What are the Laity For? (Part III)

(This is Neil.) I’m grateful for all the comments to Part II of this series, if I may call it that. I promise Jimmy Mac that we will get a chance to examine the thoughts of some lay theologians on the subject of the laity, which after all does sound appropriate. Bernard Brandt suggested that we look at the reflections of the late Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann and I’d like to briefly do that here. Fr Schmemann’s “Clergy and Laity in the Orthodox Church” is online (a citation is not provided but I assume that it is a copy of an article originally appearing in Orthodox Life in 1959).

Fr Schmemann begins by helpfully reminding us that “lay” should not be defined as the opposite of “clergy” or as a negation, the lack of position in the church. A layperson is a member of the laos – the “people of God” chosen by God “to be his particular instrument in history, to fulfill His plan, to prepare above everything else, the coming of Christ, the Savior of the World.” In this sense, “the whole Church is the laity.”

The layperson should not be seen as one lacking ordination. Fr Schmemann notes that the Sacrament of Chrismation “gives us the positive power and grace to be Christians, to act as Christians, to build together the Church of God and be responsible participants in the life of the Church.” In this sacrament, he says, it is prayed that the recipient be “an honorable member of God’s Church,” “a consecrated vessel,” “a child of light,” and “an heir of God’s kingdom.” Furthermore, it is prayed that “having preserved the gift of the Holy Spirit and increased the measure of grace committed to him, he may receive the prize of his high calling and be numbered with the first borne whose names are written in heaven.”

Fr Schmemann goes on to deem it a rather “serious error” to think that the laity is not meant to be active in the liturgy. I would like to quote most of an excellent paragraph:

The Christian term for worship is leitourgia which means precisely a corporate, common, all embracing action in which all those who are present are active participants. All prayers in the Orthodox Church are always written in terms of the plural we. We offer, we pray, we thank, we adore, we enter, we ascend, we receive. The layman is in a very direct way the co-celebrant of the priest, the latter offering to God the prayers of the Church, representing all people, speaking on their behalf. One illustration of this co-celebration may be helpful; the word Amen, to which we are so used, that we really pay no attention to it. And yet it is a crucial word. No prayer, no sacrifice, no blessing is ever given in the Church without being sanctioned by the Amen which means an approval, agreement, participation. To say Amen to anything means that I make it mine, that I give my consent to it … And “Amen” is indeed the Word of the laity in the Church, expressing the function of the laity as the People of God, which freely and joyfully accepts the Divine offer, sanctions it with its consent. There is really no service, no liturgy without the Amen of those who have been ordained to serve God as community, as Church.

Fr Schmemann then speaks of the clergy. Etymologically speaking, the word “clergy” comes from “clerus,” which simply means “part of God.” But this means that the whole Church is “clergy”: “O God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance” (kleronomia, or “clergy” in Greek). The Church is God’s “part” or inheritance. The specific members of the clergy, then, are simply those who have a “special function” to perpetuate within the Church “the Grace of God, the Teaching of God, the commandments of God, the saving and healing power of God” that makes the Church “the special People or Part of God.” The priests represent “nothing else than the ‘Power’ of the Church, of which they are members and not any specific ‘clerical’ power.”

Fr Schmemann ends by giving us a list of five errors to be avoided:

Democracy should not be uncritically applied to the Church. Schmemann is clear when he writes, “Democracy is the greatest and noblest idea of the human community.” But the Church is not a human community that is at liberty to control its own structure, dogma, liturgy or ethics with a vote or other political process.

We should not embrace some sort of “clericalism as absolute power for which the priest has no account to give.” “In fact, the priest in the Orthodox Church must be ready to explain his every opinion, decision or statement, to justify them not only ‘formally’ by a reference to a canon or rule, but spiritually as true, saving and according to the will of God.” This is because, while we must be obedient to God, our obedience must be free.

We should not claim possession of Church property as ours in any sense. It belongs to God’s and any decision concerning it must be made by “searching out the will of God.”

The priest should not be considered an employee. Claiming to own a priest’s service is dangerously close to attempting to buy grace or salvation. The money given to a priest is simply meant to free him for the work of God. Furthermore, the priest is a member of the Church, a participant in Church decisions not simply a contractor.

We should not oppose the spiritual to the material, as though the spiritual were “clerical” and the material the sphere of the “laity.” The spiritual is simply not distinct from the material. The meaning of the Incarnation, of course, was “to spiritualize all matter, to make all things spiritually meaningful, related to God.”

Comments are always welcome.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to What are the Laity For? (Part III)

  1. Fred says:

    I appreciate Schmemann’s emphasis on the commonality of laity and clergy.

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    Neil: thanks for not blowing this topic. BTW, my original request was for lay theologians’ thoughts on “what are the CLERGY for?”

    I’ll lurk now and wait for the opportunity to learn.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Fred and Jimmy Mac,

    Thanks for writing. I’ll post something about what some lay theologian or the other thinks about the clergy when I find something.

    If anyone else wishes to direct me to anything else on this topic, I’d be grateful.

    By all means, keep the conversation going …


  4. I don’t know how much of a theologian I am, but I did an essay a few years back on the role of the clergy in the body of Christ. I’d be happy either to find it, or to rewrite it.

    It’s title, by the way, was and is “The Blood is the Life”.

    Oh, and Neil, I think that you are doing a wonderful job here. Thank you for considering my comments, and elaborating upon them. This is why I enjoy reading and writing weblogs.

  5. Fred says:

    Bernanos offers many great statements about the clergy in his novel, Diary of a Country Priest – mostly in dialogue form. The one I recall clearest is the statement that the priest is like the woman who mops the floor every day, and so does not wear herself out – thinking that she will be cleaning it once and for all.

    Dante, St. Catherine of Siena, Hildegarde and others had much to say about the clergy also…


  6. Neil says:

    Dear Bernard,

    If you do have such an essay, I’d be more than happy to post it here.


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