Understanding ordination

By Rev Prof Andrew Dutney

Posted in Culture

Earlier this year, I tried to connect with a South Australian conversation about call, ministry and ordination (God calling). Since then, I’ve been asked, in several different contexts, to explain the Uniting Church’s understanding of ordination. Manifesto for Renewal provides my more fully developed account of the Uniting Church’s view. However, as I listened to some people talking about the issues again at Uniting Leaders recently, I thought it might be useful to post the sketchy notes that I’ve been speaking from to resource the ongoing conversation.

There are theological, Christological and ecclesiological dimensions to the Uniting Church’s view of ordination.

The fundamental theological context is the mission of God as it’s expressed in paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union:

“God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.”

Then there’s the core Christological context of how Christ calls the church into being “through human witness”, as it’s expressed in paragraph 4:

“The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of the God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.”

The central ecclesiological principle is that in baptism every member of the church is commissioned to participate in the ministry of Christ. As it says in paragraph 7, “Baptism into Christ’s body initiates people into his life and mission in the world”, and more fully in paragraph 13:

“The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant. It acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.”

Those key principles provide the context to understand what is said about ministry and ordination in paragraph 14. First, there is the more broadly stated commitment to engage in a search for those whom God is calling to ministries that the church needs in every place and in every generation (and that paragraph mentions ministers of the Word, elders or leaders, lay preachers and deaconesses in particular):

“The Uniting Church, from inception, will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to recognise among its members women and men called of God to preach the Gospel, to lead the people in worship, to care for the flock, to share in government and serve those in need in the world.”

Then there is the more specific statement of the theological basis for our search for those called to the ministry of the Word:

“Since the Church lives by the power of the Word, it is assured that God, who has never failed to provide witness to that Word, will, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, call and set apart members of the Church to be ministers of the Word. These will preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and exercise pastoral care so that all may be equipped for their particular ministries, thus maintaining the apostolic witness to Christ in the Church. Such members will be called Ministers and their setting apart will be known as Ordination.”

The ministry of the Word is just one of that “diversity of gifts” that is mentioned in paragraph 13. It’s not superior to other gifts of ministry, but just like them, it has its own dignity and value. 1 Corinthians 12-14 is the biblical precedent for thinking that through (and living it out).

The 1997 Assembly’s “Affirmations on Ordination” explains that:

“Ordination is an especially solemn form of commissioning, reserved for those people whom the Church has set apart to exercise leadership in the ministries which the Church has generally held to be of permanent and crucial importance…” (para1).

It affirms that:

“By ordination, Ministers of the Word and Deacons are given a new relationship to the Church, a new standing place and new responsibilities within it, and a new form of accountability to the Church” (para2).

And it confirms that:

“…every member of the Church is a member of the laity [the laos tou theou], Ministers of the Word and Deacons included. Ministers and “lay people” do not constitute two separate “classes” in the Church” (para5).

 This article was originally published on Rev Prof Andrew Dutney's blog, Backyard Theology.


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