society needs a “chaplaincy” service, we have a justification for the clergy and their liturgical ministry within society.

Discipleship as community service

In stark contrast to such highly structured notions of ministry or priesthoods, Jesus was not a Levite; his ministry barely engaged with the formal religious expert systems, and when those structures are recalled (e.g. Lk 10 31 and 32; Jn 4:21), they are the objects of criticism or presented as transient.

Moreover, while Jesus was presented as appointing messengers/preachers (apostles), there is no suggestion that these were thought of as ritual experts.

Leaders emerged in the various early Churches with a variety of names: e.g. “elders” [presbuteroi] or “overseers-and-servants” [episkopoi kai diakonoi]. The latter was possibly a double name for a single person, which we would later divide into two ranks: “bishop” and “deacon”.

But it took generations (until the later second century; we now know that Ignatius of Antioch wrote after AD 150 at the earliest) for those patterns to be harmonized between communities, and then systematized into authority structures.

There is no suggestion in the first-century documents that leadership at the two key community events, baptisms and Eucharistic celebrations, was restricted in any way to or was the preserve of those who were community leaders, much less a specially authorized group.

The link between (a) leadership of the community and (b) presidency at the Eucharistic meal (a linkage that would drive much later thinking on ministry and even today is a major source of Christian division) would not be forged until the third century, and only later again would “the history of its institution” by Jesus be constructed.

The Church within society

It has long been an illusion of the various Christian denominations that a study of history—particularly the first couple of centuries and the texts from those times that they held to belong to the New Testament Canon—could provide a blueprint for ministry (e.g. “the three-fold structure of order”: bishop, presbyter, deacon).

Neither can it offer a conclusive answer to issues relating to ministry that have arisen in later situations (such as, at the time of the Reformation, what “power” can be seen to come from the Christ to the priest, or whether a woman can preside at the Eucharist today).

This is an illusory quest. Not only does it fall victim to the anachronism inherent in all appeals to a perfect original moment, a much imagined period in the past when all was revealed (at least in nuce).

But it also assumes that ministry as it later developed was not itself the outcome of multiple, often conflicting, forces in particular societies, as well as adaptations by Christians to well-known inherited religious structures (e.g. orienting worship in churches because pagan temples were so aligned).

So, for example, the clerical system, within which was/is located liturgical ministry, for much of Christian history-related originally to the political needs of the Church as a public body within the Roman Empire.

Given that there was no “original” plan for liturgical ministry in the Church and, as a result of centuries of disputes, there are many conflicting views about what constitutes someone within ministry, so it is quite impossible—except within the mythic spaces of particular denominations—to produce a systematic “original plan” for liturgical ministry.

However, given that ministry occurs and is needed, one can set out some criteria that can help individuals and communities to develop a pragmatic theology of liturgical ministry.

Criteria for ministry

Every specific ministry is a particular variation of the ministry of all the baptized, and in baptism there is a radical equality: “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

This radical equality is a characteristic of the new creation brought about in Christ.

Therefore, any subsequent distinctions such that particular ministries are not potentially open to every baptized person are tantamount to a defective theology of baptism by which all ministry is brought into being.

So, by making further demands for “signs” of particular divine election (e.g. being able to speak in tongues or handle snakes) as indications of suitability for ministry fly in the face of the incarnational dispensation seen in baptism.

Likewise, regulations that restrict ministry to particular states of life (e.g. demanding celibacy as a condition for the presbyterate) have to be seen as an undue concern with the status of certain ministries.

They imply that baptism is merely some basic entry requirement for “Christianity” rather than that which creates the new person who can minister, and in that new creation no such distinctions exist.

Similarly, the notion that women, as such, can be excluded from ministry on the basis of some pragmatic historical appeal (e.g. “Jesus did not ordain women!”—assuming such a pre-critical view of “history” has any value), fails to take account of the fundamental role of baptism in all Christian existence and action.

We must also respect the awareness that all action and ministry by Christians is Christ-ian in nature.

Christians form a people: a priestly people. We all too often, and too easily, lose sight of the fact that Christians must think of their liturgy in a way that is radically opposed to that commonly found in other religions of a “religious service” due to God or the gods.

In that paradigm, the divine is the opposite of the world in which we live and to which something is owed, presented or transferred, and this constitutes a mode of contact with the divine realm, which might constitute a debt of loyalty/praise/petition or appeasement.

Making this connection, whether by an individual or a group, assumes a technical knowledge and some sacred skill—usually the work of a special priesthood—such that the divine recognizes that the action performed is the appropriate sacred deed.

The priesthood holds the sacred key not permitted to the mere worshippers!

Christians, contrariwise, conceive their worship on the basis that their servant is with them in a community.

Therefore, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is with them (Mt 18:20).And so their actions together—such as celebrating a meal—take place in the presence of the Father, because the Christ present among them, is always their High Priest.

This theological vision has important implications for individual Christians who find themselves performing specific acts, ministries, within the Church. Within Christianity, the ministry is that of the whole community.

Language and priestly ministry

It is also worth remembering that language plays us false in understanding “priestly ministry” in particular.

The Old Testament cohen (which we usually render by the word “priest”) performed special tasks on behalf of the rest of Israel (see Leviticus and Numbers).

This was rendered in the Septuagint by the word hiereus—a word commonly used for pagan temple officials—and then, later, into Latin by sacerdos, which was a generic word covering all the various special temple “priesthoods” such as flamenes and pontifices.

The early Christians did not use these words for their leaders. Hiereus and sacerdos belonged to Jesus alone in the heavenly temple. Christian leaders were designated by their relation to the community: as the one who oversaw, led, or served it.

Later, the hiereus/sacerdos language was absorbed and became the basis of Christians’ perceptions of their presbyters. Our word “priest” is etymologically from the word “presbyter”, but conceptually it relates to the sacerdotal functions.

Once this had occurred, it had to be asked what made them different and what special religious quality they had that others did not possess.

The answer came with the notion of a power “to consecrate”, and then this power (itself the subject of rhetorical inflation) became the basis of “ontological difference” between them and “ordinary Christians” or whose ministry is “praying, paying, and obeying”.

After more than a millennium and a half of these confusions in Christianity, both East and West, it is very hard for many who see themselves as “ministers” in a Church—especially those with elaborate sacerdotal liturgies—to break free of this baggage.

Tradition can be like a great oil-tanker turning at sea: it takes a long time to overcome inertia, and for the ship to answer the helm!

Where do we start?

In every community, there are those who have the skills that have brought that group together and given it an identity. The task is to recognize these actual ministers and to facilitate them to make that ministry more effective and fruitful.

Some will have the gifts of evangelizing and welcoming, others the skills of leading the prayer and offering the thanksgiving sacrifice of praise, others the gifts of teaching, others of reconciling, others for the mission of each community to the building up of the kingdom of justice and peace, and some will have management skills.

None is greater and none is less!

In every discussion of ministry we need to have the advice of Paul to the Church in Corinth around 58 CE echoing in our heads as he presents ministry as the working out of the presence of the Spirit in the assembly:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another, various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:4-13).

If these statements were to reverberate through our discussions today we might need to talk less about “closing churches” and “combining parishes” and could then move on to the more fruitful task of discovering the wealth of vocations that are all around us.

But there is only one [merely logical] certainty: the future will not be like the past. And when the present seeks to recede into its past, it is untrue to its own moment.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.

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