Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Who should, may or may not assist the Pastor?
I am not going to argue all the points here. You can seek out and read the various perspectives. Google it and you will have no shortage of places to go and things to read. Rather I want to focus on what Pr. Eric Brown has identified as a "temporary" diaconal office which is assigned to "elders." Pastor Brown has it upon one of the things that Missouri is very good at -- we adopt temporary solutions to permanent problems. Elders are either elected or appointed for a specific term of office and many constitutions preclude more than a couple of terms before a mandated rest from election or service as "elder." This is not the only place where Missouri has sought a temporary solution to a more permanent problem (think "lay minister" or "deacons" who are temporarily given the responsibility for the full responsibilities of the Pastoral Office -- Word and Sacrament -- by either District or congregational assignment).
I think Pastor Brown has it upon a very good point. We need to regularize what is a temporary solution to a more long term need. Now, in some ways, we already do that in this parish since the assisting ministers and elders continue to function liturgically as assisting ministers or in the distribution long after they have ceased to hold official office in the congregation. It is a permanent temporary solution -- no better than a temporary temporary solution yet one that acknowledges that the role and function are not simply temporary.
Those who would believe it is just plain wrong to have any laity (meaning non-ordained) serve liturgically in the chancel often forget the realities of many parish situations. We have two services and a Sunday school hour on Sunday morning and can barely get it all in between 8:15 am and 12:15 pm. We do not truncate the liturgy nor cut and paste for the sake of time. The sermon is not shortened to a few minutes for the sake of time. We distribute the Sacrament to some120-150 at each service. We have a large rail and can commune at least 20 at each table. Still in all, the time saved by the use of elders and assisting ministers is probably about 10 minutes at each service. We use them for a very practical purpose -- we would have to begin first service at 7:30 am in order to fit all of it in without the use of elders/assisting ministers and I would be even more exhausted than normal at the end of a Sunday (that usually runs to 2-4 pm in the afternoon).
Pastor Brown's idea of making regular what is an ad hoc practice is a good one. We should require more uniform training and in more depth, we should set apart or consecrate these individuals for this role and function, and we should expect a measure of commitment from these men. In essence, it would be better if what we are currently doing in an ad hoc manner might be made more permanent and regular. I am all for this and this may indeed be exactly what I will be doing. From my perspective, this solves much of the concern that some have raised about this practice.
One final note... Some of those who object to lay service in the chancel believe that it gives a confusing witness to the folks in the pew -- who serves and why do they serve. I guess I do not have much fear of such confusion. Those lay assistants do wear an alb but there I am in the full eucharistic vestments. I am the one who announces "as a called and ordained servant of Christ." I am the one who is clearly "in charge." The acolytes or altar servers and assisting minister sit on either side of me and are always attentive to my leading. I preach. I close the petitions for the prayers. I prepare the table. I preside at the altar. I speak the Words of Christ that consecrate the bread and cup to be the Body and Blood of Christ as His word promises. I distribute the host and determine who communes. They follow me -- not only in place but follow my lead. I give the benediction. I do not think that there is much confusion of roles here. They do not serve by their right but by the privilege extended by the Pastor with the consent of the congregation. No one pushes his way into the office or the chancel or usurps authority that belongs only to the ordained.
Is it the absolute best solution? Probably not. I would prefer to have an assistant Pastor (ordained) and perhaps several permanent deacons (employed by the congregation at least part-time). I would enjoy having a seminary field worker or a vicar (perhaps a vicar might be possible but not a field worker -- too far from the Seminaries). Yet it is not as messy or lax as some would suggest. What we need is a means of regularizing what is really rather careful practice. And I venture to say this is not only true of my parish but of many within our Synod. Which brings me back to the point... we need to regularize what is a temporary practice...