Presbytery of Bourke Response to the Report Ordination and Ministry in the Uniting Church

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An inquiry into the theological foundations of the way specified ministries are ordered in the Uniting Church was of the outcomes of the struggles concerning the actions of 1991 Assembly on ordination which were reversed in some respects by the 1994 Assembly. This response to a report from the Assembly Commission on Doctrine of The Uniting Church in Australia was prepared by a Presbytery Task Group convened by David Beswick, after extensive discussion of the draft report of the Commission in the Presbytery, in small groups and plenary sessions. It was approved and sent to the Assembly.
1. Basic Support

1.1 The basic approach adopted by the Commission and the general treatment of the subject is to be applauded. It represents very well a dynamic ecumenical understanding of ministry and mission in the contemporary church with a continuing commitment to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

1.2 There is concern among some members of the church about the loss of perspective on the servanthood of Christ which a more Christological emphasis might have given, but we believe the Trinitarian approach has brought a new richness of theological insight. That was already implicit in the Basis of Union, and it provides a sound base on which those other concerns can be addressed and appropriate perspectives on servanthood, or the union of Word and deed, can be effectively developed.

2. Servant Leadership in the Church

2.1 It is, however, in regard to the concepts of leadership and servanthood that we believe there could be some overall change in orientation within the basically sound approach that has been taken. The ministries to which some members of the church are set apart by ordination are cast in terms of leadership in ways which leave too much room for concerns about power and authority. Although the report dismisses hierarchical notions of status, even a concern with equality of status shows some unbibilical anxiety about status. While it may be understandable in a human sense in the light of our recent history, especially in regard to the treatment of deaconesses in our uniting churches, a concern with equality does not represent the radical nature of Christ's rejection of all notions of social status, especially among the apostles. In his teaching equality played no part, but servanthood was crucial. The apostles, in whose ministry presbyters (ministers of the Word) and deacons share today, were commissioned to lead, but as servant leaders. The report does make the point, but the centrality of the concept of servant leader could have been made normative and a consistent point of reference throughout. Had it been so, some problems, for example in relation to the administration of the sacraments, might have been avoided or reduced. These are problems which tend all too easily to be addressed inappropriately in secular, sometimes ideologically inspired, terms of status and authority.

3. Authority for Administration of the Sacraments

3.1 This has been the point of greatest interest in the response of members to the paper. We believe it is possible to resolve the principal points of conflict which have appeared in debate since the report was published. While the way the two ministries differ is important, there are some questions to be resolved in regard to ordained ministers in general, and the term minister applies to both presbyters and deacons in the following discussion. The role of ministers in the way the church provides for the administration of the sacraments should be separated from issues of power and status and from the rights of individuals in particular. As servant leaders both presbyters and deacons have roles which depend upon what the church does when the sacraments are celebrated rather than their having functions which follow from their rights as individuals.

3.2 The general approach to authorization of ministers to preside at the sacraments should be that, in so far as the sacraments may be said to belong to any earthly body, they belong to the church and not to any minister or to any class of ministers. Every celebration of baptism or the eucharist is a celebration of the universal church, and those who celebrate need to be effectively related to the wider church. This implies appropriate recognition of both the minister who presides and the congregation or community which meets for the celebration or is represented in the celebration. We believe it is on this basis, rather any rights which might be claimed in respect of powers conferred at ordination, that the question of the presidency of deacons at the eucharist should be decided. As we understand it then, the way to decide that question is to ask what is required for any minister to preside, expecting that the answer will have implications for both deacons and presbyters.

3.3 The Uniting Church has done something very unusual in authorizing deacons by ordination to preside at the eucharist. The Commission's paper proposes that such authority should not continue to be given, although we understand that an alternative view has developed in discussions between representatives of deacons and the Commission since the report was published. Giving deacons a role in the eucharist which deacons have not had historically may be claimed to be a change, which, radical as it is, may be the measure of change that is necessary to renew this ministry. While there is theological and historical justification for distinguishing between presbyters with a ministry of Word and sacraments on the one hand, and deacons with a ministry of Word and service on the other, that distinction has never applied to baptism and we can see some pastoral and missionary justification for deacons having authority to preside at the eucharist in appropriate circumstances.

3.4 The church in our traditions has always held that only those persons who are properly authorized may preside at celebrations of the sacraments. In our conciliar church order authorization comes from appropriate councils of the church, and normally from the Presbytery with oversight of the congregation and minister concerned. Authorization may be seen to have been given in two stages: in the normal course of events, a general authority to preside is given at the ordination of ministers, and a specific authority to preside in certain situations is given at the induction of a minister to a particular settlement. There are exceptions to that normal course, but, whatever the practical arrangements may be, all ministers (and any lay presidents who may be authorized in specific situations) are subject to the discipline of a presbytery and can exercise a ministry of the sacraments only under appropriate oversight. Careful attention needs to be given to the second stage of the authorization. Both presbyters and deacons should be seen to have a clearly limited authority to preside under the authority of the Presbytery in a manner appropriate to their ministry in a particular place.

3.5 Just as no minister has a right alone to celebrate the sacraments neither does any group of Christian believers apart from the church catholic. The presence of a minister properly authorized is an effective sign of unity with the universal church, but more attention needs to be given to the oversight of ministers and the recognition of congregations or communities of faith which may celebrate each of the sacraments. If a minister with the understanding of a presbytery can recognize a gathered community of believers, however temporary, as a eucharistic fellowship it should normally be assumed that its members are baptised members of the church catholic, and that they are prepared to accept the discipline of the church represented by the minister, at least as far as that particular celebration is concerned. The role of the presbytery in the recognition and oversight of congregations, outreach ministries and their communities within its bounds needs to be clearly maintained. There is a profound sense in which the church is where the eucharist is celebrated, and in the Uniting Church it is the responsibility of the presbytery, with its ministry of oversight, to discern and specify the limits.

4. The Need for Further Guidance from the Assembly

4.1 Normally, a presbyter should preside at celebrations of the eucharist in a congregation recognised by the Presbytery. Deacons should not be expected to preside in those circumstances normally, but where and when they do preside should be determined by agreement with the Presbytery. The Assembly should provide general guidelines to be taken into account by the Presbytery in its decisions about the specific ministries which ministers are called to exercise in particular places. Such guidelines on the circumstances in which deacons and presbyters should preside at baptism and the eucharist would be the main point at which more guidance is needed from the Assembly.

4.2 Any agreement of the Presbytery to either a deacon or a presbyter presiding at the eucharist apart from a recognized congregation should include recognition of the faith community which celebrates. It may be an extension of a recognized congregation or it may be under the oversight of another council of the church. For example, `home communion' would be an extension of the congregation while a communion service at a regional youth camp might be an extension of the worship of the presbytery. A minister (whether presbyter or deacon) who presides might have authority to recognize a community, however temporary, as a sufficient embodiment of the holy catholic church for a eucharist to be celebrated, but such a minister should be acting deliberately as a representative of a council of the wider church and in accordance its oversight. The same point applies to lay ministries such as lay chaplains, within the limits provided in the Assembly guidelines for the authorization of lay presidency.

4.3 We conclude therefore that, while deacons may be authorized at their ordination to preside at the eucharist as well as baptism, there needs to be further differential specification of the circumstances in which it is appropriate for them to preside. Such specification should be given in a second stage of authorization which applies to both deacons and presbyters and which follows general guidance from the Assembly. That general guidance from the Assembly should address issues which arise for both presbyters and deacons and it should differentiate between them in terms of the circumstances in which they should preside. The Presbytery should make agreements with ministers (both presbyters and deacons) on the ways in which particular ministries are to be exercised in the administration of the sacraments. Part of the specification should include the means of recognizing faith communities which may celebrate each of the sacraments.

5. Some Implications for Presbyteries and Other Councils

5.1 For general pastoral and strategic reasons, and in order to make suitable arrangements for both deacons and presbyters to administer the sacraments apart from a recognised congregation the Assembly should consider whether the ministry of chaplains should always be under the oversight of a presbytery, at least in regard to the sacraments. Where chaplains are currently settled or appointed by a Synod or another body, it may be necessary to change the appointing body to make the presbytery the council to which chaplains are responsible for the exercise of their ministries (in terms of the Constitution paragraph 14).

5.2 Guidance from the Assembly should include procedures for ministers to consult with councils of elders which should normally approve celebrations by the congregation. Not all celebrations of the eucharist should be subject to such approval, but should be in accordance with the guidance of the Assembly, and usually under the oversight of the Presbytery except that some celebrations of the eucharist may be held under the authority of Synod or Assembly. Where a presbyter and a deacon are settled in the same parish their respective roles in the administration of the sacraments should be a matter for the presbytery (not the council of elders) to determine subject to the general guidance of the Assembly.

5.3 There is a need for on-going education of congregations and ministers in regard to the sacraments and the accountability of ministers to the presbytery for the exercise of their ministry. Similarly, the responsibility of ministers to the presbytery, particularly in regard to agreements made in the second stage of authorization noted above, needs to be followed up in the processes of consultation which are provided for in the Regulations to ensure that ministers vows are kept and the discipline of the church is observed.

6. Presbyters and Deacons in Mission

6.1 Differentiation between the ministries of presbyter and deacon in terms of the gathered and scattered modes of church life does not meet with general approval in that it tends to domesticate the ministry of presbyters and deny the outward thrust of an apostolic ministry which has always characterised the ministry of presbyters as ministers of the Word in both service and evangelism. Now, with the renewal of the ministry of deacon, the service aspect of mission, as distinct from the evangelical, might well be the point of special emphasis for deacons, while both presbyters and deacons continue to make the additional vow introduced for ordination by the Sixth Assembly: Will you, by word and deed, proclaim the good news of God in Christ to those outside the community of faith, and will you work for justice and peace in the world?

7. The Sense of Call and Identity of the Minister

7.1 The report is too functional. There is some lack of objectivity and regard for the initiative of God in the call and commissioning of ministers. The church does not act as an autonomous institution which may order ministries as it wills. It must discern what God is doing and its commissioning is a prayer to God for action. The catholicity of the church requires recognition of the received character of specified ministries. The reformers and Wesley intended to ordain presbyters to the same ministry that they had received and that is the ministry which was brought into the union. Many ministers in our traditions have regarded themselves as members of an order under a discipline. All these factors contribute to the minister's sense of identity, which rightly goes beyond recognition of one who performs certain functions.

7.2 It is understandable that the report leaves aside conceptions of ontological change (a change in the being of the person) at ordination and places emphasis on changed relationships with reference to the newly given representative role of the presbyter or deacon, but it should be recognized that there is a change in relationship to God as well as other members of the faith community. Thus while the ancient language referring to an ontological change of character might not be helpful now, reference should have been made to change of identity as well as representativeness, and that would have strengthened the parallel with baptism.

7.3 We expect more than a change of role. We pray for and expect a change in the person being ordained, through the gift of the Spirit for the specific ministry to which that person is set apart. As the report makes clear, what happens through ordination is secondary to what happens through baptism, but it is a change nevertheless, secondary though it is; and as with baptism a change of identity accompanies a change of relationships. Where representativeness is emphasised, in the change of relationships, it needs to be asked who is represented. Answers need to be given in terms of the wider church and Christ himself as well as the congregation, thus reinforcing the identity of the minister as one called and commissioned by God for service in the universal church. That in turn will have implications for settlement procedures.

8. The Ministry of Presbyter (Terminology and Renewal)

8.1 There is some disagreement with the use of the term presbyter, but we believe it should be encouraged and that, while it will take some time to become established in normal usage, the church should deliberately move towards its general acceptance. While it is not envisaged in the Basis of Union, it is the kind of development that is consistent with the Basis taken as a whole and with the specific commitment to ecumenical principles and the renewal of the diaconate which is provided for and from which some consequential changes should be expected. Amendment of the Constitution at this point could await greater familiarity with presbyter beyond its use as a technical term which is well justified at this time. It is well based in scripture, tradition and current ecumenical usage, as in the Lima Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry document of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, and it is used in most serious theological discussion of ministry worldwide. We note that it is in general use in some related churches, such as the Churches of North and South India, while the British Methodist Church now uses the term presbyter in the ordination service, and a phrase like `priest in the order of presbyters' is the current usage in Anglican and Roman Catholic services. The term minister should continue to be used as in the Constitution, when it is not necessary to distinguish between presbyter and deacon.

8.2 The current exercise arose principally out the commitment of the Uniting Church at the time of union to renew the ministry of deacon. That renewal has challenged the self-understanding of ministers of the Word, and the Church's understanding of them, and there are changes in the way their ministry is exercised. Some of their former functions are now shared with or given primarily to deacons. Having renewed the ministry of deacon in the way we have, should we now address the question of whether particular steps need to be taken to renew the ministry of presbyter?

[David Beswick, Task Group Convener, 13 September 1995]

Recommendation: That the response prepared by the Task Group be approved and forwarded to the Assembly.

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