(This is Neil.)
Please keep the Anglican Communion in your prayers.
I would like to reflect on the concept of the laity with a paper by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, originally delivered at a 1998 conference meant to foster Christian dialogue between the East and West and subsequently published in Religion, State & Society. He begins his discussion of laos with 1 Peter 2:10: “Once you were not a people; but now you are the people of God.”
Evidently, then, the Church is meant to be something like an ethnic or linguistic group. This might not sound terribly promising, for we can hardly avoid newspaper stories about the bloody toll of various nationalisms and sectarianisms. But that’s just the point. Archbishop Williams, following William Stringfellow, suggests that the Church is called to be a holy nation that reveals the idolatry of worldly nations based on exclusion and that clearly shows what a nation bound to universal justice might actually look like.
The Church follows its calling when it stands with victims, because its solidarity with the marginalized and forgotten is a testimony that God has triumphed over the powers and principalities that seemingly justify their exclusion. When the Church stands with victims, it does so in gratitude that God has taken it beyond the powers and beyond death itself. This gratitude leads to praise, and the Church, besides being the “exemplary nation,” is also “the priest of nations.”
The layperson participates in God’s defeat of death in Jesus Christ. This might mean any number of practical actions undertaken for the sake of the kingdom. But Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom was inseparable from his own self-offering. The layperson must likewise “offer up” in every situation that he or she will be in, always ready to discover and offer praise to the God who is present even in the midst of cruelty and hatred.
The Christian member of the laos will attentively “name” God’s words as they have been spoken in creation, and, with attentiveness, “make concrete their interconnection in the human project of building a reconciled world through history.” Archbishop Williams writes, “The speech of the believer becomes the attempt to allow God’s word to be heard, the word that is at the ground of the sufferer’s being, and, by letting it be heard, to begin to weave it closer into the broad pattern of a reconciled world, where the words of created diversity are brought back into harmony with the true and single Word of God which is eternal.” The layperson, says Williams, following Orthodox theologians, is thus a priest of creation uncovering “the truth of the created order in the light of heavenly vision.”
This is nothing less than a “responsibility” (Dumitru Staniloae), even if it is never easy.
The layperson will surely materially help the marginalized of the world (how could it be otherwise?), but, in listening to their “word” and praising the God who – triumphant over death – is found even in the worst of times, he or she also represents these victims before God. The layperson has an intercessory role. Archbishop Williams, following Dom Gregory Dix, notes that in early liturgies the laity would actually bring the bread and wine to be presented to the Father. Of course, the priest is essential in enabling the laity to intercede – whether through offering the bread and wine with the faithful, or by receiving and voicing their petitions. Regarding the prayer of the Church, Fr Dumitru Staniloae said that “the priest assembles and concentrates the community.” But, as Archbishop Williams writes, “The sacramental transformation is, crucially, the work of the laos in its entirety, beginning in the involvement and advocacy of daily experience, the opening of situations to the articulating of God’s victory.”
Rowan Williams continues,
The central theological paradox is that understanding what it is to be a ‘layperson,’ a citizen of the Christian nation, is inseparable from understanding what it means to call the Church as a whole ‘priestly,’ a community existing to speak for the world, to undertake the task of representation. This task of offering, speaking, connecting, this ministry of advocacy and intercession, is the essential characteristic of the lay vocation.
Obviously, it is a mistake, then, to suggest that the measure of the laity is the extent to which they are called to participate in the specific tasks of the clergy. It is also a mistake to suggest that the laity are simply meant to spread the faith in areas where the clergy is unable to venture. While the laity might have some apologetic function, their main task is to “‘bear’ the world Godwards in Christ.” Lay spirituality cannot be restricted to learning how to perform certain parish tasks or defend the faith, but must involve a deep “formation in prayer, in the ‘skill’ of abiding in that movement Godwards that is the movement of Christ to the Father – what Dix, in one of his greatest passages, called the one coming of Christ in time and eternity, ‘the bringing of man, the creature of time, to the Ancient of Days, in eternity.’”
I suppose that the obvious thing to ask is how to do this in on a weblog …