A Doctrinally Sound House of Laity

The question of lay power in churches has come into my thoughts more than once, especially for places without an established church. I have wished to build comprehensive church bodies requiring no more than adherence to the creeds for membership; concerned, however, that democratic chaos would destroy faithfulness to sound doctrine, I have not wanted to put lay power into the hands of any who would not subscribe to (in the case of Anglican churches) the Thirty-Nine Articles. This is one reason I have considered it advantageous to have robustly established churches in predominantly Christian countries.

For a Protestant church, a clericalist solution is clearly not acceptable: the laity, who receive and interpret the same Scriptures as the clergy, should not be deprived of a voice. This was why I sought a lay ‘aristocratic’ solution, in which (in Britain, at least) Parliament could act as a lay synod with the power to veto certain measures brought forth by the clergy. This proved its potential in 1928, when the British Parliament objected to a proposed revision to the Book of Common Prayer that would allow priests to reserve the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to be carried to the sick, a practice that could promote superstition about the sacrament. While the proposed revisions forbade reserving the bread and wine under conditions leading to their adoration, it remains pertinent that opposition in Parliament saved most of the laity from having something simply forced upon them by the clergy without biblical warrant.

It seems clear to me, then, both in theory and in practice, that it’s important for the laity to be represented in church government by laymen that they’ve elected themselves, and not simply by the ministers who represent them ritually in public worship and lead them in prayers. In the Roman Catholic Church this may not be necessary, since the Bishop of Rome is their monarch, supreme and (since Vatican I) infallible, but in a Protestant church I think it virtually indispensable.

At the same time, it would be deadly to have doctrine destroyed by popular revolution, or even by an indirect democracy poorly instructed in doctrine. We aim, of course, at a well-educated church, able both to declare and to defend the faith, but there will always be some who are Christians no less but not suited for the demands of governing, whether as children or as recent converts. This is why Parliament required itself in the past to swear against the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and to take Holy Communion at least once a year in the established church.

Now I see a good practice in church synods that include a house of laity:

Membership of a deanery synod consists of a house of clergy comprising all clergy in the deanery holding the Bishop’s licence, and one or more retired clergy elected by retired clergy in receipt of a pension in accordance with the provisions of the Clergy Pensions Measure 1961 at the relevant date: one clergy person to be elected for every ten retired clergy persons or part thereof, elected in a manner approved by the bishop; a house of laity comprising parochial representatives elected by the annual meetings of parishes in the deanery, any deaconesses or lay workers licenced by the Bishop to work in the deanery, or licensed to work in the diocese and living in the deanery.

I think it wise to require the Bishop’s approval for those serving in a house of laity, that these laymen may be examined on their adherence to the doctrine held by the Church of England, specifically the Thirty-Nine Articles as taken in their literal and grammatical sense. This practice, though serving a somewhat different purpose, would be similar to that of confirmation in some ways, drawing on a bishop’s role as a guardian of the integrity of the faith. In a time when active membership in the Church of England is no longer a requirement for those sitting in the House of Commons, this is a prudent measure, which could be used to safeguard doctrine in the face of weak knowledge of Scripture and Christian doctrine among the general populace.


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