Apt to Teach

EVER SINCE THE CHURCH of England’s PR machine made the Church a laughing stock by demanding that the BBC apologise for Anne Atkins’ ‘Thought for the Day’, when she’d laid into the LGCM “celebration” at Southwark Cathedral, I have been more than a little sceptical of material emanating from the Church’s Director of Communications. This may be unfair of me, because I realise things have now changed. There is no doubt about the Church’s increasing professionalism. Nevertheless, when I, in common with clergy up and down the country, last month received some unsolicited mail from the Director of Communications, I was more than a little intrigued.

We were being asked to display two well-made posters in our churches, the purpose of which was to encourage people to consider entering the ordained ministry. We were also asked to reply to a questionnaire and fax it back, giving our reaction to the posters. Unfortunately there was no provision in the questionnaire for anyone to give their reasons for not displaying posters. Since I for one do not intend to do so, I thought I would set out my reasons on this page.

First, some positive comments. The posters are of good quality. They emphasise that the ordained ministry is a life of fulfilling service. I couldn’t agree more. They are aimed at ordinary members of the congregation, who are asked whether they know people whom they could encourage to consider ordination. When the New Testament speaks of people being “called” it is primarily in the context of local congregations calling on individuals to exercise their gifts. Once again, then, the posters have got it right.

However, there is much about the posters that, to evangelicals, gives the wrong idea about the ordained ministry. As a result, it seems likely to encourage the wrong people to come forward. The first poster depicts a female priest laughing at a small child who is playing with the dog collar. It’s an attractive picture. However the message is that dog collars “symbolise a life of challenge, service and deep fulfilment”. To me, dog collars are an unfortunate necessity. I have to put one on to satisfy people’s expectations, but everything about them is alien to my understanding of ordained ministry. They mark the clergy out as being in some way different from other Christians, whereas reformed theology insists that what should mark out the “elder” or “overseer” is his capacity to teach and his lifestyle. I realise I can be accused of nit-picking and that a dog collar is little more than a uniform that sometimes has to go with the job. The problem is with the underlying message: if you want a life of service and challenge, then become one of the clergy. There’s a similar message in the second poster which is headed “This man doesn’t have the job. He has a life.” Surely a biblical understanding of ministry is that all Christians are called to a life of service but different Christians are called to different jobs within the Church. In other words, the Bible’s view is that the very thing a clergyman does have is a job.

The poster of the young male priest shows him sitting in a computerised environment with ecclesiastical windows in the background. If I wasn’t so sceptical I wouldn’t have immediately jumped to the conclusion that he’d been swallowed up by Church House. Perhaps I should have assumed that he was a lecturer at a theological college, preparing himself to teach ordinands how to explain the Bible. However, it would have been good to have seen a Bible somewhere in the posters since of all the qualifications for the ordained ministry, being “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) is primary.