Empower the Laity? Don't Hold Your Breath

The Church of England takes a crack at it:

A LONG-AWAITED report on lay leadership in the Church of England, published last week, has set out to “empower, liberate and disciple” the laity — not in churches, but in schools, workplaces, gyms, shops, fields, and factories. It is to be presented to the General Synod on 16 February.

The report, Setting God’s People Free, was commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council, and prepared by the members of the Lay Leadership Task Group, as part of the Renewal and Reform vision to increase vocations. It was approved by the Ministry Council in November.

Having actually worked in this field, I must admit I’m taking a “seeing is believing” view of this.  I’ve seen calls for this many times before, but getting results is another matter.  Some of this is generic and some of this is specific to churches like the Church of England.

First problem is in the call itself; the order is wrong.  The first thing to do is to disciple the laity, which liberates them and then they can be empowered.  Making disciples is at the core of the Great Commission, and that (as part of their salvation experience) sets them free, at which point they can be empowered to do God’s work.  Many lay people go through life in a church with only a foggy notion of what they’re there for; proper discipleship addresses this problem.  Without it it’s impossible to get things off of the ground.

The second is that the clergy tends to look at itself as a “trade union,” with certain tasks to be carried out by its members only.  “Scab” labour is considered an intrusion.  There are all kinds of justifications given for this, ranging from the Roman Catholic concept of the priesthood to the Pentecostal assignment of the “anointing” to preachers.  Bossuet, noting that the word “Christ” means anointed, said that Christians were the anointed ones.  And that came from a Catholic bishop!  There is really no New Testament justification for this strict division of labour, but that has never stopped churches from trying to find one.

These are generic to most Christian churches, who labour under them to varying degrees.  There are two which, depending upon what type of Anglicanism is involved, further hobble lay activity in the church.

The first is an over-reliance on the sacraments as transmitters of God’s grace.  This is a bigger deal with the “un-English and unmanly” Anglo-Catholics than the more Reformed types, but both suffer from the effects of infant baptism.  Same turns a declaration of decision and commitment into a cultural event, which is a major reason I don’t support the concept.  (Stuff like the “Contract on the Episcopalians” only makes matters worse.)  The message that this transmits is that, if we go through the process, we’re okay, and that’s simply not the case.

The second is that centralised, episcopal churches tend to centralise everything, including the life of the church.  Although this type of church is advantageous in certain situations, when it comes to lay involvement congregationally centred structures have an advantage.

I hope the Church of England means business about furthering the cause of the laity.  But it’s a path fraught with pitfalls and a lot of “we’ve always done it this way” in the path.  Christian churches, however, are never what God intended them to be without a laity with a meaningful role in the life of the church.

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