The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
For the equipment of his people for this total ministry the Lord Jesus Christ gives particular gifts for particular ministries and calls some of his servants to exercise them in offices duly recognised within his Church. The United Reformed Church recognises that Christ gives himself to his Church through Word and Sacrament and through the total caring oversight by which his people grow in faith and love, the exercise of which oversight is the special concern of elders and Ministers. Those who enter on such ministries commit themselves to them for so long as God wills: the United Reformed Church having solemnly acknowledged their vocation and accepted their commitment shall appoint them to their particular ministry and give them authority to exercise it within the church, setting them apart with prayer that they shall be given all needful gifts and graces for its fulfilment, which solemn setting part shall in the case of Ministers and elders be termed ordination and in the case of Church Related Community Workers be termed commissioning. In the United Reformed Church all ministries within the life of the Church shall be open to both men and women. Appropriate affirmations of faith shall be made by those entering upon all ministries within the life of the Church. (20)
‘So do you feel any different?’ was one of the first questions I remember family and friends asking me once we got back to the manse after attending the worship service at which I was ordained as a minister and inducted to my first post. I don’t remember feeling any different and my memory of that day is a bit of a blur.
Reading through this section of the Basis of Union I am struck by the concept of ‘total ministry’. A ministry that no one individual is able to carry or fulfil alone. Each individual has a unique constellation of abilities, interests, and talents; and what’s more all of those are needed for the Church to fully live out its mission and witness. The idea of ‘every member ministry’ is a popular one in many denominations; the idea that everyone has a part to play in living and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in the places we live out our lives. As the Church once again shifts its shape this is an important idea to remember and to try to live out.
And yet, the URC is a church that does set people aside in particular ministries. The largest body of ordained people in the URC are the people we name elders. According to the 2020 Year Book there are 8079 serving elders – far more than Ministers. All of these are people who have been called in some way to serve the Church and this has been solemnly recognised through prayer and the giving of authority. We name this solemn setting apart ‘ordination’ for Ministers and elders, and ‘commissioning’ for Church Related Community Workers. Ordination (and Commissioning) is an act of the whole Church and is an act that almost irrevocably changes the relationship an individual has with the Church, with the wider community, and sometimes even with family and friends.
More recently someone asked me what I thought about something ‘not as a Minister’. I found their question impossible to answer. Why? Because I am a Minister. It showed me how ordination means something but doesn’t itself change anyone. Ordination and Commissioning is a form of naming. It points out something already present, sharpened and polished through training and experience identifying who someone is but not changing who they are. Part of our task as Christian people is to continuously be alert to who we are called to be and what are we called to do. This is true for everyone, for the few who are ordained and commissioned, and for everyone else, called to play their part in the total ministry of Christ’s Church.
We will grow together in humility, gentleness and patience; we will nurture each other in faith; we will bear with one another in love; we will make every effort to maintain the unity of the Holy Spirit in the bond of peace, so that we may faithfully proclaim the gospel of Christ.
(from the Ordination and Induction of Elders, Worship from the United Reformed Church, 2004)
The Rev’d Sarah Moore is Assistant Clerk of the General Assembly and Transitional Champion for the National Synod of Scotland
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