The church as “movement” vs. the church as “institution”

Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies, gave the annual Kellogg Lecture last week at Episcopal Divinity School. The lecture is available in two (1 and 2) parts on her web pages.

Here are some of her thoughts:

I have observed that, for the most part, the church has gotten it wrong about the ministry of the laity. We, laity, clergy and bishops, have conspired, although I like to think, unknowingly, to define the ministry of the laity as what we do at Church—read, acolyte, be on the vestry, light the candles, sing in the choir, prepare the altar, lead prayer. Don’t get me wrong, these things are very important and they are the activities that affirm our faith, develop our Christian community and support our home base—our congregation. If we lay people do these churchy things really well, someone will usually ask us if we have ever thought about being ordained.

We are all missing the point. The real job of the laity is to reconcile the world. Out there. The congregation is where our Christian community thrives—it is where we live, pray, worship, become renewed. It is our proving ground, where we practice resurrection, where we learn about ourselves and how to become whole human beings. And if it is a true Christian community, it is where people hold us accountable to the promises we make at our baptism.

We have some intrinsic difficulties to over come. Seminaries can help here. Most clergy don’t even know what we lay people do in the world. Our parish priest might know what our jobs are, but they don’t really know what we do. They don’t know our mission field. Where does our support come from? Where does their support come from? It is supposed to come from the community—it’s about relationship…. we really don’t know each other and our Church has no language for telling the truth to each other.

Sometimes I wonder if the laity are valued. I recently had a letter from a woman who was writing to me because of something I wrote about the ministry of the laity on the opinion page of the New York Times. In her note to me she said the laity of the Episcopal Church are seen as the “Losers and Lepers”. That description stuck with me. Thankfully, I don’t think it is universally true. But this lay person did.

But as lay people even we forget that we are the ones who fund this Church, we are the ones who call the clergy to serve with us. We are the ones with the clergy who elect our bishops to serve us. We even forget that without us, there would be no Church. Who would come to a church of all priests, deacons and bishops? Even they would grow tired of each other. Without the laity the sacraments would go undelivered, there would be no one to hear the sermons.

The laity are the backbone of God’s Church and if we ignore the wake up call of our declining numbers, our Church will be irrelevant pretty soon.

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