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Leader comment: Clergy and laity  

06 August 2021

THE Church of England’s ordination service contains a statement about what is expected of the clergy. It is short but all-encompassing: “Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.” Later portions of the service list tasks that appear more frequently in the clerical diary. None the less, those who are seeking to codify clergy conduct positively — rather than negatively through disciplinary case law — argue that this summation requires expansion beyond the scope even of the 2015 Clergy Code of Conduct: a paper that the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, wishes were better known.

If the question were how clergy should behave, there are prescriptions galore. What is at issue, however, is how to behave together. The image of the heroic individual, shepherd to the flock, has proved powerful enough to withstand even the advent of shepherdesses. The concept of collaborative ministry — what most women call “ministry” — is under a constant battering of expectation that all the clergy should conform to the traditional pattern of autocratic leadership. Many are flattered into this position by the deference of the laity; many others are forced into it by the absence of people with whom to collaborate, or, if there are people around, their simple unwillingness to be involved. Yet these same are often ready to criticise the cleric for failing to live up to their expectations: “The last vicar had a full boys’ choir every Sunday.” Answer: “Well, the last vicar had parents who were willing to help.”

This might sound like an argument for a laity code of conduct. It is certainly true that many incumbents have experienced passive-aggressive bullying, and sometimes not so passive. What is needed, though, is a reimagining of the relationship between clergy and those to whom they are answerable. Although in hierarchical terms this is the bishop and the archdeacon, the closer relationship from day to day is with the parish officers and the congregation. It must be possible to recognise the particular charism of ordination, while acknowledging that it is impossible for even a full-time incumbent to supply every gift and satisfy every need — and most parishes now have to accommodate a shared or part-time priest, or even a succession of retired ministers. It is thus the relationship between the clergy, the PCC, the churchwardens, the patron (if active), and onwards which needs a greater understanding. Although, at the last Synod sessions, Bishop Thornton resisted combining clergy and lay conduct in the same piece of work as too difficult, we would argue that the potential for future lay leadership cannot be properly realised without preliminary work now on how laity and clergy might thrive together.

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