Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When "Total" Ministry Means Broken Relationships

What to do when your parish cannot sustain a resident pastor?  Whether because the members are too few, too poor or simply reluctant to tithe, it is not (nor has it ever been) an uncommon situation.

Historically, the customary solution has been circuit-riding priests.  Among Lutherans in North America, the names of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and Justus Falckner spring immediately to mind; these heroes of the faith traveled vast distances under frontier conditions, preaching the Word of God to small and scattered communities.  When they arrived, we imagine the occasion was celebratory:  there would probably be a party; there would certainly be a chance for those troubled by sin to confess and hear the promise of pardon; and there would undoubtedly be a rare chance to receive Holy Communion.

But there are certain things that a circuit-rider cannot easily provide.  The weekly Eucharist, for example.  Or pastoral care in an emergency.  So churches have adapted themselves, and their ideas of what ordained ministry should look like or even be.  Among Roman Catholics, one reads that nuns have begun to provide "routine" -- meaning non-sacramental -- pastoral care in many parishes, leaving the poor harried priest free to run around, saying Masses, baptizing babies, administering last rites and doing precious little else with his time.

Among Lutherans and Anglicans, there has been a quite different custom, of longer duration, by which lay people are authorized to perform sacramental duties, especially the celebration of the Eucharist.  The rights and wrongs of this are complicated to spell out, and would require a much longer post than this one.  Not to mention a complex exegesis of the so-called "general priesthood."

But latterly, there has been another practice as well, which more nearly parallels the "nun-as-pastor" model.  This is to divide the work up so that, while the ordained person retains responsibility for the celebration of the sacraments, a team of lay people do virtually everything else.  For reasons that escape us, it's called "Total Ministry."

Liturgically, as Bosco Peters points out on his excellent website, linked above (and tip o' the biretta to Pr. Joelle for it), this has turned into leading the whole first part of a Mass, so that the priest may drive maniacally from his last appointment and rush in just in time to sing "Lift up your hearts."

It is often hailed as creative response to changing circumstances, even a powerful sign of an empowered laity.  We disagree, for many reasons, and Peters has put his finger on one that we had never quite considered:

“Locally Shared Ministry/Total Ministry” has severed the link between pastoring, preaching, and presiding for priesthood, dividing up the tasks that need to be held together to prevent a priest’s presiding from appearing like magic. 

In many ways, that last part of the sentence should be in the forefront of many people’s reflection. 

What is left in many communities who would articulate a “low” view of ordained priesthood is in fact a rubrical fundamentalism that gives the appearance of the priest being a sort of magician who is brought out to do those bits of a service a lay person cannot lead: the absolution, the consecration, the blessing. What is lost in this is both an appropriate understanding of lay ministry which has been clericalised, as well as an appropriate understanding of priesthood which has been reduced to a magician.

Just so.  While a priest is ordained to a ministry of Word and sacrament, those two activities, at least narrowly defined, do not describe his (or her) entire ministry.  We are not glorified Pez machines, dispensing by turns sermons or wafers.  We are called to live in relationship with God's People, and although this relationship is created by the Word, expressed both in preaching and in sacraments, it extends  -- as the Word extends -- to every aspect of the community's life, often including the most intimate.

When priesthood is reduced to mere sacramentalism, the priest becomes a magician, performing tricks.  Worse yet, when church rules are shuffled about to provide weekly Eucharist at all costs -- whether the cost is a priest who misses most of the service, or a lay presider "authorized" without a vocation -- the the Lord's Body and Blood are themselves turned into a sort of idol, or at best expressions not of a relationship between God and the whole Church but rather of one between God and the individual believer, which is given precedence over the wholeness of the Church.


Pastor Joelle said...

Good thoughts. What I really think is totally lost today is the idea of there being value just in the pastoral presence - that just the fact the "priest" is there in your midst. Now you have to justify your salary showing all the things you "do"

Father said...

Exactly! That presence is part of what makes the church (and the assembly) "complete."

And the absence of this idea reduces everybody (not just the clergy, by any means) to widgets, measured their ability to *do* something -- to sing, to lead, to give money, to get old and become objects of pity/veneration. We can pretend this is about vocation, but it's really a cynical materialism that slides into works righteousness.

What's old Buddhist joke? "Don't just do something -- sit there!"

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

We come to this type of discussion with what is in our background seeming to be "normal." The church I've attended for 33 years sometimes has lay people presiding at the communion. The various bishops have OKed it, for a specific person, at a specific time. When communion was just once/month, it wasn't an issue, didn't come up; we just shifted the Sunday, but when communion became more frequent, then weekly, it is an issue. We frequently have retired pastors in church, so they are sometimes called upon to preside, as well.

Currently, the pastor is out on an extended medical leave, so one specific person has been presiding, with great faith, warmth, skill and dignity, and if she were wearing a stole, a visitor wouldn't know the difference.

My daughter, now ordained, was without call, hence not-ordained, but her bishop placed her in a church and gave her permission to preside, unheard of in her synod.

Your discussion and the link provide me with a greater perspective on this topic; I appreciate this.

On the other hand: I attended, on three occasions, Lutheran (of another stripe, a "close communion", pastor has to do everything stripe) services with my mother in the nursing home. Three different pastors. There was the full service with liturgy in all cases, and nobody was told that they couldn't partake. I had only to hold on to the truth that Christ was present in the elements and to ask forgiveness because the whole situation got my judgmental temper up. All three times, the pastors arrived late, provided no pastoral care or connection, but rather did the whole service at double speed, and then served the communion, prayed, then left. Now THAT could be considered making it into something magical.

LOL: the word verification is blessli.

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on sawing a lady in half this Sunday and making an elephant disappear on Palm Sunday. web

Nij said...

Oh Wow, does this bring back memories! In the Episcopal church, when /rector/vicar leaves a parish, a priest is sent to serve as an Interrum until a new priest is chosen. A priest friend of mine was so sent and asked me (retired church worker)to come along as temporary secretary

Unknown to either of us, the lay powers that be had declared their priesthood of all believers and divided up the priest's job.
Thus a nurse in the parish agreed to do hospital calls. The man who was an accountant was to be in charge of finance. Th Alter Guild head continued her work. Church School was cancelled etc. "So, someone explained to me, we only need a priest to "make" the Eucharist on Sunday!"
One day a stout woman came into the office carrying a manilla file folder. She announced grimly that she had agreed to be the secretary only "now you're here at my desk". The filing cabinet was behind my desk, she walked around to it, put her folder in the bottom drawer, slammed it and stood up. She then came up behind me and pushed my face down into the desk top. Leaning her considerable upper body down on my back, she asked me "Are you feeling me yet?" She asked me a couple of times and the stood up and marchd out the door.

We later found out that all of this was a plan to not have to hire a priest permanently. They wanted to just hire retired priests for Sundays only. My priest friend would go over to the church and post the hymn numbers on the board-hymns that reflected the readings or the theme of his sermon on Sat. afternoon. On Sunday, the choir would sing altoghether different hymns! Chaos!!
Good luck with the "Priesthood of all believers"!!!

Father said...

"Are you feeling me yet." Holy $#1&. In fact, I think we have a new codeword for everything that goes wrong when the spirituality underpinning church order gets lost.