Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fresh Expressions of Vicar: can we do better than 'the Eucharistic prayer and volunteer management'?

Swathes of Curates are about to be unleashed upon the Church of England. Do they know what they are letting themselves in for? Over the next few years, what shape of local church leadership will they be trained for? Over to guest blogger Andy Griffiths...


Most people either didn’t notice Titus, or they did notice but were disappointed that it was him who’d come.

In the first category is Luke, who never mentions Titus at all, despite at least twelve apostolic team members being name-checked and despite Titus having been (on the evidence of the letters) a key figure in the expansion of the Christian movement.  Outside the book of Titus, Paul names him twelve times in letters, but he does so in such a way that he makes clear that no one else shares Paul’s high view of him.  In Galatians 2.1-3 we learn that the Jewish believers were unconvinced that people like Titus were converted at all; in 2 Corinthians 8.23 and 12.18 we learn that the Corinthians were disappointed that it was Titus whom Paul sent with a letter, and so Paul has to justify his choice at length.  Titus was a disappointing nobody.

In other words, Titus is an ideal patron saint and model for incumbent ministers today.  And a new model is very much required.  Chelmsford Diocese, for example, is calling churches to move from being “communities around a Minister” to being “ministering communities”.  Most parishes will gladly sign up to this aspiration – but where does leave those of us who are “Ministers”?  Take Galleywood, the parish which I have served as Vicar for 10 years.  Its PCC (Church Council) is chaired by a layperson, its life is largely run by a lay “administrator and vision coordinator”, there are multiple licensed and authorised lay ministers doing over 50% of the leading of worship and preaching, and pastoral care in the hands of an able pastoral care team which I do not lead, so what’s my role?  Surely it’s not only the Eucharistic prayer and volunteer management?  Is there a way I can meaningfully discharge my “cure of souls” without being central to church life?

My concern here is mostly with Anglican incumbents – I include Priests in Charge, Vicars, Rectors, Team Vicars, and Ministers in Charge – all those to whom is entrusted the “cure of souls” of a given parish or set of parishes, whether they happen to be paid or not (though as a matter of fact the enormous majority of incumbents are paid).  In the Church of England, there is an additional complication, because a high proportion of incumbents will be retiring in the next 10 years – about half, by some estimates, so that an influential article spoke recently of “the leading of the 5,000”, suggesting that there will be approximately five thousand paid Church of England incumbents left, compared with 23,235 in 1901.  So there’s a danger that those of us remaining will be stretched ever more thinly and be ever more isolated.  I want to suggest that the book of Titus provides a fourfold model that is life-giving.  It has to be worth a try.

Titus (and the letters to Timothy) have a special status in the Bible.  They give us a window into the organizational structures of the early church.  The later they are – and New Testament scholarship continues to debate their date – the more significant this window becomes, because it implies that we are seeing a mature church after the first flush of charismatic enthusiasm.  To put it bluntly, the letters to the Corinthians presume a context extremely different from the contemporary Church of England, but when we read 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus we are on slightly more familiar ground.

And a quick reading of these letters reveals one simple fact: there are no Vicars in Crete at this time.  At no stage is Titus commissioned to be their Pastor or Parish Priest.  Instead, we see teams: an apostolic team that Titus is part of, and a team of elders/overseers in the Cretan church(es) whom he is to select and assist.   

We have relatively little information about how the apostolic team functioned.  For example, was it “a team led by an apostle” or “a team of apostles”?  (Both seem to have been the case at different times – an example that is contested for quite different reasons is Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7).  My own view is that apostolic teams were “flatter” in structure than a first reading of Acts might imply.  Paul, though not a person with a lack of self-belief, seems to have been wary of acting alone in any way, and even the letters we commonly refer to as “Paul’s epistles” often had multiple authorship (Paul and Silas or Paul and Sosthenes or Paul and Timothy or whatever).  

With direct relevance to Titus, take Paul’s words in 2 Cor 12-13:
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

Here Paul – even though God had “opened a door” for his ministry – could not operate without Titus.  It was Paul and his team, or nothing.  If we ask “why couldn’t Paul preach without Titus around?” we might answer psychologically (“he just didn’t feel comfortable”) or practically (“Paul was physically weak, at least at this point, and needed Titus to be his spokesperson, or to physically hold him up.”)  

But there seems also to have been an ecclesiological point: Paul, on principle, was not in favour of going it alone – that would have modelled quite the wrong sort of Christian life.

So Chelmsford diocese is modelling what it calls “Mission and Ministry Unit Teams” (MMU Teams).  An MMU team contains several incumbents, and may also contain other team members including some self-supporting priests, working together to serve a set of local churches and supporting the local (largely unpaid, and sometimes including “locally deployed” self-supporting priests) “ministry teams” in each local church.  

Take, for example, Southwest Chelmsford Churches, a MMU comprising 5 churches in 4 parishes, served at present by 3 incumbents, a curate and a flourishing lay team.  I am one of these incumbents, and have the “cure of souls” for one of the churches in the MMU; but I am also licensed as an associate priest in the other 4, and have responsibility across the five churches in the areas of Vocation, Vision and Pioneering.  My colleagues Stephanie and Carol each have the cure of souls for two churches each, are again licensed as associates to all the churches in the MMU, and have responsibility (respectively) for Education, Evangelism and Worship and for Community Involvement, Pastoral Care and Spiritual Growth.  It so happens that I am at present also “Warden of Ministers”, which means that I have the responsibility of drawing us together for regular clergy meetings, and also inviting lay people appointed by each church to meet with us; but Southwest Chelmsford Churches is a self-consciously egalitarian MMU, and neither Stephanie, nor Carol, nor I are in any sense the “leader” of the Unit.  (I was LITERALLY appointed on the toss of a coin). 

If asked to describe my role, I tend to say “I’m Titus”, which is unhelpful for anyone who has not read this post.  My intention is not to try to recapture the first Cretan church in some fundamentalist, proof-texting way, but to maintain that there is a resonance between the apostolic team implied in the book of Titus and the structures we are discovering here in mid-Essex.

I think this “Chelmsford Model” has significant advantages over similar schemes in other parts of the Anglican communion, which group churches into clusters but then still treat incumbents as sole practitioners.  It has something in common with what I saw when I received the hospitality of the Augustinian Canons in Poitou, in western France. Sixteen local parishes come under the “episcopé » of four (stipendiary) priests, who live in the centre of the area. Each parish has its own équipe animatrice, a lay team which is responsible for the ongoing liturgical and spiritual life of the parish. One Sunday a month, a priest from the central team visits the parish, celebrates mass, provides episcopé, and trains and supports the équipe animatrice as to how they can lead services of the word over the next three weeks. In Poitiers diocese the policy is to avoid communion by extension, as it is felt to devalue the real Mass. In Poitiers diocese, the équipe animatrice (also referred to as ‘anciens’, elders – though they say this makes them feel old!) are all equal members, without one of them being appointed as ‘team leader’.

So the first part of my fourfold description of incumbent ministry today is this: Incumbents have a responsibility to work together in teams.   It would be good if training included how to work in teams  To those who say that incumbents are too eccentric, too autonomous or too awkward to do so, I can only point again to the eccentricity, autonomy and awkwardness of Paul, and say “if he had to do it, so do we”.   

Andy Griffiths has taught in a theological college in Hungary for five years, worked in France for 5 years and is now a Vicar in Essex, but his main claim to fame is that he went to college with David Keen.(Editors note - these are Andy's words not mine!!)  So that’s why he’s “guest blogging” four posts about incumbent ministry.  This is the first. Follow the links below for the others (will go 'live' as the posts go up)

Fresh Expressions of Vicar 2: How to get the Vicar out of the Way.
Fresh Expressions of Vicar 3: The Only Thing We Really Have to Say
Fresh Expressions of Vicar 4: My Generation, Your Generation, Regeneration


  1. Churches are human organisations - all too human - and the rules that apply to human organisations apply here. A church, like any successful body, needs one strong leader, allowed with a minimum of interference from denominational authorities or peers to get on with the task of leadership. If we have too few leaders of this calibre, I'm afraid we have too many churches and need to close some until the numbers add up. I have seen the alternative - a "team-led church supported by a regional team" - and although it attracted many people (largely those whose own lives were so chaotic they didn't notice the problems with the church) it repelled those who desire order and reverence and expect a proper level of education and excellence from those who dare to lead in prayer or preach the Word. In the Church of England, the loss of "livings" - a system by which clergy were allowed to get on with leading without this kind of interference - is increasingly leading towards exactly the chaos exemplified above. To bring in the experience of the Roman Catholic Church in France as if that was a good example does not commend it. This I do concede, however: it does appear that the early church had Elders rather than single leaders. It soon learned its mistake.

  2. David, thank you for hosting the conversation.

    Jan, thank you for being the first to speak up.

    You point to three key questions:

    1. Should church be ordered, with seemly unchaotic leaders? My answer is: probably. But although I'm a paid incumbent - with a Living - and I went to college with Dave Keen, for goodness sake, so I must be educated! - you will get this in Southwest Chelmsford Churches most effectively when I'm not there. Come when my colleague Travers, a Licensed Lay Minister, is preaching, he's got both the formation and the gravitas I lack. If you come when I'm rota-ed on you'll probably get arm puppets and post-it notes. You'd hate it. Seriously, although this is a real issue, I don't think it's the same issue as the role of the incumbent.

    2. Secondly and more importantly, you raise the issue of whether human organizations need a single, visible leader to thrive. I think you're in the majority on this one, I'm in a minority. I think God was behind the Judges experiment - yes, it failed in the end, but not as badly as the monarchy did! I warm to the Moravian tradition (see www.zinzendorf.webs.com) where successive ballots for a Chief Elder failed, so Jesus' name was added, and Jesus was elected! He still serves in that capacity, and a chair is often left unfilled at meetings to signify his presence.

    3. And finally, you really helpfully point to a historical question. Was the creation of Elder-team-led churches (AD 50-120 approx) a failed experiment, sensibly replaced by the creation of the single "Senior Pastor" Bishop by 150? Or were team-led churches the right way to go, and it's a tragedy that organizational norms from the Roman Empire infiltrated? We'd disagree on the answer, but I'm sure many will find your diagnosis persuasive.

    Andy Griffiths