A few days ago, I was stomping around the house muttering things about clergy having become quite annoyed with a set of them and it got me to thinking…
When I was in seminary—fifteen years ago now (?!)—one of the concerns that I heard expressed was around who was being sent. It seem like anyone who expressed any sort of interest in religion or theology beyond Sunday School got packed off to Seminary. It was almost as if the next logical step after Disciple (this was a Methodist school) was seminary! There are a couple of implications here:
- It meant that the first year of seminary had to be spent in remedial catechesis because many folks hadn’t been fully formed.
- It also meant that many local churches were losing their models of what an informed and engaged lay person looks like.
Things aren’t exactly the same in the current Episcopal Church—but I don’t think they’re all that different either.
Here’s the thing: Clergy tend to be folks who didn’t/couldn’t find fulfillment in the church as laity. As a result, if they’re relying solely or even primarily on their own spiritual journey to inform others, they will inevitably direct others towards clerical expressions of engagement.
Something I saw on the Chant Cafe entitled “Clericalism among the laity” that the new pope said while still archbishop resonated deeply with this line of thinking:
“We priests tend to clericalize the laity,” Francis said. “[We] focus on things of the clergy, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than bringing the Gospel to the world… A Church that limits herself to administering parish work experiences what someone in prison does: physical and mental atrophy.
“We infect lay people with our own disease. And some begin to believe the fundamental service God asks of them is to become greeters, lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy communion at Church. Rather, [the call is] to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and beyond.”
The reform that’s needed is “neither to clericalize nor ask to be clericalized. The layperson is a layperson. He has to live as a layperson… to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself…. [He] is to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life. And like all of us, the layperson is called to carry his daily cross—the cross of the layperson, not of the priest.” – Pope Francis
There are priests out there who know how to encourage and build up their laity to be good laity. But there are more who don’t. This is a problem, and we need to identify and name it as such.
I’ve wrestled for decades around whether I have a vocation to the priesthood. I didn’t thinks so initially, but clergy encouraged me to think about it. I was one of those people who needed some basic catechesis in seminary—not in Scripture, certainly, but in a number of other areas. I entered as a Lutheran yet it wasn’t until my second semester that I learned the Lutheran Church had confessional documents! I left the Lutheran Church shortly before I would have been ordained in it, largely due to the sense that I was moving in a different (Anglican) direction and that I would not keep my promise to teach and preach in accord with Lutheran teachings given my understanding of the sacraments and saints. In my time as an Episcopalian, I’ve considered my vocation in this church a number of times, in a number of ways. My increasing sense is that God is not calling me to be a priest—certainly not now.
The result is that I find myself in a church that has little to no idea what to do with me—certainly on the local level. There’s no need to go into details, but some clergy—particularly those used to a “Father knows best” approach—don’t appreciate someone with more formal education in theology who is not interested in putting up and shutting up…
In particular, I’m struck with a growing sense that we lay people need to own our own spirituality. You—I—cannot necessarily count on our clergy for this. Certainly good clergy can help but, ultimately, they’re not responsible for the shape of your spiritual life.
- Laity need to have a sense of what classic Christian spirituality looks like for the lay condition.
- Recognize that your clergy may not always have the resources to direct you.
- When in doubt, look to the Office.
- Clergy—aside from having a great prayer life of your own, consider how to nurture lay spirituality.
- Martin Thornton’s Christian Proficiency is a great place to start.