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.

 

WWTHSD – WHAT WOULD THE HOLY SPIRIT DO?

Sometimes, in the midst of worship songs, in arguments about the icon of priesthood or in the world of WWJD  (What Would Jesus Do) wristbands, it might be quite possible to forget that our understanding of God includes three persons of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

As someone training for the diaconate I have understood that our icon of ministry comes from the moment Jesus washed his disciples feet whilst the priests take their imagery from Jesus as he presided at the last supper.

But while I worked as a nearly invisible civil servant for the Church of England, devising campaigns or writing press releases that enhanced the ministries of others, I became interested in the idea of the Holy Spirit as my icon of ministry.

Recently I had a conversation with one of the most successful people I know who has an amazing job which allows him to connect all kinds of people, making a real and tangible difference on a global scale. But he said that in church terms he felt like a second-class citizen because he was not ordained and did not wear the badge of authorised church worker.

I believe his work is diaconal – because not all diaconal work is done by ordained deacons (although all deacons have a diaconal ministry.) I believe the work of many of my lay friends is both priestly and diaconal but I think we have become so rooted in a christological (Jesus-centred) view of ministry that we look for the work of incarnate Christ to live on in the Church. Thus when anyone becomes excited about their faith we encourage them into a role which strengthens the life of the church such as a Reader or a priest. (Somehow forgetting that Jesus was a teacher, healer, carpenter, story-teller and a party-goer.)

The incarnate Christ was rooted in a time and place and I think, in our minds and hearts, that time and place has become equated with Church. As disciples we gather to hear from those who have been ordained to represent Jesus and then together we re-enact the Last Supper. The Church somehow captures the presence of Christ and becomes a focus for Jesus’s ongoing ministry.

But the Holy Spirit blows where it will. It gives words to those who need help articulating, it brings life to dry bones, it anoints people to work for justice and it bears witness to Christ. Connecting, articulating, witnessing and working for justice sound a lot like the ministry of a deacon and a lot like much of the work faithful people do outside the walls of the Church because they want to play their part in making God’s world a better place.

I hope we, as church people, can celebrate this work and these people so they do not come to our congregations feeling that they are less than a priest or deacon wearing a dog-collar but knowing they share the ministry and mission of God – and reach the places that could never be reached if all ministry was left to those who are ordained.

Ordained people play a vital and extraordinary role. I know so many wonderful priests whose ministries I would never play down. But we are co-workers and if those of us with a dog-collar are not enabling those of us connected in all corners of the world to join the mission of God then we are missing our calling.

Jesus is our Lord, saviour, friend, example and our pattern for living. But the Holy Spirit also offers us some unique patterns for ministry that could liberate us from the idea that ministry happens in Church and ensure that all our work is seen as sacred and the baptised people of God are seen as equals. I might get myself a new wristband (WWTHSD) What Would the Holy Spirit Do – I hope many of my friends who work outside the church would understand that, like them and through them, the Holy Spirit would be bringing life to the forgotten corners of the world through a myriad of ministries.