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Laity report seeks to expunge old habits

22 October 2020

Authors ask why there is still a leaning towards clericalism

Keith Blundy

Prayer retreat in the diocese of Durham

Prayer retreat in the diocese of Durham

UNLESS the church stops being defined as the building, the ministry of lay people will not flourish, a new report suggests.

The report Kingdom Calling: The vocation, ministry, and discipleship of the whole people of God, published on Tuesday by the Faith and Order Commission, offers an in-depth examination of the part played by the laity, historically and in scripture, and asks why a succession of church reports over more than half a century have failed to correct the Church’s leaning towards clericalism.

“Why has the culture proved so difficult to shift when there is no obvious argument being put forward in favour of the status quo?” the report asks.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who chairs the Faith and Order Commission, argues that this latest report is a new kind of contribution.

Kingdom Calling is a rather different kind of text, aiming to ‘enrich the theology’ by addressing half-hidden habits of thought that inhibit the realisation of our theological ideals about the vocation, ministry, and discipleship of all God’s people.”

The last of the reports was the Archbishops’ Council’s Setting God’s People Free, published in 2017, which sought to “empower, liberate and disciple” the laity (News, 27 January 2017). Although Kingdom Calling is respectful of Setting God’s People Free, it points out that this, too, could feed into the idea of the church as a building, with its talk of “gathering” and “sending”.

“The risk is that the strength of association between church and place makes it easy to hear such language as making a distinction between being gathered into the church and being sent out from the church — with the clear implication that it is in gathering that the church is most truly at home and most truly itself.”

This misunderstanding has been promoted by secularists and individualists, the report suggests, seeking to define the church only as what goes on in the building, or, at most, private piety or work of a social nature. Consequently, those who order life in the building — predominantly the clergy — achieve an elevated status, and clericalism continues to thrive.

In contrast, the report says: “The church as gathered by and in God is not defined by geographical or social boundaries; while the church as sent by God always travels in divine company and never moves away from its divine origin.”

Drawing on statistics gathered in a separate lay-ministry data project, the report notes there are now at least 1300 different job titles used in the C of E for various forms of lay minister.

All Christians have multiple overlapping vocations, it says: to particular positions in society; to specific relationships with others; and as ministers in Christ’s Church. The implication that those with a vocation must end up as priests, monks, or missionaries must be finally put to bed, the authors say.

In its place, the C of E should consider how discernment works with lay vocations, given the importance that it places on the discernment process for those with a calling to the priesthood. This could include opportunities for counsel, retreat, and mentoring.

Similarly, the spiritual disciplines and rule of life required of the clergy and those in religious orders should be expected of lay Christians, too.

“All Christians share in the one ministry of the church and are ministers of Christ in that sense, with a common responsibility for using the gifts given to them for the building up of the one body,” the authors write.

The authors of Kingdom Calling are not openly critical of the Renewal and Reform project. They maintain, however, that the C of E must avoid a model of leadership which plucks out a few, trains them rigorously, and then concentrates power and authority in their hands, expecting them to implement sweeping change and to run an organisation.

“It should . . . be expected that a variety of recognised and commissioned lay ministries will be needed alongside ordained ministries in order for the Church in each place to respond to God’s call to share in God’s mission,” the report states.

Lay ministry cannot simply be that which the Church turns to because it can no longer afford enough professional, ordained ministers, or when not enough people come forward to train as priests.

Congregations that are not, instead, being regularly asked what ministerial vocation each member is called to are “failing in a fundamental duty”.

“The calling of God’s people as a whole is a kingdom calling: called to be sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom, which extends over all creation.”


Kingdom Calling is published by Church House Publishing at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

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