Sacraments in danger in the Church of England?

Angela Tilby: Ministry that is lay-led is not Anglican



The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, speaks in a YouTube video about the proposed diocesan framework

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.


The question being addresed here by the Revd. Angela Tilby (Church Times) is one which has been preoccupying members of our Mother Church of England ever since ther announcment of ‘10,000 Lay-Led Churches’ in that country, which is the brainchild of a clergy member of the GAFCON Group, who still occupies a parochial post in the C. of E.

Angela addresses – quite rightly, I think – a situation where the role of the traditional parishes will be somewhat sidelined in a push to create new lay-led para-churches, which will become the well-spring of a planned ‘revival’ of the Church of England.

Not suprisingly, considering the ethos of the ‘10.000 Churches’ progenitor (someone one feels may just have conned the leadership of the Church of England with his notion of Evangelical Fervour for fundamentalistic religion like that practised by the leaders of the separatist GAFCON movement) there are people, like Angela in the Church of England, who fear a sort of take-over bid from a breed of Christians who do not value highly enough the threefold ministry of the traditiional Church of England.

One of GAFCON’s greatest advocates is the Archbishop of Sydney , in Australia, whose ideas of Lay- Presidency at the Eucharist – though not yet broadly advocated anongst the GAFCON leadership in other countries – are seriously being considered, in a diocese where women clergy, for instance, are unwelcome and a defining theology of ‘Sola Scriptura’ is still the order of the day. Sydney cathedral has become a place where the use of the pulpit generally takes precedence over the sacramental rites around the altar – a situation which does not resonate with classic Anglicanism.

While the ordained priesthood, per se, is only one of the ministries of the Church found in the New Testament Scriptures; tradition has – certainly in the post-Reformation Church of England – always upheld and valued the unique services of the priest, as convenor of the sacramental life of the Church. Without that distinct element of service, the Body of Christ would be unable to fully function as is has hitherto for most of its recorded history. The Laity are equally important in the many ministries open to them and, indeed , in some places must be encouraged to do more of what they are called to do. However, lay people are not expected – in the catholic tradition we are heirs to – to preside at the celebration of the Eucharist, which sacramental action Jesus pointed to as being necessary to feed the Body of Christ – “Do This to remember Me”.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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