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New report calls for shift in attitude towards laity

27 January 2017


Preparation: Pat Fisher, Maria Turner and Deborah Hodge prepare themselves for recommissioning as volunteer Authorised Pastoral Assistants, at Durham Cathedral, in July, 2014

Preparation: Pat Fisher, Maria Turner and Deborah Hodge prepare themselves for recommissioning as volunteer Authorised Pastoral Assistants, at Durham ...

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.

A spokesman for the C of E told the Church Times in October that the crux of the report would identify “the need for two shifts in culture and practice” that were deemed by the Archbishops’ Council to be “critical to the flourishing of the Church and the evangelisation of the nation” (News, 16 October). The focus was as much about growing discipleship — sharing the faith — as lay ministry, one member of the Task Group, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said.

But the full report, released last Friday as part of the Synod agenda, goes further. It urges the Church “not to devise lay alternatives to clergy”, nor to use its current lay leaders to “fix” weak structures and “institute a top-down approach” in its churches. Rather, the report calls for a reform of liturgy, resources, communications, and the selection, training, and development of clerics, to better appreciate and support the laity, and to ensure that “healthy relationships” exist between lay and ordained leaders across its parishes.

The Lay Leadership Task Group has also requested that the Archbishops’ Council set out a detailed implementation plan — separate from its report, but including its recommendations — which is to be brought to the Synod for debate.

These recommendations include the “national championing” of the proposed cultural shift by means of a designated Episcopal Champion; the support of the Archbishops; and communication to the wider public. The latter would involve the creation of a “national portal” offering advice, support, discussion, and commissioned resources to all C of E members; and the establishment of five “pilot dioceses” to promote these resources. The final recommendation is to conduct a review of the selection and training criteria for clerics, with a “strong emphasis” on lay discipleship.

The laity make up about 98 per cent of the C of E. Although “the laity” means “the people of God”, it is usually used in a narrower sense to refer to all Christians who have not been ordained. “Yet”, the report states, “as an institution, we know remarkably little about them, their role and influence, patterns of discipleship, their spiritual needs in the whole of life, their current contribution, their perspective.”

These proposals are aimed at giving confidence to the “weak lay voice”, it says. “The needs and perspectives of lay people are not well heard, listened to, understood, or acted on. As a result, the Church of England is nowhere near as effective as it might be in equipping lay people effectively for mission in the whole of life.”

Also in the Synod agenda is a report from the House of Bishops on human sexuality, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations, which is to be presented by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, on 15 February. It is due to be published in full today.

The Times speculated on Saturday, however, that the report would urge the Synod to “turn a blind eye” to any breaches of existing legislation that commits gay or lesbian clerics to celibacy, proposing that the Church no longer question clerics about their private lives.

Other business includes proposals to amend the age limit of licensed office-holders after retirement age; alleviate “the growing burden and complexity of the legal requirements” imposed on clerics who solemnise marraiges; reconsider current legislation regarding the marriage of divorcees; and to recognise and “welcome” reconciliation in the 500th-anniversary year of the Reformation (News, 19 January).

The agenda also includes a motion to create a suffragan see for the diocese of Leicester, and another motion concerning the “destructive impact” of fixed-odds betting terminals (News, 28 October).

Read more on the story in our Leader Comment 


Lay leadership:

Summary of recommendations for immediate action:

  • “any implementation plan presented to General Synod in February should be brought by the Council as an Archbishops’ Council initiative seeking endorsement, not as a report of the Lay Leadership Task Group”
  • an annual review of the “state of the laity” should be considered

Proposed implementation plan:

1. “National championing” of the two shifts in culture and practice proposed in the report, through communication, theology, and a “vision of whole-life discipleship”

  • A designated Episcopal Champion for the culture shift to discipleship
  • “Tangible” support and endorsement from the Archbishops
  • Development of a “theologically grounded vision” for discipleship
  • Communication of this vision through the Episcopal Champion and Archbishops, including affirming “existing grass-roots practice” to “transform attitudes” to the laity
  • Communication to dioceses, parishes, church members, and the wider public in support of the shift to discipleship

2. Creation of a national portal “designed to inspire and support” the laity in their discipleship, to be accessible to every member of the C of E

  • Connect with congregations through “digital evangelism” – creating a national portal of email addresses, which is to prevent “isolation” of the laity
  • Promote the portal and other resources, including contact with “expert mentors, coaches and spiritual directors”
  • Sustain “energy and passion” for change by creating learning groups
  • Network for improvement: “The goal is not to get everybody on board, but rather to get behind what is working, allowing this to grow and spread as rapidly as possible”

3. Develop a learning community of “pilot dioceses” to test these resources and their reception

  • Volunteer five dioceses to “pilot, test, and champion ideas” for discipleship, which are to be “supported and resourced nationally”
  • Dioceses to agree to meet every nine months to “reflect, learn, share and be advocates of their experience”
  • Dioceses to agree to develop and promote resources accessible to congregations and which must be reviewed through surveys and discussion

4. Remodel the selection, training, and “on-going ministerial development” of the clergy, to prioritise the laity and discipleship

  • Candidates for ordination and selection should be able to provide evidence that they understand the “mutual and complementary relationship” between clerics and lay people
  • Lay people must play a “prominent rather than a token part” in the selection of clerics
  • Ordinands should carry out placements in parishes where the laity are a priority and where they can work with lay leaders in a “supervised setting”
  • At least one placement should be in a workplace, such as a prison, hospital, chaplaincy, or school

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