I’m working on a project piping through Chalice Press on expressions of the “emergent” or “emerging church” in the mainline denominations in the USA. I am writing from the radical theological perspective and as a United Church of Christ pastor. I’d love to have some feedback on it as I am developing the piece, and Milbank’s suggestion that radicalism is not a church theology prompted me to post.
All churchly doctrines and practices are now primed to undergo a radicalization if Godhead is radically and dynamically rethought in the contemporary situation. Ordination is as good a starting point as any for our radical thinking to take shape ecclesiologically, as so many of us who flirt with or appeal to “emergence” Christianity are trying to be ordained, have been denied ordination, or are ordained.
First, we must accept that ordination usually operates, on a practical level within mainline churches, as a mechanism to promote control of both the ordained and the non-ordained. In episcopal-based polities, such as in the United Methodist Church, one is guaranteed employment so long as one is fully ordained and in good standing with the Bishop (i.e. so long as one hides his sexual secrets from the public). It is not to the political advantage of the ordained, as a whole, to be the ones whose names are placed on committee minutes approving exciting, challenging, or even intellectually gifted pastors; nor is it to their advantage to accept as clergy those who might call out the veterans for being too comfortable with their entitlements and ministerial complicity. Those who challenge these structures are anathematized “Not Christian” and are weeded out; consequently the insubordinates are usually the individuals most suited for the Ministry of the Ordained.
Second, this control also supports a division of labor within some churches’ structures. Designations as “lay ministers” or “lay clergy” have long historical traditions in some denominations, but today they function on paper to largely separate those pastors who went to seminary and those who, for any variety of reasons, did not. Yet in practice there are scores of “licensed” and lay ministers who are seminary graduates who choose not to be ordained or whose ordination application process is perpetually in a stalled state.
These individuals are usually paid less, pastor the problematic or historically suicidal churches many ordained pastors would refuse to work, or work with “less desirable” populations—children, youth, and young adults. In fact, this model is very common for youth and young adult pastors who survive working under easily-threatened Senior Pastors for more than a few years. These pastors often work without benefits and sometimes see doing this as “paying their dues” until something opens up for them. I was allowed to pastor a United Methodist church even while I had been declared “Not Christian” by the denomination’s own institutional processes. This indicates on one hand a lack of reliance of the church in its own language, theology, and structures, and on the other hand, an over-reliance by denominations to fill empty pulpits.
Third, we must acknowledge that an important Protestant doctrine is the priesthood of all believers. In congregational-polity churches often the pastor is seen as a hired hand, who functions as a priest of memorialism—that is, the pastor lives the ideal Christian life so the congregation does not. It could be said that in episcopal-polity churches the pastors are more like itinerant workers—in fact, the United Methodists have long used the terminology of “itinerant preachers.” Yet this attitude toward ordained clergy that is generally unofficial but widely practiced is one of the most discouraging aspects of ministry for many pastors, namely, they are paid to be the professional Christians.