Thinking on the Laity

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.


27 thoughts on “Thinking on the Laity

  1. Fr. Michael S.

    It’s been suggested among some of my friends that a key trait to look for in a clerical calling, is do you feel a need to be in the action at the altar? I love to sing and have been in many choirs. But a church choir – especially in the gallery – doesn’t cut it. It prevents *me* from participating in worship in any way that’s meaningful.
    Opposite clericalized laity, there’s also the issue of layicized clergy! Those clergy who got ordained because, as you said, they wanted more than sunday school – but they actually don’t like to say mass, and they’re afraid of the sanctuary.

  2. bls

    You are right when you say, “When in doubt, look to the Office,” If you do it consistently, it does do a lot to alleviate many of the other problems, just by itself. Importantly – and I forget this sometimes – it keeps you aware of and moving through the Church Year whether your parish or any others in your area celebrate the feasts or not. You’ll be celebrating them.

    Maybe our lay society can have that for a specific focus: encouraging each other in consistent praying of the Office. Maybe we could have a website to discuss what we’re learning that way and in other ways, too….

  3. bls

    (I guess the thing to do, too, is to promote the Office among the people we know. In my experience, many or most people don’t even know what it is – but that means the only place to go is up….)

  4. John Bassett

    Spirituality is indeed a wonderful thing for lay people, but so too is a solid grounding in Scripture and the theological heritage of the Church. The liturgy makes a lot more sense when you have some understanding of the words. What passes for Christian education for both children and adults is generally pretty appalling in our denomination.

    But I will offer a small plug for Education for Ministry. I have been a mentor for several years and I have watched as people in my group have had their lives changed by reading and discussing the Old and New Testaments, the Fathers, the Doctors, and the Reformers. I have watched people use the great narrative of the Christian story to change the way that the understand their own life story. And I have watched as people decided that they were ministers by baptism and Christ’s call to discipleship and stopped thinking that they needed some collar around their neck to be ministers and to do ministry. EFM is not perfect, but I cannot think of anything else in the church today that offers lay people the opportunity to learn to think theologically and to develop a sense of their own ministry in the world.


    And you’re so right about many clergy who do not like lay people with an M.Div. Frankly, I’ve found that the liberals are the worst about it….

  5. AKMA

    Joining my voice with you and other advocates of the Office, and with John and others who point to problems in education/formation. When the church panics about attendance, its immediate reflex tends to involve diminishing the stakes of going to church — you don’t have to believe X, you don’t have to do Y, you don’t have to share Z, and so on. The pre-Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre rightly noted that the modern liberal church responded to the ‘threat’ of secularity by giving people less and less in which to disbelieve.

    As John notes, though, the winsome bit about Christian faith comes from realising the marvels, the sweetness, the brilliance, the glories (and shames), the humility and the grace and love that come to clarity from knowing what we’re there for — and as some have arrived at ordination through the ministries of a minimalised church, those clergy (understandably) resist and sometimes feel threatened by people who know and care about a fuller, deeper, richer church. We should expect that, we should sympathise with them, and we should always be undeterred in a ministry of caring, and celebrating, and in manifestly chuerishing and diligently, joyously teaching the catholic faith.

  6. MAG

    Hear, hear!
    I find our stories (somewhat) similar — even down to being married to a priest — and therefore can resonate fully with what you are articulating. Thank you for putting words and rhetoric to this, and for expressing a sincere need for growth that the church has at the moment.

    I also ponder something a seminary professor of mine (himself an ordained Episcopal priest, but also a university professor of English) once said (my paraphrase): “I wonder if those of us who are adult transplants to the Anglican tradition feel a certain pull to Holy Orders in order to ‘prove’ our full immersion into our new church home – that there’s a sense of ordination signifying ‘going all the way’ in a tradition that we were not initially a part of.” I certainly know that he was not trying to downplay his own specific calling to ordination, nor that of some of my classmates, but it definitely struck a chord with me personally that began the process of my backing down from my own postulancy track.

    I have found vocational fulfillment as a church musician, and am continuing to learn how to live into my Calling as a layperson – a lay leader, I sincerely believe – in the Church, on both the local and diocesan level. Having an MDiv does occasionally create the “pelican-about-the-neck” scenario with clergy, and I did have mixed feelings about letting my Lay Preacher licensure lapse, but I do take great encouragement from the Pauline language of body and members.

  7. bls

    I loved EFM; I went through and including Year 3. I originally wentbecause I was brand new to the church and had never read the Bible – I mean, literally never. (I went, actually, because I heard the story of Samson read at Morning Prayer one day and became really, really intrigued! I knew I needed to read the thing at that point.)

    And it was great for that! It was fantastic to have the commentary alongside the texts – and to be able to talk everything out with other people. The “Theological Reflections” could be kind of hit or miss – sometimes great, sometimes just rehashes of previous ones. That’s a hard discipline, actually; you can easily get stuck.

    The single most helpful thing about EFM was that it helped me to get a handle on the context of the composition and compilation of Scripture. This helped me enormously to be able to get the point of the thing – and so have the ability to extrapolate from the Iron Age to other eras, including our own. And of course, those of us who didn’t major in history in college are either wholly or partly ignorant of anything prior to about – oh, 1914?

    In fact, I’ve noticed this with religion all along; if you want to know anything, you have to go back, back, back in time and then take a good long look around (and often you need to look up about 30 other things, too!). Getting involved in the church has been highly educational for me; it’s possible that it’s done more than all my in-school education put together. But, I tend to be curious about things, and an auto-didact at heart anyway.

    I keep hoping that Sewanee will put together an EFM-based package for use at Adult Forum – and distribute it free to all parishes. Or even put regular EFM online for download. This way, people could learn even if they don’t have $400 to spend, or can’t make the major commitment in time EFM requires. (Interestingly, some people are afraid of TR and I’ve seen folks quit because they didn’t want to reveal their feelings to others in that intimate setting.)

    I really think we need some comprehensive central source where people – including newcomers and people outside the church entirely – can look some of these things up. One thing I think we’re really missing as a concept in TEC is that the church exists to aid people emotionally, psychologically, and in other ways. That what we’re offering is not merely a bunch of propositions that people have to sign up to – but a way of living that can help people in many ways. It’s really very substantial – but nobody knows this.

  8. bls

    (I mean, it really seems to me that every “movement” that’s going on in TEC right now – CWOB, “Ashes to Go” – is the result of people not feeling articulate enough about Christian faith. Notice that all of the movements are utterly mute! They all depend on people somehow just “getting it” without anything being explained.

    Which, to me, means that people must not really know, or be able to say, what the faith is actually for. Sure, I get the “come and see” aspect – but again, if you take a look at the Catholic Catechism you can find some of the beautiful language anywhere to describe the life of faith and the sacraments of the church. For people – Anglicans – who allegedly adore beautiful language, we’re startlingly inarticulate!)

  9. Paul Goings

    Derek, I wonder how long it’s going to be until we can’t make such a rigid distinction between laity and clergy? Not in an ontological sense, but certainly in a professional and educational sense. That is, is the future, at least in many places, going to be worker priests, formed as such by ad hoc and informal networks?

    So, an Episcopal parish near where we live is closing. They are in a post-industrial and economically distressed area. They can maintain their (quite modest) buildings, but cannot afford a full-time priest at the diocesan minimum salary, and it’s difficult, I’m told, to find someone who will take the minimum. After some years of struggling with supply clergy and working with the diocese, the parish is closing. There are nearby Episcopal churches, but the people feel community and ethos would be lost, and so they’re having one of their own ordained in one of the “independent catholic” jurisdictions. What does one say? Sure, this won’t become endemic in Episcopalian circles for a time yet, but is it the future? And is that a good thing? And, if it’s not, what do we do about it?

  10. Derek Olsen

    That’s an excellent question, Paul. Your description sounds almost exactly like my parish–particularly in a couple of years when our endowment will finally be spent down… It seems like they’re having to make a hard decision about where the heart of their identity is: is it Episcopal or is it in the high sacramental tradition? I do think people will have to wrestle with these questions quite a lot more in the coming years. Endowments are dying, giving is down, full-time calls cannot be sustained at the level we’re currently experiencing. A big piece of what this means is that if we intend for our churches to stay open and have any sort of vitality—spiritually and otherwise—the laity will *have* to step up. Because, otherwise, the alternative is pretty clear…

  11. Jonathan

    This resonates with me, too, although I’ve come to a similar position via an undergraduate degree in religion (which basically meant theology at Wabash) followed by a couple years as a monk. Even those clergy who want to be supportive seem like they have no idea what to do with me. Actually hostile clergy might even be easier to deal with, since I have some idea how to get on with things mostly on my own.

  12. Susan Loomis

    I don’t understand “the clergy don’t know what to do with me?’ Do you know what to do with yourself in the church? Can you teach Sunday School, lead the youth group, teach classes for adults, visit the sick, start a homeless ministry? Is your call as a Christian limited to what you do at the church (and thus maybe controlled by clergy) or are you called to be active in the world outside the church – feeding the poor, helping the homeless? In EfM we study the amazing things the disciples did, and we’re supposed to be doing amazing things in Jesus name. We’re not limited by the blindness of some clergy, but we’re following the light of God.

  13. bls

    Note, though, Susan, what Pope Francis says above about this: 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.

    You bring up what I think is a big problem in TEC, actually: that “being active in the world outside the church” doesn’t seem to include “proclaiming the faith”! Naturally, feeding the poor and helping the homeless are indeed amazing things – but they aren’t the only amazing things. The disciples, as far as I can tell, spent lots of time “proclaiming the faith”; in fact, it happens over and over and over again in the Book of Acts. And to me, this is exactly the thing that we in TEC need work on; we’re already very enthusiastic about helping others in material ways. Derek is interested in helping others understand Christian faith better, so those of us inclined to the charism of teaching (or, perhaps better said, “encouragement”) can better help and encourage others in their faith too. (Speaking as a longtime member of A.A., I can say without hesitation that this is definitely an “amazing thing”; it literally helps save peoples’ lives and their sanity. When people are hurting, “encouragement in faith” is exactly what’s needed.)

    In any case: Derek did say that there were specific issues involved here, so others likely are not going to understand what he’s talking about precisely. I believe, though, that Derek has in fact done many of the things you mention here. He IS a teacher – and a lot of learn an awful lot from him here on this blog!

  14. Jonathan

    My own sense of vocation is deeply tied up with asceticism and questions of how we ought to live and behave if we’re devout Christians. In so far as that has any place in this world it probably belongs in the church, and it is mostly impossible to have any sort of role in the institutional church without getting permission from one clergy person or another. Although there are times when I suspect that “ascetic teacher” is a defunct vocation in the Episcopal Church.

  15. Susan Loomis

    I come from a church (Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church in Sacramento, CA) where the clergy is very supportive of laity doing their own thing, whether it’s leading Centering Prayer groups or being a solitary nun (still in the hands of the Bishop). If you ever move to Sacramento, I’m sure Brian, Lynell and Anne (our paid clergy) would welcome an ascetic teacher with love, encouragement, and a classroom. I’ll put obstructive clergy on my prayer list.

  16. Derek Olsen

    See, “action at the altar” is one of the issues. Part of the clericalization of the laity is a sense that the important people are up front at the altar; ergo, if I want to be important (or be perceived as important) I’ve got to be up front!

    If the heart of the clerical calling is “feed my sheep” there need to be more and different urgings than just a desire to be at the front.

    I think your second case is the logical result of a confusion of lay and clerical roles.

  17. Derek Olsen

    I agree that Scripture and a theological grounding are essential—so much so that I see them as an integral part of a healthy spirituality; I don’t see these as separate. I haven’t been through EfM but I get the sense that you expressed: it’s not perfect, but it’s one of the best tools we currently have going.

  18. Derek Olsen

    Yes, one of the ways that I deal with obstruction from clergy in the parish is by going over their heads, as it were… My teaching, writing, coding on the internet and my service on the SCLM are all ways that I express what I understand as my lay vocation.

  19. Derek Olsen

    Canon III.4 lays out the licensed lay ministries recognized formally by TEC; I find the catechist ministry (III.4.8) particularly interesting and applicable as “ascetic teacher” but I don’t know whether it’s a ministry that dioceses and parishes support… I know that my own diocese doesn’t have guidelines for it.

  20. Derek Olsen

    Susan, you’re fortunate and I’m glad that you have such supportive clergy! Would that more follow in their good example!

  21. Susan Loomis

    What is TEC? Where are the Canons online? I found the Canons for my diocese, but they’re clearly not what you’re talking about.

  22. Susan Loomis

    Sorry about that. My computer is slow and my question your reply didn’t show up until I already posted again because I thought it hadn’t gone through.

  23. Susan Loomis

    John, may I quote a few of your thoughts about EFM in my church newsletter?

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