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? 

Children’s books and church: 1 Milly Molly Mandy


Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

As a small child, growing up in 1950s suburbia, Milly Molly Mandy books were the first ones that become part of my internal world. There were other books I liked, but these I loved.

Written 30 years earlier by Joyce Lancaster Brisley, these books described a world I didn’t know, but one I longed for.  For Milly Molly Mandy’s world appears totally safe.  Within its boundaries she is free to explore and have adventures.  The reader knows that nothing is going to go seriously wrong.

In theory my world should have been as secure as hers.  I had two parents, four grandparents, a house and garden, friends and a school that I mostly enjoyed.  But I was an anxious child.  I had my bed pushed up against the wall so nothing could get behind me in the night and I worried endlessly about the things I wished I hadn’t done – getting told off for jumping on the chairs or saying “Hello Old Thornsy!” to the sarcastic teacher.  (My father used to call him that – what possessed me as a small mousy child to try it out on him I will never know.)

My world was based on the same premise as Milly Molly Mandy’s: “Not in front of the children.”  The adults endeavour to hide their concerns and worries from the children. Milly Molly Mandy accepts her world, as small children do, as being how the world is.  There is no need for difficult questions.

But this is a safe world without God.  As a child I knew only the first three books, and God does not appear.  Church is mentioned only once – when Milly Molly Mandy visits Mrs Hooker in town.  This safe world has been created for the child by the adults in her life and they have been completely successful.

This is unsurprising when you remember that Joyce Lancaster Brisley originally wrote these stories for the Christian Science monitor, an organisation that was unlikely to consider churchgoing desirable.

However, the church is shown on the map at the beginning of each book.  It must have dominated the view for everyone who went out of the front gate of the nice white cottage with the thatched roof. Milly Molly Mandy went past it every time she and Susan took the short cut to school.

The events that give markers to village life are not that dissimilar to the ones that take place in villages now – the fete, the concert with local talent, the flower and produce show, carol singing. But today many of those events are organised on behalf of the church.  Surely this would have been the case in the 1920s?

Re-reading these books as an adult I can see that there are hints of a much darker world than the one I longed for as a child.

Money worries are mentioned – it is clear that pennies are rare and need careful thought before spending; there is no extra money for trips to the sea or bicycles.  Milly Molly Mandy knows and understands these limitations but they do not bother her. Other families are in similar situations.

It is more striking that most of the children in the books are only children: Milly Molly Mandy, Billy Blunt, Milly next door, Jessamine, Bunchy.  Only Susan has a baby sister and even she does not arrive until halfway through Book 2.  Was it something in the water? Had Marie Stopes moved into the cottage next to Mr Critch the Thatcher?  Did none of them want more children?

Aunty and Uncle are childless.  Uncle is the adult most able to enter into the child’s world – how did he feel about not having his own child?  And what about Aunty?  What did she think about during that endless round of dusting and sewing?

Even more concerning is the number of children who lack parents.  Miss Muggins’ Jilly lives with her aunt. Bunchy lives with her grandmother, Timmy Biggs with his grandad. Jessamine from the Big House has only her mother.  We are never told what tragedies lie behind all these missing parents – though if the stories are set early in the 1920s we might guess at the first world war and Spanish influenza.  Milly Molly Mandy’s world is not as safe as it first appears.

I read Milly Molly Mandy Again (Book 4) as an adult – and found that the author’s attitude to church and God had changed dramatically.  Milly Molly Mandy goes to harvest festival and the blacksmith’s wedding in the church and “Vicar” gets a mention at harvest festival!  Milly Molly Mandy and her mother even have a conversation about God:  harvest festival is to give thanks to God.  God takes the thankfulness and the vicar gives the produce to the cottage hospital – it is a double giving.  The book ends with snowy weather; everyone except Grandma who does not like the cold (who can blame her!) goes to church just as if they have been doing so Sunday by Sunday since the books began.  This book was published in 1948, twenty years after the original.  Joyce Lancaster Brisley had lived through the depression and second world war since then – her views have had time to change and she, like us, is looking back with nostalgia.

Is it possible for my faith to have been influenced by Milly Molly Mandy when the books I knew had no references to God and only one mention of church?  A world in which adults are in control rather than God is the antithesis of Christian belief.  The Biblical story tells us what happens when adults believe themselves to be in control…  But I do not think I ever believed in adults’ ability to create a secure world for children, on their own so this passed me by.

I think I did take away the emphasis on looking carefully and appreciating the small things.  Milly Molly Mandy’s family show respect for everyone though this is most noticeable in Milly Molly Mandy Again when the village rallies around the Traveller family and bring their pots and pans to be mended.

We would be like apple trees without apples if we weren’t useful, says Mother, echoing the Protestant work ethic.  But I’m not sure I believed that either…  I certainly didn’t practice it!

Good Friday

Today’s reflections are a mixed bag.  Some deeply thought-provoking ones on the Lampedusa cross and small Alan Kurdi alternate with ones that verge on the sentimental.  “As you hung on the cross you looked back to Bethlehem and thought about the stories you had been told about your birth…”

I don’t like this kind of thing much, even when it is ordinary characters from the past.  These people are not of our time; they do not think as we do. I like it even less when it is Jesus…

Inside my head I think “but it wasn’t like that…  it wasn’t remotely like that…”

I look out of the window at the rain soaked fields, wondering what it was really like. And suddenly I am aware that the Christ on the cross is struggling with a multi-dimensional reality, trying desperately to keep the door to the kingdom open.

“It is finished.”  He can do more. He surrenders his spirit. The curtain of the temple is torn in two. The world turns dark.

In the darkness, the Created Ones step forward. It is our turn now.  If it was our sin that held him on the cross, now it is us that will hold the door.

Every small act of forgiveness, every arm around the shoulder of the rejected, every child listened to, every act of kindness, is our way of keeping the door open.

We can do this for him. It’s only till Sunday…