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Are All Christians Ministers?


By John N. Collins The Liturgical Press, 168 pages, $11.95 paper


By Paul Bernier, SSS Twenty-Third Publications, 319 pages, $16.95 paper

"Distributors are parts of automobiles or persons engaged in marketing. You, ow ever, are a minister, and when you perform your liturgical function you minister the Eucharist." So began one of the earlier training booklets on what we then called "extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist."

In those days, we argued about whether such ministry was extraordinary or ordinary. Today, we debate whether or not it even qualifies as ministry.

I feel compelled to reveal the answer to John Collins' provocative title up front. Are All Christians Ministers? Distributors, start your engines. His answer is a resounding, academic, biblical and historical no.

It is difficult not to be sympathetic to the central thesis of this book, coming as it does to a church that is experiencing a ministry explosion. The guy who used to mow the lawn has become the minister of maintenance; he gets a week off in the fall to attend the national convention of maintenance ministers, this year in Duluth. The once and former bingo team leaders have evolved into ministers of development; their convention is in Atlantic City.

Add to them the liturgical and social outreach ministries common in most churches today and, viola! All the faithful are ministers. As Collins explains, the dominant theology now makes all Christians ministers in virtue of their baptism.

While the problem is real, the question is poorly stated. Collins launches an in-depth study of the translations of pivotal New Testament verses and there uncovers subtle nuances intended to persuade the reader that the ministry explosion is not on solid biblical ground. There are, the author contends, tricks to translating, fractious punctuation and right ways and wrong ways when it comes to understanding the Bible. Shifts of meaning are pointed out in terms like diakonia and diakonos.

I appreciate the complexity of biblical languages, having labored over Hebrew and Greek in the seminary, but I must confess a certain anxiety whenever speakers, scholars and authors continually refer to original-language versions of either testament in order to uncover an esoteric point that just doesn't come through in translation.

Fascinating as it might be to appreciate how a particular word or phrase was used or not used way back when it seems theologically shortsighted to propose a theology of revelation that makes foundational texts of our faith inaccessible to all but those who read biblical tongues, and at that only those who have read that tongue in extrabiblical, secular literature of the day.

What kind of God would set up such an impenetrable maze to accomplish self-disclosure? The distinctions drawn from such meticulous attention to original language are at best pedantic, at worst moot. Halfway through the book, all I wanted to know was why. Why can't all Christians be ministers? Why can't a common baptism support the claim to a common ministry?

I am wondering whether the theological disposition of the author preceded the reading of the scriptures: That is, is this biblical theology -- ever returning to the call of the scriptures -- or polemical theology -- the scriptures' being placed at the service of a preexisting political position?

Collins concedes that his assertions may be perceived as reactionary, and he is right to anticipate the charge. I make it. Returning ministry to those officially appointed or designated, confining it to those with sanctioned authority, is reactionary.

Reading between the lines, one can find a fear of equality, a fear of collegiality. Why are we afraid of being equals? This line of argument will resonate well with episcopal claims that collegiality applies exclusively to the relation of bishops with the pope and need not characterize a bishop's relationship with priests or a pastor's with the parish.

Were I given to the ministry of development, I would wager that bishops will soon be quoting Collins and buying the book for distribution to the presbyterate.

On a more positive note, Collins does make a connection that strikes me as a significant contribution to the theology of ministry. Acknowledging that all ministry is rooted in Christ and in the church, he makes a solid case that whatever one concludes that true ministry is, that decision must necessarily take into account who Jesus is and what the church is all about.

The frame of reference for the discussion, then, automatically becomes both Christological and ecclesiological. Such a perspective can advance this debate and continue the discussion. But my answer to the question is yes.

A broader, more balanced view of the history and development of ministry is offered by Paul Bernier in Ministry in the Church: A Historical and Pastoral Approach. Well-documented and appropriately scholarly, Bernier writes with an interest in praxis and devotes considerable effort to naming and evaluating the principal questions of the day.

The preface lays out a courageous agenda, and Bernier systematically addresses questions such as what qualifies as ministry, a married priesthood, women priests, priestly identity and spirituality and the status of conciliar reforms.

With a respectful bow to the works of O'Meara and Schillebeeckx, Bernier's historical analysis is through. We are walked through the scriptures and the apostolic age as well as every major historical period and person to appreciate fully the development the concept of ministry has undergone. And in four short pages several distinctions are made that adequately answer Collins' previous question.

Bernier uses the distinction "salvation service/secular service" as a starting point for a discussion about the common ministry of all believers. Assenting to the theological proposition that baptism makes us all stewards of the mysteries of God, he lists four ways in which ministry might be predicated appropriately of all believers:

1. Christian presence in the world: The daily and universal call to holiness.

2. The ministry and service of non-professionals: The unsung volunteers that make up parishes.

3. Professional ministry: The educated and trained lay leaders whose numbers grow.

4. Ordained ministry: All Christians are, in Bernier's view, ministers and happily so.

Discussion questions and suggested readings at the end of every chapter are helpful and will prove valuable for classroom use or group study. The index and endnotes also are important tools to assist the inquisitive reader. In this light, a bibliography would have been a welcome addition.

Because of the fluid nature of ministry in history, because of changing pastoral needs, Ministry in the Church persuasively makes the case for an ongoing development in our understanding of what ministry is and ought to be.

The process of trial and error in pastoral exploration has been present from the beginning. Why should it suddenly come to an end in our time? More is possible than we might today imagine, and less is absolute than we think.
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Author:Nuzzi, Ronald J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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Next Article:Ministry in the Church: A Historical and Pastoral Approach.

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