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I'm Just a Layperson 4: We are agreed - we need to stay

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

In the face of the increasing heterodoxy of bishops and senior clergy, it is not uncommon for lay people and clergy to question their future in the Church of England (or other

Canterbury-aligned Anglican churches) and sometimes they come to different decisions. The first of this series of blogs looked at how clergy can find themselves institutionalised, the second considered how the sense of calling may affect them.

This rest explore the different situations lay people may find themselves in, suggesting ways they may continue to serve God faithfully, whatever their circumstance.

The last blog explored how a layperson might respond when they feel called to leave, even when their minister is convinced it is right to stay.

In many parishes, however, both clergy and most, if not all, laity will be committed to staying in the Canterbury-aligned structures (whether the Church of England, Church in Wales, Scottish Episcopal Church or Church of Ireland) yet even then they will need to agree together what form of “staying” they wish to pursue.

It might be thought that there are essentially three scenarios, although there will inevitably be some overlap. Whatever approach is taken, laypeople essentially have three roles; to encourage prayer and faithful teaching; to engage with the diocese in appropriate ways; and to think about the future of the church - should the current incumbent move/retire/fall ill.

1. The 'continuing' churches

These are churches who, while as far as possible, are united in remaining faithful and orthodox, do not intend to do anything significant to oppose the decisions of the wider Church in any active way.

This situation can arise either because there is a feeling that, if a parish remains in the diocesan structures, they owe it to the diocese to be loyal and accommodating, or because they are so 'mixed' in view that there would be no agreement about taking a different position. For these churches nothing much will change on the surface, while they have orthodox clergy, but there are still important roles for faithful lay people.

The unavoidable danger for such churches is that they will drift into an ever more heterodox position due to the culture in which they exist and unhelpful external influences. A deliberate strategy as to how to prevent this, devised by those who do not want to see that happen, cannot be other than a wise move. That strategy will embrace prayer, teaching, PCC/synodical representation, maintaining an up to date and protective parish profile, being prepared for the possibility of a damaging pastoral reorganisation, new ministries to grow orthodox numbers etc.

Lay people gathering together to pray and study the Scriptures together is easy to organise. Amongst the plethora of sermons and other forms of teaching on the internet, there are resources that a small group might use to feed themselves and encourage others.

In a mixed setting, the PCC can be a complex space to negotiate - but faithful lay people should not underestimate the impact of a prayerful and, when necessary, vocal presence. Licensed lay workers are immediately members of the PCC, others will need to be elected at the Annual Parochial Church Meeting - though many churches have casual vacancies that can be filled through the year. Some lay people may also feel able to engage with Deanery, Diocesan and even General Synod - the ins and outs of which will be explored later in this blog.

But it is the future of the parish that should be the focus of lay people committed to remaining in the Canterbury-aligned structures. The following advice is based on the current process in the Church of England but the principles can be applied to other provinces.

  • Think ahead - the more work that has been done to understand the process of appointing a new minister, and to build a consensus about what kind of minister the parish needs, the better. A parish is always vulnerable to outside pressure during an interregnum (the time between vicars) so the more prepared the PCC is the better.

  • Know your patron. Every Church of England parish has a patron - it is often the Bishop but it may be that your church has an orthodox individual or patronage body associated with it, such as CPAS or Church Society. Anglican Futures can help you find out about your patron if you contact us.

  • The key document in appointing a new minister is the Parish Profile. Having an up to date version, which the PCC regularly review, avoids having to start from scratch during the interregnum. If the PCC is agreed that they would want a theologically orthodox minister, then that wish can, currently, be expressed in the profile. Here are some examples - with different levels of expectation.

It is also worth remembering that local Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship (find your local one here) are open to lay members as well as clergy, and can be a valuable source of fellowship and advice.

2. The 'silo' churches

Some churches will increasingly 'silo' themselves.

Separation from unfaithful bishops will mean having as little to do with them and their diocese as possible. Deanery and Diocesan Synod, Chapter and other diocesan structures will be avoided like the plague. All funding of the diocese (over and above costs) may cease and if the bishop or archdeacon insists on attending the parish, they may find themselves lonely and the reception or church decidedly chilly.

Some clergy may set up 'shadow' structures'- these have no legal standing but rather can be seen as symbols of resistance; they are more likely to offer fellowship for like-minded clergy, rather than be of assistance to faithful lay people.

Separation may involve refusing to support unfaithful ministry through the parish share (or whatever the contribution to the diocese is called). This is a complicated calculation - few parishes would wish to refuse to pay for the cost of the orthodox clergy that the diocese provide for them, or for the cost of their housing and pension. They may also be concerned to cover the cost of 'safeguarding' and other essentially neutral services which the parish receives from the diocese. Once these costs have been taken into account the amount withheld can be relatively small, but withholding even a small amount can have a negative impact on the future treatment of the parish.

Several dioceses have made it clear that churches that do not pay the amount expected of them by the diocese will be at the back of the line when it comes to future clergy deployment - both curates in the short term and incumbents in the future. Some parishes have even found themselves presented with a bill for the 'arrears' at the start of the interregnum.

Separation raises questions of the reality of episcopal oversight - not just ordination and licensing for clergy [See Anglican Myths 1 & 2]- but it is also a live issue for many laity. Licensed Lay Ministers will face similar dilemmas to clergy about whether the licence they hold and their oaths of canonical obedience connect them in any way to the diocesan bishop or whether they can accept the idea of a spiritual/temporal divide. In a similar way, churchwardens will have to decide whether or not they are willing to swear an oath to the bishop and be his or her officer in the parish. Those unwilling to do so might write to the diocesan explaining their refusal but stating that the parish does not desire the bishop to appoint their own person to the role because while the office will be formally vacant the requirements of role will still be fulfilled. It could be pointed out to the bishop that in those circumstances their limited pool of possible 'spare' church wardens can be better deployed to parishes who cannot raise anyone at all who is willing to fill either office or the role.

Essentially, in this situation, the church is declaring unilateral independence in anything which is not entirely canonically enforceable, and even then, the leadership need to willingly accept the risk of proceedings being brought under the Clergy Discipline Measure for acts of defiance.

Of course, the prayer is that the situation will have improved by the time the incumbent retires. But if it has not, some have spoken of this strategy as 'terminal orthodoxy'- meaning that unless there is a miracle - silo-ing is a ‘one generation’ strategy. It is, therefore vital that faithful lay people who choose this strategy, do not place all their hope in a well ordered Parish Profile (see above) but also have a contingency plan for if the diocese refuse to provide or license clergy in the future.

3. The 'resisting' churches

The third category of church is those who do not want to ‘silo’ themselves and instead want to use their position in the diocese to actively resist and pushback against revisionism, by engaging with the diocese and national church with greater or lesser forms of militancy.

Synodical involvement

Most obviously in such situations it is encumbent on laity to try and pack Deanery Synod and other key committees.

In the Church of England, the number of lay people who can be elected to the Deanery/Diocesan Synod is determined by the Church Representation Rules:

  • The Diocesan Synod determines the number of people that a parish of a certain size can elect to Deanery Synod.

  • Each Deanery Synod then elects a number of lay people to Diocesan Synod.

  • Those on Deanery Synod and Diocesan Synod then form the electorate for General Synod.

  • In addition to these elected members – all those elected to General Synod or who have been co-opted to General Synod – as well as the Chancellor, and the Chairs of the diocesan board of finance, education and diocesan advisory committee – have a seat on the Diocesan Synod.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the more involved the lay people of a church are in diocesan and national synods, the greater their influence. If the aim of a church is to be actively engaged, then every place available to a parish should be occupied. Similarly, every opportunity should be taken to join the likes of a Vacancy in See Committee (involved in choosing a new diocesan bishop), the Diocesan Board of Finance, Board of Education and a myriad other committees, as an opportunity to multiply influence.

It may be that this kind of influence is more easily open to parishes with parishioners from professional backgrounds, who are used to sitting on committees, though that is certainly not the universal experience. However, one would hope that 'professionals' who take up such positions would make it their business to understand the needs of their faithful brothers and sisters in less affluent parts of the diocese so they can also represent them in the corridors of power.

As the pressures grow on faithful clergy, both from society and quite possibly the diocese, lay people will have to absorb more of the burden in a number of areas:

Being the 'face ' of the parish

Suitably placed lay people can assist the incumbent by being a/the ‘face’ of the parish in dealing with social and other media, with their incumbent’s support and on their behalf. Just one or two people appointed to deal with social media criticism, by way of gracious consistent messaging, is preferable to a ‘free for all’ in which unwise things might be said. Similarly, a small amount of media training for one or two, might be a good investment.

Avoiding clergy discipline

Equally, where clergy do not of necessity have to be the interface with the dioceses it is helpful if lay people do it wherever possible. It is sometimes jokingly said that there is nothing a bishop fears more than an angry lay woman, but there is a grain of truth in that. Those who are in no way accountable to, dependent on, or potentially beholden to, the diocese need to make the most of that privilege. If the parish is going to find itself at loggerheads with the diocese a posse of laymen and women representing the views of the parish and their clergy are both harder to argue with and a shield for their vicar.

This is particularly true if anything is to be done which could expose clergy to proceedings under the Clergy Discipline Measure. For example, if a bishop insists on visiting the church, it might be better for a lay person, rather than the vicar, to encourage the congregation not to attend the service. Or, if a lay youth worker, or one of the candidate's parents organised for confirmations to take place in another jurisdiction - they, unlike the vicar, would be beyond the reach of the bishop's discipline.

Managing the finances

Similarly, if a parish intends to take financial action against the diocese, lay people can readily take the lead, after all they have control of the money which might be given, and if they aren’t willing to give it to the diocese, that is a powerful statement. There is no reason for the incumbent to bear the brunt of the diocese’s ire over money - the laity can ‘go into bat’ on behalf of them and the parish. Again, a vicar cannot be expected to do much if their congregants refuse to subsidise heterodoxy for reasons of principle.

It should be remembered that the PCC are obligated to act always in the best interests of the charity which is the PCC. Those fiduciary duties are important, which makes it difficult for PCC members to, for example, discourage people giving to the church. Lay people not on the PCC, however, are entirely free to do as they wish. If they suggest to others that their giving might better be simply withheld for now, diverted to another cause, hypothecated for a particular purpose or paid into a “war chest” unconnected to the PCC to meet the needs of an uncertain future, then nothing can be done to them.

Of course, active resistance of this type may well raise the same issues of 'terminal orthodoxy' already identified as a risk for silo churches. But before PCC members and/or clergy get involved in planning an exit strategy from the Church of England, they should consider the potential conflict of interest with the fiduciary duties they owe to the PCC. The slight perversity of all this is that churches who have the luxury may start to discourage the bravest, most insightful and most committed lay people from serving or continuing to serve on the PCC.


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Thank you Karl Fredrickson from Unsplash for the image above

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