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I'm Just a Layperson 2: Calling and Conscience

It is becoming apparent that in the face of current problems in the Church, there is perhaps greater militancy amongst lay people than clergy. That greater militancy has different causes, reasons and potential range of expressions. This is the second blog in a series seeking to investigate that phenomenon and how it might be used to best build up the Body of Christ.

The posts are aimed at what lay people can do to help but are therefore hopefully of interest to clergy, many of whom, presently feel they need all the help they can get.

Doubtless lay people should feel as strong a sense of calling to people, place and vocation as many clergy do. The whole idea of the “congregation” in Article IXX expresses just that - the “congregation” is one combined of equals - whether they be bishops, priests or laity. But in reality, in the main, clergy feel and live out a stronger sense of calling and vocation than the average lay person does.

As lay people try to understand more of the dilemmas currently facing clergy, this is a subject that is worth pausing to dwell upon.

The cure of souls

On the one hand clergy feel strongly that they must not waver from their duties to the cure of souls under their care - duties made abundantly clear at ordination and of which Article IXX again provides a summary. They are to administer the dominical sacraments as Christ intended and to pass on the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints by teaching the pure word of God. To do those things is to carry out the ministry of the Word of God in word and sign, sign and word, in a way that is undiluted and unpolluted.

That calling, lived out in a particular place, amongst a particular people is a strong part of clergy identity. Perhaps the strongest part of their understanding of what it means in the present moment to be ordained.

On the other hand, clergy fulfil their vocation not as lone rangers, but in the structures of the Church of England, Church in Wales or Scottish Episcopal Church. And they do so particularly in partnership with their diocesan bishop with whom they share the cure of souls and who has the primary responsibility for upholding truth and driving away erroneous doctrine.

The inevitability of faithful clergy finding themselves in something of a conundrum when their bishop proves, not least in a public vote, that they have departed the faith is obvious. How does a member of the clergy best fulfil their calling when the very person to whom they are yoked in ministry is pulling in the opposite direction? How do they best protect the flock entrusted to their care when the bishop doesn’t care?

Many clergy, at least in their own minds, reduce the issue of whether they can remain in the CofE/CiW/SEC to a brutally blunt question that goes something like, “How can I be a good shepherd if I abandon the flock”.

“How can I be a good shepherd if I abandon the flock”.

As discussed in the previous blog, clergy will always have ties to the Church - those of stipends and buildings, of dependents and a degree of dependency, but those practical issues aside, the main spiritual issue of how they continue their ministry is the care of the flock.

While it is impossible to refer to “the clergy” as if they are homogenous, it might be helpful to think of three categories or groupings.

For some it is a “no-brainer”

For two groups of clergy the problem is more or less readily resolved, although not without angst.

In the first are those so horrified are they the false teaching, even the heresy of their bishop and others that remaining for any length of time is unconscionable. For them to be identified with “the brand” or to have their ministry and teaching unsupported, and perhaps actively undermined, is not a real possibility.

In its most extreme expression, those convicted that the “lampstand” has been removed, or the Church or bishop has apostatised, or even that the judgement of the Lord has gone out against it, there is nothing that can possibly justify staying. It is a “no-brainer”.

For clergy such as these the only choice to protect their ministry and the flock from the risk of significant harm by those the Bible calls “wolves”, is to personally to leave the Church of England and either take as many of the flock with them or find a new flock in need of pastoring elsewhere in a less compromised situation.

Those leading some of “their people” to set-up a new local church believe they are acting not just protectively but truly pastorally - leading the people from danger to dwell beside still waters and from increasing arid grazing to green pastures. Those who leave for “pastures new” hope that the environment already exists - that the grass is indeed “greener on the other side”.

The second group who might feel the tension is more readily resolvable are those for whom the Church of England is THE Church in England (and, by extension, its offspring throughout the world). To their mind being in THE Reformed Catholic Church, in the national Church by law established and in Communion with the See of Canterbury is, by definition the best, even, the only, real expression of the church universal and triumphant this land affords. Until such time as they are expressly expelled or martyred, being Anglicans, indeed being orthodox believers and holding to their ordination vows, means by definition being in the Church of England. It is perhaps in this that the largest gap in feelings arise - however many clergy see their calling in something of this way, comparatively speaking far fewer laity do.

Again, at its extreme, there is no particular reason for these clergy to leave the established church even if they had (next to) no flock at all remaining with them. Faithfulness to the Church of their ordination requires nothing less of them not to depart the Church even if the Church departs them.

For others it is a gut-wrenching conundrum

To describe a third group is not to suggest that the others have not thought very hard. Nor that the third group are any less fully aware than anyone else of the requirements of Holy Scripture to separate from false teachers, even in the words of Ephesians 5, “to have nothing to do with them”. And they are equally alert to the wolves that wish to devour the flock the weakest first.

If, however they do the maximum to separate - by leaving the “denomination” - the danger is that, at best, they will be replaced by someone no better equipped to handle the situation than themselves (who at least knows it) and at worst the wolves will move right on in.

For some this comes with guilt, even grief, that they cannot convince sufficient of the flock to come with them. They worry that their teaching has somehow been deficient such that their people have not matured from lambs to sheep, or indeed been born into the flock at all. Which can mean all the more reason to remain in faith that the preaching of the pure Word will bear fruit in season.

In these things, lay people can help by having insight into just how tortured all clergy are to, 'do the right thing'. This may mean, most of all, keeping them to what they already know. Foremost amongst that may be the things that follow.

Seven truths to remember

First, assuming they have faithfully taught the Bible over a decent period of time, they cannot have done so deficiently. The sower sows the seed, even waters it, but God makes it grow. (If, however, the parish clergy have not properly prepared the people over time to confront error then there is a much deeper problem, and it is one the laity themselves will have to act to resolve). Some in 'turn around' or 'mixed' situations may not have had sufficient time to embed orthodoxy and sometimes the question for them is whether ever being able to do so is gradually becoming so sufficiently unlikely as to be improbable.

Second, that the primary issue is not one for the pastor but of the people. It is the people who hear and do or don’t recognise the voice of God as it is faithfully taught. If the people will not follow their faithful leader, it is because they are not craving the voice of the real Master.

Third, perhaps even more than those in “secular” life, those in paid ministry need reminding that God is no person’s debtor - everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for His sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. There will be sacrifice in staying put and sacrifice in moving on, there are no pain-free options, but God is good, all the time.

Fourth, for clergy it is natural (but neither logical nor biblical), to assume that the status quo is best. After all, that is probably part of the sense of calling. However, the calling, whatever it may be, can always be done better. Another post in this series will attempt to deal with aspects of how laity might assist with imagining and demonstrating what that might look like, but suffice it to say for now, that God only ever wants to give his children more and better gifts in the future. It may be that lay people can point their clergy to something like this from Raymond Brown (writing on Deuteronomy 1:21) [1],

“In time of fear we must first accept God’s gift. The future is not something to dread. It is God’s gift to us. It is his future and not simply ours, as if we faced at all alone or without the assurance of His providential care. He knows all about it, and, in His sovereignty, can use every aspect of it for our blessing, the enrichment of others and the glory of His name. When we look into a dark and uncertain future we too must hear the words that were addressed to those despondent Hebrew pilgrims: See the Lord, your God has given you this land. In his sovereignty God knows everything about our future. It is His gift before it is our threat”.

Fifth, clergy must be given permission to do as they feel called. Ministers with permanently tortured consciences are no use to anyone and will do themselves harm. Kindness requires them not to have to minister against what they understand God to be saying. Clergy do move on for all manner of reasons, including retirement, preferment and a new call, and they can’t ever really know what will happen to their former church. It is simply the case that even the 'best' of appointments can go rapidly pear-shaped. Clergy can be helped to embrace calling is not a cage and a clear conscience toward both God and man is something to allow a minster to 'take pains' in having. Anything laity can do practically to help make that a reality is a way to honour those who God has set over them.

Sixth, experience from the rest of the world teaches that the true test of godliness for both clergy and laity alike in this generation is not making the 'right' decision to remain or depart, but how each treat those who come to the opposite decision. That, very simply, is the loving thing to do - especially for those who feel trapped against their will- like the faithful but impecunious vicar housing four generations in the vicarage. Moreover, it is also the practical thing to do - if the Canterbury-aligned structures carry on headlong into ever greater error, then ever more people will join the ranks of those who have already departed and they need to know that they will be unequivocally welcomed. By the same token, if the Coe/CiW/SEC returns to its Biblical moorings then departees may well wish to return to an equally unequivocal reception. Burning bridges or even harbouring resentments is not a sensible strategy.

Seventh, and following from all that goes before - expecting clergy (or anyone else), whatever their conscience and/or whatever people say, to in any event stay so as not to weaken old structures or churches, or to leave so as to strengthen new ones, is not an answer. The battle is not primarily a practical one of numbers, money and votes but a spiritual one. It is in recognising that politics is always subservient to providence that conscience and relationships will be respected, and faithfulness engendered.

Finally, sadly, at times, all this cannot but result in some shepherds without sheep and some sheep without shepherds - there will be a realignment. A further role for laity may be either becoming sheep of a new shepherd or finding a new shepherd to care for the flock but that is, again, a subject for another in this series.

[1] From Raymond Brown - The Message of Deuteronomy - BST


Want to know more?

'On The Edge' gatherings offer those considering a future outside the Canterbury-aligned structures (CofE, CinW, SEC etc) 24 hours away to consider the pastoral and practical implications of staying and leaving in a confidential setting.

In the past, most of those attending 'On the Edge' have been clergy but Anglican Futures recognise the vital role laity play (sometimes supporting clergy as they prepare to leave and sometimes forming new congregations, who in time will seek a vicar).

So, to equip laity in that task Anglican Futures is planning a lay-focused

'On The Edge' this summer.

To maintain confidentiality dates and venues are not publicised

If you think this is just what you, or someone you know, might need

Contact us:


Thank you to Pawan Sharma at Unsplash for the image

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May 25, 2023

impecunious means having little money. hm, had to look that one up.

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