Sharing the garden: collaborative ministry and the role of lay people


Speakers from three Christian traditions reflected on the history and theology that shape their understanding of ministry at last month’s sellout Open House conference.

Receptive ecumenism is a process of ecclesiastical learning which asks what we can learn with integrity from other traditions. Professor Paul Murray and his colleagues at the University of Durham have developed the concept as a way of enabling Christian traditions to become more than they currently are by learning from or receiving each other’s gifts.1 November’s Open House conference provided a glimpse of the rich possibilities of such an approach.

Three distinguished speakers considered the role of lay people in church governance against a backdrop of falling church membership and ordinations. Are we in the business of managing decline, asked Anglican priest and theologian David Jasper, or can we turn the process into a visionary one where the sharp division between lay and ordained is blurred but reviewed with theological and spiritual clarity? The future of the church is not going to be like the past in its governance; this means a radical review of what we actually mean by terms like priest, minister and laity. He recalled Newman’s insight that in order to remain the same, we have to be prepared to change.

Dr Helen Costigane, a religious sister who teaches canon law at Heythrop College, University of London, opened the conversation with an account of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the role of lay people in church governance. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, sometimes described as the final document of the Second Vatican Council, gives legal expression to the conciliar vision of lay participation in the life and mission of the Church.

Vatican II opened up many avenues for lay people which, arguably, have not yet been fully realised. Although the Council did not develop a single ecclesiology of the laity, several themes emerged, including the fundamental equality of all Christ’s faithful by reason of baptism. The Council spoke of the gifts of the faithful, from which arises the right and duty to use them in the Church and the world. Those in authority are to discern and encourage gifts so that all can co-operate in the Church’s mission.

The Code lists rights and duties which belong to all the faithful, including the right to a theological education. A lay person can be appointed parish coordinator, diocesan chancellor, financial manager or tribunal judge and can serve on parish finance committees. Lay people ‘of good standing’ may be consulted on the appointment of bishops. In the USA, an estimated 25% of diocesan chancellors and 80% of lay ecclesial ministers are women. But take-up varies widely.

Why, Helen asked, is there not greater participation of lay people? Finance is a key issue with voluntary income falling as congregations dwindle and financial markets remain volatile.

Another issue is attitudes to leadership. Imagine your parish priest were a dog, Helen said: how would he react if you wanted to enter his garden? He might bite; let you in if you remember who’s in charge; allow you to cut the grass but keep an eye on you; invite you to look after the garden because you’re more competent; or invite you, in the spirit of collaborative leadership, to share the garden. There is evidence that some parishes, despite canon law requirements, do not have a finance committee and some parish councils simply rubber stamp parish priests’ decisions. Helen pointed to evidence that consultative processes can be used effectively if decision making is understood as a process and not a one off event. Is the question whether lay people should make decisions, or is it about quality of consultation?

Like all law, canon law requires interpretation. Canon 129 states that ‘those in sacred orders are, in accordance with the provisions of law, capable of the power of governance… This power is called the power of jurisdiction’. But it adds that ‘lay members of Christ’s faithful can co-operate in the exercise of this same power in accordance with the law’. Some would say that the power of jurisdiction is bound up with the power of orders, and lay people should not be admitted to certain roles (keep out of the garden). Others might speak of collaboration, but with grudging admission of lay people. Others would see the power of orders and jurisdiction as separate, and argue that lay people can exercise it when canonically commissioned to do so. Others would go even further and say that canonical mission simply appoints the person to a specific role and area of ministry, the qualification for which is based not on a distinction between lay and ordained, but on professional competency.

Helen made three suggestions. That lay involvement should not just happen because someone is a lay person, but because they are ‘competent, informed, reflective and articulate, rooted in the life and tradition of the Church’. That we should revisit and reword Canon 129. And that we should look again at our history: correspondence with St Cyprian in the 3rd century indicates lay people participating in election of bishops, appointment of clergy, conciliar decision making and reconciliation of the lapsed.

Scottish Episcopal Church
In response, David Jasper, Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow and Anglican priest for nearly 40 years, set out the canons of the Scottish Episcopal Church which have given lay people an active role in governance at all levels for many years, and highlighted some of the challenges the church now faces.

The vestry, a largely elected lay body, governs the local congregation. Clergy are bound to consult lay people on any significant changes they want to introduce. Dioceses are governed by a Synod which consists of bishop, clergy and lay people, who have a voice in the election of bishops. Recent changes in charity law, which increase the power of representative lay governance, have introduced tension between the Canonical Church and the Charitable Body. Church management has become increasingly complex, requiring skilled staff to reconcile the business and mission of the church.

David pointed out that the wording of ordination is ambiguous as to the role and function of the priest, whose calling includes leading people in prayer and worship. He recalled that the Reformation roots of the Anglican Communion, of which the Scottish Episcopal Church is a member, include translations of the Bible into English, precisely to undermine the authority of the priestly, sacerdotal power of the Church. Today, in some places, the Reserved Sacrament may be consecrated once a month by a visiting priest and the rest of the time the liturgy is conducted by lay people. This has prompted discussion on the meaning of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and its implications for our understanding of ordained clergy.

He quoted Cardinal Newman that the laity should be consulted ‘because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because the consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church’. The same spirit, David said, can be found in an early ecumenical publication of the Joint Liturgy Group of 1965. The Renewal of Worship affirms that the private prayers of church members ought to be a preparation for and continuance of the prayers of the community, not something done for them by priest and minister, but something which they are doing. What the laity do in their lives of prayer is fundamental to the life of the Church as a whole. Without it there is no church.

He noted that today lay people often take funerals and make house visits and may have more pastoral experience than some priests; they are redefining the nature of church. It will not be long, he thought, before the slightly patronising idea that lay people can be entrusted with pastoral responsibilities for the care of souls might be turned around.

The issue is not just one of increased levels of lay participation. The Episcopal Church today, he suggested, is living on borrowed time, with perhaps ten years left financially. It suffers from ‘delusions of relevance’, its public debates often irrelevant to many. We can move the deckchairs around until the money runs out; or we can take a radical view of what we actually mean by terms like priest, minister and laity.

Church of Scotland
Very Rev Sheilagh Kesting, the first woman minister to become Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, focussed on the gifts of the church community. She stressed the Church of Scotland’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. We are all the people of God, laos. Differences emerge in our approaches to governance.

She recalled that the Church of Scotland’s history was ridden with strife about patronage. The right of the congregation to call a minister is paramount and it is also responsible for electing elders from among its numbers. During the Reformation period, leaders
from within the congregation were chosen to look after the spiritual needs of the people along with the minister, and were ordained by him for this purpose. The role of elder evolved to curb the power of the clergy, and together they form the Kirk Session.

Today elders are the trustees of the congregation, each congregation being a separate charity. Sheilagh shared the view of Marjory Maclean, who spoke of the many gifts to be found in the church. She wanted to free up the way they are used – ordination is for leaders, whose function is ‘steering of the church and structuring of her means’. Others should be appointed to tasks like visiting the old and frail, ensuring the church is welcoming, and handling property and money.

At regional level there is the Presbytery, with equal numbers of clergy and ministers. Elders can be elected Moderator of the Presbytery in recognition that the role of moderating is one of chairing – a gift that may be given to an elder. The same applies to the General Assembly, the highest decision making body, where there are equal numbers of clergy and elders, and where elders can be elected Moderator. The first to be elected Moderator was a woman, Alison Elliot.

The Church of Scotland has had women elders since 1966 and women minsters since 1968. The decision was taken on theological grounds, drawing on the doctrine of creation that we are made in the image of God, male and female; on the community of Christ in which divisions of gender no longer apply; and on the stories of the women who surrounded Jesus. Sheilagh recalled that when Mary Lusk made history by petitioning the General Assembly to become a minister in 1963, she did so on the basis that she felt called by God to the Ministry of
Word and Sacrament, and asked the Church to test her call. God can call whoever God chooses.

The diaconate began in 1887 as an order for women (deaconesses), who served the church full time in a supportive role to the minister. Today the diaconate is open to women and men. Their calling is still to serve the church in whatever capacity they are needed and, as members of the Kirk Session, they have a role to play in governance. They serve as chaplains, social workers, community workers and parish assistants.

Sheilagh concluded that lay people, in theory at least, have a significant role in the Church. There is a growing emphasis on identifying gifts and using them appropriately so that only those gifted in leadership and discerning the gifts of others are involved in governance at all levels. As the number of parish ministers is set to reach a critical point in 10-15 years’ time, the role of elders and deacons, she suggested, will become increasingly significant.

Discussion throughout the day reflected a deep desire for change in the Catholic Church. Helen Costigane offered a final reflection of what had been said.

We must make best use of talents: how do we identify them and empower people? We must keep looking at structures of formation: are
they appropriate? What models of leadership are we using? Are lay people plugging gaps or undertaking roles in their own right? Catholics have much to learn about consultation and communication from the Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland. We need to ask if our structures are still fit for purpose.

See here for the full text of speakers’ talks
1 Paul D Murray (ed) Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning OUP 2010

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.