TRS Chester

— the unofficial blog of Theology & Religious Studies, University of Chester

Reflections: Whatever Happened to the Laity? (Elaine Graham)

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LaityIn addition to her many prestigious honours and achievements, our Grosvener Research Professor of Practical Theology, Prof. Elaine Graham, was appointed last year as Canon Theologian of Chester Cathedral. As part of that role, on Saturday 7th February 2015 she will deliver her first annual Cathedral Lecture. Below is an outline of the topic she has chosen to tackle:

A joyful consecration, an overdue opportunity and a sense of déja vu

The consecration of Libby Lane as Bishop of Stockport last week has occasioned much rejoicing within the Church of England and beyond. It is undoubtedly an historic occasion and comes, as many commentators noted, over twenty years after the first women were ordained priest and after many more years of campaigning on behalf of an inclusive ministry of women and men.  As with the ordination of women in 1994, Bishop Libby’s consecration has also been welcomed by wider society as a sign that the Church might be taking its first steps towards greater equality.

But – without wishing in the least to detract from the significance of this much anticipated, greatly overdue and hugely uplifting event (especially for this Diocese), I find myself wondering whether these events have been taking place at the expense of other debates within the church; and that the focus on inclusive leadership has had unintended consequences elsewhere.

This may sound heretical, but here goes: I wonder whether the preoccupation of many of the churches – not just the Church of England – over recent times with questions of gender and sexuality in relation to who is and is not permitted to be ordained has taken place at the expense of other, equally fundamental questions about the nature of the church’s ministry overall, and to the roles, responsibilities and training of the laity. And whilst they may not ostensibly appear quite so costly to the churches’ reputation amongst an increasingly baffled and incomprehending general public, this is nevertheless an area in which the very credibility of the Gospel is being subtlely, wordlessly and yet irrevocably undermined.

So maybe it’s time – and not before time – that we turned our attention to the question of the role of the laity and the work they do as members of the Church in the world. And lurking behind the question that forms the title of my lecture on February 7th is the sense that certainly in modern times, if not throughout Christian history, people have been asking the same question: what about the laity? Who are the laity? Whatever happened to the laity? Time and again, successive generations say, oughtn’t we return to the question of those who are not bishops, priests or presbyters and consider their position, as more than those who are ‘non-ordained’, and think positively and constructively about the nature of their duties and callings as Christians? That it’s baptism, not ordination, that is the sign of membership of the Body of Christ?

A new series of discussion documents about the future structures of the Church of England would appear to present a timely opportunity for just such a conversation.  Developing Discipleship (General Synod, 2015) promises “a debate on encouraging the discipleship of the whole people of God as the foundation for re-imagining ministry for the 21st century” (GS 1977, Developing Discipleship, § 3). It’s got all the right words, too, most of them in the right order: ‘whole people of God’ – very good; ‘re-imagining ministry’ – splendid; ‘sent into the world, to follow God’s call’ – tremendous; ‘21st century’ – up-to-date! But I have a kind of sinking feeling too, not to mention a strong sense of déjà vu. Hasn’t all this been said before?   

Well, yes, it has, but unfortunately as this report concedes, ‘Our vision for the Church and for discipleship is not as clear as it could be … Where do we find a compelling vision for lay discipleship in the world? Our understanding of service becomes restricted to the life of the Church …’ And as a result, ‘… the witness and the mission of the whole Church is impoverished as Christians are neither encouraged nor sustained in the living out of their Christian faith in daily life.’ (§38)

But why, despite successive waves of innovative, exciting debate towards a theology of the laity, does it still seem such a neglected area? Why has theological reflection on the laity been afforded such low priority – and even when it has taken place, why has it not proved of lasting and sustainable impact?

The 2015 Annual Cathedral Lecture will take place at Chester Cathedral on Saturday 7th February at 2PM, and a warm invitation to attend is extended to all.


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