In the over-clericalized Church of England, the laity are often ignored but they have always had a vital role in the church, as Andy Hawes explains

The day after my ordination as a priest, I was walking down Haycroft Street in Grimsby when Kate Parkin came towards me carrying two enormous shopping bags full of allotment produce. We came face to face and stopped. She put her bags on the floor and took hold of my hands in hers; she knelt on the pavement and kissed each hand in turn. “There’s great power in the priesthood, Father, great power.’ She stood up, picked up her bags and walked on.

I never said a word except to myself – “There’s great power in the laity, Kate, great power.’ I cannot be the only priest who has learnt more theology and spirituality from the laity than I ever did in the Divinity Faculty.

I have known some very godly priests and one or two godly bishops, but I have known and know scores of Christ-like laity. It is rather typical of the contemporary Anglican scene that it is terminally clericalized. The whole liberal agenda is largely about ordained ministry. It is the lobbying of seven hundred women clergy that makes a difference; eight-and-a-half thousand lay-women are ignored.

It is so tragic because the glory of the Anglican Church is its laity. It is by the laity that the church might be saved from wilful destruction by clergy.

A vital role

The English Reformation achieved many things and one was the development of an informed and active laity; not only active in the practical management of the church but also in the practice of the faith. Despite the recent Roman Catholic readings in English reformation history arguing that Tudor Catholic piety was in rude health, the evidence is that the reformed church produced vigorous lay movements affecting everything from politics to the arts.

The office of churchwarden being an elected lay office answerable to the diocesan bishop does not exist in any other tradition. Even now the churchwarden can wield enormous influence for good or ill. A praying, thinking, serving churchwarden is far more valuable to a parish than a vicar.

A churchwarden often can stand between a hopeless or misguided priest and the people of the parish. Many readers will have experienced the powerful ministry of churchwardens, many of whom have maintained worship and pastoral care despite clergy and not because of them.

In the same way the Parochial Church Council gives the highest dignity to the laity. The operation of the PCC is only checked in the insistence of canon law that the incumbent must be chairman. Clergy may complain that lay people on the PCC are no more than a veto mechanism, but these are often clergy who devalue the role of laity as a matter of course. It is time the laity realized that it is they who foot the bill!

Outstanding apologists

The Church of England (particularly the Catholic tradition) has nurtured some outstanding Christian apologists – even if some, like Chesterton, took the road to Rome. We can think of the ‘inklings’; Charles Williams, CS. Lewis and Tolkien (who was RC and was never as direct about his faith as the others).

We remember Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Underhill and T.S. Elliot. Even recent generations have thrown up ‘leading lay people’. John Gummer and Anne Widdecombe come to mind; and the past fifteen years for them demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church does not make the same room for laity as does the CofE. Christina Rees would not exist if she were a Roman Catholic!

I say to the lay readers of this magazine – do not let yourself be ignored or belittled; you have a title; it is the ‘People of God’. In baptism Christ has claimed you as his own.

To quote St Paul, ‘you have received the grace of God; do not let it go for nothing.’ With you lies the spiritual heritage of our nation, by your prayer and witness you can haul us all back from the brink.