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Listening out for the laity’s voice

07 February 2014

Lay people fund the Church, and run a great deal of its grassroots activities, but they are not sufficiently heard or recognised, maintains Philip Giddings


Growing concern: increasing numbers of lay people are involved in prayer ministry

Growing concern: increasing numbers of lay people are involved in prayer ministry

IN HIS introduction to All Are Called in 1985, Bishop Patrick Rodger wrote: "There are a great many laypeople, and clergy too, apart from those involved in Synods and PCCs, who want to find a voice in the Christian enterprise today. The best thing that our working party can do . . . is to leave some useful tools for the future thought and action of groups or individuals up and down the country."

Nearly 30 years on, it remains the ambition of many lay people to find that voice, and to play their part in the Church, of which they are numerically by far the dominant part. Much lip service has been paid to the notions of shared ministry, lay participation, the priesthood of all believers, every-member ministry. Much frustration, confusion, and unfulfilled potential remains.

All Are Called noted the progress that had been made in the previous 30 years, but frankly acknowledged the obstacles that continued to "hamper the development" of lay involvement.

It mentioned four: (1) the Church's "pitiful" and "grossly inadequate" direct investment in lay education and development; (2) the neglect of the responsibilities of the laity outside parish life in the use of those funds that were made available; (3) a sense of oppression among laity - and clergy - from "persistent clericalism"; and (4) the ambiguity of the Church's understanding of where the local parish is valuable, and where it is not.

The report said that "Some clergy and parish lay workers forget that their fellow believers who minister mostly in the structures of the world may be just as committed to Jesus Christ, and just as faithful as they are themselves."

Many of the same points were made during the General Synod House of Laity's debate on lay discipleship in York last year.

Two things stood out. First, a great deal of ministry, witness, and service is carried out by lay people in and outside the Church, much of it unacknowledged. Second, there is a great deal of untapped potential which, if mobilised, could trans-form the Church's apparent shortage of financial and human resources.

Yet there is no doubting that there has been a great flowering of ministry, and service, by lay people in the past 30 years. Many more lay people are contributing, both within the life of the Church and in the wider community.

Youth work

THERE has been a much-needed growth of youth work: individual and groups of churches employ full-time and part-time workers - some ordained, but mostly lay people. There is a parallel, but not yet such substantial growth, in children's work (especially with toddlers), such as Messy Church.

Lay people are making a powerful contribution in the creativity, in-sights, and the models of discipleship that they provide.

Prayer ministry

THIS has seen considerable and varied growth. It was an unintended consequence of liturgical revision that intercessions in Sunday worship are led by lay people.

Alongside this is the wider availability of healing ministries and associated forms of prayer ministry. Here, a growing number of lay people - often in teams, and involving several local churches - are exercising their spirituals gifts for the church and the community.

This is increasingly linked with a ministry of hospitality and visiting, complementing established and more specialised ministries. The ministry of street pastors, which has grown significantly in the past ten years, also often contains an emphasis on offering prayer.

Home groups

THESE are a frequent feature of many parishes, providing fellowship, prayer, and opportunities for teaching and learning. In most cases, these groups are lay-led, and provide an opportunity for many lay people to develop their discipleship.

The use of small groups in evangelism often combines the hospitality and home-group culture. This, too, requires the essential leadership and participation of lay people.

The Alpha programme, for instance, has shown that this style of ministry can be effective in a wide variety of social contexts.

Schools ministry

ANOTABLE feature of thepast 15 years has been the recovery of confidence inthe Church's ministry in schools, which began with the Dearing report. While school chaplains make a vital contribution, the main task of providing a Christian presence in primary and secondary schools falls to lay people - particularly teaching staff, butalso governors and, most importantly, the pupils themselves.

Here is the front line of the Church's engagement with the whole community. The only Christians whom most people under the age of 20 know are those they met at school. As a Church we have, at last, begun to wake up to the necessity of giving them the support they need.

UNFORTUNATELY, running parallel to that flowering of lay ministry and discipleship has been a decline in both attendance at church and the numbers of clergy.

Increasing costs mean that more and more will be required of the laity if the Church's ministry is to continue. The challenge is well-expressed in the three themes adopted by the national Church: contributing to the common good; going for growth; and reimagining ministry. All require a fundamental reassessment of our approach to the use of the gifts and insights of lay people.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace. Here, too, there is at last a growing understanding of the significance of the part played by Christians, both in their work and in the way they conduct themselves.

One missed opportunity of the past 30 years has been to refresh and develop Reader ministry, and, in particular, to enhance its distinctively lay character. Consequently, the Reader profile is ageing, and recruitment is down.

A vigorous General Synod debate in 2006 led to the setting up of a review. The outcome, Reader Upbeat, was a disappointing, rambling report. The momentum was lost.

So, where are the laity? Many are hard at work sharing in, and resourcing, the Church's mission and ministry in the community and workplace, as well as in places of worship and committee rooms.

Some are frustrated, and feel unappreciated or marginalised. Some - perhaps many - could be inspired and equipped to do more.

Yes, all are called. The challenge is to release their energy and desire to serve; so that they may, in turn, inspire and equip others.

Dr Philip Giddings is a lecturer in politics at the University of Reading, and chairs the House of Laity in the General Synod.

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