What are the Laity for?

(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 …


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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17 Responses to What are the Laity for?

  1. Fred says:


    I would agree that the mission of the laity is not shown primarily through participation in the tasks of the pastor or bishop. Also, I agree that prayer is crucial to any Christian endeavor.

    But baptism and confirmation indicate that the lay person announce the nearness and the mercy of Christ to everyone that they meet (the highways and byways). This means embracing the spirit of the ever-greater call to follow Christ and using it as a criteria for making decisions. The lay person does this in deeds and words that spring from a life lived in Christ. The laity bear the task of mediating between the Church and the world.

    Dorothy Day, Mark & Louise Zwick, and Jean Vanier come to mind when I think of this lay ideal.


  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fred,

    Thanks for your generous message. You are absolutely right to say that the laity shares Christ’s mission. But the question, as Rowan Williams says, is “what the mission moves into.” The Archbishop says that it is “not only the sending of Christ into the world, but the representing and bearing of the world to the father.” Thus, the laity also has a vocation to become priests within creation. Williams suggests that this intercessory role is underdeveloped in Balthasar.

    Perhaps I can cautiously give an example. I am sure that Jean Vanier announces the nearness and mercy of Christ to the handicapped. This is, needless to say, very important. But, in a small meeting, Vanier once said, “I wonder whether that is anything close to a dream I have – the whole of the history of Christianity is culminated in Arthur” (Arthur is the physically and mentally handicapped son of the theologian Frances Young.)

    We might say, then, that part of Vanier’s vocation is to recognize God’s word in Arthur, make it comprehensible to others, and show its relationship to nothing less than “whole of the history of Christianity.”

    This is what some Orthodox theologians have spoken about as the “priestliness of the human task as such”: in Williams’ words, “to uncover the truth of the created order in the light of heavenly vision.”

    Does this make sense?

    Thanks again.


  3. Fred says:

    Thank you for your response, Neil.

    I haven’t seen Williams’ criticism of Balthasar, but it’s funny that you should mention him. I’ve been reading and posting from his work, The Laity and the Life of the Counsels.

    What you say here about the priestly role of the laity and what Williams says about the representative role of the laity both coincide closely with some things that Balthasar has written.

    For example: “Without treading too close to the genuine and full sacrament of confession, which only the priest is permitted to mediate, one might ask oneself to what extent a Christian doctor, judge, or teacher might claim that the quodammodo sacramentalis of St. Thomas’ formulation applied to his Christian mediation to God too, when he receives the disclosure of other people’s consciences.” This passage comes from Balthasar’s article, “The Layman and the Church” collected in Explorations in Theology II: the Spouse of the Word, p 323. Now, this quasisacramental participation is a sharing in the ministerial level of the Church, like the ability to baptise in case of emergency.

    But moving beyond the sharing in the ministerial, the lay person has a task in the world as well: “The duty of the layman, after his own sanctification, is the portrayal of what is holy in the realm of the profane, the realization of the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this world. Only, he must not forget that, until the end of the world, this realization will not take the form of a straight line, but can come about only through Cross, tribulation, persecution, and martyrdom” (Ibid, 327).

    Your example of Jean Vanier and Adam is one close to my heart. Vanier’s proclamation of the nearness of God is rooted in his own recognition of the presence of God and His mercy in Adam. Actively embracing the fact of God among us, Vanier proclaims this fact to the world through his tenderness toward Adam. Proclamation and offering are just as inseperable in life as they are in the Mass, or in the life of Jesus. The spirit of the counsels, which Balthasar refers to as “a life held in readiness for God,” are the good soil that fosters this openess to God who comes to meet us as we come toward Him.

    “To uncover the truth of the created order in the light of heavenly vision” – an apt description of the Magnificat and the Beatitudes. Such is to realize the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this world.


  4. Neil says:

    Dear Fred,

    Thanks again for writing and especially for including Balthasar’s phrase about the “portrayal of what is holy in the realm of the profane.” As you probably know, Williams admires Balthasar a great deal (he has translated some of Balthasar into English and written a very good article comparing Balthasar and Rahner). I think that, here, he felt that Balthasar’s thought on the role of the laity, while in some respects commendable, was a bit unidirectional: the clergy are “emissaries” from Christ who then “send” out the laity to the world.

    Williams seemingly feels that some differences in the theology of the ordained ministry and anthropology between East and West lets Orthodox (and perhaps Eastern Catholic) theologians emphasize the priestly role of the laity.

    But perhaps this does not have to be so. Does Balthasar expand on the idea of “the portrayal of what is holy in the realm of the profane” with concrete examples? Although his mention of quasisacramental participation is very interesting – not least for ecumenical purposes, it seems like an extraordinary thing (as you put it “like the ability to baptise in case of emergency”).

    Thanks for writing.


  5. Fred says:


    The quasi-sacramental level happens every day for teachers, doctors, etc. It’s a participation in the ministerial function of the Church and so acts as preparation for it, defers to it, etc. In the Crusades, men confessed to each other in the absence of priests; lay monks heard confessions for hundreds of years (spiritual direction with nuns or lay people would fall here too). But, I can think of nothing worse at the present time than for lay people to set out shingles to hear confessions! Such confession is not definitive and sacramental and lacks the protections of sacramental confession. It happens in private conversations, but it should never take ritual form (I laugh to remember Shelly’s confession to the radio host on Northern Exposure!).

    Here’s the part that immediately follows the quote on the “portrayal of the holy”:
    “One could take the Christian artist as the archetype of the layman – not because his activity is essentially different from the rest of the laity but because it is possible to use it as an image of the working of the layman. The one who builds a church must portray that which is holy, supernatural, and heavenly with the media of earthly material and worldly technique; indeed, he must help the church itself to arrive at a form, for the church and for the world around that looks at it. Apart from all considerations of necessity and utility, he must make visible the dimension of beauty that belongs to the truth, a dimension that does not find sufficient expression in the conceptual formula alone and yet must play a decisive role in the mystery of the Incarnation. Beauty belongs together with freedom; the duty to protect it belongs therefore less to the ministry and its obligations than to the realm of the living act of giving structure that is carried out by the laity.”
    Balthasar then says that this image of church artisan is too narrow, but that the same dynamics apply everywhere and that one cannot draw the line between member within the Church and representative of the Church in the world: e.g. Bach, Mozart.

    Rahner and Balthasar are too complex and nuanced for the combox, but I do see Williams’ critique as a bit unfair, a kind of ecclesiastical ax-grinding. In “The Layman and the Church,” which I’ve been quoting from, Balthasar outlines 3 levels to the Church: the supraministerial, the ministerial, and the subministerial. This outline alone could give Williams a basis for his critique, but only if one denies the essential structure of the Catholic Church. The supraministerial level is the eternal-temporal event of the Incarnation; the ministerial level is the way that the Incarnation continues in time; the subministerial is the goal of the first two levels, the mission to the world.

    For Catholics, the lay mission has a sacramental ground: baptism, confirmation, marriage, confession, etc. Balthasar says, for example, that “the sacraments are Christ’s guarantee that the grace of his Incarnation is always available in its heavenly, incomprehensible fullness, without alteration or reduction or accomodation to the narrow subjectivity of men” (325).

    Balthasar makes it clear, however, that nobody can mediate the work of the lay person – specialization makes such mediation impossible even if it were desirable (which it isn’t).

    No, the lay person has the possibility for a direct following of Christ in the counsels (either literally or by analogy). The counsels form the renunciation that make our stewardship of the world Christian. Here’s Balthasar again: “The fullness of the subjective imitation of Christ lies in the counsels, and life in the counsels is subject to a guarantee by the Founder of the Church that is no less objective than his guarantee of the fullness of the objective powers of the hierarchy (Mt. 19 and parallels).

    A nonclericalized state of the counsels would offer the best guarantee of a balanced, living equilibrium. But even this could be only the leaven that disappears, the grain of wheat that dissolves in death, and the fruit that would arise (to the extent that this can be visible) would have to be observed in the layman with family and possessions and the right to make dispositions, and indeed in the non-Christian world that surrounds him” (331).

    In a remarkable article (which is based on Balthasar), Cardinal Ratzinger said that the life of the counsels first arose as a lay guarantee of the apostolicity of the Church (see The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements, pdf) – now that’s ecumenical potential! Now, one need not formally belong to a movement, etc, to do this, but the purpose of movements is to promote this awareness throughout the Church. I think of Dag Hammarskjold, for example.

    Balthasar’s understanding of the laity no doubt owes a great deal to his study of Eastern Christian patristics.


  6. Neil says:

    Dear Fred,

    I’m not sure if I have been clear. I agree that the laity share in the mission of Christ and must seek holiness, as you have movingly described. But, along with Williams, I would want to suggest that the mission of the laity involves “not only the sending of Christ into the world, but the representing and bearing of the world to the Father.” Williams suggests that this theme is underdeveloped in Balthasar (not that Balthasar would necessarily reject it).

    You point to two things in Balthasar:

    1. Certain teachers and doctors who can hear confessions, as a form “preparation” for confession to a priest.

    2. “The one who builds a church” and perhaps others involved in the making of “high art.” (Of course, we should note that aesthetics has had a theological significance in German thought. Balthasar, to the best of my knowledge, never writes about more popular forms of art, whether making furniture, folk music, or even the novels of Dickens.)

    These examples, while being interesting, are still rather extraordinary and do not show how the vast majority of Christian laypersons, in ordinary situations, might actually “represent and bear the world to the Father.”

    One more thing: I don’t think that Williams, who likes Balthasar very much, is criticizing the “essential structure of the Catholic Church.” I think that he is pointing to the theological emphasis in the East on the priest as acting in union with the laity, especially when he recites the epiclesis. This makes it easier to say, as does the great Romanian theologian Staniloae, that the “the priest assembles and concentrates the community,” so that the priest’s vocation does not overshadow the vocation of the laity, but intensifies it.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


  7. Fred says:

    Thank you, Neil.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, not only about the laity in Balthasar, but also with regard to high vs. low art – another distinction that Balthasar never makes and that is totally foreign to his works.

    Take care,

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Fred,

    Thanks. I’m sorry if I don’t seem to understand Balthasar. I will keep reading him, though. Incidentally, my “high art vs. low art” comment is one that has been made by Nicholas Boyle about Balthasar, if you are interested.

    But, once again, thank you.


  9. Todd says:

    A few tidbits to add from the periphery:

    Williams’ suggestion of laity “representing and bearing of the world to the Father” describes a priestly function. It would seem well within the sphere of a priesthood of the baptized for lay people to take on this function. The ordained priest also does this, but primarily in a ritual way, as a liturgical representation of the baptized.

    I would suggest that the simple action of intercessory prayer, which really anyone can do, even a non-believer, falls within the scope of what we’re talking about.

    I would trust a contemplative (either in cloister or in the world) to intercede with God in bringing a certain consciousness of the world in a striking and profound way.

    On the point of non-sacramental confession, I point to the example of the Twelve Step movement as a wholly lay development in the practice of contrition, repentance, confession, and renewal. It is likely that many Catholics find the experience of AA to be more profound, more fruitful, even more grace filled than Reconciliation form I.

    The difference I see between confessing to a lay person is that there is no Roman Catholic, “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on such actions. Yet many Catholics (and non-believers, too) embrace the uncertainty of an experience that gives them a clear, community-discerned, instance of grace.

    Rather than see that as an attack on clerical authority or image or on the sacramental system, I would see it as a positive challenge for the Church. What is it that the laity are doing through AA and its sister disciplines that give many people that sense of reconciliation? A sense deep enough for them to forego the guarantees and seals of a sacramental system.

  10. Fred says:

    thanks for the Nicholas Boyle reference. Balthasar took novels seriously: including those of Bernanos and those of Charles Williams. He took drama seriously, from opera, to Shakespeare, to Corneille – all in their time, transient, pop forms. Dante and Peguy both wrote poetry that was distinctively of a common flavor in their time. Boyle’s statement would seem to say more about his background than about Balthasar.

    Breaking out of this combox, I’ve posted my own synthesis of Balthasar’s take on the laity:

    Thomas Aquinas defended lay confession long before Balthasar. And yet the soldiers who confessed to each other on the battlefield in necessity did not scorn sacramental confession. The challenge is this: why has confession become merely a pious act that has nothing to do with the lived experience of Catholics? The same question could be asked regarding the Eucharist, marriage, baptism (which in theory makes us priests, prophets, and kings).

  11. Pingback: What are the Laity For? (Part II) « Catholic Sensibility

  12. Todd says:

    Fred, I’d be cautious about attributing “scorn” to some of the ambivalence on sacramental confession. Some people may have found that AA just works better in terms of the lived experience. The experience of grace in AA is something that, yes, is often lacking in the pious-only approach. Though there is a degree of grace, though perhaps we are less cooperative about it in those circumstances.

    And yes, any sacrament, including orders, could be the source of a needed examination for Catholics and their sacramental understandings.

  13. Fred says:

    Forgive me, Todd, but I did not mean to imply that those who have found AA to be helpful scorn sacramental confession. I only meant to make the observation that many Catholics (devout, pious, or not) find little connection between their lived experience and Confession. I certainly recognize the grace that moves in AA and elsewhere. As Bernanos’s priest said, “Tout est grâce”


  14. Todd says:

    Fred, yes. On that point I totally agree. I’d like to see it change, of course, but I think we have a long road ahead on that score.

  15. Liam says:

    I was doing some research about the Laity and I tried this webpage, but you guys don’t seem to get to the point, what is the Laity 25-words-or-less?
    Please, just quickly.


  16. Liam says:

    Btw folks that not Liam Prime….

  17. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing. Sorry about all of the words. In my original post, I was trying to emphasize the intercessory role of the laity (the “people of God”). So, in about thirty words:

    The layperson will materially help the marginalized of the world, but, in listening to their “word” and praising the God who is found even in the worst of times, she also represents these victims before God.

    Fred, I think, has a slightly different emphasis (but it isn’t one that I would oppose). In about thirty words, I think that Fred would say:

    The lay person announces the nearness and the mercy of Christ to everyone that they meet (the highways and byways). This means embracing the spirit of the ever-greater call to follow Christ and using it as a criteria for making decisions.

    Needless to say, there are many implications to these thirty word segments. But we don’t have to get into that now.

    Does this help?


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