What does the C of E believe the laity are for?

I have been contributing to the Church’s Renewal and Reform stream on developing lay leadership, and one of the questions that has come up is: ‘What does the Church of England actually believe about the laity and lay leadership?’ I am not referring here to what some have called ‘ecclesial lay leadership’, that is, the leadership of lay people within the gathered church at services, such as being a Reader, leading the intercessions, leading small groups and so on, important though these are. I am referring to the vision (if any) that the church as a whole has of the leadership that Christians exercise in their daily occupations by virtue of being baptised followers of Jesus in an unbaptised world. (This is rightly called ‘leadership’, since a leader is anyone that others are following, and we exercise leadership when we influence others and society around us to change in the light of our faith in Jesus.)

To know what ‘the Church of England believes’ officially (rather than asking what the collection of people who happen to identify as Anglican think at any particular time), you need to look at the canons and at the liturgy, since this is where the C of E articulates its doctrine. This would include looking at canons and liturgy relating to ordination, exploring what light that sheds on the whole people of God. But a key part of the liturgy is the Communion service, and particularly the final movement (following Gathering, Liturgy of the Word, and Liturgy of the Sacrament) of the Dismissal. The Latin for dismissal is the origin of the Roman Catholic term ‘Mass’, so this is not an insignificant part of the service; the goal of gathering together, hearing God’s word to us and receiving the tokens of his grace in the bread and wine are that we might be sent out into the world, equipped and transformed.


The end of the service in the Book of Common Prayer consists of the Lord’s Prayer, one of two quite long thanksgiving prayers said by the minister, the Gloria (deliberately placed here so that we do not offer anything to God before we have received from him), and the blessing. The ASB significantly revised this: the Gloria moved earlier; the Lord’s Prayer came before administration; and two new thanksgivings were introduced, a shorter one beginning ‘Almighty God, we thank you…’ said together, and a longer one ‘Father of all, we give you thanks…’ said by the president. Common Worship tweaked this by offering both prayers to be said congregationally, with the result that the second prayer is now used very much more often. If we want to know what the liturgy thinks Communion has done for us, and what we are now prepared to do as we leave the service, then we need to reflect on this prayer.

Father of all…

The prayer starts by addressing God as ‘father’, the distinctive Christian address following Jesus’ own distinctive practice, so striking that it is preserved in the NT in his ipsissimum verbum ‘Abba’ from Aramaic. Our experience of God as father is obtained for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection and delivered to us by the presence of the Spirit in our lives.

The qualified ‘of all’ draws on some of the ‘universalist’ language we find in places like 1 Cor 15.22: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.’ But this can only be understood as referring to universal salvation by detaching it from all Paul’s other language about judgement and the need for a response to Jesus and reception of the Spirit of God. We should then read this as ‘We have experienced God as Father through Jesus by the Spirit…and that this experience is offered to all.’

Some would argue that, at this point, we need to take seriously the author’s intention. David Frost, who wrote the prayer, probably intended the phrase ‘Father of all’ to imply that all humanity are God’s children, whether they themselves believe it or not. But in the end, this phrase is derived from Scripture, and for the C of E, it is its scriptural context which needs to determine its meaning. God is, in principle, Father of all—but that fatherhood is not realised until people come to faith in Jesus and share his understanding of God as father.

…we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home.

This is a fascinating expression for several reasons. The first thing to note is that, where the first, shorter prayer makes explicit reference to Communion itself (‘we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son…’), this prayer moves straight past what we have actually been doing and focusses only on its theological significance—we have experienced meeting God.

But, even more interesting, it expresses this theology in terms parallel to the shape of the Eucharistic Prayer, using our understanding of salvation history. The ‘we’ who ‘were still far off’ is not the congregation gathered here, nor the particular people saying the prayer—after all, many of us had church backgrounds and might have had little sense of being ‘far off’ at any time in our lives. No, the ‘we’ here is the whole of humanity, and this is the story of God’s love for and action towards his world.

And this salvation story is expressed by borrowing the language from the parable of the prodigal son and the loving father in Luke 15.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15.20).

In receiving Communion, we have experience the running father, filled with compassion, throwing his arms around us and kissing us. And this is expressed in the kind of implicit Trinitarianism we find in all the gospels, but especially in John: in meeting Jesus, we meet God the Father, since Jesus is the presence of God tabernacled amongst us. (This sense of a theological narrative applying theologically to humanity, rather than biographically to individuals, also occurs in Paul’s account of sin in Romans 1 and his account of life without Christ in Romans 7.)

Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory.

The first phrase here is a reference less to Jesus’ earthly ministry (for which the prayer would say ‘living and dying’) and more a reference to his death and resurrection, as a complete act, something reflected in both Paul’s preaching in Acts and his theology in his letters. The triple phrase that follows combines the proclamation of good news, its significance, and its effective delivery to us. The language of ‘glory’ reflects the way John’s gospel talks of the cross, as the place of glorification of Jesus which reveals the glory of the Father.

May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;

There is an ambiguity here about ‘sharing the body’; does it mean the physical sharing of the bread we have just done, or does it (as most scholars now think about 1 Cor 11.29) refer to the participation in the body of Christ by all those who believe? The ‘living his risen life’ has echoes of Romans 6, where Paul argues that the movement into the water in baptism signifies our participation in Jesus’ death by the death of our ‘old’ self, and the movement out of the water signifies our participation in Jesus’ resurrection (‘from the waters of death’) so that the life we now live is that resurrection life of Jesus, in anticipation of the age to come. The movement from ‘sharing’ to ‘living’ has a parallel in Gal 5.25; if we have been given life by the Spirit/Jesus, let us walk by the Spirit/live Jesus’ resurrection life.

we who drink his cup bring life to others;

The parallel of the ‘cup’ to the ‘bread’ might suggest that both are references to Communion. But in the NT, to ‘drink a cup’ means to undergo an experience, particularly of suffering, as in Mark 10.38. So as we suffer because of our obedience to God, after the pattern of Jesus’ faithful testimony, we nevertheless offer the word of life to others.

we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.

This third saying within this group brings the work of the Spirit in parallel with all that has happened, in line with Anglican understanding of the ‘epiclesis’, the invitation of the Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayer, which is on the people and not the elements, and so that we might understand and receive aright. ‘Giving light to the world’ picks up on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we are a light, but the implication is that the light shines in the darkness, which is expressed in powerful binary contrasts throughout John’s gospel.

Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Following the pattern of the Eucharistic Prayers, we move from the past (what God has done in Christ for us and our reception of that), the present (what we face in the world as we go out) to the future—the ultimate future of the hope of Jesus’ return, and the universal elements we find throughout Scripture that the whole world will, in some sense, be redeemed and transformed.


This, then, is what the Church of England believes about the role of the ‘laity’, the people of God in the world. We have experienced the unique grace of the Fatherhood of God in Jesus by the Spirit, and we are to offer that to all. We live distinctive lives which proclaim not our goodness, but the grace of God, bringing light into dark places, demonstrating a shared life in a broken world. And we live in hope that God will complete his purposes, and that one day ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Rev 11.15).

This is a high calling, and one that our practice has not always reflected. But is it one we actually understand? I was discussing this with a (lay) friend, who has been a lifelong Christian and a member of the C of E for 25 years. ‘Have you ever reflected on this prayer, or been taught about its meaning?’ I asked. ‘Not once’ was the reply. As Stanley Hauerwas argues, we do not need to invent new initiatives, or grasp new strategies, so much as learn to be what we are. This challenges each of our traditions—for evangelicals to use this liturgy, for Catholics to teach this liturgy (and not just assume it will do its work), and for liberals to believe this liturgy. Then, perhaps, the whole people of God might find what they need to be faithful witnesses in the world.

Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
Dying and living, he declared your love,
gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory.
May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;
we who drink his cup bring life to others;
we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.
Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,
so we and all your children shall be free,
and the whole earth live to praise your name;
through Christ our Lord.

This sense of the Church as the laity, dispersed in their various roles, is captured rather wonderfully by Dave Walker at cartoonchurch.com. I would add, though, that this is not a particularly distinctive view of the Church of England; I think most other denominations would share this understanding of who and what the church (and the laity) really are. But it is nice to confirm that this is the C of E’s actual view!


(This article was published in a shorter version in May 2016)


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12 thoughts on “What does the C of E believe the laity are for?”

  1. Is Common Worship where the definitive doctrine of this is contained? I would be inclined to go back to the BCP first, the standard against which CW theology is measured and see what that tells us of the theology of the laity. It’s a lovely prayer (and I agree with how you have unpacked it), but it’s not actually normative for the C of E.

    • Common Worship is the Church’s current liturgy—but legally and procedurally, it is strictly only an ‘alternative’ to the BCP, and it is the BCP alone which defines the Church’s doctrine.

      However, as the agreed alternative, it was passed only on the understanding that it does not deviate from the doctrine of the BCP. So I think it is fair to assume it is indicative of the BCP’s assumed ecclesiology.

      It would be interesting to do a similar exercise for the BCP, but culturally there was a ‘Christendom’ assumption around, and I think the culture was in many way more clericalised (for example, clergy were amongst the comparatively few who were educated in terms of letters) and I think you would need to factor that in.

  2. “Send us out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory” is for both lay and ordained, or better put, all the people of God, including the minority who are ordained. As long as we use the duality of lay and ordained we will struggle to speak of the ministries of the church / people. The prayer with its use of we and us avoids the lay / ordained split, which may be another good reason to use it as a key resource.

    Both prayers are rich in image, memorable, inspirational and purposeful, and thanks Ian for the exegesis of the prayer. It is a shame when they can be memorable but unnoticed for their meaning! That may say something of the challenge of leading liturgy today.

    I think the original version of “keep us firm in the hope ..” was “Anchor us in the hope” picking up the image from Hebrews.

  3. It’s quiet over here, perhaps as a result of the target audience – the professionals, clergy, (including none stipendiary). I’d ask at the outset, what degree of input, influence, does the laity have in the Church’s Renewal and Reform stream ?
    Woah, steady on. This seems like asking:
    What is a Christian for? What use is a Christian? What is the church? Where, when, how and why?
    Are we called out of darkness because we are or will be useful to God? or to the “church.”?

    A friend from a charismatic background, does not think she is being a Christian unless she has a role, part to play, in the church which invites involvement of gifts. (Actually she has a gift of hospitality which isn’t “used” in the church.) She has a great difficulty in accepting that she is indeed “being church,” in her prayers, in some private words of knowledge, in the conversations she has with people and the helps she gives when out and about which, at times, puts me to shame.
    This may be an illustration of the outworking of the “doctrine of church” perhaps in all denominations and independents with an eldership which has been, is, put into practice. Crudely put, it can be little more than the outworking of “us” and “them” and hierarchy of ministries within the church.

    While not seeking delve into questions of leadership, there was a fashion in NHS management, in leadership, (not the same) to say that everyone is a leader, by leadership being reduced reduced to “influence alone.” It came at at time when lip -service (in general) was paid to an ideological “bottom -up” approach to change, methodologically and systematically. I can recall a model of two concentric circles. The inner was labelled “circle of control” and was in reality small, and the outer of a far greater diameter, was the “circle of influence” from which spread many satellite , circles of influence, networks, a matrix. I think it came from Steven Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” though I could be wrong.
    I recall that pre-2010 this idea that every church member is a leader (based solely on the influence model) was being taught in a local New Frontiers Church. I think they’d been influenced, in turn, by the(then) Willow Creek church model that was touted at that time.
    I found the cartoon amusing in what it omitted – a Church building, (as representative of the body of Christ), even though I know the article is about laity! But a laity excluded from influence in the church? In the body of Christ?

    The other side of that coin is when clergy are dominated by successful, prominent, laity.

    “Learning to be what we are” A great phrase from Hauerwas. Where do we get the teaching as to who/what we are (other from the hidden meaning or process of the liturgy) – a teaching to be applied and tested in the work place and out and about. Is it solely through the scripture readings plus sermon, word? Through pastoral application?. How to be a Christian in the work place? Distinctive, a living out of sanctification and Christian ethic?

    Is the follow-up article to be “What are the clergy for?” Are they to be led, influenced, at all by the laity, a “bottom up” approach and all they may bring from their qualifications, experience?

    These comments seem to bye-pass all Ian has written about the liturgy, which is deeply edifying, but generally I’d stand in the shoes of Ian’s lay friend, particularly when this doctrine remains enclosed, (locked-in?) in the canons and liturgy, a liturgy that may be little more than presided over as a process of historical habit, that may have been learned by heart, but are not heart affecting, not leading into the presence of God. Nor motivate as we are dismissed.

    • ‘…but generally I’d stand in the shoes of Ian’s lay friend, particularly when this doctrine remains enclosed, (locked-in?) in the canons and liturgy, a liturgy that may be little more than presided over as a process of historical habit, that may have been learned by heart, but are not heart affecting, not leading into the presence of God. Nor motivate as we are dismissed.’

      Geoff, what you say underlines to me a most basic point about liturgy and the doctrine which it contains. Liturgy may or may not be great doctrine wrapped up in fine poetry or prose, but it is written in order to be spoken aloud for a congregation to hear or to speak. And how it is spoken will either bring it alive or kill it stone dead (perhaps you are alluding to the latter?).

      I can think of 3 aspects of this: 1) comprehension, 2) speech and drama skills, 3) personal investment in the truth of what is being said. I wonder what we’d all give in terms of marks out of 10 for how clergy in the C of E generally rate for these things? Because how well they do their part will surely set the tone and the standard for those parts when the whole congregation joins in; i.e. the congregation will learn to understand, say, and mean a prayer from the heart as a result of absorbing how it’s done from the example of the clergy.

      And this is not unrelated to Ian’s next article!

  4. St Paul writes in several places about us all being one Church but we all have different gifts.

    For example, Romans chapter 12 says:
    4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

    The above is not the only place but already we have people with gifts of:
    1) Prophesy
    2) Serving
    3) Teaching
    4) Encouragement
    5) Giving
    6) Leading

    The article above concentrates on the Communion and yet the communion can only really be done by a priest. This puts the focus back on priesthood and yet the gift short list above shows a lot more than just priesthood.

    Someone gifted in Teaching could easily be a Lay Reader in the church and not be a priest at all. So there are gifts Lay people can use for the benefit of the whole Church – it isn’t just priests.

  5. Having something of a role with (licensed) Lay Ministry in my diocese, I was very pleased to hear just a few years back that the Ministry Division of the CofE (MinDiv) seemed to have woken up to the fact that there were lay people in the Church! I gathered that they were/are considering:
    1) Discipleship
    2) Lay Ministry – i.e. the roles of lay people within the gathered church
    3) Lay Leadership – i.e. the roles of lay Christians in society, i.e. not in the gathered church.
    4) and I cannot remember the fourth!

    Dare I suggest that Geoff’s friend and Clive think that the important place for lay Christians to be doing things within the gathered church, i.e. (2). Therefore, they have actually missed the point of Ian’s post here, which is to show from the liturgy that lay people gather in order to be sent out. (3) is as important, if not more important, than (2).

    Actually, (1), (2) and (3) are not unconnected. Trained and authorised lay ministers can be in a much better position to disciple people than the ordained because they themselves are living much more in the world outside the church. A very important part of discipling people is to help them understand how they can live out their Christian life on their “frontlines” – to use LICC’s jargon. Part of this discipleship must be how we lead and influence others around us.

    The challenge for church leadership is to take this on board, and promote it. For example, someone once asked “why does the church pray for me when I go out to teach Sunday School for an hour, but not pray for me in the many hours of teaching I do in a school Monday to Friday?”

    • David,
      Thanks for the (unintended) laugh Your point number 4, to me, had the hallmarks of a Monty Python sketch.
      A main point, to me, came from the title of Ian article- as if in the church’s ministry the only place of importance was to be “in ministry.” I realise the the title may have been chosen to stimulate thought.
      Again, to me, it is somewhat disconcerting that the there is a need to look for a “doctrine of laity” in the bowels of the canons and liturgy. Even the use of the words priesthood and laity sets out a separation in terms that don’t exist in the NT that perhaps Ian emphasises in putting the word laity in quotations . Hence my comment : “Woah, steady on. This seems like asking: What is a Christian for? What use is a Christian? What is the church? Where, when, how and why?
      Are we called out of darkness because we are or will be useful to God? or to the “church.”?

      But it is at this point that Ian emphasises the need for the church to understand, rightly in my view, saying this:
      “This, then, is what the Church of England believes about the role of the ‘laity’, the people of God in the world. We have experienced the unique grace of the Fatherhood of God in Jesus by the Spirit, and we are to offer that to all. We live distinctive lives which proclaim not our goodness, but the grace of God, bringing light into dark places, demonstrating a shared life in a broken world. And we live in hope that God will complete his purposes, and that one day ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Rev 11.15).

      This is a high calling, and one that our practice has not always reflected. But is it one we actually understand?”
      Indeed it is a “high calling” of “the people of God in the world.” BUT I have not in my years as a Christian heard, or read ANYONE say that.
      It is a shame that it was hidden in the article. It could properly have been the title of the article.
      But it appears from the dearth of responses (and this isn’t meant to be an argument from silence) to Ian’s article, this is an area that deeply challenges the priesthood, structure and hierarchy in the CoE, let alone the points made by Clive and, by illustration, the message drank so deeply by my friend which can be cross pollenated to the CoE culture.
      Additionally, my point about laity influence in “Church” remains, starting with laity influence in, membership of the Renewal and Reform Stream.
      It may be that the intake of older people into CoE ministry from business and other walks of life will have an influence, but it may be an influence too far with business models , ideas, dominating (such as leadership of influence, that I’ve belaboured). And I’d be concerned about that, if it is accompanied by a thin grounding in scripture, biblical and systematic theology and apologetics.
      It is indeed wonderful that the liturgy would look to draw the gathered people near to God that he draws near to us as we disperse.

  6. “This challenges each of our traditions—for evangelicals to use this liturgy, for Catholics to teach this liturgy (and not just assume it will do its work), and for liberals to believe this liturgy. Then, perhaps, the whole people of God might find what they need to be faithful witnesses in the world”

    This is a helpful reflection of the way our different streams need to approach our liturgy in fresh ways . . . BUT, regardless – however many articles are written about what the church does and does not believe – examining the minutia of our doctrinal statements, liturgical language, our various rituals . . . the nub of the problem remains. It isn’t what does the church “believe” (whether about laity or clergy or children or old people . . . or whatever compartmentalised aspect of the body we are dissecting . . . ) – the issue remains, we are pretty poor at making disciples. That’s it really – the dissonance between what we say we “believe” and our practice. From the churches up and down the country that baptise people to order (at 12 noon, after the church service for that morning has finished) and bizarrely welcome them in to the family of God . . with nobody representing that body but the priest . . . to our continued fixation for getting more and more people to become clergy to preside over church services on a Sunday that – whichever way you slice it – continue to say to a majority of those attending “church is about coming on a Sunday – this is where we put our effort, this is our shop window.” – regardless of what we “believe” its what our practice says . . .

    • Well, I don’t really disagree with you here. That is why I always point out that 12 noon baptisms are actually illegal in the C of E; the liturgy requires that baptism happens ‘in the main service’, for all the reasons you point out. It is a real weakness of those traditions with an ‘instrumentalist’ theology of the sacraments…

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