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Lay church-planters held back by church structures, study suggests

24 February 2022

Report finds wish for new forms of training and accreditation


Emma Miles, whose lay-led worshipping community in Bridlington features in a video made to launch the report

Emma Miles, whose lay-led worshipping community in Bridlington features in a video made to launch the report

THE “enormous” extent of the cultural and practical changes required to enable the mass expansion of lay-led church-planting is set out in a new report from Myriad, the initiative launched last year by the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication (News, 2 July 2021).

The new report, Listening to the Voice of Lay Planters, was released on Thursday. It draws on interviews conducted last year with 20 lay people who had “planted a new church community within the Church of England”. Its chief conclusion is that new forms of training and accreditation for lay church-planters will be needed “if the scale of the Church of England’s vision for the formation of 10,000 new worshipping communities is to be fulfilled”.

A recurrent message of the report is that existing structures in the Church could be holding back the planting of churches by lay leaders. Interviewees experienced “frustrating limitations, due to their position as non-ordained leaders within the Anglican Church”, and spoke of being “unable to fulfil the work that God had called them to, because of a perceived ‘lack of authority’”, and of encountering “structures of oversight and accountability that felt heavy and ill-fitting for the agile and responsive models of mission that their teams wished to express”.

The Gregory Centre is led by the Bishop of Islington, Dr Ric Thorpe. After the launch of Myriad, which included a commitment to the planting of 10,000 lay-led churches within the next decade, the Church of England’s director of evangelism and discipleship, Canon Dave Male, emphasised that this was separate from the 10,000 new worshipping communities set out in the national Vision and Strategy (News, 16 July 2021).

This new Myriad report, however, links the two projects, citing the Vision and Strategy commitment to a “mixed ecology” (News, 5 November 2021), with “a variety of churches and patterns of leadership”. It states that Myriad “exists to serve this vision, with a particular focus on the question of how to enable lay people to plant new church communities alongside, and in partnership with, the established parish churches and diocese of the Church of England”.

It sets out proposals to work alongside parishes, clergy, and dioceses to drive this forward, pledging to meet a “deficit” of training for lay church-planters and serve as a “thinking partner” for dioceses.

“The cultural and practical changes envisaged by these proposals are enormous and careful thought is essential, as we navigate the many connecting factors, such as tradition, understanding the identity and function of priests and lay people, the emotional cost of change, the challenge of limited resources, the established patterns of ministry,” the authors write.

Much of their report is dedicated to drawing lessons from the lay church-planting already under way. The 20 interviewees came from 13 dioceses. Almost one third (30 per cent) had come to faith later in life, and more than half described how their church-planting journey had originated “with some form of informal pathway of ministry opportunities, often with increasing levels of responsibility, curated by a parish priest, diocesan or Christian leader”.

One third had been formally invited to minister in a location identified by the diocese, typically areas in which there was “little or no engagement with the local parish church”. They described “a longing to make the goodness of church accessible and relevant to the communities where they lived or served”. One woman, who had planted a church on the estate on which she had grown up, commented: “I didn’t think the existing congregation spoke the language of the community.” Another remarked: “There is no point in recreating what happens in the parish church or they’d come already.”

It is, the report observes, “remarkable how little training some lay planters had for the task that they faced”. One described learning to preach by watching YouTube clips of “good sermons”. Another, who planted on a new housing estate, commented: “I had no formal training, I had no Christian background, I had nothing but a heart to have a go . . . God put it on my heart and I was on fire for it!”

The value of parish and diocesan “mission apprenticeship schemes” is affirmed, as is work under way in some dioceses, including the Antioch Network in the diocese of Manchester — a network of churches committed to planting lay-led churches in deprived communities (News, 14 December 2018) — and Blackburn diocese’s M:Power course, which offers accredited training for urban lay evangelists (News, 8 March 2019).

But the report notes the lack of any “systematic or intentional pathway to prepare and equip lay planters”, arguing that “formal lay vocational pathways can be experienced as narrow and restrictive, typically equipping people to preach and lead services in established church settings”.

Most of the interviewees were “strongly opposed to formal, front-loaded training, which was perceived as inflexible”, it reports, seeking, instead, “light touch training”. Training in “biblical understanding and theological reflection” is needed, the report says, but “accessed at different times according to the needs of the lay planter and their context”. This does not represent a “dumbing down”, it says, but “a recognition that training must focus on the outcomes and vision we are being called to and not to achieving an educational standard or qualification”.

The Church will also need to adapt its approach to accreditation and formal recognition of lay church-planters, the report suggests. “Any commissioning or recognising of a lay planter’s ministry should not be formally linked to the completion of certain training.”

After acknowledging that lay church-planters might not have “proven credentials”, it quotes from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

The report envisages a significant place for parish churches and the clergy in the establishment of lay-led churches, seeing the latter as vital in “discerning calling, mentoring and providing ecclesial oversight”. Several examples are provided of clergy serving as champions, mentors, and “permission givers”, and the report speaks of the part that they can play in ensuring that a lay-led church is “integrated into the structures and governance of the church”, and that the church-planter “conducts their ministry safely”. Myriad plans to develop materials to help clergy to do this.

On Wednesday, Canon John McGinley, who leads Myriad, said that the relationship between priest and lay leader was “what will keep people safe”. The new report was launched at Christ Church, Bridlington, where Emma Miles is a lay church-planter on the West Hill estate, supported by the diocese of York’s Multiply project. Her partnership with the Vicar, the Revd Mark Carey, had been vital, Canon McGinley said.

The report describes as “complex” the question how the sacraments can be administered in a lay-led church. While noting examples of clergy being welcomed by new church communities, it also refers to stories where “the occasional visits by ordained clergy, merely to administer the sacraments, felt uneasy contextually with the new worshipping community. Planters expressed frustration at not being able to administer the sacraments within the communities they led.”

Canon McGinley said that, while lay-led churches were on different stages of a journey, “our vision of what the destination is is that every church community will have the sacraments as core to their practice and their worship.” There was a need to avoid “tokenism”, he said. Some churches were exploring communion by extension and others were celebrating an agape meal, as distinct from the eucharist. “We really do think there are ways through this which don’t undermine the Anglican tradition, but allow it to be expressed in new ways that release these new communities to form,” he said.

Myriad has funding from private individuals and trusts to cover its costs for the next three years, during which it plans to support dioceses that wish to expand lay-led church-planting. In September, it hopes that ten pilot schemes offering tailored training and resources for lay people will be launched.

Dioceses were demonstrating a “willingness to explore” the growth of lay-led planting, Canon McGinley said. “But there is the nervousness and recognition that this feels different and challenging in the midst of everything else that we are facing. . . a recognition that we need to go carefully as we move forward with this.”

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