On Professional Ministry

The word PROFESSIONAL gets a lot of profile in the new clergy Guidelines. I wonder how you react to it? It reflects the professionalization of clergy which gathered pace in second half of 19th century when training colleges for clergy started to be founded and a degree and handshake from a bishop was no longer enough
 Professionalization has brought a lot of benefits, but there is a lot to be suspicious of as well. One way of getting the balance right is to reclaim the root meaning of PROFESSION. We speak for instance of a professed religious. We don’t mean they put on a suit. Instead, they take up a habit. They – and of course we – make a public confession of our faith and a life commitment, in response to a VOCATION or call from God, affirmed by his church.

I’d like to explore the hinterland of this alternative, deeper sense of PROFESSION with you for a moment if I may; and go back to the remarkable record in Deuteronomy 26 which Gerhard von Rad famously saw as the very earliest core of the Hexateuch, an ancient liturgical survival. I am still moved by both the credo and the thought that it just might be as ancient in origin as von Rad thought, and its heart is the word nagad: to make a public declaration of faith; to confess or profess as it might well come out in English. Listen for it now:

26 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

The corresponding word in the Greek New Testament is homologia, and this time its natural locus is not a harvest thanksgiving but baptism. If the Israelite professed his identity as one of the wandering Aramaeans who became the people of God’s promised land, so we as Christians profess our identity as those who having wandered far from God turn and are found by him, declare Christ as Lord, are baptised and clothed in him, and receive his promise of eternal life. So to be a professed Christian is to remember and seek to live out our baptism:

All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Gal 3.27)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Rom 10.9-10)

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. (Heb 4.14)

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Tim 6.12)

Hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Heb 10.23)

When at their profession a monk or nun is shrouded in a funeral pall and then clothed in their habit, they are living out a special case of their baptism, dying with Christ to be clothed with him. When a priest in some traditions prostrates before ordination, he or she is living out a special case of their baptism, very physically acknowledging that Jesus is Lord. When we are PROFESSIONAL Christian ministers, we are doing no more and no less than scarily deliberately and devastatingly publicly living out the life of our baptism in the special case of the ordained priesthood into which God has called us from the royal priesthood of all believers. And faithful is the one who calls.

This helps us to remember that our ministry is a commitment to God and to a relationship with him and his church, before it is a commitment to any particular action.

Francis Bridger in his Theological Reflections on the Guidelines uses COVENANT as a key biblical category to define the essence of this relationship and its consequences: God’s grace and our thankful response, held in a mutual commitment founded on love. And crucially, it is unconditional: covenant not contract. God is there for us and we are to be there for each other whatever happens. AGAPE is the word Bridger points us to for this sort of love that promises to be there and keep on loving whatever the response.

For both Stephen and myself, chapters 13 to 15 of St John’s Gospel are the place to turn to lern to inhabit this covenanted, agape love more deeply: to learn to abide in it, to use Jesus’s own word, as John reports it to us.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15.11)

Immediately we can see that our relationship with God, our relationships with each other in the church, and our relationships with those to whom we offer care and service are to be framed in a very particular way. With amazing mutuality – this after all is the Son of God we are talking about – Christ invites us to enter into and abide in a bond of covenanted love, given and received, which is the same love given and received between the Father and the Son. He invites us to be branches of this vine of love together – all those “you’s” are plural – discerning the mystical body of Christ in the muddly body of the Church. He invites us to bear the fruit of his kingdom, willing to let our selves be given away in the service and nourishment of others.

The three dimensions of relationship I have just mention map easily onto the call we believe we are hearing as a diocese to deepen, grow and engage, and frame those activities too in that same particular way – the way of love.

The root of the matter is our own rootedness in God’s love. Both the church and its mission flow from that. And when the members of Christ’s body begin to deepen in Christ’s love they will surely begin to grow in love for one another as he has loved them; and that love will surely live out its nature and spill out from them in engaged love for the world which God loves so much.

And for us as clergy, to accept God’s call to ministry in this church is therefore to know that our own rootedness in God’s love is at the heart of how that church can deepen, grow and engage in that love itself. Put quite simply, God is asking to work through us; and we block the channel at our peril.

No wonder that at our ordination it was made very clear that we cannot bear the weight of this on our own, without God’s constant grace and help. Because we cannot bear the weight of this ministry in our own strength but only by the grace and power of God, we pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit.

What might learning to abide in that grace and help and love look like? It is the story of all our spiritual journeys. And our limitations and mistakes and how we react to them are the story of every confession and absolution, given or received. And the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist in particular are the story of how we are assured that underneath are always the everlasting arms.

This assurance is not, however, any sort of recipe at all for not just that letting go and letting God that we all have to do, but a foolish letting go of any thoughtful and continuing attempt to stay faithful and do what is right.

So the last word that Bridger brings into his reflection is VIRTUE, the continuing and careful cultivation of our Christian character. And the source of our ability to do this is absolutely the work of the Holy Spirit, not some way of sneaking back into a Pelagian posture and ending up back with the sort of professionalism that we trying to avoid. So we go back to the Veni Creator.

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,

And lighten with celestial fire;

Thou the anointing Spirit art,

Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Thy blessed unction from above

Is comfort, life and fire of love;

Enable with perpetual light

The dullness of our blinded sight.

Anoint and cheer our soiled face

With the abundance of thy grace;

Keep far our foes, give peace at home;

Where thou art guide no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,

And thee, of both, to be but One;

That through the ages all along

This may be our endless song:


Praise to thy eternal merit,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We pray again and we keep on praying again and again that the same Spirit which hovered over the waters of creation and the same Spirit by whose power Christ was raised from the dead will take our own creations, our own selves and remake them now and re-form them more and more into Christ’s likeness, so that held in his love and living out our profession to stand for and in that love, we will find that the fruits of that same Spirit so form our inner nature that what we might call our second nature, born again in Christ, becomes our first nature, and that yes we find when we read the Guidelines that by the grace of God the good things they enjoin upon us are exactly what the Spirit is already leading us towards.

Almighty God, who has given us the will to undertake all these things, give us also the strength to perform them; that he may complete that work which he has begun in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


One thought on “On Professional Ministry

  1. Thank you for a great reflection on vocation and ministry. I’m not Clergy, but am training for Licensed Lay Ministry, a voluntary role But the call is the same,although the volunteer ethos of the role requires a similar depth of study, commitment and God’s grace to that of a professional Clergy.

    We share the responsibility with our incumbent and PCC for the ministry and mission of the parish and this brings it’s own challenges – but the privilege of being called to serve in this way is immense.

    Dare I say that the Orders of Ministry in the Church of England can be confusing to those outside the envelope of the Church family – probably for them, everyone is a Vicar. Do we do enough to portray the sacrificial nature of the Priesthood to those who look in and wonder? I hope that we do, but there can be a great deal of misunderstanding if you are ‘not in the know’ and can’t get through ‘Church Speak’ orjargon.

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