The Future Role Of Priests And Laity In Christian Ministry

James Rushton

There is considerable evidence that the Church of England is going to be more and more engrossed in its own ministry. Faith in the City is about ministry to Urban Priority areas. The demand for an equivalent report on rural ministry shows the same concern. The ordination of women to the priesthood again raises a topic about ministry. The Tiller Report on the future deployment of the ministry is clearly to the point. Ecumenical discussions down the years have hinged on an understanding of the ministry, and this present paper is in part a response to the Board for Mission and Unity report, The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry. On the other hand, there is a strong upsurge of lay ministry, with the suggestion that the future of the local church lies with locally produced leadership. We have all heard about ministry teams, particularly if we are from rural parishes. As some people have discerned, the church is passing through a period of great change, so much so that it could be described as a revolution, or even a new reformation. That change will affect the roles of both clergy and Readers as it is worked through.

We clergy might even feel somewhat envious of those who are Readers. The office of Reader was created to assist the ministry of the clergy. They are allowed to wear cassock and surplice and to have their own scarves. Traditionally they have been a kind of half-way house between the clergy and the laity, but have had their stalls on the clerical side of the chancel. If the pendulum is now swinging the other way, giving much more responsibility to the laity within the local church, they are in an ideal position to stress that their role is a lay one. They are likely to be first in line for any local leadership that is needed. It is the clergy who are likely to have an identity crisis as the strategists, like John Tiller, see new patterns for the ordained ministry.

May I include a personal reflection by going back to January 1960. It was then that I attended a selection conference at St John's, Durham. I had sensed a call to the ministry some five years before, but this was the time when the church had to test it. I travelled back to Manchester after my ACCM with a sense of my own personal destiny. As I journeyed home I read Charles Bridges' Christian Ministry, for those who are not acquainted with this work, it was written in the 1840s and presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury in concern for falling standards of clerical life and service. I well recall leaving the train at Manchester Victoria, saying to myself: 'Well, I don't care what the selectors decide; I know I am called to the ministry.' In affirming that, I understood that there was an office within the Christian church that was created by God and was to be recognised by the church, and which could be described as "the ministry".

That office is regarded in the Prayer Book Ordinal as of such excellence and seriousness that those offering for it are addressed in these terms:

  • Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The church and congregation whom you must serve is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.
  • Bridges stressed this aspect of responsibility in those who were ordained, and for me to feel an assurance of calling was no light matter. It was to believe that God wanted me to offer my life in a way that was going to make the highest demands upon me and upon those who shared my family life, not only in time and energy but also in spiritual quality. The ACCM selectors did not disagree with my inward witness, and I was subsequently ordained to the priesthood.

In those heady days of 1960 there was little doubt about the role of the clergy. If I had any doubts, it was not about what my role and duties should be, but whether or not I was sufficient for them. That sense of certainty existed in most of the institutions and professions at that time. Those who entered teaching around that time will know that it was different world from that of today. The pressures have come upon all of us because of the social and spiritual changes of the last twenty-five years. We can mention just three.

First, there has been the development of a secular society. The 1960s saw the beginning of the dismantling of the old culture based on Christian revelation. We have seen the growth of the permissive society. Values today are based much more on utilitarian and humanistic criteria than on biblical standards. Secondly, there was the failure of western governments to prevent the rapid inflation of the 1970s, with its enormous implications for the church. Clergy incomes declined and expenses spiralled, and parishes found themselves under pressures they had not known for decades. Thirdly, there was the creation of the youth cult. The authority of age and experience no longer had the same value. Trend-setters were often the pop stars and TV personalities. In a visual age, the eye-appeal of presenters was of much more significance than their experience and maturity of judgment.

There are, of course, other factors which have created change in Britain. The fact is that the ordained ministry is now functioning in a wholly different culture from the one envisaged by the Prayer Book and, I suggest, by the ASB Ordinal. Is it any wonder that clergy are experiencing something of an identity crisis? Is it unreasonable for us to ask where we are going, and what is the future pattern of church life?

This is the real context in which any discussion of the roles of priests and laity in the Christian ministry must take place. We have touched on one of the reports which require attention: The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry. Another, debated recently in General Synod, is All Are Called, which has the subtitle "Towards a Theology of the Laity'. Together they represent the two sides of the coin of the ministry: the uniqueness of what the Church of England calls priesthood, and the importance of the ministry of the whole body. One seeks to define the real identity of the clergy, whilst the other seeks to decry clericalism. They are not in opposition to each other, but reflect a wrestling to discover where the balance of the truth lies.


The most striking thing about the biblical evidence is the contrast between the Old and New Testaments. Under the Mosaic covenant there was an official order of priests responsible for the cultic life of Israel. Their duty was to offer the Levitical sacrifices on behalf of the whole nation. In the New Testament there is no single reference to priesthood in the context of official leadership and ministry. We read of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers: of elders, bishops and deacons. Nowhere are priests mentioned. The contrast is stark and significant.

But even in the Old Testament there is a tension between the priestly and prophetic traditions. The prophets warned of the danger of resting in the cultic ritual: cf. Micah 6: 6-8. The writer to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 40: 6-8 as a messianic Psalm, in which is written:

  • Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said, 'Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then said I, "here I am - it is written about me in the scroll -1 have come to do your will, 0 God. '"(Heb.10:5-7).
  • The Old Testament sacrificial system is seen in the New Testament as provisional and preparatory. As Hebrews again makes clear, it provided a shadow or type of the real thing. The true sacrifice that is eternally acceptable to God is the death of Christ at Calvary. Since he died perfectly for sin, there remains no more need for atoning sacrifices. It is for this reason that ministry in the New Testament is described in non-priestly terms:
  • But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.... Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb.10:12,19-22).
  • These verses reveal the New Covenant basis for a relationship with God. It is through the merits of Christ's sacrificial offering at Calvary alone. It is through Christ's eternal relationship to God through his resurrection and ascension. The statement that 'he sat down at the right hand of God' is a declaration of his completed work and of his reign with the Father. He lives forever as our Prophet, Priest and King. On the grounds of this finished work and heavenly reign, the church on earth is able to come into the most intimate relationship with God, through the 'living way", that is, through the ascended Christ. He is the only mediator between God and man. In him is access for all to the Father's love and favour.

But there remains a further question relating to Christ's heavenly reign which affects our view of the Christian ministry. It is to ask about the nature of his activity before the Father on the church's behalf. The key text from Hebrews is chapter 7, verse 25: "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." This text has been used to describe the mediation of Christ as an eternal offering of himself to the Father and in consequence, it is said that the significance of the eucharist is that the church on earth, through its priests, offers itself in the bread and wine as part of that eternal offering. It is interesting to note that in the Revelation of St John, the worship of heaven is described as 'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain'. The vision given to the apostle is not of a Christ who is constantly offering himself to God, but of a Christ who, bearing all the scars of his death, is executing in history the fruits of that death.

To interpret Hebrews 7:25 I would like to quote at length from Professor F.F. Bruce:

  • In these words we may trace the echo of an early Christian confession of faith, which in addition to acknowledging the death, resurrection and enthronement of Christ made mention also of his intercessory ministry. We may also trace an echo of the fourth Servant Song, where the Servant of the Lord, once humbled and put to shame but now highly exalted, is said to have made, or is making, intercession for the transgressors. This is one of the statements about the Servant which indicate that this ministry is priestly, as well as prophetic and royal.
  • But the teaching and action of Jesus on earth must have encouraged his disciples to recognise in him their all-prevailing intercessor. 'I have prayed for you', he said to Simon Peter at the Last Supper, 'that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren'. If it be asked what form his heavenly intercession takes, what better answer can be given than that he still does for his people at the right hand of God what he did for Peter on earth? And the prayer recorded in John 17, also belonging to the same night in which he was betrayed, is well called his high-priestly prayer, and a careful study of John 17 will help us considerably to understand what is intended here when our Lord is described as making intercession for those who come to God through him.
  • It is important to emphasise this, for the character of our Lord's intercession has at times been grotesquely misrepresented in popular Christian thought. He is not to be thought of as an orante, standing ever before the Father with outstretched arms, like the figures in the mosaics of the catacombs, and with strong crying and tears pleading our cause in the presence of a reluctant God; but as a throned Priest-King, asking what he will from a Father who always hears and grants his request. His once-completed self-offering is utterly acceptable and efficacious; his contact with the Father is immediate and unbroken; his priestly ministry on his people's behalf is never-ending, and therefore the salvation he secures to them is absolute. (New London Commentary, pp. 154-5).
  • I find no evidence in the New Testament of a heavenly Christ eternally pleading with an offended God. Rather I find a reconciled God receiving his church through Christ, and pouring out upon them all his blessings, because that reconciliation is complete. Thus the model for the ministry in conducting Holy Communion is not the Levitical one. It is much more the role of steward or servant.

The point which I am trying to establish about the Christian ministry is that it is not a different caste from the rest of the church; that Christian ministers are not priests in the sense of being a different class of Christian. They are not set apart with powers to offer the sacrifice of Calvary, and as mediators of that sacrifice to God's people. Every believer has direct access to God through Christ, and the legitimate sacrifices of praise and service are sacrifices which the whole church is called to offer. The nature of the Christian ministry is not one of status but of function. It is to be called out and set apart as a member of the believing body, to exercise a particular service for the good of the whole. It is in this sense that it should be understood as priestly.

What then, briefly, may we say about the New Testament treatment of the ministry? We all recognise that there was a unique gift to the church of the apostles - those given by Christ to bear testimony to himself, and whose testimony is preserved in the writings of the gospels and epistles. We recognise that the earliest recorded leadership in the churches was spoken of as "elders'. The model appears to be that of synagogue rulers, and in each church there appeared to be more than one. As the church moved out into Graeco-Roman world these elders were described often as bishops or overseers. Both titles give a picture of their basic responsibilities. It was to order the life of the local church and to care for the members' needs. They were the under-shepherds of Christ. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul describes them as 'pastors and teachers'. We recognise further that there was a third category known as deacons. It is doubtful whether the seven appointed in Acts 6 were the first of these, but their role seems to have been administrative, with a view to relieving the elders of the details of church life.

Now it is interesting that, in Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of these gifts of ministry, including evangelists and prophets, as means of enabling the whole membership of the church to fulfil their ministry. There is that which can be called the Christian ministry which has its function and dignity, but it only exists to facilitate the life of the whole body. It is also interesting that in the qualifications set out in the pastoral epistles, all but one are qualities we would expect from any follower of Christ. The exception is the ability to teach.

I believe that we are now in a position to see where the biblical evidence lays the emphasis as far as ministry is concerned. It is on the proclamation and application of the Word of God, including those visible words of God, the sacraments, so that the community of God's people on earth may themselves live by that Word. This is the emphasis of the Ordinal. Priests are called to be messengers, watchman and stewards of the Lord. The order and emphasis of the words in the giving of the Bible is significant: Take thou authority to preach the Word of God, and to minister the Holy Sacraments in the Congregation.' The Reformers saw the supreme calling of the ministry to feed the church with the Word of God, and the sacramental ordering of the church was seen to be under that. It is worth noting that in Bridges' Christian Ministry there is not one chapter on the use of the sacraments. His whole emphasis is on the personal life and public preaching of the clergy.


Anyone who has read The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry will realise that I disagree with its basic view of the priesthood. I believe that it is guilty of justifying a view of the ministry which has developed within church history without any convincing scriptural support. We need to remember that General Synod did not receive it without qualification, but reduced its value by describing it as a "valuable contribution towards a contemporary understanding ... of the priesthood of the ordained ministry.'

If I am right to take this line, it means that I am faced with a real identity crisis. What does ministry mean in today's church, if it is not to be interpreted supremely in sacramental terms? It is here that we have to face the current state of the church and the culture in which it is set.

1) Leadership

The New Testament model is clearly one of leadership. Hebrews 13:17 states simply: 'Obey your leaders and submit to their authority'. Now we are passing through a phase when words like leadership and authority are seen as negative. It seems to me that the brave new world of the 1960s onwards is not only critical of past values, but highly idealistic. In fact it has features rather like some of the experiments of the Puritan era. One of these is its strong emphasis on individual freedom, and the belief that this can be enjoyed without

a sense of collective responsibility. There are complaints in both industry and education of the lack of real leadership, that so much attention has been given to the opinions of everyone else, that there has been no sense of direction. What has been so radical about the Thatcher government, whether you agree with it or not, is that it has led on the basis of political conviction. As we think of the Christian ministry today, I believe that what God intends it to give is leadership under the authority of the risen Christ, through his Word. It is for want of leadership that the church is dying in many areas.

2) Shared ministry

We have seen that the New Testament knew nothing of a 'one-man-band' ministry. There was always a number of elders or bishops in any one church. I am not doubting that there could well be a presiding elder, as indeed James appears to be in Jerusalem. We know enough about human dynamics to know that a figure-head or chairman, call him what you will, will always emerge in a social organisation. But there are real dangers where all the leadership and decision-making lies in one man. It stifles initiative, it imposes one outlook on the rest, and it limits the degree of contact that the membership can have with those who lead them. All of us in the ordained ministry know that there is a physical limit to the number of people we can really know.

At this point several questions arise. Where do Readers fit into a model of shared leadership. How do they relate to more recent developments like non-stipendiary ministers and locally ordained priests? What of churchwardens, lay elders and PCCs? If the ministry is to be a team, how do we define the membership of the team?

3) Preaching and teaching

I make no apology for saying that this is the area in which I feel the greatest tension in ministry. Attitudes towards preaching and teaching today are generally nothing less than discouraging. It seems that almost anyone can be allowed to preach, providing they do not go on any longer than ten minutes. Some church leaders are saying that no one listens to sermons today. If ever there was an area where the church has lost its nerve, it is in the pulpit. I know a solicitor who began to feel drawn to the ministry, and out of interest he chose to visit the churches in the area where he lived. After a few weeks of this he visited me and declared himself appalled. He said he found hardly any preach from the text of Scripture, and in one case, the text had been an editorial from the Daily Mirror!

Now I appreciate fully that true preaching is very difficult today. It is difficult because people are being fed on an entertainment culture. Very often they do not enter our churches ready to listen to a powerful message. But it is also difficult because the message of the Bible is not comfortable. When we really get to grips with the text, explain it to our people and then apply it to life as we know it - it hurts. It really is a sword. Now it takes great courage and conviction to wield the sword of the Spirit week by week. The flesh always likes its comfort.

4) Standards of conduct

This is another subject relevant to ministry in the 1980s. Recently there has been an emotional debate in General Synod on Christian standards of conduct. In a secular age which sets its own standards of morality, those called to the ministry must exemplify the standards of life laid down by Christ. It means that not only is homosexual practice unfit for Christian ministry, but so is adultery, remarriage after divorce, drunkenness, greed, and the inability to run a credible Christian home. The Church of England has been reviewing its disciplinary policy. I know there are hard cases, some of which will involve personal friends, but the issue remains of what standards of behaviour should be expected of those in Christian leadership. If we do not face up to it properly, the whole church will suffer.

5) Sacramental ministry

At a recent Anglican Evangelical Assembly, a motion was passed by a large majority that there is no theological objection to lay presidency at the eucharist. I appreciate that many non-evangelicals would be in total disagreement with such a view, and yet the practical problems relating to the church's ministry today revolve largely around the administration of the sacraments. If only priests can conduct Communion services, and there is meant to be at least one service Holy Communion in every parish church on a Sunday, where does that put the declining numbers of such men? I was told a true story of English lady missionaries in Uganda during the Second World War. They were in the remote northern region, and there were no clergy in their area. For the whole of the war they never shared in the bread and wine. They read the service up to the point of communion, and no further. I question whether that was what our Lord would have wanted them to do. I am not suggesting that in public worship the Lord's Supper should not be conducted by duly authorised leaders, but could not those leaders include people who have the authority to preach and teach - that is. Readers?


I have deliberately excluded the question of women's ministry, not out of discourtesy but simply because it deserves to be treated as a subject on its own. I have also avoided the ecumenical aspects of the matter. The Board for Mission and Unity document was designed to point a way through the impasse experienced in recent reunion schemes. It is my judgment that if a view of priesthood involving the offering of eucharist sacrifice is central to any scheme of union relating to Reformed churches, there are bound to be those who will refuse to accept such a concept. In other words, there is a historical divide at this point which is unbridgeable.

My main concern is to argue for the setting free of the Bible within the life of the church. It is only as the ascended Christ's gifts of ministry are exercised within the body, that all the gifts within that body are nurtured and encouraged. To that end, the local church will always need a strong ministry of the Word. As we witness a declining number of professional clergy, it ought to be our common concern that such a ministry is present wherever God's people meet to worship him.

There is one final point. The term 'ministry' means 'service'. In the changes which have hit the church in the last twenty-five years, the status of the clergy has been sorely tried. We have seen our incomes decline in real terms. We have been moved out of mansions and put into bigger-than-average little boxes. We have faced declining numbers in our congregations. We have been asked to cover larger and larger areas of responsibility. We have been treated by some sections of society as irrelevant. Within our congregations, there are far more than ever before who question how we do our job. Who would offer for such a calling?

I believe we must always begin any Christian ministry in the conviction of the privilege and duty of our service to Christ; in the assurance that he is Lord, having died for our sins and having defeated all death's powers on the Cross; in the knowledge that he is working out his purposes in our experience, as well as in the history of the world. At present we may feel weak, as did the apostle Paul in the Greek world of his day, but God's power is made perfect in weakness. Let us be encouraged to be faithful to the truth delivered to us in Christ, have courage to face the challenges of our day, and be content to leave the future with our Lord. For we are all, priests and laity alike, his royal priesthood, and he is leading onwards and upwards to his glory.


Faith in the City (London: Church House Publishing, 1985)

The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry (GS 694) (London: General Synod Board for Mission and Unity, 1986)

Charles Bridges Christian Ministry (London: Banner of Truth, 1967)

All are called (London: General Synod Board of Education, 1985)

F.F. Bruce The Epistle to the Hebrews (New London Commentary) (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1964)

James Rushton read psychology and theology at university and was ordained in 1964. He served in Leeds, Blackpool and Preston before becoming vicar of St James's, Carlisle in 1979. This paper was first given to a deanery synod in the diocese of Carlisle.