IN 2018, I attended a service in Leicester Cathedral at which a friend was to be licensed as a Reader. The actual licensing, at which it is made clear that Readers exercise a public ministry, was done in private before the service started. A sermon, which consisted of an impassioned diatribe against the Church of England, was delivered by a lay academic. The climax came as the bishop prayed inaudibly, not only with the new Readers, but with Messy Church leaders and others, while we sang uplifting worship songs.
So, I am not entirely surprised that it is Leicester diocese that is bringing to its synod this weekend a plan to carve the diocese into “minster communities”, with paid and unpaid ministerial positions to be filled by either a lay person or a cleric, sent out from hubs. The plan contains the usual pious genuflections towards the parish, but parishes with priests are undermined.
Leicester diocese regards it as a plus to have lay people in posts previously filled by clergy. In today’s church argot, there is no room for passengers (Comment, 9 July). The laity must be “released” for church-based mission and ministry.
Yet the Church of England remains the Church of the English people and understands itself as part of the Church Catholic. Adherence to the threefold order of ordained ministry is part of the deal. Historically, lay influence has been led by the Sovereign and expressed through Parliament and the exercise of patronage. In parishes, the churchwardens embody lay governance at local level. The true work of the laity is to witness to Christ in the world: “Let your light so shine before men. . .”
The distinction between ordained and lay is important not only for the catholicity of the Church, but also for the integrity of the laity. Before ordination, I was a Reader for ten years, and I relished the freedom of that ministry, accepting its limitations. I expected priests to be selected and trained to criteria beyond enthusiasm, Bible knowledge, and faith. The Leicester plan reveals either sheer ignorance of C of E polity or an attempt to overthrow it, because “every-member ministry” boils down to congregationalism under episcopal management.
I have known some ardent congregationalists from various denominations, many of them outstanding Christians. But I have been struck by how much time they spend on church matters and how narrow their social circles can become. After all, their historic roots are in Christian separatism.
For all the talk of “releasing the laity” for mission, I fear that the recruitment of laity to clergy positions will drive the Church inward. All evidence shows that growth depends on more priests living among those whom they serve. Leicester, sadly, is pointing the way to an even more profound alienation from the English people than we have managed to achieve already.