Priesthood of all Believers

Over the last 25 years, Canadian Presbyterians have made a subtle, yet significant change in our understanding of the role the Book of Forms (“the rules”) plays. A moment at the 1999 General Assembly in Waterloo, Ont., stands, for me, as the sign of that change. A motion to add to the Book of Forms: “An elder may resign from the session by placing in writing before the session the reasons for such a resignation” was debated. Of course elders can resign! Everyone knows people have the right to resign from any position; by adding this we legislated common sense. This addition indicates that Presbyterians see the Book of Forms as defining what can be done and how it is to be done; a significant shift from an earlier understanding which saw the Book of Forms as a permission-giving document stating “within these limits, go be church.” We have moved from seeing “the rules” as channel markers indicating the space within which the church and its members were free to function, to being the procedure manual defining what must be done and how to do it. The former approach created space for presbyteries and congregations to take pragmatic steps in addressing ministry needs and opportunities. The present approach demands the rule book be quoted in defense of any new initiative or experiment.

David Webber in his October 2009 article on the rural church contends new pragmatic approaches need to be adopted to do rural and small town ministry. I would argue a new pragmatism is required across the denomination – in rural areas and small towns, in urban centres and suburban neighbourhoods, in theological colleges and the workings of the national church. In the past Canadian Presbyterians, recognizing not all ministry situations were created the same, adopted a variety of models to address the range of contexts in which they sought to have a ministry presence. The examples of pragmatism Webber proposes are not new. We have done much of this before or have within our polity ways to give permission for it to happen.

Developing ecumenical connections is essential in a post-denominational Christianity. Some urban Presbyterian churches have opened their doors to non-Presbyterian congregations made up of Africans or Asians. These relationships benefit both sides economically, the host congregation receiving payment and the tenant congregation freed from needing to maintain a facility of their own. Sadly, the connections often remain purely economic. Would it not be a powerful statement about the multi-ethnic nature of the church to have the black African Pentecostal minister of the tenant congregation participate in leading communion in the Presbyterian host congregation on Worldwide Communion Sunday?

We boast about our commitment to ecumenical relationships. Our most frequent ecumenical dance partners are the United Church, the Anglicans and the Lutherans. That is like going to a dance and dancing only with our cousins: nice and safe, no toes get stepped on, but it is pretty boring. The adrenaline rush comes from dancing with people very different than ourselves: Pentecostals, Baptists, Alliance, those with no denominational affiliation, many of whom are at the cutting edge of urban and suburban ministry. Dancing with them will teach us new dance steps, and help move us towards more effective ministries.

Canadian Presbyterians in the past danced with a variety of ecumenical partners. In the 1890s Canadian Presbyterians came within a hair’s breadth of being a founding denomination, along with the Baptists, of Toronto Bible Training School, which became Ontario Bible College, and is now Tyndale College and Seminary.

Present-day theological education is a product of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement beginning in 18th-century Europe. The rise of postmodernism, a world view gaining momentum among youth and 20-somethings today, challenges Enlightenment thought. (To test this: listen for teenagers using “random” and “ironic” as statements that something is fun and interesting.) A second influence helping form present-day theological education was the push to re-make theological colleges into professional schools offering professional degrees. However this is a very recent shift in the life of the church, for not until the late 19th century did clergy think of themselves as professionals. A number of contemporary writers within the church are urging reflection on what is lost when clergy are professionalized.

The models of theological education refined over the last 250 years are being challenged. Full credit is due to those theological colleges which have entered a process of self-examination looking towards the re-forming of the educational process. The training of future clergy has profound implications for the congregations these yet-to-be-trained clergy will serve. The time is right to allow experimental models of theological education to surface and be tried. Some of these experiments will take place outside the walls and the direction of the theological colleges.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada has done this before. In the early 20th century, as thousands of non-English speaking immigrants poured onto the prairies, Presbyterians sought out spiritually gifted people with a heart for God and ordained them for ministry without their having been to theological college. Ministry needs on the field trumped the established rules.

We are not in a position to know if the church is living through another Reformation or not; that is for future historians to determine. What is clear is that some of the present upheaval in the church (the emerging church, for example) is completing what the Reformation of 500 years ago began. The time has come to fully celebrate the priesthood of all believers.

It is unconscionable that we allow congregations to go years without someone in their midst able to administer the sacraments. In the sacraments God says, “Here I am acting.” The sacraments were not given to ministers, but to the church. A truth recognized each time the session, as leaders of the church, “approves” a baptism or celebration of the Lord’s supper. Ruling elders, who are ordained, join with teaching elders, to ensure the sacraments are treated with reverence.

Which makes more sense pastorally: to have a minister who does not know the congregation drive 300 kilometers for the baptism of a child she has never met before and will most likely never see again, or to have a long-standing elder, who taught the child’s parents in Sunday school and who is the family’s elder do the baptism?

Which speaks more powerfully about a God who came to be one with us: to have a minister who is properly accredited but who speaks no Tagalog (the first language of most Filipinos) administer communion in English in a Tagalog-speaking congregation; or to have an elder who is recognized for her spiritual insight lead communion in the language of the congregation?

Ensuring that all Presbyterian congregations have regular access to all the means of grace will require thought and planning, but surely any answer will include a rediscovery of the Reformation banner proclaiming “the priesthood of all believers.”

Throughout our history Canadian Presbyterians have responded to the changes in the ministry landscape with pragmatism and experimentation. Today as we face a new set of ministry opportunities and challenges, the time has come to again be pragmatic and innovative in finding ways to effectively carry out the mission Jesus Christ gave to the church.