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Rectors are obliged to minister within constraints of the Church constitution

By Ian Ellis

Published 28/05/2015

The Church of Ireland, as an Anglican Church, is governed by synods in each diocese and the general synod of the whole Church.

Bishops exercise their ministry under what may be described as a constitutional episcopacy. That is to say that Church of Ireland bishops minister under the constraints of a written church constitution.

Nonetheless, ministry - whether of a bishop or of the clergy generally - is naturally pastoral in nature and so it requires much more than a legalistic approach. It is about people and about clergy and bishops meeting their spiritual and pastoral needs.

I am grateful to the Belfast Telegraph for inviting me to contribute some explanation of the Church's way of operating, particularly in light of the difficult situation faced in Knocknamuckley parish.

Because we live in a very secular environment, people often think of Church structures as being akin to what is found in the business or corporate world. However, Church life is just not like that. Clergy in the Church of Ireland are normally not employees, and so a bishop is not a rector's 'line manager'.

When instituted to a parish, a rector promises to "render all due reverence and canonical obedience" to the bishop, "in all lawful and honest commands".

However, while one can understand what an honest command is, precisely what makes for a lawful command is not quite so straightforward.

It is perhaps best understood as a command which a bishop is lawfully entitled to give. To find out what such a command would be, one would need to consult the Constitution of the Church of Ireland, the Prayer Book and other legal sources.

It is not surprising that bishops do not go about their dioceses issuing orders to their clergy. They are not generals; they are pastors.

On the other hand, rectors are also obliged to minister within the constraints of the Church constitution and of the Book of Common Prayer.

In terms of worship, the most recent edition of the Book of Common Prayer (2004) allows more flexibility than earlier editions, but it is fair to say that people generally have a right to expect that any service of worship in the Church of Ireland should be recognisable within the Prayer Book.

Worship, of course, is a living thing and so it is important that it should not be put into too tight a straitjacket, and bishops and clergy understand that some flexibility is necessary. However, fundamental doctrines cannot be compromised.

At last month's meeting of the general synod of the Church of Ireland, a bill was passed which focused on a 'Dignity in Church Life Charter', a set of principles to address such difficult areas as bullying and harassment in parish life, grievances and the management of long-term illness of clergy.

Relational problems quite clearly require sensitive handling and, in the context of the church, much mutual forbearance.

Essentially, however, church life requires a careful balancing of legal obligations and the actual living out of daily discipleship with true Christian grace.

Canon Ian Ellis is editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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