Thursday, February 05, 2009

Of Ministeria

Father Anonymous spent most of Wednesday attending a meeting of his synod's ministerium.  As the name suggests, this is a gathering of the clergy (or at least a portion thereof -- maybe a quarter, in this case).  They are called every now and then, perhaps twice each year, and we suppose there are worse ways to kill a few hours.

It was a pleasant enough day.  One loves one's colleagues, and delights to see them.  A brief Mass was celebrated, which is always a joy, particularly when someone else does the chanting.   The organ was played beautifully by an especially fine organist.  The main event was a presentation by a former pastor, now turned organizational consultant.  She was polished and lively, and even though -- as she admitted up front -- she had nothing especially original to say, she said it well, and it was the sort of thing that bears repetition.  Oh, and the chicken a la King was quite good, for a church event.

So.  A day well spent, and no complaints.  And yet we at the Egg, from whom no nit escapes unpicked, can't help fussing. 

The gathering was held at a large and well-appointed Episcopal church -- larger and better-appointed than anything we Lutherans have to offer, at least in Manhattan.  But why?  Our buildings may be more modest, but many are lovely, and would have offered ample space for the small crowd.  And they are ours, which -- even in the age of full communion -- means something.  They have been built by Lutherans, and consecrated to the ministry of the Gospel as Lutherans understand it.  Surely, they can't all have been booked at the same time.  

That is a small thing, and we are bashful even about mentioning it.  Of more concern is the absence from this gathering of so many synod pastors and -- in particular -- virtually all of those publicly identified with our "conservative" wing.  ("Conservative," at long last, means little more than "anti-gay-rights."  Fr. A. himself is a confessional conservative, by any reasonable definition, and about as as liturgically conservative as Lutherans get.  But those things don't matter anymore, or so it would seem from the way we all talk, and the way people talk about us.)  Our aging memory may fail us, but apart from two military chaplains, we can't recall a single one of the people who normally stand at microphones with a red card in their hand, telling the synod assembly that it is as blasphemous as Sirmium.  Gregory?  Steven? Ernie? Johnny Mac? Rodney? High-church Eric? Low-church Eric? Even Brenda? Where were you people?  

Anyway, that's a sad sign of the times, but there's nothing to be done about it.  What concerns us most are the premises upon which the event appears to be grounded.  This was, simply, a few hours of continuing education for the clergy, arranged (at admirably rock-bottom prices) by our bishop and his staff.  Nothing wrong with it, and we applaud them for the thoughtfulness.  But it also makes us sad to reflect that this is all that remains of the New York Ministerium. 

For those who don't know, the first Lutheran synods in North America were the Pennsylvania Ministerium (1748) and the New York Ministerium (1773, at least by some reckoning).  These were in essence organizations of the clergy, to which laymen came only to report on the conditions of their home parishes.  It was the duty of the clergy to prepare and ordain pastors, to work out their theological positions, edit and publish hymnals and service-books, and organize whatever else needed to be organized beyond the parish itself.

Eventually, a different -- and superior -- system prevailed, by which laymen (and much later laywomen) were given a significant voice in church affairs.  The system is superior on both theological and practical grounds: theologically, since the whole Church is one holy nation and royal priesthood, and practically, since many pastors don't know a damn thing about, inter alia, money.  

But as late as the mid-20th century, in New York, synod assemblies included separate sessions for the clergy ("the Ministerium," as it says in the records) and for the laity ("the Brotherhood").  It was evident, to a church as recent as that into which our grandfather was ordained, that God's gifts are distributed differently to different people.  Specifically, to the ordained had been given the spiritual gift (not to mention academic preparation) for discernment in theological matters, such as the fitness of certain candidates for the ordained ministry.  As a practical matter, Henry Eyster Jacobs also observed that clergy-only sessions greatly enabled conversation with and about those candidates who might prove unfit.

Modern Lutheran polity (at least in the ELCA) works overtime to erase the distinction between lay and cleric.  Synod assemblies, once entirely clerical and by the 1930s typically half-clerical, are now nearly 2/3 lay.  Committees, commissions, even seminary faculties are likewise mixed, in different proportions.  This is much to the good, for the theological and practical reasons noted above, and many others.  And yet what has been lost is the idea that, perhaps, there is something that the clergy have to offer as a college, distinct from the contribution of the laity.  The wheel has turned full circle.

At least in these Minor Outlying Islands, some memory of the early days has long been preserved.  Meetings of the Ministerium often discuss matters which will later come before the synod as a whole -- the ELCA's pending statement on sexuality, or most recently, the election of a bishop.  Although these meetings have no legal standing at the assembly, and we have never seen one so much as generate a resolution, they are at least a way for pastors to chew over the matters together, as roughly as we may need to, so that each of us, aided by the Spirit, can shape and re-shape our own opinions and those of our colleagues before we begin a serious discussion within the parish or on the assembly floor.

(To some militant anticlerics, guided by a grossly deficient understanding of the shared priesthood of the baptized, this may sound like a sinister clericist cabal.  But they're wrong.  We dare you to say that you would want a clergyman in the room for every conversation you ever have.)

Anyway.  The gradual diminution of the New York Ministerium from its role of sole unquestioned leadership, to leadership equally shared, to minority voice, is difficult enough.  Yesterday raised the spectral dread that the Ministerium, as such, may now be like a toothless old relation, who must be spoonfed pablum every now and then to keep him from complaining, but whose opinion on household affairs need no longer be sought or considered.  

Well.  At least the food was good. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My goodness, I could have stayed home - toasty warm - and have learned all I need to know just by keeping up with Father A. web