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God on Monday

27 January 2017

THE working group on clergy well-being and the task group on lay leadership — two Church of England committees that have now reported — both have the potential to stir things up beyond their members’ expectations.

Of the two reports, the laity group’s seeks to be the more exciting. Besides recognising the range of elected and unelected positions already held by lay people in a church context, it seeks to “empower, liberate and disciple” 98 per cent of the C of E, while speaking too much in language not shared by most of that percentage. This may disadvantage it with faithful communicants who are the salt of the earth but would hesitate to say: “We will not raise up cadres of godly leaders unless we create communities of whole-life disciples.” But this kind of talk is from an energetic subculture, and energy has to come from somewhere at a time when many congrega­tions of a more distinctively Anglican stamp face challenging circum­stances.

Drawing on the 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England (and not much before that), the group re-articulates concepts rehearsed from time to time, such as the proper priesthood of the laity and the world of work as a mission field. The problem, as ever, is that lay working lives can be a closed book to the clergy, while church volunteering bulks large. This is the area where the 1960s’ progressives, so often roundly dismissed these days, were perhaps most profitably exercised. There is a telling quotation from a full-time schoolteacher hauled to the front in church to have his or her Sunday-school work prayed for. We recall a comment once made on the Church of England Men’s Society: that its weakness was wheeling out clergymen to tell meetings of laymen how to do their jobs. That may be an unfair verdict, but it is at least a pitfall to watch for. This report means busi­ness, however, in terms of sweeping away clericalism; whether the baby will remain when the bathwater is thrown out is one of the questions that will, no doubt, be asked, as well as the perennial conundrum, which goes back well before 1919, of who is in question when there is talk of the Established Church’s “laity”.

The more mundane tone of the clergy report belies the fact that it is radical, too, not only in proposing a clergy equivalent of the Armed Forces Covenant, but in guardedly recognising that some areas where difficulties are felt are created by the expectations of today’s “management”, whether that be in the Renewal and Reform prioritisation of vision and strategy over pastoralia, or (relegated to a footnote, but still there) the issue of support for same-sex partners. Clergy stress, like lay stress, will not go away; nor is it uniquely acute, though it has unique features. To take clergy well-being seriously, however, is not clericalism, but a contribution to that climate of “baptismal mutuality” to which the laity report aspires.

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