i spent an hour this morning meeting with a friend, Ray, who is heading up a synod task group looking at ordination in the uniting church. As part of the task group’s brief to look at whether the role of clergy is changing, Ray wanted to ask me about how clergy fit into what we do with alt worship. it took my head a while to get around the questions – i haven’t thought about ordination or the clergy as concepts or categories for a very long time…!

Initially the conversation was focussed on the involvement of ordained people in the things we do in this project [response: there are a number of ordained people who are involved in many different ways, but their ordination is incidental to their involvement]. After a while, though, the conversation moved into a really interesting space… we were talking about how one of the priestly roles in a worshipping community has been to ‘hold the line’ to ensure the community stays within the beliefs of the apostolic tradition. At its worst, that has been a form of control; at its best, it’s been a way of ensuring worship is a safe space for people. Ray was asking whether i thought there was a priestly role within alt worship and sacred spaces. I said no to begin with, but changed my thinking in the conversation… the focus in alt worship / sacred space is a little less on presenting a systematic theology for people, and more about creating a space for encountering and tangling with a sacred story in an open-ended way, so maybe the priestly role changes its focus too. It’s still about creating a safe space, but the focus isn’t on protecting people from heretical belief, rather it’s protecting people from heretical behaviour – from the danger of abuse within the context of curated worship and sacred space: manipulation, “power over”, exclusion… [and in that way the gifts of discernment and intuition become much more important for those who take the priestly role in this context]

[i don’t think that priestly role needs to be held by those who are ordained… or else, obviously, i wouldn’t be here!]

I’ve often talked about how alt worship is about playing, but it also involves knowing that we’re playing in the most holy of playgrounds. both Ray and I talked about the fear and trembling with which we come to plan worship… and how if we don’t take it seriously – if we don’t approach worship with that awe and wonder, and a sense of inadequacy for the responsibility – then the worship loses its heart and essence.


  1. Judy Redman

    This is fascinating, but I don’t have time to comment now. 🙁 Except to say that perhaps the priestly role is not to *protect* people from heretical belief so much as to provide some benchmarks against which belief can be evaluated and provide some tools for evaluation. Not sure how exclusively this is the role of clergy, except that they have been trained by the church to know the party line, whereas even theologically well-educated lay people have not necessarily received this kind of indoctrination. In Uniting Church tradition they have certainly also received training in making worship spaces safe spaces.

  2. Cheryl

    good article, Jonny. i’m forwarding it on…

    Judy – i think you’re right. i was struggling a bit for language in this, and it wasn’t deeply processed before i wrote it! i certainly don’t think it’s about polarities, more a continuum. does that make sense? i’m still not sure i agree with what i wrote – certainly not completely. i’m waiting for my mind to catch up.

  3. Judy Redman

    I’m not really in the right headspace to process this properly right now, so I’m offering some rather random thoughts. I’m also in Texas and away from my library, but I think that some of the work of feminist liturgists might be helpful in providing some theory for this, because they’ve struggled with the notion of what it means to be worship leader without setting up a hierarchy. The book that springs to mind is Marjorie Procter Smith’s “In Her Own Rite” but it’s a long time since I read it, so I might be wrong. The St Hilda Community also have a worship resource called “Women Included”, which has a couple of chapters of theory before the resources, in which they reflect on how the dealt with want women in leadership in liturgy before the Anglican communion ordained women, so they think about the priestly role in a different way.

    The other thing that occurs to me is that Ray’s question was whether there is a priestly role in alt worship. This is a different question to whether there is a role specifically for clergy in alt worship. How you theologise this will depend on your tradition, but the role of the priest is to help the people to meet God, to usher them into God’s presence and help them to come into relationship with God. In some traditions, the priest has a role of mediation/interecession but that’s not the case in Uniting Church ecclesiology (sorry about all the technical terms) where we believe strongly in the priesthood of all believers, by which we are saying that people can talk to God direct. I think in our tradition that the priestly function is more about reminding people that they are in the presence of God and helping them relate to God. In trad worship, that has a pretty stereotyped role – prayers, sermons, hymns etc in particular shapes and orders, but I think that when we talk about curating alt worship, we are probably talking about a priestly function – it’s just not an upfront priestly function.

    My observation is that lots of Uniting Church clergy are better than lots of Anglican clergy at developing non-traditional worship because our worship resources are presented as guidelines, so they tend to train us to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, rather than just how to use the book. Anglican prayer books are much more than just guidelines so they have often not been taught more than how to use the book. Thoughtful people can overcome their training or lack thereof but I think it’s easier for Uniting Church clergy because we have a reasonable theoretical grounding against which to judge non-standard worship events. Some of us, of course, just use the book, regardless. 🙂 Many lay people have even less training, which in some cases is quite freeing and in some cases results in contemporary worship where you find yourself singing “The Stone’s Been Rolled Away” in the middle of a Good Friday service because it’s the music leader’s favourite and s/he thought that the rest of the music you’d chosen was way too sombre so s/he just put it in there to lift the mood a little. (I am speaking from personal experience here).

    The other part of the priestly role in most denominations is to do with sacraments. I haven’t thought this one through with respect to alt worship. Maybe others have?

    In most denominations, clergy have other roles as well – pastoral and prophetic and administrative etc. In the Presbyterian church, they used to talk about the role of the clergy in ensuring that things were done “decently and in good order” which is the protective stuff you were talking about.

    I also think that exploring the idea of continuum would be a good thing to do.

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