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 New Models of Christian Community                                                                                                                     Werner Jeanrond                          

Toward a Post-Clericalist Church

WERNER G. JEANROND                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

WHAT are we expecting of God? When reflecting on the future shape of the Church, it may be appropriate to ask ourselves a few questions: what do we expect of God at this point in our lives, in our Church, in our country, in Europe, in the world? How do we expect God’s reign to manifest itself here and now and what is our role and the role of Christian community in this process? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ today?

Imagine for a moment what tops the list of our expectations: salvation, forgiveness of sins, eternal life, justice, peace, love, renewal of the earth, heaven, being with God, being with our loved ones in paradise.

We may also wish to ask ourselves: what does God expect from us? In what way are we to be God’s arms, legs, mouth, hand, feet in this universe? What might top God’s list of expectations?

It is important to identify and explore our expectations and God’s expectations when approaching the question of how our Church ought to develop at this point in time. Moreover, it is crucial to consider how we think of God when analysing our potential role in God’s evolving Church. Do we imagine God in terms of a monarchical super-power high above and beyond all worldly concerns looking down on us from heaven and interfering at this or that moment in response to our wishes, prayers and protestations? How do we imagine God’s presence in our lives, in the Church, in the world and in this universe at large? How do we imagine our co-operation with God in the Church?


In the Roman Catholic Church we are witnessing massive changes at present. For many centuries the Catholic Church was understood to be on its way to becoming a perfect society in and for the world in accordance with what was assumed to be the will of God. Other Christian Churches were considered aberrations from this road map, not to speak of other religious movements. The Church was pictured as a triumphant institution aspiring to order the world with the help of a divinely sanctioned hierarchy of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons (so far all male) and then supported by the religious, and finally by the laity.

Pope Francis Lund

 Pope Francis’s image of the Church as a field hospital initiates a dramatically different model of church. 1.The Pope’s strategic visits to other Christian denominations, most  recently to Lund in Sweden where he remembered Martin Luther and the legacy of the Protestant Reformation, and his encounter with other world religions demonstrate his  determination to lead the Church away from the model of the perfect society toward a model of a pilgrim Church. He understands the Roman Catholic Church in terms of a  pilgrim movement beside other pilgrim movements. All Christian movements try to respond to God’s call to participate in God’s great project of creation and reconciliation.

 For Christians, Jesus Christ has become the incarnation of God’s twofold project in our midst. The ministry, the violent death and the surprising resurrection of Jesus of  Nazareth together confirm God’s creative will for this world and emphasise God’s lasting commitment to and love of his creative project. Jesus showed us a way of how to  respond to God’s creative and reconciling initiative in his love, his healing attention to our human needs, and ultimately in his self-sacrifice. The early disciples could not think any longer about God apart from recalling these significant and transformative experiences with Jesus Christ. God made himself known in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the experience of the continued presence of Christ in history through the divine Spirit prompted the emergence of the concept of the Trinity. Confessing God as Trinity, therefore, amounts to a confirmation that God remains committed to his creative and reconciling presence in our midst. That is what is part and parcel of salvation.

Hence, salvation does not call for a departure from God’s created and beloved world into some other place or anti-world. God is not gnostic! Rather, accepting God’s salvation in Christ involves us in God’s promise to make everything new – beginning here and now. Therefore, Pope Francis’s image of the Church as a field hospital makes good sense if one wishes to be involved in God’s ongoing project of creation and reconciliation. However, it makes no sense if one sees the Church in terms of an anti-world, hierarchically structured by ordained men to avoid change and development. 

God desires community with us human beings. This is the mystery of God’s creative and reconciling love – a mystery which invites us to participate ever more deeply in the divine-human network of interdependent love relationships: our love of God, our love of our fellow human beings, our love of God’s creation, and our love of our own emerging selves. 2. Christian communities are called to become communities of love – and not models of some perfect society with a well-ordered male hierarchy. 

It follows nowhere from the good news of Jesus Christ, from his death on the cross and his resurrection, that those who will be leading and organising Christian communities ought to be male. Where are there reliable, well-founded theological reasons to support an exclusively male (or exclusively female) priesthood? Or indeed for a necessarily celibate clergy. The fact that for centuries cultural forces have prioritised men to take on religious, social and political leadership in European societies is a result of a gender power game. But please let us not blame God for this patriarchal development and let us refrain from imposing such a patriarchal plot on God.

We live and work at the intersection of two competing models of Church: the Church as well-ordered society and the Church as dynamic community. The model of Church as society has favoured a clericalist understanding of Church leadership. Here, the guarantors of a functioning Church are the (male) clergy. This understanding is still about today. It reflects the efforts of past generations to erect a perfect society with the perfect and pure male leader on top of the social pyramid in a monarchical setting. Moreover, the image of the celibate holy man was a statement of power: God can be encountered perfectly only through male mediation. This is not to suggest that many priests that have emerged from this cultural, religious and monarchical model of patriarchal power have not been good people or have not done marvellous work in God’s Church. However, I am arguing that, theologically, this model of clericalist leadership is neither necessary nor desirable for a Church that understands itself now in terms of a field hospital called by God to serve a wounded world in great need of healing.

Let us reflect in some more detail on how vibrant Catholic communities might look like today and what form of leadership they require in order to support Pope Francis’s approach to Church and life today. Thus, rather than concentrating on the global picture, here I wish to reflect on the renewal of the local Church.


In a book entitled Great Catholic Parishes: how Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive, published last year, William E Simon Jr and his friends in the Parish Catalyst movement set out to explore criteria for successful local Catholic parishes. 3. Even though this study reflects the current situation in the United States of America, important lessons can be learned even for our situation in the British Isles. Bill Simon and his team visited 244 parishes all over the 50 American states. There are more than 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States (see p. 52). However, the 244 parishes the book highlights are particularly vibrant and dynamic. Hence, they offer some insights into what makes a parish a great parish. In Bill Simon’s words:

great catholic parishes

Our study revealed that great Catholic parishes (1) share leadership, (2) foster spiritual maturity and plan for discipleship, (3) excel on Sundays, and (4) evangelize in intentional, structured ways. There is nothing revolutionary about these four practices. In fact, at first glance they can appear deceptively simple. But these particular parishes are thriving in a time and climate when many people no longer find value in organized religion. These pastors, parish leadership teams, and parishioners have developed a clarity of vision. With a deepened understanding of just how critical the Eucharistic celebration is to the mission of the Church, they have become strategic about advancing the discipleship of their own people and the Gospel mandate to evangelize. The common attributes apparent in these pastors and woven through these parish communities are collaborative, intentional, and joyful. (p. 6)


If we have a closer look at the four practices characterising a great Catholic parish we immediately see that the model of pastoral leadership advocated and practised here differs sharply from the hierarchical approach to priestly leadership which supported the model of Church as perfect society. Of course, good pastoral leadership can come in different forms. However, leadership in great Catholic parishes always involves laypeople in some way. In the tone of American Western expression Bill Simon sums up: ‘Lone rangers are no longer the norm in vibrant parishes.’ (p. 19) 

Three styles of parish leadership have been identified by Simon and his team:

• Collaborative Leadership
• Delegating Leadership
• Consultative Leadership

All of these styles combine pastoral and lay leadership, recognize distinctive ministerial talents and gifts, and organise and develop the ministerial profile of a parish accordingly. Moreover, it is essential that, once the lay ministers are in place, ‘the pastor must be willing to trust that the responsibilities assigned to team members will be handled and allow the laity to do their work. Only then can he devote himself to the elements of parish leadership exclusive to his role as the leader of leaders. Only then will he have the time, energy, and vision necessary to do these things well.’ (p. 29)

In a pilgrim Church, leadership is neither status nor position but an activity which, with appropriate training and experience, anyone can practise anywhere at any time (cf. p. 45). Hence, references to the shortage of celibate priests can never be a good reason for closing down a parish or for amalgamating parishes. Leadership and ministry are practices not limited to the ordained clergy. However, as we have seen, ordination might well be a route to exercise new and more appropriate forms of collaborative, delegating and consultative leadership in and beyond the local Church.

The primary task among ordained and lay leaders in the parish is to develop strategic thinking and planning about discipleship. Once it is agreed that spiritual maturity is a goal to be pursued in the parish and the respective resources (human and financial) are identified and allocated, programmes for the spiritual development of the parish membership can be implemented. The spiritual hunger is immense today and represents a wonderful call to parishes to prepare to meet it.

At this point a word of caution is needed. It has been shown that ‘increased participation in church activities does not significantly contribute to an increasing love of God and others’ (Cally Parkinson). Thus, involvement in a parish programme does not automatically guarantee the parishioners’ deepened commitment to Christ (p. 61). This insight makes it necessary to concentrate on the overall goal of parish life, i.e., developing the network of interdependent loving relationships. The sense of belonging, therefore, must be a sense of belonging to God in Christ and each other rather than a mere sense of belonging to a specific group in distinction of other possible groups. Hence, what needs deepening is not a feeling of belonging as such, but the development of a strong sense of Christian community. This sense of community is associated with parish identification, a welcoming culture, bonds of friendship, interdependence, and occasions for parishioners to nurture as well as be nurtured in spiritual growth (p. 73).

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Werner G. Jeanrond is Master of St Benet’s Hall and Professor of Theology in the University of Oxford


1. Pope Francis has frequently referred to this image. Cf., for example, his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016), 291.

2. See Werner G Jeanrond, A Theology of Love, London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010.

3. William E. Simon Jr., Great Catholic Parishes: a Living Mosaic: how Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2016. Numbers in the text refer to pages of this book.

4. For a thoughtful and challenging reflection on hospitality see Mona Siddiqui, Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015.





Tags: Religion, theology, church, Christians, Pope Francis

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