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Perishing without lay prophets

19 August 2016

WE HEAR much of lay leadership today. Often it chiefly means lay people’s participating in the Church’s decision-making processes and helping to implement its policies. This is all very important, no doubt, and the Church is, of course, deeply dependent on the mostly voluntary work of those lay people who take on leadership posts at parish, deanery, diocesan, and national levels.

And yet I wonder sometimes whether we are neglecting something even more important, which is the place of lay people in the kind of prophetic action that changes both the Church and society. I was presiding at our daily eucharist in Christ Church last week on 9 August, which can be observed as a Lesser Festival in honour of Mary Sumner, who started the Mothers’ Union.

Mrs Sumner was not exactly a “lay leader” in the way we tend to think of today. She was a clergy wife who simply did what she thought of as her duty in raising her family and helping her husband with Bible classes. What became the Mothers’ Union started as a support group for women in their parish.

What was radical about it was that it was aimed at women of all social classes, and that it promoted motherhood as a distinct vocation. Much has changed since then, but the international Mothers’ Union has turned out to be an extraordinary force for good, evolving far beyond its founder’s original vision.

Many of the best things about the Church of England have come from one-off initiatives in which lay people have often played a prominent part: missionary societies, religious communities, social-welfare organisations, schools, and more. A recent example is the hospice movement, inspired by Cicely Saunders, who brought a solid evangelical faith, clinical expertise, and steely determination to bear in changing the way we think of end-of-life care.

It is not difficult to see the work of the Holy Spirit in these initiatives, or to be deeply grateful for those who have pioneered them. And yet the individuals concerned were not responding to a centralised agenda for more lay involvement. They were simply prayerful, observant Anglicans, who did what they thought God was calling them to do. They did not attend discipleship classes or bang on about the importance of lay ministry. They read the scriptures, prayed, worshipped, and got on with it.

What we should be asking is whether church life is producing these prophetic vocations in our own time. The Spirit blows where it wills, but the Spirit does not seem to have as much investment in centralised bureaucracy as we tend to.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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