Wayback Wednesday: Reviewing Denominational Structures, with an Eye to Ecclesiology and Ministry Training

A few years back, the Church in Wales published a Review of its current state and hopes for the future.  As part of an interview process for a job at the only residential ministry training college for the Anglican church in that country (it is not part of the Church of England), I prepared a response to and analysis of that Review, with a specific focus on how training for ordination and lay leadership might be affected.  I was told, by the then-Principal, that my thinking was “spot on”.  However, they decided to offer the position to someone with “long experience” of ministry.  Which really meant, “long experience of what we know doesn’t work” (because, according to the Review, things were not working well).

Throughout the world (especially North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe), a great number of denominations are reviewing their structures and mission. If they are serious about restructuring, it follows that the ways in which training for ministry are delivered will  be affected, and will in turn affect the delivery of ministry and the exercise of the churches’ mission.

Thus, I offer my thoughts on the Welsh Review below for the perusal of those interested.

 A Response to the Church in Wales Review

Some Ecclesiological Reflections

Wendy Dackson, Ph.D.


The Review  of the Church in Wales was issued in late July 2012; coincidentally, this was shortly after the end of the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church (USA).  The Episcopal Church has voted to examine some major institutional restructuring, and as the Welsh Review began to travel around the internet, there has been much unofficial hope expressed about using it as a model for change in the American church.

The ecclesiology of the Review will be considered using a tool that I developed for teaching and other writing purposes (my ‘ecclesiological square’), and forms the larger part of the commentary I offer.   This will, I believe, help assess the recommendations for missional restructuring in terms of consistency between the ‘being’ and ‘doing’ aspects of the Church.  The recommendation to adopt the Irish training pattern needs a clearer vision of the role of diaconal ministry if it is to help towards the goals implied in the Review.

In all that follows, I wish to emphasize a deep admiration for the Church in Wales for its recognition of the need for such a Review, and for responding to the need by carrying out the investigations which produced the document.  I fully believe that church institutions (especially at the diocesan and provincial levels) would benefit from the kind of self-scrutiny implied by this work, and my best wishes are with Anglican Christians in Wales as they seek to revitalize their church.

The ‘Ecclesiological Square’  

In the course of my own study, and in teaching ecclesiology, I have developed a simple tool for examining ways the church describes itself.  I call this my ‘ecclesiological square’, and I have copied it here:

Insiders Outsiders


What does the Church say it does for those on the ‘inside’? What does the Church say it does for those on the ‘outside?


What does the Church say it is for those on the ‘inside’? What does the Church say it is for those on the ‘outside’?

In looking at a church, it helps to look at whether the ‘being’ of the church, or the ontological ecclesiology, supports its ‘doing’, or functional ecclesiology; this is why the bottom half of the grid is ontological and the top is functional.  To do this, I take what the church says about itself (either in documents, or conversations) and break it down according to how statements and descriptions fit into the various quadrants, keeping in mind that there may be some things that fit into more than one.  When more than one quadrant could be ‘home’ for a particular claim, it usually is either an ontological or functional claim that could apply to either insiders or outsiders (although not always to the same degree).  It is more unusual to cross the line that divides between being and doing.

Reading the Review through the Ecclesiological Square

Taking the quadrants in order

I find it most helpful to treat the grid as two columns built from the bottom.  I work from the lower left (insider ontological), and move up to the upper left (insider functional).  This makes it possible to see very quickly whether the church’s being supports what it claims, or is seen, to do for those who are self-described ‘insiders’ to the church.  The bottom-up progression is then performed for the right-hand column, and describes what the church is/does in terms of those it would like to reach.  In other words, the right hand side of the grid is the mission, which is especially visible and concentrated in the upper corner, the ‘functional outsider’ ecclesiology quadrant.


Insiders Outsiders


·         Calls people into renewed relationship with one another

·         Offers warm, friendly and welcoming communities.

·         Takes us into koinonia of God

·         Garners insights and wisdom

·          Carry Gospel through succeeding generations

·         Share saving truths (?)


·         Body of Christ (?)

·         Channel of God’s grace, renewal, pastoral concern

·         Source of fellowship and community

·         Agent of change in the world

·         Institution

·         Agent of change in the world

·         Institution

It is interesting that the ‘theological foundations’ of the Review are very thin, and come only at the end of the document; theology is almost an afterthought.  Furthermore, the main description of the church in the ‘theological foundations’ is focused on those who are already within the church.  The one main item that seems to be outwardly directed is that the Church in Wales ‘offers warm, friendly and welcoming communities’ (although this again crosses that ‘insider/outsider’ vertical line).

Note the question mark bracketed after the claim to be ‘Body of Christ’ in the insider/being quadrant.  I query the claim because I am not sure most contemporary Christians really believe this in any significant way.  Do we experience the Church as acting as a single body, with each member contributing to the life and health of the whole?  I am not just thinking within our local congregations (difficult enough), but across the variety of Anglican traditions, denominational boundaries, and socioeconomic divides—and that is without even thinking across the entire Anglican Communion.  The terms ‘fellowship’ and ‘community’ are problematic in related ways, as the terms can take on an unhealthy connotation of homogeneity and ‘group think’, mistaking outward conformity or similarity with true unity.  The insider/ontological quadrant is fairly uncontroversial.

Moving up to the insider/functional quadrant, the question arises of whether what the Church is supports what it does.  What does the Body of Christ do?  What is the result of being a ‘channel of God’s grace’?  What flows from that source of fellowship and renewal?  What change does the Church effect?  There is not much correspondence between what the Church says it is and what it says it does.

The ontological/outsider quadrant is thin, and what it contains is entirely drawn from the ontological/insider quadrant.  I’ve chosen these items because they are the claims the church makes about itself that are most likely to be understood by those who do not attend services (either having never done so, or having stopped for one reason or another).  The functional/outsider quadrant has one item that the Review identifies as something the Church ‘does’ for those outside its congregations; I have a question mark beside it because it is worthwhile investigating whether those who do not attend services, or do not consider themselves Christians, accept that what the Church has to share is ‘saving truth’ in a meaningful sense.  As the ‘outsider/functional’ quadrant is the one where missional activity will be located, it will be important, as recommendations are implemented, to look closely at what else the Church might legitimately do for those outside.  It will also be helpful to make sure that, both for insiders and outsiders, the Church’s ‘being’ supports what it does.

Furthermore, it would be helpful to be able to fill out the ‘ecclesiological square’ from the viewpoint of the outsider.  Because of the ‘culture of deference’ to Church authorities (bishops and priests), the nature of the Review team could not be reasonably expected to elicit accurate responses to a square that would ask the questions in this one:

Insiders Outsiders


What do outsiders think the Church says it does for those on the ‘inside’? What do outsiders think the Church says it does for those on the ‘outside’?


What do outsiders think the Church says it is for those on the ‘inside’? What do outsiders think the Church says it is for those on the ‘outside’?

Yet, the growth—even the survival—of the Church may depend on candid answers for these very questions.  I would urge the Church in Wales to find a way to elicit such responses from those who are ‘outside’, or considering leaving, the Church.

A Reconsideration of Training Patterns, and a New View of Diaconal Ministry

Recommendation XVIII indicates that

Consideration should be given to the new pattern of training being developed in the Church in Ireland in which the pre-college, college and post college periods are much more closely integrated….

Integrated training is always desirable, especially if there is a clear relationship between the learning and the practical aspects of the resulting ministry.  However, what precedes Recommendation XVIII, wherein the Irish training proposals are more fully described, may have unexpected and unwanted ramifications if the role of diaconal ministry is not more carefully thought through.  In the Review, the Church in Ireland’s new training scheme is described as follows:

…ordinands begin by taking a diploma in theology by distant learning, as part of the fellowship of vocation in their diocese.  They only go to college when that has been completed.  They spend two years at college, studying a curriculum of theology orientated toward their future ministry, and including parish placements.

Up until this point, this is a very sensible scheme.  Many students, especially if they have been away from formal education for many years, or if they have no experience of higher learning, may benefit from some pre-college study that will put them on an ‘equal footing’ with their peers.  (There might even be some ‘pre-theology’ programme available during the period of vocational discernment for those students who need it.  The Education for Ministry (EfM) extension programme from the University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee, USA) might be an appropriate part of discernment for ordination, as well as being a way for lay people to learn more about the faith in a structured way.  Furthermore, a college programme in which classroom instruction is firmly placed alongside experiential learning is desirable.

What follows is more problematic:

They are then ordained as a Deacon and spend a year in a parish as an intern, but with a week’s residence a month back in college.  During this time they have to complete a 20,000 word dissertation, leading to a Master in Theology.  If this is completed successfully they are then ordained as a Priest and go to their title parish.

Before this pattern is adopted, the nature of diaconal ministry needs to be given. (Steven Croft’s Ministry in Three Dimensions is very helpful here.)  First, most of the ministries which the Review identifies as particularly needed for the future of the Church in Wales are diaconal by nature:  youth work, work with those unfamiliar with the Church, educational ministries.  All of these are in line with the task of the Deacon to ‘interpret the needs, hopes and concerns of the world to the Church’, and to work directly under the supervision of the Bishop (cooperatively with priests) to do so.  It would make a great deal of sense to strengthen the dignity of the diaconate, and to encourage vocations as intentional deacons.[1]

Secondly, there is no plan expressed in the event that an ordinand does not manage to complete the Master in Theology within the internship year.  What would happen to a Deacon who does not complete this requirement before being ordained to the Priesthood?  If the diaconate is seen as the basis for all ordained ministry, it would make more sense to ordain all candidates as Deacons, making it clear that some will later be made Priests.  Croft is clear, and it is borne out in my own work in the diocese of Derby (Church of England) that even Priests spend the majority of their ministerial time doing diaconal work, and that it is the diaconal tasks of social wellbeing and practical care that most ordained leaders find particularly satisfying.  A stronger emphasis on the diaconate as the basis of ordained ministry, with a focus on the diaconal year not being a real year of practical service, and the possibility of staying a Deacon (without being seen, or being made to feel, that one is somehow a failed Priest), would greatly reduce the problem of what to do with a Deacon who has not completed the Master in Theology.

If a distinctive diaconate is honoured, it is important to offer further education and development for those specific ministries where the needs of the world are brought to the Church.  Specialist training in youth work, economic development, and community health (to give some examples of what Deacons who are not transitional do in the US and Canada) should be developed.  Some of this can happen through the chaplaincy studies programme at St. Michael’s College.  Additionally, there are existing ‘packaged’ training programmes that could be explored and offered, not only for Deacons, but for lay people.  Here I am specifically thinking of Stephen Ministries International, an initiative for training lay people as one-on-one pastoral caregivers.  Stephen Ministers take 50 hours of training given by certified local leaders (who have themselves served as Stephen Ministers—this might be particularly appropriate for distinctive Deacons), and after the training period, when they are in an active ‘helping’ relationship, attend two hours of monthly group supervision with the Stephen Ministry team.  A Stephen Team in each Ministry Area would begin to address the question raised in the Review concerning the fuller use of lay people, and a team of trained pastoral caregivers, with limited responsibilities and good supervision, will take some pressure off local clergy.

Closing Remarks

The Church in Wales Review is commendable on many levels.  It represents a degree of self-reflection and self-critique that is not usual in most ecclesiastical institutions.  It indicates not only a desire to change the way things are done, but some concrete recommendations for how to make things work for the Church that is coming into existence, rather than clinging to notions of Church which are becoming less and less reflective of reality.  It requires a restructuring of the way ministry is delivered whilst still honouring the traditions and benefits of Church order and local ministry.  Finally, there is a real concern for the quality of leadership, and a recognition of the need for training programmes that will enhance the experience of Christian life and mission.

A careful examination of the ecclesiology of the Review needs to be considered.  Further research concerning the view from the ‘outsider’ needs to be carried out; this will probably need to be done by someone who is less obviously ‘official’, give the culture of deference referred to in the document.  Discernment of vocation to ordained ministry may need to be considered, potentially including a revitalization of the order of Deacons and encouragement for appropriate persons to pursue the distinctive diaconate.

These comments come with my admiration for the work of the Review team, and my very best wishes for the future vitality of the Church in Wales.

[1] In the Episcopal Church (USA), a great many people called to the ‘permanent’ or ‘vocational’ diaconate already have training and experience in their professional lives with the kinds of work identified as particularly necessary in the Church in Wales’ Review.  Many are not paid for their church work, but continue in secular employment while serving the Church on a voluntary basis.  This may be a pattern to explore, and the North American Association for the Diaconate would be an excellent source of information.


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