Book Review: Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church

Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church
By C. Andrew Doyle

We do not ordinarily expect fresh, even provocative and challenging books from bishops. Here and there, of course there are exceptions. Pope Francis of course, comes quickly to mind, Archbishop Rowan Williams is continually impressive in his scholarship. I also recall Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s writings not just as he courageously lived to his death but when he sought a “common ground” for divided Catholics some years ago.

Andrew Doyle has put forward a provocative set of images of not only the parish moving forward but, in particular, for clergy. He is a bishop in the Episcopal Church in Texas, has written before of keeping the tradition of the church while allowing it to be living, changing, both returning to roots and moving across boundaries. What is Doyle’s basis for reimagining church is to return church to a missional status rather than a more institutionalized form, the one in which the model comes from the temple or imperial organizations, with their codes, laws, hierarchies and stratified layers of officials and members. He calls for more non-stipendiary clergy, that is, pastors not dependent upon a parish for their income, neither career and professional employees of the local church of the parish, nor of the diocese or national church body. At least one critic wonders whether Doyle’s liberationist view of the clergy may be shaped by the substantial wealth and endowment of his diocese. Be that as it may, Doyle is courageous and free enough to think boldly and share his vision here.

In addition to wanting clergy freed from financial ties to parishes, he calls for a de-professionalizing of their training and identity, a moving away from the clerical establishment that grew after the first three-four centuries, as Nicholas Afanasiev documents in his writings, especially The Church of the Holy Spirit. Drawing on Roman and Byzantine imperial models, clergy became virtually a stratum or caste separate from and above the non-ordained. There is nothing sacred about this later shape, imperially derived, a shape not found in the New Testament among the diversity of ministries and communities.

Bishop Doyle is not at all an iconoclast, rather a lover of the tradition and not wed to any specific historical period which often is the plague of try to assess where the church should be. He also strives to look at the whole of the church, hence the book’s title, since all baptized Christians are called to put the Gospel into practice. One cannot just focus on the clergy and reform and renewal without considering the whole of the people of God.

Hearkening back to the beginnings, he sees bishops as area ambassadors or consuls, presbyters the ones embedded in local communities to witness to the Gospel and social justice, deacons more connected with practical concerns such as food, housing, education and more. All are working not as heads but fellow servants with the rest of the community. Doyle’s point is that clergy need to be allowed out of the parish structure as we have known it for over a thousand years, also out of a two-tiered, that is clergy-lay institutional church structure. All the ordained have ministries particular to both their ordination and their specific local setting. What would be the real change is that the ordained retake their place among the whole baptized people of God. They would equip and support the mission work of the community, whether as a body or through the individual activities of members. And all of the community would take upon themselves the call to give thanks, hear the Word, feed each other and those around them with the bread of life. This would be a splendid book for retreats, adult classes not to mention seminary and undergraduate courses. It is clear, accessible and strong.

Doyle, C. Andrew. Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church. New York: Church Publishing, 2018. xxix +177 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 9781640651173.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021)
is his most recent book.

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