Is the future of leadership lay or ordained?

1413332667153_wps_70_Television_Programme_Rev_It is arguable that the greatest challenge currently facing the C of E is not to do with sexuality, not related to changes in culture and moral values, and unconnected with Church-State relations. It actually arises from a decision made around the time I started ordination training in 1989, that candidates needed ‘more experience of the world’ and so should be encouraged to start training later in life. I noticed this very quickly; when I started training at age 27 I was at about the median age within my cohort. When I returned on the staff 10 years after leaving, I was still near the median age of those in training. The most common question I was asked during my first six months was ‘Which course are you doing?’

Having been trained as a Personnel Manager, and therefore used to undertaking cohort analysis, I realised that this was catastrophic. It means that those being ordained have largely been selected from one particular generation of Christians, since the average age of ordination went up by around 10 years over around a 10-year period. And this then means that many will be retiring around the same time. Overall, it is stated that 40% of current stipendiary clergy will retire in the next 10 years, but this total figure masks the local impact. I have been given to understand that in some dioceses, particularly those which are largely rural, it could be that 85% of clergy will retire. This is going to completely change the face of the Church.

All this is fairly well known, and it is one of the major drivers behind the Renewal and Reform programme, in particular the goal of the RME process to increase significantly the number of candidates for ordination training. But this steps over a prior question that needs answering for the medium term (since it will take some time for new candidates to come through the system) and the longer term: should future congregational leaders be lay or ordained? There are two main answers to this.

The future’s bright; the future’s lay

Under the leadership of Paul Butler, Southwell and Nottingham Diocese signed up to a ‘2020 Vision’ for ministry some years ago, and this made a commitment to retain posts even if we lost clergy. This has meant, when clergy move on, undertaking a review of the role, and either making it a half-time post and allowing for lay support for the role, or appointing lay people to lead the congregation rather than appointing another clergy person. There are examples of both of this happening in my deanery. With Paul’s translation to Durham, I understand that that diocese are now following a similar process.

This has a number of advantages. It offers a clear sense of commitment to ministry in a particular place; it can create flexibility in deployment; and it affirms the notion of lay leadership and ministry. Perhaps most importantly, it offers a commitment to maintain stipendiary ministry even if that is not ordained, since there is clear evidence that loss of stipendiary ministry leads to (greater) decline in congregations. It’s also worth noting that, in larger churches with staff teams, many of the roles undertaken by lay ministers (youth and family workers, pastoral visitors and so on) would have been undertaken by members of a clergy team, including curates and associate ministers, even 20 years ago.

The principle objection to this, particularly in rural areas, is the loss of a president at Communion services. The two most common answers to this—have Communion by extension, or mostly have non-Communion services—haven’t been well received, the former for theological reasons and the latter for reasons of tradition. (There is some irony that many urban churches have more non-Communion services than Communion services, even though they are not without ordained leaders).

An alternative approach is to adopt lay presidency at Communion. Andrew Atherstone argues in his Grove booklet for this, on the basis that the BCP sees the ministry of Word and Sacrament as equally important, and if we are happy with lay preachers why should we be unhappy with lay presidents?

If the ministry of the word can be delegated from presbyters to lay leaders without undermining the nature of the presbyterate, then the ministry of the sacraments can be delegated on the same basis… The historic prohibition on lay presidency at the Lord’s Supper has long since outlived its purpose. For the Church of England in the twenty-first century it is time to move forward. These reforms [would be] a consistent development of traditional Anglican ecclesiology and the increasing scope of public lay ministries over the last generation. Lay presidency is no threat to proper Anglican order. (pp 22, 24)

Set apart for ministry

The alternative view is to identify those who are already the de facto leader(s) of the respective Christian communities, give them some (local) theological education, and lay hands on them and ordain them.

The advantage of this approach is that there is a rapid development of recognised local ministry, and you avoid all the debates about presiding at Communion within the local community.

But it raises a series of other questions too. If such people are ordained to a local area, rather than being ‘deployable’ in what sense are they ‘ordained in the Church of God’ as is currently said in the ordinal? It could be argued that the most pressing question for the church at the local level is less about ‘keeping the show on the road’ and more about a vision for calling, growing and equipping disciples. Would such local leadership be open to such a vision?

And if you are going to ‘ordain’ all your trained and commissioned lay leaders, is there in the end such a thing as ‘lay leadership’ at all? Isn’t this the route of clericalisation of the Church? And why stop there—why not ‘ordain’ all those working as evangelists, with students, in schools and so on? (You could then allow them to entrepreneurially establish new congregations and have no hesitation about calling such meetings ‘churches’.)

Underlying the choice between these alternatives is a more basic question about our theology of ordination. If a lay person is commissioned, set apart for ministry, has some training for that ministry and then has hands laid on them, in what sense are they not ordained? In other words, what is the fundamental difference between these two possible scenarios? How do we distinguish, theologically, between the full-time, trained and commissioned lay leader and the ordained? I think this is a question that had dogged the Church’s approach to commissioned lay leadership over many years—be that in relation to Readers, Church Army evangelists or other forms of licensed lay ministry. We did try an experiment with Local Ordained Ministry about 25 years ago, but I think it foundered for want of a convincing answer in this area.

Where would we look for an answer to this? Clearly we need to look to the New Testament, but we immediately confront the fact that the NT doesn’t have a developed understanding of ‘ordination’ in the way we think about it institutionally. I am not convinced by arguments that this was an omission made good by the developments of later centuries; it appears to follow from the NT’s radical understanding of the priesthood of the whole people of God—an idea that has become more prominent in recent Anglican thinking.

We also need to look at the formularies of the Church of England and the way these have received the NT data. The BCP appears to regard the orders of bishop, priest (in name; theologically presbyter) and deacon as compatible with the teaching of the NT even if they fall short of being necessary derivations from it. But we are then confronted with a very different social context, that of Christendom, within which these orders of ministry could become professions.

Wherever we look for an answer, I think we need one. I don’t see how we can make a decision between these two alternative strategies without a theological framework—not least because different dioceses appear to be either implementing or planning to implement each of these approaches.

Answers on a postcard…?

Follow me on Twitter @psephizo

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

19 thoughts on “Is the future of leadership lay or ordained?”

  1. Thank you for this Ian. Here in Chelmsford Diocese we are ordaining a lot of people, with increasing numbers of Locally deployed SSMs. These are not the same as OLMs as we knew them back in Salisbury. They are in fact deplorable but their vocation to ministry is founded upon and based in one ecclesial community (a single parish, a multi parish benefice or what we call mission and ministry units). There is a programme called reimagining ministry which aims to proved a minister, lay or ordained, for every congregation. A huge swathe of these will of course be LDSSM or lay leaders. It’s all good, but to truly enable lay leadership in this pattern, where a reader/LLM can lead a church, I think we will also need to restructure synods where we currently divide ourselves into houses of laity (previously aka people who aren’t church leaders) and clergy/bishops (previously the people who lead). If this diocese does do that it’ll make things interesting relating to GS etc.

  2. I don’t know honestly. I’ve been in ministry for 29 years, 18 of those in the CofE (Youth Minister, then Youth and Children’s Adviser for a Diocese and now as The Resource . . . ) I’m engaged locally with my own church as time allows. The issue for me, in the past, has been the recognition under canon, of the specific calling of children’s, youth and family workers (Readers and Church Army Evangelists are specific, whereas youth and children’s workers have made do with “Licensed Lay Worker”.

    One of the recommendations from the ETG via their presentation at Synod in February goes someway to beginning to see this rectified . . . but, the challenge remains (i.e. it hasn’t happened yet!)

    What IS interesting about your post is the title “the future of LEADERSHIP” (see your own previous post for more on this!) . . . I know many priests who faithfully preach and preside . . . but they aren’t necessarily leaders. I am most definitely NOT arguing for churches to have CEOs – especially given my recent comments about senior “leadership” and MBAs . . . but, we need a more nuanced conversation about what the church needs in the 21st century, the conversation should not simply be around ecclesiastical terms (ordained, lay etc) – as you say yourself, our institutional understanding doesn’t sit comfortably with a reading of the New Testament.

    Amongst the young people I work with I see incredible gifting, anointing and skills . . . given the current climate, these young people (were certain clergy to encounter them) would be “funnelled” in to a “call waiting” kind of process . . . because of the desperate need to have younger ordinands. I think this would fail those young people and be a failure of imagination on the part of the church.

    “One Life” is developing and growing leaders for life – who are engaged in both the world and the church in leadership, many of them are just getting on with it and being the difference they want to see. There is a tension with the need to come under authority and institutional control that potentially snuffs out life and anything not exactly the same as what we are already doing.

    Every Diocese has a different approach . . . that is most of the challenge – even for certain licensed posts that is a challenge (Church Army works like THIS in our Diocese . . . if you are a reader then THIS is what we expect of you . . . ) the “ordained” priests on the other had can dart all over the country generally speaking. Yet, we here talk of “re-imagining” ministry.

    I am yet to see what this might look like, because I am yet to see and re-imaging!

  3. There’s also the approach adopted by Peterborough Diocese (for example), which aims not to reduce clergy numbers at all, but then recognising that means investing heavily in vocations, specifically in giving young people the opportunity to work for churches for a year or so and explicitly calling young-ish Christians to consider spending their lives in full-time ordained service of Christ and his church. It seems to be working so far….

  4. All sorts of issues here. As I think you acknowledge, Ian, there seems to be little actual difference between ordination and setting aside lay leaders to celebrate the Eucharist. This is also the point in the HoB’s document on Eucharistic Presidency: most of what is called “lay presidency” is simply ordination under a different name, perhaps even a plea for easier routes to ordination. In which case we’re mostly dealing with whether we want thoroughly vetted candidates with significant formal education to the norm, or whether are willing to tolerate a new system that is comfortable with those who have gone through less discernment, less testing, and less training and formation.

    Andrew’s argument has always struck me as odd: the BCP sees Word and Sacrament as equally important (perhaps with a slant towards Word), and “if we are happy with lay preachers why should we be unhappy with lay presidents?” That’s an awfully big “if.”

  5. Is there something here about rediscovering the office of Deacon as well as priests/presbyters? It doesn’t solve the Communion problem (although it could if they were allowed to preside, either over a specific congregation or generally).

    If all or some of the Youth Workers, Readers, Evangelists, and so on were ordained Deacons, but could maintain their distinctive ministries within the office of Deacon, then there would be more of a distinction between the oversight role of the priest/presbyter and the service and supportive ministry of the Deacon.

    I know this still distinguished between ‘lay’ and ‘ordained’, but I agree mostly with Ian that if a lay worker is offering significant time to the church, has been commissioned and set apart for a ministry, and has some theological training, then how are they different or distinctive from an ordained person? The ontological aspect could be argued, but I identify a lot more with the ministerial ordained ministry (i.e. you’re ordained to the ministerial priesthood), and see the church more as lay people and some lay people who are ordained by the church for certain ministries of service and oversight rather than lay and ordained as separate ‘beings’ of people.

    Also with thought to deployability and local ministry, could we recognise that while ordained people are officially ordained into the whole Church and thus deployable anywhere (and prepared to go anywhere), in reality geography and being called to specific places play a huge part in the calling of ordained people. I imagine when Paul and Barnabas were laying hands on (local) church leaders, the expectation was that they would serve a locality rather than move about every 5-10 years (I realise this is not brilliant exegesis, what with Christendom in between…).

    These are just my musings though!

    As someone (hopefully) soon to be ordained, it is really interesting to ask these questions as it really challenges and informs how I understand my calling, my relationship with ‘lay’ people, my understanding of the priesthood of all believers, and my pride, as I think how I will work collaboratively, drawing out the gifts and ministries of others.

    Humble us Lord!

  6. Hi Ian,

    Thought you might find this example from the Diocese of Tasmania in the Anglican Church of Australia helpful. They responded to an ordained clergy shortage by introducing a scheme known as Enabler Supported Ministry. Essentially it appoints a leadership team to run a parish with at least 2 people appointed as Local Ministers, who are authorised to preach and preside at Communion. All members of the team receive theological and ministry training. A priest from another parish is appointed as an Enabler to provide guidance and support.
    Their FAQ about it is here:

  7. I am a comissioned lay pastoral minister. One of 7 in my parish.

    With a felt calling into non stipendiary ministry as a route to ordination that gives ‘permission’ to preside I am told that being in my mid 60’s is too old for ordination. With a potential active life of more than 20years before me this seems a waste of resource to deny those like me, let alone those of less maturity.

    Perhaps we should indeed reexamine ordination and loosen the bonds of eliteism and ‘collar’ snobbery

  8. I have been practising & practicing lay ministry since I was ordained in 1960s. Fairly early on I came to realise that St Paul was right all along, and that the purpose of church leaders is to enable all Christians to minister.

    For me it has been an evolving process from appointing two parish visitors to reaching its climax later in a scheme that we would now want to call lay pastoral assts which now seems to be accepted in some form by most dioceses.

    But we now face a whole lot of new questions and problems. Who in fact should lead the local church? In the good old days it was obvious, but wrong! – the incumbent. In the rural context that is not only undesirable but in practice impossible. So far so good, until we realise that church leadership is not just a matter of finance, fetes and faculties. Church leaders need to be involved in spiritual ministry as well.

    So if local lay church leaders are expected to give spiritual leadership, what does this imply? Logically it means pastoral care, with conduct of worship, including preaching and celebrating Holy Communion. That is something that the C of E has not yet learned to cope with, and the future is by no means clear.

    In this diocese (Salisbury) we now have a scheme of Local Worship Leaders, but the snag is they are not allowed to preach let alone celebrate.

    Each church still needs to be led by a presbyter who can support, train and encourage these lay leaders. At present the church here survives because being in the South there is still a supply or retired clergy who enable the traditional show to carry on. But this cannot and should not last.

    So I end with queries.

    What about lay presidency? The C of E is trying to live in two worlds. The one of catholic tradition and the present need to face up to the shortage of clergy. One is going to have to give way. The amalgamation of parishes is a recipe for decline – we cannot carry on as we are. The Methodist Church used to authorise senior godly lay people to conduct Holy Communion, but this authorisation was withdrawn as they wanted to fall in line with the C of E. We must find a way forward, and that will inevitably involve radical change.

    Who should be a church leader? I think it was David Sheppard who pointed out that the NT never appointed leaders singly – there was always more than one. So each local community also needs to have appointed leaders (elders if you like) who do not need to be ordained.

    My own experience for what it is worth is that lay people rejoice when they are asked to take responsibility. That results in the numerical and spiritual growth of the church. The task of the existing clergy then becomes that of trainer and talent spotter. Each diocese should endeavour to train clergy to teach others. That would be much better than having many diocesan “experts” going around parishes or deaneries doing what the existing clergy ought to be able to do. The diocese trains the clergy – the clergy train the church members.

    It will be a nasty shock for many. In my time the focus of the church has moved from the parish to the diocese. The time has come for this over-emphasis to be corrected.

  9. Thank you for this Ian.
    I suppose the question buried in this is will the Church of England survive without extending the roles and responsibilities of the laity. Are enough people offering themselves for ordained ministry?
    So we may welhave to resort to lay presidency which might help discussion with our Methodist friends.
    Perhaps we also should look hard again at the NT to understand what really was expected to happen. Does it say that only Bishops Priest and Deacons are those who may be ordained ( Elders in some churches are ordained I.e set aside for a particular role)
    Also does the NT actually the only Bishops and priests may consecrate?
    Again some free churches who subscribe to the teaching of the Bible do not thinks so.
    Some inrteresting theological discussions potentially ahead… But also of course the survival,of the Church of England and the “Anglican Model”

  10. Interestingly, preaching used to require more qualifications: any simple massing priest could deliver the Eucharist; but to preach, you needed a university degree. Makes sense. How much training’s needed to preside at Communion? Rather less than preaching!

    Personally, I’d abolish the lay/clergy divide: if the priesthood of all believers is more than a soundbite, it needs substance. Anglo-Catholics would, of course, balk, but their own traditions can be respected, and their appointments restricted to priests who’ve been through the traditional process. For everyone else, it’d be theologically sound; and just as importantly, remove the malign effects of having a special priest class. “Father knows best” is a recipe for abuse.

    Beyond that, all churches need to move towards self-sufficiency, as is the norm in other provinces. Any church with a stipendiary leader, whether ordained or not, should be able to pay them. There could be hardship funds, or startup grants for plants, but both should be time-limited. This would, admittedly, need to be tied to much wider changes around parish boundaries, but if the church is to stay solvent, it needs to happen.

  11. Very interesting outline of the arguments. For me, lay presidency is a step too far but I am fully in favour of lay worship-leading in general (as well as other forms of lay ministry). The Revd Jimmy Hamilton-Brown has been a leading proponent of lay ministry and the latest Reform and Renewal proposals before General Synod will doubtless become the key focus in the next decade.

    To this end, we have opened a discussion page on Facebook simply to cover this topic, where lay and ordained can explore the pros and cons. Any readers are welcome to join, especially the author of this post himself. See

  12. It was hugely disappointing that your amendment to the RME measure at Synod was dismissed so easily, and made fun of to boot. You were the only contributor that noticed the loss of catholicity in the understanding of ministry, which may be the will of the CofE, but we at least need to be honest and clear minded about it.

    I ( as a 3-fold-ministry guy) am heartened when evangelicals see the wood for the trees. Thanks for keeping this question in focus.

    But have we reached tipping point and will lay presidency be inevitable in a CofE confusing survival of the institution with continuation of the Gospel, which doesn’t depend on us in the last analysis?

    In the end this question is one the keys to understanding the structural crack that is running through the CofE but which is only just starting to become visible.

    And it will turn on making the vital distinction between being humble and having humility.

  13. I would have thought lay Presidency was much more of a theological problem than Communion by extension? It seems to me preferable that Communions can take place this way in small parishes than not all. I would agree the future consists in significant lay ministry. But why not in a much greater role for Deacons, raised from their congregations? Given that they have a special role both in being under the authority of a Bishop in their ordained ministry, but also being considered among and representing the congregation. Their role is surely to be crucial in a church which takes lay leadership seriously.

  14. Thanks Ian. So many questions, so little time….. My favourite definition of leadership states that ‘He who thinketh he leadeth but hath no followers doth but go for a walk’. Leaders are people whom other people trust and follow, no more and no less, and this can be at any level and by any person, irrespective of titular or organisational position. Indeed the positional leader who fails to identify and work with the existing real leaders in his or her group will have a hard time.

    So I’m with James Byron on financially self-supporting churches, the priesthood of all believers and abolition of the lay/clergy divide. The latter would answer most of the questions in your blog but the priesthood of all believers is a foundational Reformation doctrine that has never really been put into practice. Lest it be thought that is an anti-Anglican (or anti-Catholic) statement I come from a nonconformist background where the priesthood of all clergy is generally replaced by the priesthood of all preachers. As I read the NT we have one priest (Jesus), whose body on earth is all believers, to whom God gives gifts intended to promote and develop that body healthily (i.e. to bring his kingdom and plan to fruition). Gifting is the only ground for role and leadership is being accepted by a congregation as overseer of the identification of peoples’ gifts, discernment of the role for which God has gifted them to contribute, and mentoring them to do that.

    The above discussion seems to me mainly predicated on Christendom assumptions (preserving the nature and role of the Christendom institution) rather than Christianity. This is evidenced by the fact that so much of it revolves around ordination and its link to the issue of presidency at Communion, neither of which seem to me to be Scriptural necessities at all (the most that seems to appear is commissioning to certain callings recognised by a church in a locality by means of laying on of hands by that church); and the priority of institutional concerns.

    For me, this is a symptom of a deeper question. Is the C of E (in which I have worshipped for the last 20 years) willing to countenance the possibility that the reason for its numerical (and, frankly in my experience, spiritual) decline is actually a collision between a failed (or at any rate anachronistic) understanding of church and its role and the reality of where and how God is working in today’s volatile but potentially fruitful environment; and will it ditch/adopt things according to the conclusion it reaches?

    In case it is thought that that means the Chalke approach of jettisoning all the bits of the Bible that don’t fit with one’s own (and/or society’s) prior conception of what God ought to be like, I actually mean the opposite. The churches in which my children serve (all in the age group 20-35 and exercising free choice!) exhibit the characteristics that it seems are desired by the C of E in terms of demographic profile, finances, new believers, numbers and missional living but adopt the very things it appears from the discussion threads on your blog and FB page are things Anglicans worry lie on a spectrum running from un-Anglican through out of date to downright wrong (e.g. long sermons and an emphasis on discipleship). In particular they take a thoughtful evangelical approach to the Bible and accept its authority over their living and church practice, and I used the term ‘serve in’ rather than ‘go to’ above quite deliberately as congregational participation in church life is expected to be much more than attendance.

    I am not by any means saying that they are all right and the C of E all wrong. Far from it. I am just saying that there is evidence outside the C of E that it could look at in discerning its own way forward if it were willing. As something of an outsider to Anglicanism I do wonder if the C of E actually ever can change from institutional state chaplain to missional body given its institutional self-obsession. But that’s another question…

  15. Answer: we need more clergy and lay leaders. I would love to know what would happen if clergy stopped wearing dog collars and we all began to recognise one another’s status by our character rather than our dress.

  16. Dear Ian,
    I also believe that the vicar of a rural multiparish benifice needs to be seen as an assistant bishop rather than the vicar of every church in his patch. The existence of someone who visits a small church, presides at communion then disappears must leave a sense of “who is the leader here” in the minds of the church members and visitors. Much more helpful, (and scriptural) would be the authorisation by the vicar of the local ministry, visits to audit and support but not to take over any of the functions of that local leadership.
    I see no problem with lay presidency as long as it is authorised, local and time limited (but renewable). After all the Bishop delegates his authority to his Priests and I see nothing to stop that process being carried one step further as the boundaries are clearly defined.
    Communion by extension was fiddling the system and was seen as fiddling the system.

  17. I often feel Paul would have extended “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” to include neither ordained nor laity. If we do not invest in lay leadership we will have no ordained leadership either – nor will be have Christians heads to lead our schools, or Christian bankers to lead our banks.

    As someone who is trusted to teach the U5s at church, and occasionally the adults, I have never understood the need for three years at vicar factory to officiate at communion – perhaps corrupted by breaking bread with the Brethren

  18. While I mainly polish an Anglican pew in our village, am on the Electoral Roll and was a Chaplaincy Council member in Aquitaine (as well as taking services in Bordeaux) – both for quite some years – I am by no means Anglican. I also produced the Calendar of Prayer for this Diocese for nearly 9 years. I’m still feeling very often the outsider, looking in and trying to work out what is going on. Apart from those who hold a very Anglo-Catholic view of Ministry (which presumably involves the Real Presence) I get the feeling that the top-down nature of Anglican management is mainly about job & prestige preservation rather than any real theological concern. That managerial control has enabled both abuses and the covering-up of them which are both very current concerns.

    I have myself presided at Communion as a Congregational Deacon, a U.R.C. Elder/L.P. and could have as an E.R.F. Conseilleur Presbyteral and Predicateur Laique had the need arisen. The principal concern is that the person presiding should be known to and considered suitable by the congregation : he/she is leading them but not mediating for them. These days, a URC LP needs to be approved by the local Synod but that does not constitute ordination and is a more of a filter. Local Ordination as used in some Dioceses is rather contradictory – you are either ordained priest or you are not!

Leave a comment