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  • The fine line between lay and clergy

    Oct 17, 2016

    Steve Summers, principal of the Local Ministry Programme  

    Steve Summers

    Lay ministry in the Church of England has an ever-changing profile. The CofE tends to be quite clerically focused, in the sense that those who are most visible in ministry are the clergy; and parish priests might be the most readily identifiable church workers in their communities.

    But there is often an army of other ministers – trained and untrained – behind the scenes, making church happen in that locality: yet they might be largely unseen or unrecognised.


    "There is often an army of other ministers – trained and untrained – behind the scenes, making church happen in that locality: yet they might be largely unseen or unrecognised."


    In the late 1990s I was working as a Youth and Community Worker in a neighbouring southern diocese, but was not allowed to have my name in the diocesan directory because I was not a priest or diocesan official! The emphasis there was clearly on connecting ministry and ordination: ignoring the reality that the church ‘engine’ does not run on clerical skill alone. There is vast reservoir of lay people who give their time and energy to make parish ministry happen, in things practical, pastoral and spiritual.

    The distinction between clergy ministry and lay ministry is real, but the division (and the rationale behind it) is of much more interest now than perhaps it has been in the past. Lay people in the 21st century are often well-educated and capable in their secular employment, and have awakened to the reality that they bring skills to the work of the parish. The vocation to the workplace, as teacher, lawyer, plumber or administrator, is a vital expression of a Christian discipleship in that context. Those who live out their faith in the workplace and share their faith on a daily basis, in how they live and what they say, are actually those on the missional ‘front-line’. They are really the engine that facilitate the work of God’s Kingdom in that parish.

    So it is that the sacramental focus on ministry, provided by the clergy, provides an important part of resourcing the ‘people of God’ – but others participate in this resourcing. The ministry of those who stand on the same side of the altar-rail as the congregation have a different sort of connection, and are heard differently when they speak. They bring a familiar worldview and accessible status to their sermons, pastoral work and prayer life.


    "The ministry of those who stand on the same side of the altar-rail as the congregation have a different sort of connection, and are heard differently when they speak."


    Having said that, I would not want to over-emphasise the differences between lay and clergy. Ministry is ministry, and the desired outcomes are the same regardless of the practitioner. I am the Principal of the Local Ministry Programme in the diocese, which trains lay and ordained candidates together, because the vast majority of how we serve the Church in ministry is common to both. I began my own ministry in the Church as a lay person and know from the inside what this connectedness feels like.

    There is a case to be made for those who want to retain their status as a lay-person, with the sense of connectivity that entails, but who are theologically literate, liturgically savvy, pastorally skilled and able to reflect theologically upon why the world is the way it is. Such competent lay ministers are highly desirable and an invaluable resource for a parish. They can make connections to the unchurched in a way that clergy do not.


    "So perhaps our challenge is to come to place where we truly value diversity and difference in ministry."


    So perhaps our challenge is to come to place where we truly value diversity and difference in ministry. We seem quite capable of doing so with, for example, youth workers – valuing the gifts and community connections that they bring . We are perhaps less creative in valuing other expressions of lay ministry – of which there are many. The good news is that our diocese is fortunate in having a well-resourced training team that is committed to developing these varieties of lay ministries. We are always open to new ideas and opportunities to resource lay ministry.