Laity – or Lowity?

It’s a dreary evening in November, many years ago, and I am giving Tessa a lift to a diocesan training event.

“I’ve been invited to join Bishop’s Council,” she tells me brightly.  “The bishop felt there weren’t enough laity on Bishop’s Council so he’s asked me to join. He wants to make it more representative.”

I am so astonished that I am lost for words.  Tessa is married to a curate. How can she possibly represent the laity on Bishop’s Council?  Does it not occur to the bishop that Tessa and her husband will discuss church matters?  That living alongside him, sharing and supporting his ministry, means that her views are far more likely to be clerical than lay?

When I discuss this later with friends, we decide that there are three orders in the Church of England: Clergy; Laity (clergy spouses and other close relatives) and Lowity (the rest of us).

I’ve noticed this in some of the discussions at General Synod on topics such as clergy welfare.  Lay member after lay member will get up and say that they are the son/daughter/spouse of a priest and talk about the stresses and strains of ministry.  I may misremember, but at the time I felt that synod spent far more time and interest discussing some specific clergy item (pensions?) than Setting God’s People Free, the report on the laity. A few people got up to say the report was a Good Thing and that was about it.

Yet the lowity (laity unrelated to clergy) make up over 90% of the church and Setting God’s People Free was not uncontroversial.  It dealt not only with enabling the laity to live out their faith in everyday life but with the poor relationships between clergy and laity that is the result of clericalism: “the priest knows best.”  While various initiatives were put in place to equip the laity for a confident faith for their Monday to Saturday lives, I have not come across any that specifically addressed the need to improve clergy/lay relationships. Perhaps it was thought that this would follow automatically?

Clericalism has been in the news this week as a result of the IICSA report (Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse) which has attributed several of the failings in the church response to clericalism.  Several people on Twitter have responded by saying that priests are still members of the Laos, the People of God and that this is the primary calling.  Baptism takes precedence over ordination.  Clericalism is not something they want to recognise.

I have found this irritating, if well meaning.  If clericalism could be represented as a decorated cupcake surrounded by plain biscuits, then this view could be represented as the idea that we are all cakes, but ordination is the icing on the top.  Clergy are still laity, but now come with an added something – which presumably enables them to speak for both clergy and laity. 

I prefer to see it as a fork in the road (cake analogy only goes so far!)

We are all called, but priests have taken a different road.  They have been called in one direction, the laity in another (in reality many different directions.)   I see no problem with this.

I do however have a problem with the view that the priestly road is the one with the best views, the most exciting adventures, the one where you come closest to God.  Clergy often seem to think that because they were once laity, they know all about being laity.  But using the road analogy, they have only travelled so far along that road before taking a different direction.  For some this may be many years in the past.  As many see their past life as leading towards ordination, it is tempting for them to see the laity as the people who haven’t reached the fork in the road and probably never will.

But the laity are not failed priests.  God is calling them to adventures that are different but just as exciting.  Sadly, in my experience, the church rarely acknowledges this.  

There are few mechanisms that give the laity a voice in the church. PCCs are often dominated by buildings and finance. Deanery Synods tend to be top down rather than bottom up, informing parishes about diocesan initiatives that they are expected to put into practice. 

The laity do not speak with a coherent voice.  (This is also true for clergy on many issues.)  They do however talk amongst themselves: about God, their faith and their vision for the church.  In churches where there is mutual respect, priest and people talk to each other in the same way. 

There are many books on what it means to be a priest, few (if any) on what it means to be laity.  (This may be because many church books are written by priests and being laity is no longer part of their experience.)   

So what does it mean to be laity in the church?  How can we avoid clericalism and develop mutual respect for our different callings? 

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