The recent comment by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Today programme ‘where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches’ raises the question what do we mean by a ‘good’ vicar?
If we turn to the service for the ‘ordering of priests’ in the 1662 Ordinal, which is still the Church of England’s doctrinal bench mark on the matter, we find that there are seven characteristics of the ministry of a faithful priest which are set out in the questions that the bishop asks the candidate for ordination.
These questions are as follows:
- Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity for eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by Scripture?
- Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your cure and charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?
- Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both publick or private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, as need shall require, and occasions shall be given?
- Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?
- Will you be diligent to frame and fashion yourselves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make yourselves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ?
- Will you maintain and set forwards, as much as lieth in you, quietness, peace and love, among all Christian people, and specially among them that are or shall be committed to your charge?
- Will you reverently obey your Ordinary, and other chief Ministers, unto whom is committed the charge and government over you; following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourself to their godly judgements?
Someone whose life and ministry provide a positive answer to these questions is by definition a ‘good vicar.’ They are doing what the Church of England thinks that Priests should do. However, this does not mean that he or she will see his or her church grow. Neither experience nor Scripture lead us to think that this will be the case.
Experience tells us that that there ‘good vicars’ who do all that the Ordinal requires of them and still do not see their church grow. Scripture teaches that when the word of God is proclaimed then there will be a mixed reaction with not everyone responding positively either temporarily or permanently (Mark 4:1-20). The Gospels tell us that even in the case of Jesus himself there were times when there was a hugely positive response to his ministry (Mark 1:32-45) and other times when it was met with widespread rejection (Mark 6:1-6).
The doctrine of election, affirmed by the Church of England in Article 17, tells us that there will always be people whom God will draw to himself through the work of his ministers so that there will be ‘a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb’’ (Revelation 7:9-10) What we have no guarantee about is that this activity of God in drawing people to himself will mean that there will be a large number of people starting to come to church at any given place or time.
It is true that there needs to be ‘intentional evangelism’ in the sense that ministers and the Church as a whole should seek to be obedient to the Great Commission by seeking to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20). What they cannot determine is what the outcome of this evangelism will be.
The idea, associated with the 19th century American evangelist Charles Finney, that the application of the right ‘measures’ will bring about revival and church growth is misleading. We cannot force God’s hand and make revival come about. As an older tradition of thinking about the matter insisted, our job is to do what we are called to do and pray earnestly to God to bring souls into his kingdom and then leave the rest to him.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon in 1933 ‘…it is not we who build. He wills to build the church. No one builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on his way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess – he builds. We must proclaim – he builds. We must pray to him – he builds. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It maybe that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of building. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his Church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Church, do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.’
What all this means is that trying to identify ‘good vicars’ by asking if their churches are growing is a profound mistake. Vicars, like everyone else, should be judged according to their success in doing what they are meant to do and doing what only God can do is not part of this.