I have just sent the following message to Bishop Justin Welby:
Dear Bishop Justin,
I am taking advantage of the few days remaining, before you assume your archiepiscopal role, to send you some thoughts on the place of the laity. I do so with some trepidation, but in the hope that you will accept these ideas as offered with all due diffidence. I have been encouraged to write by your own background as a lay leader at Holy Trinity Brompton, and the fact that you have made several references to consultation with lay as well as clerical leaders. I write as an individual, but also as the editor of the Lay Anglicana website, and have sought and drawn on the comments of our members.
I have genuinely written in humility, but it would read tediously like the utterances of Uriah Heep were I to reiterate this in every sentence so I hope you will forgive the occasional trenchancy.
1) Church of England Hierarchy
a) Although Cranmer’s prayer book has been continually updated as the prescribed liturgy of the Church of England, many attitudes of the priesthood to the laity (and vice versa) still stem from those of the sixteenth century: in particular there is a lingering sense that priests are the educated, Brahminical class and the laity are either landowning squires, shopkeepers or serfs – all perfectly useful in their way but not worthy of admission to the chancel, except by formal invitation to the communion rail.
b) This is reflected in the preface to the ordination of clergy: ‘it is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been…Bishops, Priests and Deacons‘ (essentially unchanged in Canon C1).
c) As one of our members put it, the laity are ‘done to’ by their clergy: in other words, ministry is perceived as strictly a one-way process, with only the incumbent authorised to minister.
d) The catechism of the 1795 (1979) prayer book of The Episcopal Church has: ‘The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons…The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.’
e) We seek a similar ‘priesthood of all believers’ practised in the Church of England.
2) Church of England Polity
a) Are our bishops still ‘princes of the church’ and, if so, should our episcopate model itself on an absolute monarchy (by divine right), Magna Carta or some other point in English political history? The Church seems not yet to have fully accepted the 1689 Bill of Rights, with its introduction of election to parliament, since the electoral base of deanery synods is so very narrow.
b) Two anecdotes: the previous Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, visited our parish church and said to the churchwarden, ‘welcome to St Peter’s!’, to which the churchwarden replied, ‘well, I am sitting in my pew’. If the church does indeed belong to the bishop (undoubtedly the legal position), it is curious, is it not (and unique) that it is the churchwarden and other lay parishioners who bear sole financial responsibility for its upkeep?
c) Secondly, the current +Winton, Tim Dakin, addressed Andover Deanery churchgoers in November, saying: ‘The Church of England is an episcopal church. It is not presbyterian, nor is it congregational, it is episcopalian‘. Again, the legality of this statement is unquestionable, but we hope and trust that Bishop Tim will avoid the risk of delivering diocesan governance, like the ten commandments, from on high.
d) The vote on women bishops vividly demonstrated the un-representative nature of the laity in the House of Laity (probably because of the narrowness of the electoral base). The move to unseat the Chair seems, from the outside looking in, a curiously oblique attempt to solve this problem.
3) Ideas For The Future
a) To coin a phrase, ‘we’re all in this together’. Instead of emphasising the chancel steps, we need to bring together the clergy and laity (whether Marys, Marthas or a mixture of the two).
b) I ask you to consider making greater use of the laity to lead services of the word. This might involve borrowing some ideas from the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but it should be possible to adapt these to our episcopal model.
i) Most of the existing schemes, from Licensed Lay Ministers to the less stringent system in Ely Diocese, require lengthy formal training .
ii) Yet there are existing provisions for churchwardens to take services with no training at all in leading worship.
iii) Could one not extrapolate from this to adopt nationwide, for example, the system of Lay Elders in the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich or the Lay Worship Leaders in Andover Deanery, Winchester Diocese (of which I was one)?
iv) By definition, many of those willing and able to fill the role of ‘lay elders’ are retired or approaching retirement. It is not realistic to expect them to train and qualify as Licensed Lay Ministers – their long service as practising Christians should be regarded as sufficient (assuming their candidacy is backed by the PCC and incumbent).
v) The matter is urgent in order to compensate for the increasing amalgamation of parishes to form mega-benefices. Without clergy to take regular services in each parish church, their place needs to be taken by lay people during intervening weeks if the congregations are not simply to wither away.
vi) The alternative, proposed for example by Michael Turnbull and Donald McFadyen in ‘The state of the Church and the Church of the State’ (eg pp149-153) of a minster model where congregations move from church to church each Sunday is, I suggest, difficult to introduce because the general concept of neighbourhood is not so broad. It may be worth noting here the ‘ten cell’ system used in Marxist regimes: ten residences formed one unit, the largest group in which it was thought people would feel a strong sense of belonging.
c) It is not my suggestion that the Church should attempt to dragoon into leading worship those who prefer to sit in the back pew and take a passive role. Undue stress on ‘lay leadership’ could risk a failure to celebrate the unsung sacraments such as tea-and-coffee after church, an important community glue for many. There is surely room for both.
d) It has been suggested that voting for General Synod should move to a system of “One Member: One Vote” by Paul Bagshaw. If it were possible to introduce this, the vote by the House of Laity would be more likely to reflect the overall views of ‘the people in the pews’.
I close by sending you the good wishes and prayers of the contributors to, and members of, Lay Anglicana.