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Clericalism or Laicism

I must begin this piece with an apology to my several priestly friends (I hope they remain friends after reading it!). There are undoubtedly many places in the Anglican Communion where priest and laity work harmoniously together for the greater glory of God, at all times and in all circumstances. In the early church, such a balance did, one imagines, exist. The Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans may have moaned a bit from time to time but I can’t remember them actually complaining of being bullied by St Paul.

But there is also a parallel universe in which things do not always go that smoothly. According to a paper on the website of The Episcopal Church called Towards a Theology of Ministry:

In 1999, the Zacchaeus Project pointed to a theological truism in our community: when the trained clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) and all baptized persons work together in mutually empowering service in mission, then the church experiences significant success in ministry. In a wide range of theological settings—Anglo-Catholic to total ministry, progressive to evangelical—the Zacchaeus findings echoed oddly similar themes of mutuality, servanthood, respect, and shared ministry. The old dichotomy between “lay” and “ordained” is fading. It is being replaced with a vision of American religious history. In the Episcopal Church, the decline stopped in the early 1990s and membership has held steady for a number of years around 2.5 million. It should also be noted that in spite of the numerical decline, the Zacchaeus Project data identified greater vitality in terms of church attendance and giving in the Episcopal Church in the 1990s than anytime since the 1960s….
If mutuality between clergy and lay persons in ministry was identified by the Zacchaeus Project as key for healthy congregations, then two corresponding problems existed in troubled ones: clericalism or laicism. Clericalism is an often discussed problem. An inappropriate sense of clergy authority has led, sadly, to a host of issues regarding abuse and malpractice. The opposite problem, laicism, is less discussed. In the case of an inappropriate sense of lay authority, laity conceive of the church as their “property” and the clergy their “employees.” In such circumstances, lay persons commit abuses as well—undermining clerical ministries, refusing financially to support the church, forcing clergy from positions. In either case, clericalism or laicism, the church becomes a battle ground for power issues and any real sense of the mission of church is lost.

A major difference within the Anglican Communion has been highlighted by the present attempt to introduce the Covenant: whereas the Episcopal Church has since its inception recognised the laity as one of the four orders of ministry by virtue of baptism, the Church of England recognises only bishops, priests and deacons. Other churches in the Communion presumably take one view or the other. On the face of it, one might think that relations between the priesthood and the laity might be more harmonious in those churches which take the same line as TEC, but the above paper suggests this may not necessarily be the case. In a ‘Church Times’ article in the issue of 17 September 2010, the Revd Hugh Valentine argued that ‘Clericalism is the bigger problem for all Churches…ecclesiastical models of power infantilise lay people’.

The UK’s ‘Church Times’ reported on the first residential meeting of the Diocesan Lay Chairmen, which was held in 2008. Under the headline ‘Unease at attitudes to Laity’, Bill Bowder writes: they heard Professor Gordon Stirrat, lay chairman of Bristol diocesan synod, say that “the New Testament pattern of the ‘ministry of the many’ has been turned by the Church of England into ‘the ministry of the few’.” Terms such as “priest-in-charge” and “interregnum” implied clerical supremacy, he said… The co-convener of the meeting, David Hawkins, lay chairman in Worcester diocese, said afterwards that he and some of the others were “very desperate” about the state of the Church. “You only have to go north to see how desperate it is.” There was a problem of dislike. “Some of the bishops don’t like laity, just as some consultants don’t like patients; and the middle ranks of the clergy feel threatened by the laity.” But the laity were “enormously talented”. 

There is a debate going on at the Lay Anglicana discussion forum which gives more detail than I can here, including a successful  relationship in Norwich diocese between the Revd Fiona Newton and her Lay Elders.

There is undoubtedly at present a rising demand by the laity for an increased share in the running of the church, perhaps inspired by the increasing democratisation of other institutions. But it also comes down in the end to numbers. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do Anglican congregations around the world: if there are not enough priests to run each parish church, sharing the responsibility with the laity must be a better alternative than simply abandoning the task.

What do you think?

Note: The illustration ‘reverend2’ is by Lee Pirie, courtesy 12 Baskets.

5 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I can see that compared with the RC Church, empowerment of the laity in the CofE is behind the curve. In the RC Church, they have ministry from married deacons as well as a now, well established ministry of laity in terms of vergers, acolytes and women assisting at Holy Communion. The problem with this is that Lay Ministry is by preference. The Parish Priest having the final say on who is involved and only commissioning those who toe the party line.

I am involved in Lay Ministry within my Benefice. This was identified by my Vicar as preparation for the discernment process. Initially involving taking Communion to the Sick and Care homes, it expanded to Intercessor and serving at Holy Communion. I am also involved as the Benefice Treasurer and on the Benefice Council as a coopted member.

A vital ministry is carried out by our Church Wardens and PCC Members. Perhaps it's not recognised as ministry by some, but they serve others, by following a particular call to these roles.

We have a Reader and several worship leaders and pastoral assistants which are licensed or authorised roles. Again, they are answering a call to this particular type of ministry. Other, less formal roles are the ministry of Welcome, The Choir, Sunday School and others such as flower arranging, church cleaning, churchyard maintenance and youth leadership.
Even roles such as Gift Aid Administrator, CRB Officer are forms of service and ministry. Others again offer their service through running Home Groups, running our Coffee Shop, editing and distributing our parish magazine and the myriad of other tasks which make the leadership role easier, supported and fulfilling.

Increasingly, we are encouraging others to come forward and have just in the last few weeks found additional people who we are preparing to become intercessors and to serve at Holy Communion.

Our leadership team of Vicar, House for Duty Priest, Curate, Reader and myself meet weekly. We are the nucleus of the whole ministry team of those described above. Laity is empowered through their ministry and they answer the baptism call readily. But given the size of our congregations, many more could and should be involved, but somehow the call is not being discerned by them.

My question is how do we help the call to break down their resistance, there appears to be a ready list of people available to take on roles which are not public ministry, the challenge is to encourage more into the public, representational roles such as Worship Leader, Healing and Wholeness (Prayer Ministry) etc.

The future is that within our deanery, stipendiary ministers will be a rarity, with only four in place in three years time. Other ministry will be through the deployment of House for Duty in place of stipendiary and the increasing use of Self Supporting and Retired Priests. These latter roles will need even more laity involvement if their role is to be supported and to maintain the cohesion of the Church in community within our Rural Benefices.

I can't say that the CofE has a formal structure for empowering the laity. My Diocese has a structure in place for vocation, discernment and training, but it is costly and is often under subscribed, making courses less viable and subject to cancellation.

While our incumbent is in place, we will probably continue as we are. The issue is the next incumbent. What will their vision be for empowering the laity. Will the current ministry teams survive or will it morph into something else?. I can't say or see that far ahead. Perhaps I go back to Jesus saying, "Don't worry about the future, today has troubles enough of its own".

19 May 2011 18:26
Edward Green said...

Really good post. I have responded with some thoughts.

19 May 2011 22:33
Susan Brown Snook said...

We are the Body of Christ. The Body does not function well if it is composed of all heads, or all feet, or all little fingers. Each order of ministry has its own charism. Priests have the charism of sacramental ministry, of preaching, teaching, and leadership. Leadership, however, does not mean that the clergy are to be rulers. All orders of ministry must fulfill their own callings in order for the church to answer God's call. For instance, the laity have primary responsibility for evangelism, as they are the ones who spend their time outside the church, among the unchurched, and they are the ones who can share their faith with integrity (contrary to popular supposition, the clergy are not hired to take care of this little "nuisance"). Similarly, the laity have primary responsibility for helping the poor and those in need. They carry a great deal of teaching responsibility, with children especially, but also with adults. They are the primary agents of fellowship and community-building. They also have responsibility for financial governance and should share responsibility for vision and faith-building with the clergy. A church is not healthy if the clergy try to control all these areas – we clergy must respect the vocation of the laity as well. A lay ministry is no less a vital vocation than an ordained ministry.

Chris Fewings said...

“Priests have the charism of sacramental ministry, of preaching, teaching, and leadership.”

That’s four charisms! Why should all four be concentrated in priests?

02 August 2012 09:08
20 May 2011 00:47
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Edward. I had actually already found your post and commented on it – I think there is scope for further education of the laity in the roles they carry out in and for the Church. I am also grateful for Susan's very clear exposition of the relationship as seen within the Episcopal Church ('each order of ministry has its own charism'). I understand that in the TEC it is customary for the congregation to repeat their baptismal vows several times a year. Might this not be a good pattern for the Church of England to follow?

20 May 2011 01:47

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