Rethinking Ministry In Light Of Episcopacy
We are at the point in our history as the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA) where we can entertain thoughts of taking forward to another level the concept of Ministry. This would entail embracing enthusiastically the notion concerning the “priesthood of all believers”. Expanding the concept of ministry would be in keeping with the message contained in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12. In it the apostle Paul puts forward the view that the Spirit imparts to individuals varieties of gifts. These gifts are to be used for the common good, thereby resulting in varieties of ministries/ services.
My suggestion of us having reached a convenient historical point is that at the May 2015 Connexional Conference, legislation was passed to confer the title “Bishop” upon ALL Presbyters serving as District Presidents. Prior to this it was only the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos District Conference that had accepted the 2006 Connexional Conference’s directive that any District so desirous could use title. Interestingly, in other parts of World Methodism, there are Bishops who have been around for umpteen years.
The 2015 ruling marked a further progression from what the MCCA had voted on in the 1990s namely a three-fold concept of ministry to include Presbyters (presbuteroi), Deacons (diakonoi) and Bishops (episkopoi). Up until May 2015, we had fully embraced only the first two. There had been much resistance to episcopacy, the fear being that it would lead to “bishops for life” who would abuse power and display dictatorial attitudes, thereby eroding the cherished “democracy” associated with Methodist systems. It must be admitted that within each MCCA District there are still those who grudgingly accept that the title “Bishop” is Scriptural and therefore more relevant to the Church than is the secular term “President”.
We are nevertheless in an advantageous position at this point in history. There are still some limitations imposed upon the concept of ministry espoused within the MCCA. We perceive of it as mainly the work being done by those who have been ordained by the laying-on of hands. Now there needs to be a deeper examination of Methodist practice, for example, during the Confirmation Service for baptized members, hands are laid upon them by the chief officiant. Is there not the subtle hint, if not a clear statement being made, that all confirmed members are ordained to a particular aspect of ministry?
The issue seems to be that all along we have been adopting a worship focused understanding of ministry, struggling with the idea that only the ones entitled to wear clerical collars and vestments are ministering. In actual fact, as given conclusively in the First Corinthian Letter, we do have within the Christian Church other ministries that must be fully operative. Methodist Class Leaders are ministers. They exercise a ministry given the pastoral oversight of members associated with their duties. Methodist Local Preachers are ministers whose focus is on preaching the Word of God.
On the broader ecumenical scene, there are churches that have been examining the contexts in which the Church, the Body of Christ is ministering to identify the services to which we are being called. The reality is that there is a need for various forms of ministry/ service to be exercised: among youth; among those affected by or infected with HIV/AIDS; within prisons; on the industrial scene; in schools, colleges and universities. Identifying the ministry can be an exercise of matching skills to needs and needs to skills.
As Methodists, we are to continue exploring the skills of the people in order to discern the various ministries that God is calling us to recognize. People are involved in music, in saying ‘no’ to drugs, in counselling face-to-face or on telephone for marriage, grief, crises of all sorts, in television and radio broadcasts, in theological education, in general education, working among the homeless, experimenting with dance and drama. The list is long.
One argument I have heard is that Methodism’s limited view of ministry here in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean is a result of our clergy staff shortage. Traditionally we guard preciously the idea of our church having a “rare breed” of men and women with authority to dispense Word and Sacraments. A spin-off of this is the tendency to expect the minister to be in everything. The laity support this and the ministers themselves do very little to discourage it. With tired, overworked ministers we are denied the luxury of “dreaming” and eventually implementing new ideas. But smallness in numbers should not mean smallness in ideas. We ought to still be in a position to be creative and to think big. In so doing we will see it as an opportunity to incorporate others so that the multifaceted work of mission and ministry in the name of Christ might continue.
One last thought in reference to the contention that people associate ministry with the laying-on of hands. It may be the case that if Methodists are to take ministry seriously, those whom they will eventually recognize as being numbered among the various ministries have to be either ordained, commissioned or dedicated. This merits further consideration.