The whole people of God

Savi Hensman, writes in Ekklesia on the role of the laity in the church and concern that current trends are to send them back to flower arranging. In the 1960’s, across denominations, there was a strong push by churches to include the laity in decision making. Hensman notes lately:

In some churches this trend has continued, but elsewhere there has been a backlash. For instance the Roman Catholic hierarchy has to some extent drawn back from the possibilities opened up by the Second Vatican Council. And there has been a drive by some Anglican bishops and archbishops to assert their authority, not only in their own dioceses and provinces, but also beyond, including the right to make decisions on important matters without listening to laypeople with in-depth knowledge and experience of the issues involved, or to theologians (lay or ordained) with perspectives other than their own. While it is the specific issue of human sexuality which has attracted most media attention, divisions among Anglicans reflect, to some extent, different views about the role of the laity.

The Windsor Report, produced in 2004 by a Lambeth Commission chaired by Robin Eames, at that time Archbishop of Armagh, proposed a radical shift in power to senior clergy, supposedly in the interests of unity. Certain dioceses had moved towards including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in the life of the church on the same basis as heterosexuals, whether single or partnered. Laypeople and parish clergy had played an important part in convincing their fellow-worshippers that the theological case was strong and that the spiritual and evangelistic advantages of greater inclusion outweighed the risks of offending those opposed.

Elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, senior clergy had contemptuously dismissed calls by the Lambeth Conference to listen to, and enter into dialogue with, LGBT people and to study, as objectively as possible, theological and scientific developments on this issue. They were outraged at the consecration of an openly gay and partnered bishop of the Episcopal Church, chosen by the people of New Hampshire in the US and by consideration of a liturgy to bless same-sex partnerships in the Diocese of New Westminster Canada. Some threatened to leave, as well as intensifying attempts to take over congregations and dioceses in these provinces.

As these trends continue the Windsor Report urged more top down resolution:

Stronger structures were required, according to the Report, and a check on any development which might prove controversial. Where disagreements arose, according to the Report, these could be resolved through four so-called Instruments of Unity, three of which were made up entirely of bishops (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting). With regard to “current teaching of the Anglican Communion as a whole, and/or of individual provinces, no province, diocese or parish has the right to introduce a novelty which goes against such teaching and excuse it on the grounds that it has simply been put forward for reception. In such a case, if change is desired, it must be sought through the appropriate channels”.

However, story after story in the church reveals:

…even as hierarchies struggle to maintain rigidities in place, even as persons are hurt and their ministries denied, something else is going on, namely the emergence of the hidden wisdom of God’s people, a choreography of promise, a recognition which the official Church will surely have to take seriously.

The whole people of God, including the clergy, are part of a living church present in communities throughout the world, striving to bring about God’s commonwealth of peace, justice and love.

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