General Synod presented with vision for “setting God’s people free”.

Jan 24, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Among the papers to be digested by delegates preparing for General Synod 13-16 February is a substantial report commissioned by the Archbishop’s Council, calling for a major change of emphasis in the C of E, to focus on equipping the laity for whole-life discipleship. Setting God’s People Free (SGPF) specifically anticipates and rejects criticism that this is a ‘managerial’ project to streamline the institution, for example trying to fill clergy gaps with unpaid lay workers, and instead builds on the biblical principle of the priesthood of all God’s people, living in relationship with Christ and being his ambassadors in the world. So, the report insists, this is “not about reorganization, but redemption”. It calls for a change of culture, to “set God’s people free to evangelize the nation”, and to change the way clergy are viewed, as enablers of missional communities, rather than primarily as pastors to the lay members of churches.

Surveys show that the laity in our churches don’t feel equipped for whole life discipleship and witness in the world. ‘Clericalism’ is identified as a major problem in the C of E’s culture, for example it is commonly assumed that ordination is the ‘next step’ as part of an upward progression in the journey of discipleship, rather than a calling to a specific ministry. Rather, as one clergyman explains, the church should view clergy and church life as part of the ‘trellis’ on which the vine of the lay community can flourish and be a blessing in the world.

The report concedes that in this it is not saying anything new: every generation ‘rediscovers’ the importance of lay ministry (there are quotations from the 1946 report ‘Towards the Evangelization of England’ which contained very similar sentiments). William Temple, CS Lewis, John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin are named as past voices who advocated an emphasis on lay discipleship. But according to SGPF, there has been little change, because of a lack of clear strategy, goals and budgeted plans to implement the idea in practice across the church.

SGPF helpfully identifies four key areas of lay ministry: elected leadership roles in the church (for example, church warden); informal service roles in the church (making coffee, teaching Sunday school); involvement in church-led community action (volunteering in the local school or care home, debt counselling); and involvement in the workplace and wider society (being a Christian in the world). What are the factors which prevent better lay ministry, particularly in this crucial lastly-mentioned area? The report suggests firstly ‘theological deficit’, by which it means a lack of ability to articulate and apply theological principles to reflect on how God is at work in our lives outside of ‘church’. Then, a “weak lay voice”, whereby the church institution does not sufficiently understand and give space for the expression of the needs and gifts of lay people.

Third, poor relationships between clergy and laity. Some bitterness emerges in this section, as clergy are heavily criticized (laity feel “underused, disenfranchised, not equipped”), but also from the clergy perspective, laity often don’t want to be empowered but just want the clergy to do church for them. Fourthly, there is a lack of proper research, strategies for change, and resources targeting new learning compared with other successful organizations. While lay reader training is mentioned, it is acknowledged that this is narrowly focused on equipping certain people for specific tasks in the gathered church (eg biblical study, preaching and teaching), not whole life discipleship.

The paper sets out a strategy for change in the form of eight ‘levers’ which it believes can shape thinking and practice for the future. These include requiring Bishops to make a shift in focus towards intentionally encouraging lay discipleship, creating new liturgies eg renewal of baptismal vows for lay people, and perhaps most significantly, re-focussing clergy selection, training and ministry to prioritise the formation of lay disciples. This would of course require clergy to be teachers and encouragers of ministry, rather than primarily pastors and administrators. All this must be championed by the Archbishops. The report suggests immediate commissioning of theological resources, the development of a central online ‘portal’ for networking and training, and trials of new systems to be carried out in ‘pilot’ Dioceses.


The biblical concepts of whole life discipleship, the priesthood of all believers, and a church in which all the gifts of the body’s members are being used together for evangelism and mission, are central to historic, bible-based Christianity, and so it can only be positive that there are plans to prioritise these ideas more in the church’s self-understanding, and to implement them with practical programmes. So should we not be enthusiastic about the possibility of an evangelical ecclesiology and missiology being pushed through the church? Well yes, certainly, but as with all these schemes, a question has to be asked about whether writing well-researched reports and rolling out centralized programmes is the best way to promote healthy churches. There are churches up and down the country, mostly evangelical, which are already doing many of the things suggested in the report. If in many other congregations they are not being done because of ignorance, then encouragement and resources from the centre can help, but openness to learn from good local practice of nearby fellowships might be more effective. But as the report admits, in many cases relationships in the body are dysfunctional, and there is strong resistance either from clergy, or laity, or both, to the basic principles of personal faith in Christ and every member ministry – can this be changed by online portals and Diocesan initiatives?

Perhaps the biggest flaw in SGPF though is the lack of clarity on what a lay disciple, ie a Christian, actually is. In more than one place 1 Peter 2:9 is quoted: “you are a royal priesthood”, and it is claimed this is the role of every baptized person. But reading this verse in the context of the epistle as a whole, the idea of baptism as the defining mark of what makes someone part of this new priesthood is absent. The apostle Peter, writing to God’s people scattered throughout what is now Turkey, uses many images in the first two chapters to describe their unique status: sprinkled by Jesus’ blood (ie not the water of the font), saved through faith, set apart for obedience to God, redeemed from sin by Christ’s sacrificial death, part of God’s new temple of living stones. It may be true that baptism is a sign and seal of these spiritual realities for believers (and as an Anglican, I believe the sign occurring before the reality is as effective as following it), but Peter, along with the other New testament writers, clearly seems more interested in the reality than the sign when talking about being a Christian.

In which case, it would surely be better to base any strategy for enabling discipleship and empowering the members of the body of Christ lay and ordained, the ‘royal priesthood’, to be based on the spiritual realities themselves mentioned by Peter, especially a clear understanding of repentance from sin and faith in Christ, rather than merely baptism, a ritual which many have undergone who remain unconverted. A new emphasis on empowering the laity for witness which understands God’s people as those who are born again rather than just baptized, and where training is based unequivocally on biblical foundations shared with orthodox Christians down the ages and worldwide, would get my full support.


Meanwhile the Anglican world awaits the report from the Bishop’s Reflection Group on sexuality which is due to be released on Friday 27th January. It will be included in the second tranche of discussion papers for General Synod. Among the speculated (or leaked?) conclusions are the following: the church will not change its doctrine of marriage, but Bishops will not have to explain or defend this doctrine, for example by asking any questions about the domestic arrangements of clergy in exclusive relationships, and Synod are not being asked to debate the issue. I guess the hope is that there will be a general desire to stop talking about sexual ethics and doctrines of sin and salvation, which are seen as divisive, and instead focus on other issues which are apparently more likely to unite and lead to growth.


See also: Synod Agenda papers published, by Gavin Drake, ACNS

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