Savi Hensman

Setting all God’s people free

By Savi Hensman
October 27, 2009

While the focus of recent conflict in Anglican circles has been on sexuality, other issues have also been involved, not least the role of the laity and the nature of the church. To what extent has the modern church become a network of institutions run by senior clergy, rather than a community proclaiming and embodying God’s love for all, and in which all members are required to share responsibility?

This question may seem somewhat irrelevant to those from an Anabaptist or wider Free Church background, who take the laos, the whole people of God, as the natural starting point for understanding themselves and their vocation. But in practice ‘clericalism’ extends well into their folds too, and it is important to understand the search for a genuinely lay-empowered community in terms of the quest for ‘apostolic authenticity’ – discerning the shape of a community and patterns of ministry within it, faithful to the dynamic instigated by Christ and those who took up his commission.

Sharing the priestly ministry of the church

At certain times in history, churches have tended to be run in top-down ways, with bishops at the top. Other clergy have wielded some power and laypeople were generally expected to follow others’ lead. However by the mid-twentieth century, this approach seemed largely obsolete.

At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church, which had been highly hierarchical, produced a ‘Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity’. This acknowledged the critical role of the whole people of God, not just of the clergy.

The Decree declared: “The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ's Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Peter 2. 4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world.”

According to this Decree, lay Christians are called to draw closer to Christ themselves and witness to him in the world, including caring for the needy and working for a better society. “Everywhere and in all things [the laity] must seek the justice of God's kingdom... As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them in the life and activity of the Church... Once again [Christ] sends them into every town and place where he will come (cf. Luke 10:1) so that they may show that they are co-workers in the various forms and modes of the one apostolate of the Church”.

In some of the churches making up the Anglican Communion, laypeople had long played a key part. In the words of a resolution agreed by the Lambeth Conference of bishops in 1958, “The Conference, believing that the laity, as baptised members of the Body of Christ, share in the priestly ministry of the Church and in responsibility for its work, calls upon Anglican men and women throughout the world to realise their Christian vocation both by taking their full part in the Church's life and by Christian witness and dedication in seeking to serve God's purpose in the world.”

The 1968 Lambeth Conference recommended that “no major issue in the life of the Church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision”, and that “each province or regional Church be asked to explore the theology of baptism and confirmation in relation to the need to commission the laity for their task in the world”.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in his classic book The Christian Priest Today, described the vocation of the clergy: in particular prayer, theology, reconciliation and celebration of the Eucharist, and their role in enabling the Church as a whole to respond to Christ’s call.

He declared: “The Church’s hold upon the faith requires those who in theology are ‘learned’, concentrated, dedicated, and deep; and by his service of the laity in this role the priest will be helping them to be better witnesses. But this work will be a partnership; and the contrast between discens and docens [led and leaders] melts away as the priest learns from the laity much about the contemporary world and about the meaning of divine truth in its human context. Together they, from their several kinds of knowledge, will work out the meaning of the Word of God as it bears upon life’s problems and upon the various spheres of the Church’s witness.”

Ramsey reflected on the New Testament concepts of the priesthood of Christ and of the Church. At one time a “clericalist trend... separated the priesthood of the ordained from the priesthood of the Church, which tended to be disregarded”, but he rejoiced that the concepts and practice of the ancient church had been rediscovered.

As the ground-breaking World Council of Churches ecumenical position paper on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry put it in 1982: “In Jesus the Kingdom of God came among us. He offered salvation to sinners. He preached good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Christ established a new access to the Father. Living in this communion with God, all members of the Church are called to confess their faith and to give account of their hope. They are to identify with the joys and sufferings of all people as they seek to witness in caring love. The members of Christ’s body are to struggle with the oppressed towards that freedom and dignity promised with the coming of the Kingdom. This mission needs to be carried out in varying political, social and cultural contexts.” Different churches have “differences concerning the place and forms of the ordained ministry. As they engage in the effort to overcome these differences, the churches need to work from the perspective of the calling of the whole people of God.”

Back to flower-arranging?

In some churches this trend has continued, but elsewhere there has been a backlash. For instance the Roman Catholic hierarchy has to some extent drawn back from the possibilities opened up by the Second Vatican Council. And there has been a drive by some Anglican bishops and archbishops to assert their authority, not only in their own dioceses and provinces, but also beyond, including the right to make decisions on important matters without listening to laypeople with in-depth knowledge and experience of the issues involved, or to theologians (lay or ordained) with perspectives other than their own. While it is the specific issue of human sexuality which has attracted most media attention, divisions among Anglicans reflect, to some extent, different views about the role of the laity.

The Windsor Report, produced in 2004 by a Lambeth Commission chaired by Robin Eames, at that time Archbishop of Armagh, proposed a radical shift in power to senior clergy, supposedly in the interests of unity. Certain dioceses had moved towards including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in the life of the church on the same basis as heterosexuals, whether single or partnered. Laypeople and parish clergy had played an important part in convincing their fellow-worshippers that the theological case was strong and that the spiritual and evangelistic advantages of greater inclusion outweighed the risks of offending those opposed.

Elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, senior clergy had contemptuously dismissed calls by the Lambeth Conference to listen to, and enter into dialogue with, LGBT people and to study, as objectively as possible, theological and scientific developments on this issue. They were outraged at the consecration of an openly gay and partnered bishop of the Episcopal Church, chosen by the people of New Hampshire in the US and by consideration of a liturgy to bless same-sex partnerships in the Diocese of New Westminster Canada. Some threatened to leave, as well as intensifying attempts to take over congregations and dioceses in these provinces.

Leaders of other provinces found themselves in the uneasy position of trying to placate these senior clergy, while themselves having some sympathy with LGBT Anglicans facing discrimination and sometimes persecution, and disapproving of the border-crossing.

Responding to the divisions, the Report argued that “Healthy theological development normally takes place within the missionary imperative to articulate the faith afresh in different cultures, but... how is the line between faithful inculturation and false accommodation to the world's ways of thinking (note Romans 12.1-2) to be discerned and determined? Christians are not at liberty to simplify these matters either by claiming the Spirit's justification for every proposed innovation or by claiming long-standing tradition as the reason for rejecting all such proposals. The church therefore always needs procedures for discussing, sifting, evaluating and deciding upon proposed developments... Such holding together across differences within Anglicanism has made use of the vital doctrine of adiaphora (literally, “things that do not make a difference”)... Anglicans have always recognised a key distinction between core doctrines of the church (remembering that ethics, liturgy and pastoral practice, if authentically Christian, are all rooted in theology and doctrine) and those upon which disagreement can be tolerated without endangering unity. Paul urged Christians in Corinth and Rome to recognise some matters in this way (what to eat or not to eat being a prime example). When something is seen in this way, an individual church, at whatever level, can make its own decisions on the matter.”

The Report went on to discuss “subsidiarity, the principle that matters should be decided as close to the local level as possible. Subsidiarity and adiaphora belong together: the more something is regarded as 'indifferent', the more locally the decision can be made. It does not take an Ecumenical Council to decide what colour flowers might be displayed in church; nor does a local congregation presume to add or subtract clauses from the Nicene Creed. In part this belongs with the missionary imperative: the church must give its primary energy to God's mission to the world, not to reordering its internal life... it was assumed by the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Diocese of New Westminster that they were free to take decisions on matters which many in the rest of the Communion believe can and should be decided only at the Communion-wide level... It is because we have not always fully articulated how authority works within Anglicanism, and because recent decisions have not taken into account, and/or worked through and explained, such authority as we all in theory acknowledge, that we have reached the point where urgent fresh thought and action have become necessary.”

Stronger structures were required, according to the Report, and a check on any development which might prove controversial. Where disagreements arose, according to the Report, these could be resolved through four so-called Instruments of Unity, three of which were made up entirely of bishops (the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting). With regard to “current teaching of the Anglican Communion as a whole, and/or of individual provinces, no province, diocese or parish has the right to introduce a novelty which goes against such teaching and excuse it on the grounds that it has simply been put forward for reception. In such a case, if change is desired, it must be sought through the appropriate channels”.

Previously, different national or regional churches, and sometimes dioceses and parishes, had made different responses to the pastoral and other challenges they faced. If these worked well, others learnt from these. If they did not, critics were recognised as correct and the initiatives ended. For instance, to attract young people to churches which many found off-putting, various experiments in liturgy and mission were introduced, some debatable.

Those undertaking such work did not have to get permission from a worldwide “central committee” first, though Anglicans in other neighbourhoods and countries could express their views and the national church might block or shut down activities which seemed too controversial. The Windsor Report proposals, however, and subsequent work on a Covenant, have sought to rein in initiatives driven by the laity working closely with the clergy at a grassroots level.

Impossible to achieve?

The picture of a (mainly female) laity busy arranging flowers while (mainly male) bishops ponder weighty theological matters is somewhat quaint in this day and age. Important as the appearance of places of worship is, women today, along with laymen, have rather broader roles in society and the church.

In addition, the hope of achieving the kind of unity which the Windsor Report seems to favour is illusory, even at a superficial level. There is already too much theological diversity on matters which some Anglican leaders, at least, might not regard as adiophora. Indeed, while Paul clearly regarded the matter of what people ate and drank as not of central doctrinal importance, if all other Christians had shared this view then he would not have needed to write what he did!

For instance, while Anglicans in general might agree that Jesus died to save humans from the power of sin and death, how salvation is achieved, and in particular the nature of the atonement, has been hotly debated, and contradictory views are passionately held. For instance, to quote Archbishop Emmanuel Egbunu on the topic of “Why the Cross?” on the Church of Nigeria website, “In the cross of Christ, the justice and mercy of God are expressed. In the justice of God, the soul that sins must die, for the wages of sin is death (Ezek 18.20, Rom. 6:23)… The justice of God that demands the death of the sinner also makes room for substitutes… The price for sin had to be paid through an unblemished sacrifice, and Christ’s death finds full meaning as a parallel to the Day of Atonement. By His death on the cross, He became the perfect substitute for guilty sinners.”

In contrast, the Church of England Doctrine Commission in 1938 declared that “the notion of propitiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unchristian”. This was restated in 1995, and the Doctrine Commission pointed out that “the traditional vocabulary of atonement with its central themes of law, wrath, guilt, punishment and acquittal, leave many Christians cold and signally fail to move many people, young and old, who wish to take steps towards faith. These images do not correspond to the spiritual search of many people today and therefore hamper the Church’s mission.” Instead, the Cross should be presented “as revealing the heart of a fellow-suffering God” (p. 113).

This would seem closer to the principle stated by the 1930 Lambeth Conference that “We would impress upon Christian people the necessity of banishing from their minds the ideas concerning the character of God which are inconsistent with the character of Jesus Christ”, and is a belief strongly held by many in the Church of England and beyond. However it is not enforced: priests and even bishops can teach the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement without being disciplined. In effect, laypeople are forced to make up their own minds.

Under the centralised system which will be introduced if the Windsor Report and Archbishop of Canterbury achieve their aims, if a primate on one or other side of the debate about atonement decided that differences of opinion on this matter were intolerable, the Communion would once again be thrown into turmoil. There might be a flurry of church politics as those with different views tried to get enough leaders on their side to 'win', followed by the threat of expulsion to any provinces or dioceses not conforming to the 'party line'.

But to many of us, this would seem deeply counterproductive. We would rather try to change the minds of those holding opposite views to our own than coerce or threaten them, and hope that sooner or later, through debate, prayer and reflection, consensus will be reached.

Moreover, day by day, laypeople face difficult choices where they can and do draw on the heritage of their faith but must decide for themselves. Nurses, bridge-builders and mechanics repairing buses, however much they respect bishops, must make their own professional judgement of what is safe and prudent on the basis of their specialist knowledge and experience.

Let us imagine, for instance, a Church of England congregation dealing with a variety of challenges. They have allowed a voluntary organisation to run a drop-in for asylum-seekers in their church hall, some of whom are being harassed when they arrive or leave. How can the congregation protect their vulnerable guests while showing sensitivity to those whose own insecurity fuels racist attitudes? One of the members is a healthcare worker, about to vote on a motion to strike because of management practices which she and her workmates feel are putting staff and patients in danger: is it likely that the costs of striking to all involved will be outweighed by the gains achieved?

Likewise, the son of a married couple long active in the church and baptised at the parish communion some years ago, is now an adolescent. He has made up his own mind that he wants to be a follower of Christ and has been confirmed. It is also increasingly apparent that he is gay (something his godmother guessed when he was six, though she said nothing at the time). How should his parents, godparents and the rest of the congregation fulfil the promises they made at his baptism? Older members remember all too vividly the days when gay men were sent to jail, the desperate attempts some made to change or suppress their sexuality and the damage done, including loss of faith and sometimes even suicide. They have followed the debates over human sexuality over the decades, and most have come to believe that there is a strong theological case for full inclusion. Practically all in the congregation know LGBT workmates, relatives or friends and are aware that they face many of the same joys and sorrows in their lives and relationships as their heterosexual counterparts. How, then, should they respond as the young man continues to grow, perhaps one day finding the man of his dreams and seeking their support and God’s blessing for a life together?

The parents, godparents and others in such a congregation would probably feel that giving him a booklet with bishops’ pronouncements on this matter and then washing their hands of his future welfare would be highly inadequate, in the context of their concrete relationship with their son, godson or friend, with a local community where they seek to be a beacon of compassion and respect and, ultimately, with God. Their responsibility is all the greater because some of the church leaders with greatest influence in Anglican circles have seldom or never had an in-depth conversation with an openly LGBT person and possibly have not read a single one of the many books published over the last half-century or so which present the theological arguments for inclusion.

This is not about “doing your own thing”. Who laypersons are and how we think and feel, has been shaped in the context of our membership of the universal church and our relationship with God who has formed and constantly transforms us. We continue to listen and learn, encountering “Christ in mouth of friend and stranger”, in the words of a hymn based on a prayer of St Patrick. Laypersons might sometimes wish that we could pass on difficult situations and questions to those higher up in the church to sort out. But we believe we have been called and sent out by God into particular settings, and must constantly make choices, being willing to repent if we come to believe we have done the wrong thing.

The hidden wisdom of God’s people

A talk by retired bishop Peter Selby in October 2009 contained a profound critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “reflections” on Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future, which suggested a “two-track” Anglican Communion in which provinces which embraced greater inclusion of LGBT people, including non-celibates, had a lesser role.

Selby spoke of an occasion when:

a colleague and his partner were to register their partnership, and a number of us were invited. There was no suggestion that there would be a blessing of this union, or anything else that might cause incongruity or unrecognisability. But it did so happen that the ceremony was arranged to take place closely after the usual time of the eucharist in the local Church, to which the guests were also invited. Not surprisingly prayers were offered for the pair, and the eucharist proceeded as usual - or not quite.

When time came for the distribution of the Sacrament, nothing had been said about what was to happen. But the congregation knew what was to happen: they remained in their seats until the pair whose partnership was to be registered had received together. Where was this unscripted choreography learned? Obviously through the attendance of many in the congregation at wedding eucharists. But this was not of course a wedding - or was it? Might not this event in the distribution of the Sacrament have been a picture of what at an earlier time the Archbishop would have called 'The Body's Grace', the mediation of truth through the liturgical actions of the people, while the official Church was still struggling to avoid an affirmation it was unwilling to make.

… I tell the story because even as hierarchies struggle to maintain rigidities in place, even as persons are hurt and their ministries denied, something else is going on, namely the emergence of the hidden wisdom of God's people, a choreography of promise, a recognition which the official Church will surely have to take seriously.

The whole people of God, including the clergy, are part of a living church present in communities throughout the world, striving to bring about God’s commonwealth of peace, justice and love.


(c) Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.