A High view of Laity

I am at that point in ordination training when I am being asked to think about what it means to be a priest, what it means to preside and what actually happens at ordination. We are being asked to think about how we conduct ourselves in the parish, our boundaries and our appropriate friendships. We are sometimes asked if we have a ‘high or low’ view of priesthood.

I have a half-in, half-out attitude to those conversations as someone who is shortly to be ordained but who won’t be a priest. And what I found myself saying is that I am not sure how to categorise my view on prieshood but I am clear that I have a high view of laity – the people of God.

I understand that people who are ordained have a different relationship to the Church – that is obvious, but I do not believe we have a different relationship to God. We remain part of the laity and as a whole we are called to live as what St Peter calls as a royal priesthood. We are all, lay and ordained, called to love and serve God with all our hearts, all our minds and all our souls, we are all called to be ‘living sacrifices,’ and we are all called to ministry through our baptism. We all need to think about appropriate friendships, our conduct and our boundaries.

I think priests are a really good thing and I remember in my early days working for the church getting into an argument with someone who thought that pastoral work like visiting in hospitals should be done by ‘keen Christians’ rather than someone in a dog collar. I think that for many who are feeling vulnerable and afraid the presence of a priest, despite the serious failings of the Church, gives reassurance and a sense that this person can be trusted. I think wearing a dog collar or even a cassock is sometimes a pastoral and prophetic thing to do.

I think the link between presiding over communion and presiding over a community of believers makes perfect sense. I think our fragmented world desperately needs communities of people who are prepared to welcome the stranger and love their neighbour and I believe communuion and the surrounding liturgy shapes those communities – ideally! I think it’s great that the pastor of these commmunities is formed, is accountable, is supported and challenged by a wider church.

But I think we have sometimes got ourselves to a place where we believe it is the priests who do church, who carry out mission and who articulate theology while lay people receive their wisdom, pay their collection and sit on committees. Lay discipleship begins at 10 am on Sunday and ends about 11.30am.

I know so many people who want so much more than that and who do so much more than that and who are so much more than that. I think it is time we as a church recognised and supported these people. We are starting and I am glad in Birmingham that we have had two lay conferences – sharing some of the learning and thinking that is experienced in clergy conferences with nearly 1,000 people from across the Church of England Birmingham.

But here are a few more ideas that might help lay people be recognised as Jesus’s disciples, God’s witneses in the world:

  • Find a good visual symbol that makes Christians visible in the world – when I briefly taught Islamic studies the sixth-formers in the school did not really know what a Christian might look like because they did not know if they had ever met one or seen one. They were astonished that I believed in heaven, was trying to find a rhythm of prayer, fasted and feasted and read my Bible. I can look round a room and see often who is a ‘baptised’ Sikh, who is a practicing Muslim  or who is a devout Jewish man. But as Christians we are invisible apart from our ministers. It might seem risky to be visible – we know we are not perfect and our lives may be critiqued. But that is the same for priests and that’s why we believe in grace and mercy.
  • Make good theological education and formation available to all people.
  • Stop making the saying of Morning and Evening prayer as an obligation just for ordained people. It’s a great practice but surely the point of this obligation on priests is that their praying enables others to pray too. I would love to see this rhythm of prayer made really accessible by doing more of it. Wouldn’t it be amazing if your local church was open all morning and one group started praying at 7am, another at 8am, another at 9am and another at 9.30am after school drop-off. The same thing could happen in the evening. I would love to know what the Church would look like if it became the norm for most people to gather for prayer twice a day, every day.
  • Understand that the ministry of the Church goes on in all times and places. Lay people reach so many places clergy can’t reach. In those places they can reveal the love and compassion of God in the places where love isn’t. In those places they can take what they know of God’s reconciling love to heal conflict and reveal God’s peace. In those places they can make the communion live on – sharing bread, giving and receiving hospitality and gathering people into community.

I can’t answer the question about what will happen when I get ordained. I couldn’t tell you what happened when I got married. I loved my husband before and I loved him afterwards but something changed.

But I think I am beginning to understand that the point of my ordination is not about what I do, how much I pray or how well I articulate my theology but it is all about how much I can enable others to live out their calling as disciples of Christ in a broken world.


Apt liturgy – the blog

I am supposed to be writing a 3,000 word essay in Apt Liturgy by Wednesday. Sadly what I have so far is a 600 word blog. I hope it might be enough.

There is an incredibly powerful moment in the recently-released film Selma in which Dr Martin Luther-King is struggling to find an apt liturgy to help his community respond to a moment of crisis or Kairos.

King is leading thousands of people on a march campaigning for voting rights for Black Americans – it’s the second time they have set out on the march. The first time the Black protesters met a wave of state-sponsored violence and brutality which led King to call for people of God and goodwill of every colour to join him. And they did.

This time, when they reach the line of armed troopers, the order is given for the sheriff’s men to disperse. King pauses unsure if this is a victory or a trap. He needs to say something and do something that will make God present at this liminal moment. He kneels silently in prayer and the thousands of marchers kneel beside and behind him. They stay in silent prayer for a number of minutes. Then he rises, turns and walks back the way he came.

Apt liturgy is something that has probably happened in all faiths and in all times but recently Ann Morisy et al. have documented and defined it as a spontaneous response outside of church to a time of change or crisis experienced by a community of people who would welcome the offer of religious symbol, prayer and word that speaks of God.

By this definition Jesus certainly used apt liturgy. In fact the liturgies that shape our Eucharist, the last supper, the breakfast on the beach and the meal at Emmaus all fit the definition.

In his beautiful meditation on the story of the Emmaus Road, With Burning Hearts, Henri Nouwen claims that the Eucharist itself can become apt liturgy as it is infinitely adaptable. He says:
“The Eucharist, sometimes, is celebrated with great ceremony, in splendid cathedrals and basilicas. But more often it is a “small” event that a few people know about. It happens in a living room, a prison cell, an attic – out of sight of the big movements of the world. It happens in secret, without vestments, candles or incense. It happens with gestures so simple that outsiders don’t even know that it takes place. But big or small, festive or hidden, it is the same event, revealing that life is stronger than death and love stronger than fear.”

The truth of this quote was made clear to me in a telephone conversation with a Muslim friend today. As I described my bookgroup in which women of faith gather to eat, drink and through the vehicle of literature discuss life and faith, he said: “It is amazing how someone sitting on your sofa and breaking bread with you is such a significant moment.” Suddenly serving Kettle chips and elderflower juice at book group appears to be an apt liturgy.

I am not sure exactly how to define an apt liturgy but I hope understanding it more may help us respond to human communities needing the reassurance of glimpses of a loving God.

What I think I do understand so far is that it speaks of a faith seeking relationship, a faith seeking to be guest as well as host and a faith that listens before it speaks. I hope we can all learn to recognise it, lead it, respond to it  and celebrate it as it builds hope and reconciliation into our shared lives. And now back to my essay….

Learning with the public sector – what does it mean to be a 21st century public servant

Since I have felt called to the diaconate I have become a bit of a servant-geek. (Possibly because the word deacon comes from the Greek word Diakonia which is often translated as servant.) So when I heard today that the Birmingham University and Birmingham City Council where thinking about the values and attributes of a 21st Century Public servant my geeky heart just skipped a beat.

Here is a visual representation of the characteristics identified in the report:

main themeLooking at this postcard the overlaps were immediately obvious. Weaving and Storytelling are recognised as two key roles of a deacon as both lead to the linking, connecting and bridging which is central to the work of a deacon. Networking too – enabling non heirarchical groups of connected people – is another metaphor for diaconal ministry as is navigator – the deacon at the doorway and on boundaries helping people across thresholds and into new places.

The summary of the report  outlining 10 characteristics of a deacon offers more parallels and challenges the church to hold on to some of what we have learnt over centuries while challenging more negative habits we have picked up on the way.

Here are the characteristics taken from the report about each role and compared with my understanding the role of a deacon in the 21st Century:

“1….is a municipal entrepreneur, undertaking a wide range of roles“. This seems to be about flexibility and also operating on minimum budgets. Both of these are essential for a deacon in the church and almost of the essence of the role. As the ministry of a deacon is being redefined from being about one to one pastoral care and service to the poor to having a wider and prophetic ministry, a kind of ambassador for God, the need to switch roles and modes is an essential part of the job. Improvising, responding creatively to circumstance, making the most creatively of given resources – these seem to me to be essential for a deacon.

“2….engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise”. This is a challenge for us in a church which draws  clear boundaries between lay and ordained. I think the deacon has a special role to play in challenging this separation of clergy and people, expert and non-expert,  by being neither a priest or a lay person. Pooled expertise, skilled and articulate lay people, clergy that share their humanity – these are definitely the direction of travel for the Church in the current context. We see churches developing ministry teams, certificates for lay people to study theology, more lay engagement in services and new roles for people who are not ordained such as mission apprentices in Birmingham. In a favourite quote of mine, Dr Rowan Williams says, ‘There is no-one inside or outside the Church who cannot help us read our Bible with more understanding.” Lay or ordained we are all disciples (learners), church-goers or devout atheist we are all made in the image of God and have much to learn from one another.

“3….is recruited and rewarded for generic skills as well as technical expertise.”  One interviewee admits that engaging with citizens is a newish skill for people who work in local authorities. Before we laugh I wonder how many people work for the Church and yet find relationship building in their communities daunting. Deacons are called to relationship inside and outside the Church. According to the Church of England’s guidelines for those selecting someone wanting to train as a deacon has to show they have to show:
• evidence of ability to relate to people of different ages and social contexts
• an instinctive ability to get alongside people and speak their language
• pastoral skills that point to an ability to care for others appropriately.

“4…..builds a career which is fluid across sectors and services”. Many deacons will have to work to get paid. Those paid by the church could find themselves in any number of roles at any given time. The same document for selectors and vocations adviser says the deacon needs to be happy behind the scenes oiling the wheels and in the public eye leading a service, they need to be pastoral enough to get alongside lonely and vulnerable people while being able to challenge injustice and oppression and they have to be a servant without being a doormat and a leader that allows others to lead. Sounds pretty fluid to me.

“5….combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality“. Commerciality is probably useful for a church leader who needs to ensure bills are paid, buildings maintained and vital staff get their wages but I am not sure that’s our big tension.  I think the balance for the deacon is the balance between church and world or tradition and innovation. Most deacons see themselves at the doorway. The vocations document places deacons in three places: the church, the world and the boundaries. Balancing the needs of those already in church with the needs of those who might one day come is an inevitable tension of diaconal or any outward-facing ministry. Any institution exerts a pressure – for a local authority it is commerciality, for a church it can be financial, it can be the weight of tradition, it can be theological or it can be maximising scarce resources. Which takes us on to…

“6…..is rethinking public services to enable them to survive an era of perma-austerity“. Cuts that aren’t going to go away. We’re probably all in the same boat.

“7….needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than silo-ed and controlling“. One interviewee said: ‘We are trying to be 21st Century public servants in 19th Century organisations.’ Even an organisation as small as a parish church can have silos – clergy, church councils, choirs, organists, Sunday-school teachers, people on the coffee rota, welcomers etc etc. They don’t all get on all of the time. I think it would be much easier to minister as a deacon in a church where these people were enabled to work together and is part of the ministry to enable these people to work together.

“8….rejects heroic leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of leading. Hero leaders aren’t the answer. Rather than emphasising the charisma and control of an individual, new approaches focus on leadership as dispersed throughout the organisation.” This probably my favourite. And this is what the Vocations document says about leadership :

• the ability and willingness to work in a team
• leadership gifts that reflect a willingness to be a leader who assists rather than always takes the lead, and does not unsettle or unseat others who have either long term or short term responsibilities
• a person who is capable of being a public representative person for the church, who is competent and comfortable in the public eye, whether in liturgy or the life of the world
• organisational gifts that equip and free others to do their work well

So not heroic but hopefully enabling.

“9….is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity” One interviewee suggested that people above a certain pay grade should have to live locally as part of their contract. That has been our practice for some time and I think its an important principle. It is important for us that our ministry in ‘incarnational’ – that we inhabit fully our place of ministry. But how rooted are we as paid clergy? We know we can’t commit to stay for ever as individuals. That is why it is so important that we are not lone ranger heroes. Because the church is not its paid workers – it’s the whole body of people and that body will change its membership but it is there for the long haul.

Today I was talking about working in communities with public sector workers  several of whom had been in post a matter of days or weeks. They were wondering why their services were not connecting with communities. And listening to them I was suddenly grateful for the symbolism of our churches whose grand, solid buildings and soaring spires suggest (among other things) deep foundations and a rooted commitment to a neighbourhood.

“10….reflects on practice and learns from that of others” This is what the Bishop says on the day I am ordained: “Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.” If we can’t learn together and from each other our ministry will be seriously impoverished.

So what could the local authorities learn from organisations that have been training deacons or servants for generations:

  • We think deacons are formed as well as trained and taught. What values are necessary to shape the characteristics and attitudes required?
  • Deacons often weave people together as well as resources – how can people learn to be connectors?
  • So far, for me, friendship has been a key motif of my ministry and I am not expecting that to change. Jesus says we are his friends rather than his servants. Could public servants be friends with their neighbours and communities and catalysts for friendships? I believe friendships are at the heart of flourishing communities. We don’t ignore the needs of our friends and we don’t back systems that oppress them.
  • Deacons have a role at the table (the altar) in a Church service. Sharing food together leads to conversation and shared lives – that’s another way to build strong communities. How could hospitable living be a part of the life of a public servant?

Perhaps we could begin to overlap as we train and form servants fit to serve people and God in the 21st Century. Perhaps we could encourage each other not to crave slick institutions, heroic leaders and glossy programmes and perhaps we could celebrate together the invisible work of humble, rooted, committed people who might not share the same faith but most definitely share values and good practice.