… well, at least some of it. With Revd Sue coming among us as curate, some people have naturally asked what all the various titles used by the church actually mean. Here’s my attempt at answering:
Priesthood of all believers This is a fundamental doctrine of the Reformation. In the Old Testament there was a separate class of people called priests who alone could offer sacrifices to the Lord. Those who wanted to reform the church in the 16th century pointed out from Scripture that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ has a “priestly” ministry of offering spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God (1 Peter 2:4-5, Romans 12:1-2 – click on the links to view the passages). They were taking us back to the fundamental truth that anyone who believes and trusts in Jesus is given a ministry, and all have a part to play in the body of Christ.
However within the church there will be some who need to be publicly recognised and authorised as leaders, after a proper process of selection and training. In the Anglican church this is done in two ways.
First of all, there is licensing. This is for people who have a particular local ministry such as readers, or pastoral workers. They receive a licence from the bishop for the specific work they have been called to do.
Then there is ordination. Someone who is ordained has hands laid on by the bishop and is set apart for a specific role that is recognised by the whole denomination, and has a wider focus than that of licensed ministry.
When you are ordained, you will usually serve a curacy. To be curate is to be a minister in training, and that training period lasts for about three to four years.
At first a curate is ordained as a deacon. A deacon is someone with a ministry of service. They are not allowed to formally bless someone or to preside at Holy Communion, and their focus is more on representing the church within the local community or parish. Some who are ordained will become “permanent deacons” and they form part of what is called the diaconate. However most deacons after a year are then ordained once again as they move on to a new ministry of priest (although you always remain a deacon).
The word priest is somewhat complicated by the fact the English word refers to two different concepts. We have already seen that in the Old Testament the word “priest” was used of a special group of people who offered sacrifices, and that understanding still prevails among those of a more Catholic background. However in the New Testament the word “priest” is linked with that of “presbyter” and it refers to someone with oversight of the local congregation. It is because of this confusion I prefer to call myself a minister, as the word “priest” can mean so many different things to different people.
After you have completed your curacy you may then move on to a post of your own. Again, the Anglican church makes things complicated, partly because of its rich history. You may be appointed a rector or a vicar – there is now no difference in the terms – or you may be appointed a priest-in-charge if there are plans to reorganise the parish you serve. There are of course also plenty who go on to serve as chaplains, working not in a parish but in schools, hospitals, prisons, the armed forces etc.
When talking about Anglican ministry, the word vocation is often used, and usually refers to this calling to ordained ministry. However although the focus is often on ordained or “priestly” ministry, this is in my opinion unhelpful. As the Reformers remind us, we all have a role and we have all been equipped by the Holy Spirit to play our part in the body of Christ. Or as the apostle Paul says… you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Cor 12:27).
So whether or not you are called to a ministry of leadership, it’s worth all of us sitting down from time to time and asking the Lord, “What is it you are calling me to do right now?” For one of the greatest signs of spiritual health in a church – and this is something we are seeing more and more at St Barnacles – is when each member recognises and responds to God’s call, be it a ministry large or small. And if you feel called to a particular ministry, of whatever variety, do have a word with me. It is always good when ministries grow and flourish!