The lack of lay ability to communicate God’s wisdom has been repeatedly identified by the church. ‘Towards the Conversion of England’ from 1946 outlined the same problem in the language of the day “England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunities for evangelism daily afforded by their various professions, crafts and occupations.” This article offers a quick flavour of the debate and report. We will be thinking about the implications for our churches more thoroughly in a future article.
Central to the reports ambition are two culture changes.
- First. Until, together, we find a way to form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel we will never set God’s people free to evangelise the nation.
- Second. Until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, we will never form Christian communities that can evangelise the nation.
Speaking about the writing of the report in the General Synod debate speaker after speaker made the challenge of achieving those culture changes very obvious.
Alison Coulter said: We need to change our culture so that everyone in the church understands that we are all called to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives and to be a witness to him every day of the week as clergy and laity together. We have a joint responsibility before God to lead his church into this freedom. (Alison is Lay Chair of the Diocese of Winchester)
Jane Paterson, a recent member of the Crown Nominations Commission which is part of the process of the appointment of Bishops, spoke about what churches can look like when there is much thought given into the effective education and leadership training for lay leaders. She started by noting this church in Sheffield was untypical because it was large and growing:
The majority of its members are part of one or other small study group that meets weekly to read the Bible, think through how to apply it in our lives and to pray. We are being discipled. Most of those groups are led by lay leaders trained in the local church. We are intentional about training our leaders to support our vision for growing the church and planting churches… The church and our nation needs to hear the gospel. Both are in desperate need of a fully functioning body.
The difference between but equality of lay and ordained people on the basis of they common baptism surfaces repeatedly in the report. Being a church which practises infant baptism (christening) does place a fearsome responsibility for teaching and nurturing disciples on us. Looking at the things that churches lose when they don't nurture the lay people in their congregations, Dr Meg Warner said commented on the special gifts and position of lay people in the church.
Lay People are not simply people who were unfortunate enough not to have been ordained. They actually had something that most clergy don't have. They live and work in the real world. (applause) They come from there. And then they are sent back out into it… We speak of Jesus into a context. Now lay-people know that context. It's vital that we appreciate that gift and those skills that our laypeople have and that they bring when they are called into our church and that is part of what they take out with them also into the world.
Importantly the report addresses the lack of resource allocation for lay development which is limited in many dioceses and parishes. Very little central funding, is directed to whole-life lay discipleship and development. The report promises further research to understand the situation. It has been criticised for this, perhaps unfairly because in every other organisation, social research is well known to be a critical driver for change.
In many ways this report contains the recommendations and implementation plan that should have followed naturally from earlier reports. Like many documents from the Renewal and Reform it is happy to draw on the theological reasoning of previous reports which meant that writing this report has not been an expensive or wasteful process.
‘Setting God’s People Free’ does not report on the state of Authorised Lay Ministry training e.g. Reader or LLM’s, and we will have to wait for a second report to come to Synod to learn about plans for that.