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To Train Lay Worship Leaders, Do We Need To Start In Childhood?

The Body of Christ
When I was eight, my father gave me ‘the talk’. Maybe you know the one? He draw a sketch of our house, with pin men for its inhabitants. ‘What does Daddy do’? ‘He goes to work to make money to keep the family’. He went through the house’s inhabitants, one by one, until he got to me. ‘What does Laura do?’ I couldn’t think of anything, except doing my best to enjoy life. Somehow I knew that wasn’t the right answer, so kept quiet. ‘You need to go away and think about what you can do to play your part in family life.’ His tone was loving, but carried a hint of menace, I thought: he definitely meant business.

If the Church is to find volunteers among the adult congregation for all sorts of jobs, we need to have the equivalent of this talk with children at a similar age. We need to explore with them the part they might play in the Body of Christ.

In the Church of England, whether called Children’s Church or Sunday School, Children’s Ministry seems chiefly to mean ministry to children, not ministry by children. In contrast, The Episcopal Church’s webpage on Children’s Ministries says it seeks to engage children in the exploration of their own ministries:

‘Children are innately spiritual. Given the opportunity, their lively and passionate expressions of faith can help transform the church’.

In the words of Booker Washington:

Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and to let him know that you trust him.

Many churches already do give children a role in services such as asking them to distribute hymn books and service sheets to the arriving congregation and to take the collection. Booker Washington’s advice is implicit in this allotment of tasks, but maybe it also needs to be stated explicitly. Perhaps we should copy the ‘monitor‘ idea from school? Just a thought!

Are Christians guilty of ‘brainwashing’?
Before going any further, we need to deal with the accusation often levelled at Christians  that we ‘brainwash’ our children. The idea that parents themselves damage their children by raising them as Christians is presented in this video (3.57 mins)  by ‘The Thinking Atheist‘. (The ‘Christianity’ described is of the ‘weird and wonderful’ variety, with a God in the clouds that takes care of everything. Unsurprisingly, when this version of Christianity is spurned as unreal, religion as a whole is also rejected).

Secular advice on parenting
Well, are we guilty? Anyone wanting to be a good parent these days might naturally turn to the web for advice. Here is Dr Stuart Crisp, a paediatrician, on net doctor:

‘Each person’s knowledge of how to bring up a child usually comes from their surroundings and their own upbringing…Parents should express their unconditional love for their children, as well as provide them with the continued support they need to become self-assured and happy…Discipline is crucial when bringing up a child. All children need and want reasonable boundaries. Through discipline your child learns that some kinds of behaviour are acceptable and others are not. Setting boundaries for children’s behaviour helps them to learn how to behave in society…Children like to have special days reserved for special activities…Such rituals and routines build strong families’.

This, although from a non-religious source, sounds very much like a prescription for Christian parenting, doesn’t it? Let us agree to regard the case against Christian upbringing as, at the very least, unproven!

Back to the question of training lay worship leaders
As we have seen in How do you find lay worship leaders from the congregation?, in many cases it is too late to train adults to be Marys, although it is much easier to find Marthas, serried ranks of whom down the centuries have polished the brass, laundered the linen and dusted the pews. Others have read the lesson or served as churchwardens. But finding potential worship leaders among the congregation is an uphill task. Why is this?

Well, partly perhaps because churches have always had steps dividing the chancel from the nave and those in clerical garb from those in ordinary dress: roles have been clearly defined. People have not been brought up with the expectation that they may have to take on liturgical roles as part of their lives as Christians. Is it a case of the herd instinct? If people accept that it is a case of ‘all hands to the pump’ and regard it as a matter of course that they may be called upon to take their turn, they will not stand out by doing so. But if it is seen as an esoteric calling, as it largely is at present, people are perhaps unwilling to look too ‘holy’ by joining this group? If, wherever possible, children are encouraged to take part in worship, they are more likely to take it in their stride as adults.

Education, education, education
‘Doing God in Education’  was the subject of a recent Theos report by Trevor Cooling which I recommend. If the training is reinforced at school, taking even a small part in leading worship is likely to be of great potential benefit to the children. First and foremost, it promotes their spiritual development: having to choose prayers around the readings for the day and even, with help and perhaps in groups, filling the ‘sermon slot’, teaches active participation rather than passive observance. But leading worship is also a great privilege and a great responsibility: fostering the personal growth needed to fill such positions of responsibility is in itself a definition of the ‘leading out’ that is at the root of the word ‘education’.

1. The illustration is ‘Little Girls At Church’ by Gwen John, via wiki gallery under creative commons licence.
2. Part of this blog is based on an article by me in ‘Conference and Common Room’ Vol 48 #2, Summer 2011 called ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls‘; grateful thanks to Alex Sharratt of John Catt Educational Ltd for copyright permission. 

How Do You Find Lay Worship Leaders From The Congregation?

Pity the poor clergy, going up into the pulpit to preach on a Sunday morning, and looking down at the motley crew that is their congregation. Presumably on a bad day we look to them something like the vision of Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) above or Hogarth (1697-1764) below? Both of these artists fixed on sleeping congregations, but the problem of sleep may be as much metaphorical as actual.

If we accept the argument of the previous two posts in this series, For the Want of a Nail (1) and The Best is the Enemy of the Good (2), it is a matter of urgency to identify potential lay worship leaders from this rather unprepossessing bunch. In case there is any doubt that this is a pressing problem,  ‘Church Ferret’  pointed out on 10 May that 40% of clergy (in England) are retiring in next 10 years. Mind you, our Lord must have faced a  problem in trying to find his 12 apostles. I am grateful to the Revd Pam Smith for her link to the imagined recruitment consultants who produced this report on his candidates:

…most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the “team” concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.
We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings…

Of course in the biblical accounts, we are not told of anyone refusing to become an apostle. Yet priest after priest has attested to the difficulty of persuading any of the congregation to take on the worship-leading role. What is clearly not comparable is the pent-up demand to become priests by women who, thank God, put themselves forward for ordination once they were allowed to do so. I think the Church must take some responsibility for the lack of impetus by the laity to take on this role: there is scant indication that the Church would welcome them. If the Church agrees that lay worship leaders may help to save the day, there needs to be a central policy. You will search in vain (at least I have) for any mention on the new Church of England website of lay worship leaders (or other local variant). It would help for a start to decide what they should be called!

So, if  congregations were made aware that people were wanted to lead worship (if deemed suitable – a sort of mini-BAP might be necessary, though until now selection has taken the form of recommendation by the clergy and PCC), they might begin to come forward. One of the problems may be that our formation as ‘ho laos’ -from Sunday School upwards- emphasises the story of Christianity, worship and leading a good life. In my life, anyway, there has been absolutely no emphasis in one-to-one situations, such as confirmation classes, on our role as individuals in the Body of Christ. I suspect this is less of a problem in the Episcopal Church, because of its recognition of the ministry of the laity and its practice of congregational repetition of their baptismal vows three or four times a year.

In my case, my recruitment was simple and, in retrospect, an example of the Holy Spirit at His sneakiest! Our benefice had an ‘awayday’ to consider future plans. Afterwards, we were asked to fill out a form saying what we were prepared to do for the church. Top of the list was brass-polishing (my least favourite job). Making the coffee (already plenty of competent people). Holy Dusters (hate housework). Churchyard working party (not my thing). Flowers (existing rota slots jealously guarded).Taking monthly services of Matins (the existing lay worship leader was moving to London, and without a replacement, this service would lapse). Eureka!

I signed up because there was a gap. I signed up because leading worship was the most attractive of the options on offer and I felt I should do something as part of the church community. I signed up pretty casually. I then started attending the ‘evening classes’. The sessions were typically Anglican – 8 different people spoke to us on aspects of worship, all saying something different on, for example, the thorny issue of lay people ‘preaching’ (we were not allowed to, but we still had to fill the sermon slot). But something happened in the course of these evenings, nevertheless. I found myself ‘surprised’ by God and being changed, inexorably. By the time the Bishop commissioned us at a service that was charged with the glory of God, I discovered I had a mission.

There is a saying: When baiting a mouse-trap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse! Even if the selection process is as apparently haphazard as it was in my case, surely God can and will work with the material He is presented with, and we must allow Him space to do so. The congregation may appear to be sleeping, but this may be deceptive: perhaps they are just waiting for the call?

1. The top illustration is ‘A Sleepy Congregation’, by Thomas Rowlandson
2. The bottom illustration is ‘The Sleeping Congregation’ by William Hogarth.
Both are provided by wiki gallery under a creative commons licence.
3. In the next post, we will look at how the formation of ‘ho laos’ might be modified so people are more aware from childhood of the part they need to play in the Church as part of the Body of Christ.

‘The Best Is The Enemy Of The Good’

In the first part of this ‘essay’, For the Want of a Nail, we looked at the worst possible scenario for the Church of England if nothing were to be done. It is time to look instead at our glass as if it were half full, rather than half empty.

Training the laity to lead worship
As many dioceses, but by no means all, have seen, the answer lies readily at hand but requires a break with tradition and a leap of diocesan imagination. In several places the Church is making efforts to train a new tier of lay people to a level at which they can be asked to lead some services of the word, without the full 3-year training required to become a licensed lay minister (formerly called ‘lay reader’).

The spur is necessity (there is a shortage of licensed lay ministers as well as clergy). However, support for this initiative varies from diocese to diocese, within each diocese and also presumably with the spinning of the weather vane on the cathedral roof. Under the headline ‘With fewer clergy, can lay people get trained to run the church?’,  the Exeter diocesan website included until very recently the splendid statement:

“Lay people are the body of Christ on earth, and what they do is Christ’s ministry to the world. The role of professional clergy now is to support and enable lay people to be the church more deeply, more fully.”

This page has now been removed. Winchester diocese has had ‘lay worship leaders’ in Andover deanery since April 2005, but still declines to mention their existence on the lay ministry website page on the grounds that they were only ‘commissioned’ by the bishop, not ‘licensed’.

The central role of the Lord’s Supper
The central difficulty is that, as Edward Green so compellingly describes on his blog,  ‘Future Shape of Church,’ the  Eucharist is of primordial importance:

‘The Prayerbook had the intention of Holy Communion being the main Sunday service and Matins being a daily office. If a Priest was unavailable on Sunday morning the form used was Ante-Communion – the service of the word from Holy Communion. If we are serious about drawing new people into sacramental faith then this needs to be readopted. Lay Family services should follow the shape of Common Worship Holy Communion up to the Peace.’

Well, is the best the enemy of the good?
I am grateful to Edward for saying that he supports the idea of the ministry of the laity but I am uneasy about his proposal above for lay worship leaders to take services of ‘ante-communion’ on the Sundays when a priest is unavailable.

I apologise for the vulgarity, but this sounds to me like coitus interruptus. I can see the necessity for it when a priest is expected, but does not turn up. But, like all the liturgy, the service of Holy Communion has a beginning, middle and end. To ask the congregation, perhaps on three weeks out of four, to make their way towards the oasis, only to be forbidden to drink is, in my estimation, not likely to draw ‘new people into sacramental faith’.

In this case, it was Voltaire who said it first and best, in La Bégueule: ‘le mieux est l’ennemi du bien’. We know and will always recognise what the best looks like: weekly services of communion taken in every church in the land by a priest.

But if, as we have seen, ‘the best’ can no longer be a weekly reality, we have to ensure that ‘the good’ is as good as we can make it.

I suggest that worship by, with and from the laity can have its own strengths: it makes the congregation feel part of the worship as spiritual equals with their fellow worshippers in a way that is not possible when it is priest-led. If  lay worship leaders involve as many of the congregation as possible in a less formal, non-sacramental service, this in itself can surely lead to the spiritual growth of both led and leader?

If churchgoers are encouraged to see a role for themselves as leaders of worship, the downward spiral of ‘For the want of a nail’ can be re-written as a virtuous circle:

If there are not enough priests to take weekly communion services in each parish church, lay worship leaders can take services of the word in the intervening weeks.
These may include Matins and Evensong, but also modern versions of these, as priests and laity offer differing but complementary services.
Congregations, and hence church income, will be maintained and should be re-vitalised by the variety of worship on offer.
Churches will consolidate their historic role at the centre of each community as congregations play a greater part in services.
And a central part of the fabric of our national life will be strengthened to continue.

1. The illustration is ‘The Institution of the Eucharist’ by Fra Angelico c. 1450 under creative commons licence via wiki gallery.
2. The next blog in this series will examine how to turn a motley congregation into leaders of worship.

For The Want Of A Nail?

The – admittedly melodramatic – headline is designed to draw your attention to a problem which seems to be creeping up on us in the Church of England almost un-noticed. (Perhaps there is a Situation Room somewhere in the depths of Lambeth Palace discussing it, but if so, it is a well-kept secret). It may also apply elsewhere in the Anglican Communion? The consequences are readily foreseeable, relentless and reminiscent of a classical tragedy – or pantomime, depending on your viewpoint – the onlooker longs to shout out: ‘look behind you!’

Dramatic decline in clergy numbers
The number of full-time stipendiary priests in the Church of England has declined from over 14,000 in 1959 to 11,076 in 1990, 9,412 in 2000 and 8,346 in 2008. The addition of part-time, self-supporting ministers brings the 2009 figure to 11,691, but (despite strenuous efforts by the Church) the age of ordinands is still steadily rising and now the bishops who have crossed the Tiber are thought likely to take about 50 priests with them. Even were the numbers of applicants to increase in the future, the financial situation means that this steady decline is unlikely to be reversed. These figures are replicated around the world and in most Christian denominations.

Traditionally, in rural areas each church could boast its own ‘Vicar of this Parish’. However,  with every change of incumbent, parishes are now obliged to amalgamate to become benefices; and benefices are remorselessly combined and re-combined to unite up to 10 or even 12 former parishes. Full-time posts become part-time, or held by ‘house-for-duty’ priests. In many places, the incumbent is assisted by self-supporting and retired ministers, but it is a matter of luck whether there happen to be any such in any particular parish. The Revd Mark Bailey wrote to the ‘Church Times’ on 30 July 2010, correctly identifying the problem (too few clergy attempting to cover too many parish churches, which he says is leading to severe mental stress among the clergy) but his solution – ‘draw the line somewhere’- seems hardly a solution on its own.

The Decline in Services of the Word
Fifty years ago, the usual Sunday service was Morning Prayer (Matins), with Holy Communion at an early service (since one was supposed to be fasting) or on high days and holidays. One’s obligation as an Anglican was to take communion three times a year: at Christmas, Easter and one other day. In some places, the shortage of priests now means that the priest-in-charge is obliged to scurry from parish to parish in his or her benefice every Sunday in order to comply with Canon law that there shall be a communion service every Sunday in every parish church. This valiant attempt is unsustainable in a mega-benefice. In the ‘Church Times’ of 30 November 2007  is a letter from Kathleen Kinder headlined by the editors ‘Common Worship and the alienation of the liturgy from the people.

Liturgy to most people today means first and foremost the eucharist, but also any service that can be led only by a priest. I share Canon Wilkinson’s concern at the growing domination of the clergy in the worship area. In recent years, worship practice has greatly enhanced the status of Anglican clergy, while at the same time it has diminished that of Readers, lay leaders, and members of the congregation. It is a tragedy that the services of the word which have contributed so richly to the character of Anglican worship throughout the centuries no longer command the support and recognition they deserve. The Church is the poorer as a result.

The Cost of Doing Nothing
When an irresistible force meets an immoveable object, in the immortal words of Sammy Davis Jr, ‘something’s gotta give’:

C S Lewis expressed it well in ‘That Hideous Strength’:

If you dip into any college or school, or parish – anything you like – at a given point in history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren’t so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there’s even less room for indecision, and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.

If there are not enough priests to take weekly services in each parish church, churches will remain empty in the intervening weeks.
Despite episcopal injunctions to drive to the benefice church chosen for a eucharist service each Sunday, people will mostly not travel to services outside their own parish.
If there are only monthly services in each church, the size of congregations will therefore reduce.
If there are only small congregations once a month, income will fall and there will be pressure to close the churches.
If the churches close, people will have to travel miles to go to services and will not be able to be baptised, married or buried in their local churches, which may have been turned into tea-rooms or left to become ivy-covered ruins.
A central part of the fabric of our national life could simply wither away. And all for the want of a nail?

What is to be done?
What is to be done? Well, in my view there are solutions closer at hand than you may think and I will suggest some in my next blog. But meanwhile, am I seriously over-stating the size of the problem? Is ‘masterly inactivity’, so beloved of generations of Sir Humphrey Applebys, the best proposition?

1. The illustration is ‘Dead Empty Church’ by David Coleman, courtesy 12 Baskets.
2. The statistics up to 2008 were taken from a previous Church of England website page which is no longer there. The 2009 statistics are from the current website page – on hyperlink.
3. This blog is based on an article by me in ‘Conference and Common Room’ Vol 48 #2, Summer 2011 called ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls’; grateful thanks to Alex Sharratt of John Catt Educational Ltd for copyright permission.

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.

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