Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Back to tradition - clericalism

Torn as I am between two stimulating branches of Protestantism (‘high’ Postmillennial Presbyterianism and ‘low’ evangelical Anabaptism) I have been circling around the question of clergy-laity for the last few months. Ordination has never been theologically explained to me: yes, I can see precedent for setting someone apart in some way, even in the ‘low’ house churches of the apostolic age but why load this with quite so much thelogical freight?

Trying out various strands of argument, the other month I presented a weak [?] argument for the priesthood, kingship and prophethood of all believers in an evangelical Anabaptist house (at NTI) but pot shots were fired at me. It’s possible that that line of thinking has gone down in flames. But I was surprised to appear more ‘left’ than Tim Chester!

That simmered away for a few weeks until two essays by James Jordan rekindled the ‘brain’ (as I like to call it):


Jordan places theological considerations (more properly ‘liturgical’ considerations, as ‘theological’ is just too vague and noncommittal) above biological/psychological considerations in determining church practice. Having done a lot of research for the Jubilee Centre last year on gender (to put it simplistically, the nature-nurture debate regarding sex/gender differences) I am convinced that the biological/psychological considerations are not so clear cut as conservatives might wish for. That’s a BIG fat topic for another day, btw.

Remarkably, however, for a conservative chap, Jordan’s approach cuts across the evangelical complemantarian-egalitarian debate by suggesting that a woman may teach men ‘publically’ from the Bible (occasionally) in Christian gatherings so long as she does not lead or preside over the sacramental worship. So, Adult Sunday schools or sermons (in the evening, apparently!) are OK, women just shouldn’t be the voice from the front in the ‘covenant renewal’ meeting (which has to be in the morning, I take it). Sacramentalism and clericalism [should that be sacramentism and clericism?!] are bound up here big time. Jordan wishes to dethrone the sermon (fair enough, says the Anabaptist Tim Chester, an evangelical complementarian and thus more ‘conservative’ than Jordan here – oh, go on then, I agree with Tim so I shan’t hide behind him!) but wishes to enthrone the liturgy of covenant renewal, and for that he thinks he needs a man.

Jordan’s arguments sound to me like some Orthodox and Roman Catholic discussions about church offices. But ever since R.Paul Stevens’ The Abolition of the Laity I have not been too chuffed with the distinctions traditionally made, as indicated at the start of this post. Teasing these things out will be a major concern of mine over the next few weeks as I have to go north to the Anabaptists to discuss church leadership in the NT. Of course ‘leadership’ is not a precisely ‘liturgical’ category, just to muddy it all the more.

And it’s no armchair debate in comfortable America and the UK. James Dretke (in A Christian Approach to the Muslim: Reflections from West Africa, pp.199-201, and esp. 234) pointed out a long time ago (1979) the urgency of empowering the ‘laity’ for mission, especially in a context in which Islam has spread as a ‘lay’ phenomenon