Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Ministry of the Laity

There has been a lot of talk in the Lutheran Church of Australia for a couple of decades now on the 'ministry of the laity', which has resulted in more lay involvement in the liturgical services of the church, for example reading the lections, praying the general prayer, even, in extreme cases, preaching and presiding at the Lord's Supper (!), which of course is not a practice consonant with our Lutheran confessions and is not officially endorsed by the LCA. Alternatively, the requests have been answered by providing more opportunities for laity to serve in paid positions in the church.

These developments often present as a challenge to perceived clericalism in the church, i.e. the feeling that the church is dominated and controlled by its ordained ministers, but they ironically betray that the proponents are themselves trapped in clericalism, and believe that only work done 'in church' or paid for by the church is 'ministry' done in service to the Lord.

We need to recover the dignity and importance of the 'ministry of the laity' in the proper sense, which is their bearing of the Gospel into the world beyond the walls of the church, and release the church from spending its energy on this debate, which threatens to polarise the church into advocates for increased lay ministry opportunites on one side and defenders of the preaching office from lay encroachment on the other. (I know that some defenders of the preaching office, in defensive mode, will even object to the term 'ministry of the laity' altogether. I share their desire to guard the God-given office of the ordained ministry, but I submit that, properly understood and defined so as not to impinge upon the office and functions of the ordained ministry, there is no objection to the use of this term in principle. If the Catholic Church can live with the term 'the apostolate of the laity', then surely we can live with 'the ministry of the laity', understood in the sense that the laity really do have a vital share in the Gospel ministry of the church in their own sphere of life and activity in the world. I also note that even the Orthodox Churches have adopted the term 'lay ministry' in English-speaking contexts.)

This morning I read an essay by the German theologian Peter Brunner, a particularly clear and incisive thinker, in which he gives this summary in point form of the calling of the laity as it relates to the tasks of proclaiming the Gospel and administering the sacraments in the world:

1. Personal missionary witness in the individual's social context
2. Personal confession of faith in private and public life, esp. in times of persecution
3. Instruction in the household by father and mother
4. Daily devotions in the home
5. Mutual conversation and consolation in the Gospel with other Christians
6. Congregational proclamation of the Gospel in psalms and hymns of praise
7. Administration of Baptism in emergencies
8. Participation in the Lord's Supper and proclamation of Lord's death by it
9. Extraordinary missionary witness should a Christian find himself in a place where no other Christians exist, as if called to be a missionary.

It is no secret that, at the same time as calls for increased lay involvement in 'church work' have been becoming more strident in our church, the areas mentioned in points 1 through 5 have suffered neglect among us. We need to teach and recover the ministry of the laity as outlined above before everyone becomes 'a minister' but there is no-one left to minister to.

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