I was ordained in June 1964. Shortly after ordination I was out visiting in Lisburn where I came across an elderly retired clergyman. He had been ordained by Handley Moule, the Bishop of Durham. He showed me his ordination Bible. On the front page Moule had inscribed the words of Acts 20:28, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which He obtained with the blood of His own Son.” That verse came alive for me on that occasion and has served as a motto text over the years. Later I discovered that Acts 20:28 was the verse which inspired Richard Baxter of Kidderminster to write his famous book, “The Reformed Pastor”, which has been described as the greatest book ever written on the pastoral office. Pastors have a duty to pay careful attention to their own life style and then to care for the church of God. The Pastorals also make this very clear.
Acts 20:28 must be seen in the context of the whole address at Acts 20: 17-35. The apostle Paul had gathered a group of first century elders from Ephesus and here we have his address. We see his priorities and the cost involved in pastoral ministry. This will involve Provision for the sheep. They require food, grass! It sounds so ordinary but that can be very demanding as any shepherd knows. The pastor provides food by a preaching and teaching ministry. Indeed, the basic requirement for pastoral ministry in the New Testament is an ability to teach. (1 Tim3:2 - didaktikos). The scope in such a ministry is the whole counsel of God. We are servants of the Word. Professor F F Bruce has an apt comment here, “No letters indicating academic achievement or public honour can match in dignity the letters V D M applied to the pastor’s name in some reformed churches – ‘verbi divini minister’ – ‘servant of the Word of God’.”
The other priority touched upon by St Paul in his address to those Ephesian elders was the Protection of the sheep from “fierce wolves”. False teaching is a threat to Christians in every century. Back in the seventh century BC the prophet Jeremiah gave a similar warning, “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ says the Lord …… ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds not from the mouth of the Lord’.” (Jer 23:1 &16). The answer to false teaching is words “from the mouth of the Lord” and a supply of orthodox teachers.
The 1960’s, when I was training for ordination, was a period when the foundations were shaken. Several in high office within Anglicanism openly denied the bodily resurrection of Christ. We were also told, “Your image of God must go.” This was the caption in many church papers. Each era has its own challenge; the basic challenge today is to the authority of Scripture, not just the question of interpretation, because, in Scripture we have both prophetic and apostolic interpretation. Classical Anglicanism has stressed the Scriptures as the final source of authority. This can be seen in the 39 articles eg Articles 6, 8, 20 & 24. Nothing should be ordained in the Church “against God’s Word”. The Berean principle at Acts 17:11 is relevant in today’s debates. The debates on authority go back to at least the time of Erasmus and Luther. Luther declared, “The difference between you and me, Erasmus, is that you sit above Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me!” John Stott in a dialogue with David Edwards puts it rather differently, “The liberal seems to me to resemble (no offence meant!) a gas - filled balloon, which takes off and rises into the air, buoyant, free, directed only by its own built in navigational responses to wind and pressure, but entirely unrestrained from earth. For the liberal mind has no anchorage, it is accountable to itself.” (Edwards & Stott, A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue).
The serious debates within modern Anglicanism are largely over authority. The presenting issue has been over gay behaviour. Here we see a conflict between Scripture and modern liberalism. Few passages make this issue clearer than the New Testament holiness code at 1 Corinthians 5-7. 1 Cor. 6: 9-11 is clear that a homosexual lifestyle is not a Christian option, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God and such were some of you …….” This is a salvation issue not a second order issue where a variety of approaches is possible. The power of the gospel to change men and women is seen in that phrase “and such were some of you.” Bishop Paul Barnett has written, “The Biblical norm for sexual expression is clear. It is either abstinence and singleness or heterosexual marriage. This is precisely the teaching of Jesus the Christ (see Matthew 19:3-12) which the apostle to the Gentiles followed closely (see 1 Cor 7: 1-40). Anything else is porneia / ‘fornication,’ and is not sanctioned by God" ( 1Corinthians by Paul Barnett (Focus) pages 96/7). The fullest discussion on homosexuality known to me is that by Professor Robert A J Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon). Lambeth 1998 at resolution 1.10 follows the Scriptures on this issue, “In view of the teaching of Scripture, the church upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those not called to marriage.”
The servant nature of the church and of Christian ministry within the churches needs to be constantly borne in mind. Our Lord made this clear in the great ransom saying at St Mark 10:45. To quote Michael Green, “The church has so often worn the robe of the ruler rather than the apron of the servant.” Bishops dressed-up in cope and mitre may speak of the prince-bishop in the middle ages but do little to remind us of the servant-King. Such dress makes good men look silly! Michael Green in his splendid little book, “Called to serve” raises the whole issue of clergy titles, “One cannot help feeling that the whole gamut of ecclesiastical courtesy titles, ‘the Venerable’, ‘the Very Reverend’, ‘the Most Reverend’, and so on, are a hindrance rather than a help in the work of the ministry.”
The apprentice model for ministry training is in the process of recovery. It has been widely used in the Sydney diocese and is now in operation in these islands. As well as being a good training method it keeps the whole question of lay ministry before our congregations. The usual method of training ordinands for pastoral ministry within the Church of Ireland has been a three year B.Th course at C I T C. There has been widespread anxiety over the selection and training of ordinands within the Church of Ireland. The absence of evangelical scholars on the teaching staff at our theological college has been an area of concern and also the bias against evangelical scholarship has been seen in the reading lists at the college. Maybe the ‘Hard Gospel’ programme needs to have a look at all aspects of theological education. Many years ago a fellow student told me that if I was to understand the workings of the Church of Ireland I should read a lecture given by C S Lewis entitled, “The Inner Ring”. That was good advice!
A very useful form of ministry open to both clergy and laity is service on the parliament or general synod of the Church of Ireland. Such service is hindered by the fact that the synod meets mid-week and also by the unrepresentative nature of that body. The representation is reminiscent of the rotten boroughs of 18th and 19th century England. It took the great reform acts of the 19th century to make the English parliament a more representative body. The Church of Ireland general synod seems almost incapable of reforming itself. There is an urgent need for a re-distribution of seats. At present Tuam diocese with a population of 2003 has one synod member for every 105 people; while Connor diocese with a population of 105,000 has one representative for every 1094 church members. Down and Dromore with a population of 97,000 has one representative for every 1078 members. This is not just a North/South divide. There is a significant variation even within the representation of Southern dioceses. General synod is in urgent need of radical reform if it is to claim to speak for the whole Church of Ireland.
Few books in the New Testament stress the nature of Christian ministry more than 2 Corinthians. M.A.C. Warren has described 2 Cor 6: 4-10 as the classic definition of ministry. The study of church history is highly relevant in any review of clerical or lay ministry. I have found Bishop J C Ryle’s, Five English Reformers (Banner) and his Christian Leaders of the 18th Century (Banner), a real inspiration. J I Packer’s study of the Puritans, Among God’s Giants (Kingsway), introduces us to a neglected area. More recently the re-publication of two significant books by Archbishop Marcus Loane deserve our study, Oxford and the Evangelical Succession (Focus) and Cambridge and the Evangelical Succession (Focus). Warren Nelson’s biography of T C Hammond (Banner) gives many insights into the life of this distinguished Irish scholar and also into the Church of Ireland in the 20th century, not to mention Hammond’s very significant contribution to the diocese of Sydney and to Moore College, the largest theological college in the Anglican communion with more than 300 students.
In conclusion, I come back to Acts 20 and to that phrase in verse 28, “to care for the church of God”. I have had the privilege of pastoral ministry in Lisburn Cathedral, Mullabrack/Kilcluney and All Saints’ Belfast. The final assessment of all ministry lies in the future with the Divine and Merciful Judge. Meanwhile we are all called to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). Some words from Richard Baxter can serve as a conclusion to this essay, “Let us then hear the words of Christ, whenever we feel the tendency growing in us to become dull and careless. ‘Did I die for them and you will not look after them? Were they worthy of my blood, and yet they are not worth your labour? Did I come down from heaven to earth, to seek and to save that which was lost, and will you not go next door or to the next street or village to seek after them? Compared with mine how small is your labour and condescension? I debased myself to do this, but it is your honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make you a co-worker with me, and yet you refuse that little that lies within your hands?’ ” (The Reformed Pastor, Pickering and Inglis, page 91).
Clive West is a former Rector of All Saints, Belfast