Checking Our Assumptions

Author: 
Francis Noordanus

Dear Friends,

In the early 1990s a church member where I was serving at that time devised a logo which became a poster, then bumper sticker and then a T shirt design. It offered a piece of wisdom in road-sign format about every encounter in life that is increasingly relevant especially in our multi cultural church. In this article I want to lay out why we are the sort of church we are assuming as little as possible. Really deconstructing what we know as church down to absolute zero may be possible but should hopefully not be necessary. I will start with Jesus.

While there are various valid ways of being and doing the work of Church they must derive their existence from Jesus, known to history as 'Jesus of Nazareth' and to those who believe as 'The Lord'. The words and actions of Jesus in the Bible provide the vision and inspiration for people to be 'church' or 'called out' to be His people. The biblical account of Jesus life and work along with His ongoing work and presence through the Holy Spirit continue to give rise to the existence of a church now in every part of the world.

The statements of Jesus were that he would build His church as a congregation or spiritual fellowship to attack gates of hell (evil). He would be with his followers through the Holy Spirit as a comforting empowerer and that wherever He was raised or made prominent He would draw people unto himself. He also instructed those who received Him and aspired to be his Church to witness or proclaim His death and resurrection as having saving power for all who would believe in Him. The work of the Church was and is to be a witness, to teach about Jesus, to disciple people in the way of Jesus and to baptize those who come to faith in Jesus. One specific act of witness and fellowship Jesus set out for his Church was to share bread and wine in memory of him as a sign of the new covenant he established between God and humanity for all time.

I would hope that there is nothing in the previous paragraphs about origins that would be contested or questioned, thus so far so good? Now we get to ask how come Trinity Church looks like it does today. Why do we hold Sunday services of worship? Why does Trinity have a full time paid priest/minister? Why do we sing songs and hymns of praise? Why do we have preaching and teaching on Sunday in the service? Why are those making up the church asked to give money? Who controls that money and allocates its spending? Who determines what we profess as our faith?

The very essence of Church is a called out or gathered group standing in contrasting definition from the surrounding society or 'world'. To be, grow and maintain that identity the members are called to gather regularly to mark, strengthen and celebrate who they are as the Church of Jesus. Jesus set the bottom quorum for a gathering at which he would be present at two. However just as very few families operate at the level of two, at least for very long, gatherings of healthy church congregations have always tended to grow from that base quorum of two and simply keep growing to fill whatever space or venue they meet in. That is the effect of witnessing to Jesus, telling the good news about Jesus and enjoying the fruits of his Kingdom. How many people make up a church or congregation has for many centuries been determined by how large a space could be constructed to house such a meeting. Steel beams have done much to enable churches to grow beyond what was possible with wooden beams or stone arches and pillars being used to hold up the roof.

Within the regular meeting of Church congregations two activities have very long standing as being central to the up building and maintenance of the Church. They are the ministry of the word in Gospel preaching and the sharing of the bread and cup, or the talking and the eating of the Gospel. In the Reformation of the 16th Century this was affirmed by John Calvin who stressed that the true Church was present wherever the Gospel was faithfully preached and the sacraments (Communion & Baptism) duly administered. Providing for that function of gathered-church when the church is renewed and fed through ministries of Word and Sacrament have long been seen as feeding the life of the church as it disperses back into its wider context.

Because the ministry of Word and Sacrament are so central and feeding for the life of a church there has been much consideration given through the centuries as to how this could best be done. Different strands of the global church have different approaches to providing for this ministry. In fact some churches emphasise Word over Sacrament and others the reverse with Sacrament having priority over preaching. What about Trinity Church? Several elements of our church now come quickly into view. Firstly because the feeding and nurture of the congregation is so important the Anglican tradition and others practice ordination. Specific people are set aside to serve in specific roles of ministry. The ministry of preaching the Gospel in Word and Sacrament (Baptism & Communion) has been particularly assigned to those set aside or ordained to be priests. The early church and many recent churches too soon learned that while in one sense any believer can preach and teach and administer the sacraments, letting everyone do this does not always bring about the best results. Some quality control was, and still is, needed to ensure those providing these ministries are suitable and prepared.

The whole exercise of ordaining people to preach (at pulpit) and preside (at table) has since earliest times been the responsibility of Bishops. They are people held in the place of the founding apostles as those able to hold and maintain the faith in Jesus Christ and give leadership in seeing that witness and ministry establish and grow over a wider region as circumstances require. Trinity Church is a congregation in this tradition and order of church. It seeks to have at least one priest/minister as approved and called by its bishop who can feed the Word and the Sacraments with his license and confidence. This is not considered the only way or Biblically required so much as a valid way and biblically permitted. If people want to be church without a Bishop and without ordination there are many historic precedents to follow. Trinity Church however has chosen to live within the Anglican order allowing for Bishops and priests as well as deacons in ordained ministries. While Jesus promised to be present when two or more are gathered the Order of Church Trinity has chosen places a priority on having someone at hand whose call has been tested, has been trained and ordained by a Bishop for the ministry of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. This priority on having an ordained priest to minister the Word and the sacraments has financial implications. We are also in a part of the church (Denomination) which does not require its priests to remain single thus married men and their families come into the frame.

Giving has always been part of Christian practice. Giving is both directed to the glory of God in fulfilling God’s purposes and without depreciating from that, meeting the needs of the poor. At this point we meet a very interesting group of people, The Church Council. There have been groups of elders mentioned from the earliest times of the Christian Church. Some churches such as Reformed or Presbyterian churches seek to have their church order based around a group of elders rather than a bishop. The Church Council may look like a group of elders but they are not actually ordained to be this. The priest is more of a descendent of the Biblical elder in Trinity’s order of Church. The church council are a servant body commissioned to do all they can to promote the life and mission of the Church in cooperation with the priest. As they sit within a defined tradition and order of church they are required to serve within this order. If anyone would for some reason not be accepting of that order or in disagreement with it they may freely withdraw and move to a church with an order that agrees with them.

The giving of the congregation to God is received and managed in God's name by the Church Council. As willing agents within the Anglican way of being church, the Council, and not the priest, is charged with seeing that the offerings received are indeed used for God’s Glory. The first priorities in considering this are a place to meet and ordained ministry. Much more is possible but venue and ordained leadership are the two elements necessary for Trinity's way of being church. As money in anyone’s hands can be intoxicating the Anglican Church has incorporated lessons learned through the centuries to safeguard the Council's exercise of management. Firstly there are accounting standards and checks to ensure there is no misappropriation. Then the Priest is paid a set income known as a Stipend. This is not a salary for services given but a living allowance to enable someone to conduct their ministry calling in that place. When a congregation joins with its Bishop in calling a priest they are in effect saying, "Come and be who you are in God among us and we will support you in doing so." A stipend is designed to support a family but bears no relation to commercial rates or market forces other than inflation. It is an artificially low personal income designed to enable ministry without profiting from it. Within a diocesan unit of the Anglican Church all priests are paid the same amount in stipend and typically a Bishop is slightly higher. There is normally no provision for bonus payments or stipend increases over time or for years of experience. It could be said that a stipend is adequate to support a family but without much discretionary income.

Housing is also provided for Clergy families as part of what is necessary to fulfill their calling and ministry in that place. This is particularly so in settings where local housing is well beyond what someone on a stipend could afford. In our case as Trinity has not facilities of its own during the week, housing at Paradijslaan has been both for accommodation and providing offices for ministry and space for meetings. At its worst some churches can become employment agencies for their resident clergy. At its best this system provides a focused and willing local congregation with trained ministry and leadership enabling them to engage in effective mission. So to summarise, God’s people give to the Lord, the Council assign from this for the mission of God’s Church in an Anglican ordered way.

Finally why do we sing songs? Music was always there but the full development of hymns and later songs really opened up in recent centuries. Latin hymns had been around since before medieval times but hymns and songs in the vernacular language have grown in usage since the sixteenth century. Hymn writers such as Luther, the Wesleys and those who followed (e.g. Toplady) really expanded the possibilities for hymns as part of Sunday worship in the local language. While Calvin and others did not see praise and worship as a sign of the true church it has come to be an important part of church life in many parts of the world. Again this is an option or choice. For centuries singing was limited to chanting psalms or just a few well known hymns. As music has developed so has its use for praise and worship. This has nothing to do with our essential church order but simply fits in well with being church in the twenty-first century. It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us!

Finally who determines what we believe and profess? In some very small churches that is the pastor of that congregation. In Trinity Church we hold to the common historic creeds of the universal Church. These were generally set down in the first few centuries to define orthodox faith in the face of perceived distortions and heresies. The Bible is the standard of faith. However its interpretation may depend on the preacher or individual church members. Anglicans sometimes say that what they believe is revealed in what they pray. This is in contrast to some traditions where what is believed is set out in confessional statements.

I hope this general over view helps build understanding of how and why Trinity operates as it does. It may be different from your church of origin. Most features are set in place by wider arrangements and not local preference.

With my best wishes.

Francis