One of my most stimulating roles over the past 11 years of ordained ministry has been signposting others into ordained and licensed ministry. Helping others reflect on denomination and trans-denominational terms like ‘priest’ or ‘congregational leader’, whilst observing an older generations suffering a significant identity crisis about their role has been a fascinating thing. Where a previous (but one) generation thought they understood ‘priest’ sociologically as well as theologically, the sociological understanding has almost or completely disappeared (depending on the context you find yourself in), and the theological interpretations then have had to work overtime to try and keep up. ‘No’, says society (and church?), ‘we don’t know what a priest does, and we’re not sure we would want to if we did’.
Osmer, building on Gerkin, who is building on Gadamer, who is building on Heidegger speaks of three ways in which ‘congregation leaders’ need to do this theological interpretation: the first assumes that corporately and individually members of the congregation are independently interpreting life for themselves theologically. Listening and critique allow the leader to nuance and possible divert those interpretations, but those interpretations have a life of their own that pre-exist any intervention by the leader and potentially bypass official thinking and doctrine of the organisation.
The ability of a leader to divert thinking will depend massively in my experience, on factors such as the strength of denominational/local church teaching identity; personalities of the leader and congregation (corporate and individual); and the degree to which other voices are also speaking into that issue. So in the classic example of human sexuality an individual congregation leader who might ordinarily carry a high level of theological influence with their flock, might find the ‘uphill’ struggle of restating ‘biblical orthodoxy’ a Sisyphusian impossibility.
You might argue that the repeated efforts of Ian Paul to this end in his popular Psephizo blog carry with them a sense of likely failure with a theological readership, who on the basis of comments he accrues, seem to begin with a broader interpretive horizon than the one Ian wants to allow for through his (biblical scholar of evangelical persuasion) prism. This is presumably a by product of many of Ian’s former students having been attracted to his former college as it embraced a very ‘open’ position on scholarship, which is a culturally attractive place to begin from in 21st Century Britain. Having a gatekeeper of that tradition attempt to reinforce parameters for interpretation is an uncomfortable experience for some, and one that compelling stories both public (e.g. Vicky Beeching) or private (family, friends) as well as cultural norms can easily subvert. So the congregational leader (or blogging theologian) is guiding a community who are already independently interpreting, and external factors may mean that they have very little influence on that interpretation.
The fact that churches and denominations hold together with such diversity of views on issues of every level of importance suggests that doctrinal positions are rarely the glue holding people together in today’s church. Even if you surveyed the members of more doctrinally self-aware movements (FIEC / newfrontiers) you would expect to find significant private disagreement from the membership about the official views e.g. on women in leadership. The positive side to this is that other factors including ‘love’, ‘shared mission’, ‘vision’, and ‘calling’ unite churches together; (although cynic might talk more of historical inertia and consumerist choices). But certainly Congregational leaders now face a very complicated task in which they are by no means the only nor the most prominent interpreter for their flock and not a few of them would have no desire to be anyway.
If the first way congregation leaders need to do interpretation is then within this streams of consciousness, the second is when something bursts the bubble of seemingly happy reality. A divorce, unexpected pregnancy, bereavement, redundancy, sociological shift or even some happy instance – a prophetic word, sense of new calling, ‘kairos moment’ opportunity all require help in interpreting.
‘it is not uncommon for people to draw back from experiences that call into question cherished notions of self, church or nation and to settle for inauthentic forms of faith… [the Leaders’s goal is then to]…facilitate a dialogue between the people who’s lives have unraveled and the community of faith’ [Osmer, p.25]. It could be argued that this is what Ian Paul is trying to do with his restatement of historical orthodoxy around human sexuality.
Finally the leader is called to help those with specialities in other areas of life find a theological and ethical perspective for their work and passions. Osmer points to classic roles like medicine, business and law where this will be important. I like how Mark Greene of LICC has expanded on this elsewhere to ask preachers, ‘what is the theology of a maths lesson for a 7 year old’. Unless we can help people think God-thoughts about their day to day lives we can never achieve a whole life discipleship motif, which arrives not through pietism but through integration – i.e. as you can’t spend all day in meditation (even if you wanted to) it has to be in day to day living that Christian life is worked out. God is in maths, physics and biology at least as much as in RE.
So the congregation minister or priests role today… complicated… multifaceted… based on right influence not on power… frustrating… impotent… creative… stimulating… exhausting… exhilarating… equipping
You can pick any of the above.