World Council of Churches

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Response by Barbara Schwahn

The Vocation of the Laity in Church and World: Towards an Inclusive Community on Different Levels" - a response by Barbara Schwahn to the paper "On Being Christian in the World"

10 May 1997

Towards an Inclusive Community on Different Levels"

A response by Barbara Schwahn to the paper "On Being Christian in the World"

Thank you very much for the clear and helpful distinctions which you made in your paper with regard to the different groups of the laity and to the terminology that is used in the ongoing discussions around the laity; I appreciated especially your differentiation between the areas of salvation and creation.

I would like to comment on these points against the background of my research on the topic of the laity and of my present pastoral work in the German context.

I. Laos - The people of God

1. It seems quite clear to me after your explication of the term laos as "the people of God" that this term is used - at least in the Old Testament - to describe a group of elected people who are sanctified and have a special vocation as God’s people.

During my time in Geneva, I had the impression that this term is used for many different groups of people who need God’s special care as God’s creation, and who should be included in our community. Sometimes, in reading about the discussions, and in what I heard, I had the feeling that we want to include too many people under this rubric.

The criteria seemed not be election and sanctification - at least, I did not hear reflections about that. Some spoke about "the whole people of God" to emphasise the inclusiveness of the term. And in the end the term seemed to cover practically everybody.

Talking about "the whole people of God" may lead to a more inclusive understanding of the church. It may be a common basis for a partnership between laity and clergy. It may lead to a real community between different groups of the laity, perhaps to a fuller integration of young people, of people who do not belong to the "middle class" in our parishes, of people with a disability. But one has also to ask: Who is described by this term in the biblical sense, and who is not? Are these people who are baptised or people who follow Jesus in the way he acted by listening to the bible? Or people who follow Jesus in their actions without knowing it?

2. Therefore I find it very helpful that Hans-Ruedi Weber talked about other biblical perspectives in order to broaden the understanding of the lay vocation. It seems to me that especially the perspective of "the image of God" describes very well the dignity of all human beings as God’s people, and extends the horizon of the expression "the people of God" to the whole of God’s creation. With the different biblical perspectives of the lay vocation in mind, we are able to talk about inclusiveness on different levels.

Perhaps one underlying question for our meeting could be: When do we talk about salvation, about election, and when do we talk about creation? Who is described by the different biblical terms, and who is not? What characterises the people of God and what distinguishes them from others?

II. The Two-fold vocation of the laity

3. I find it interesting that in three of the four biblical perspectives, the vocation of the laity was described in relation to God in worship and in relation to the world. Coming from Germany I find it very important for promoting the responsibility of lay people to show the link between the vocation of the laity for service in the church and in the world.

When I look at the German situation, I would say that most of those who are baptised are not aware of the fact that they are part of the laos - the people of God. They would say that they believe in God and live their lives as Christians, but do not feel the need of the church as an institution or as a community. They do not need the meetings, the worship services and other events organised by their respective parishes. They usually do not see these as related to their lives or to the questions they have. They see themselves as lay people if it comes to questions such as how to behave in church or how to understand church language and rituals, or how to explain what they believe. But nevertheless they feel they are Christians. Especially the third group in Hans-Ruedi Weber’s distinction would describe themselves in these terms.

One could say they belong to God’s diaspora. Why do you want them to participate in a certain institutional church life? This does not necessarily have to be so. But in many cases these people end up by leaving the church because they do not see the connection between their own lives and the life of the church. And I am not sure whether they would describe themselves as "God’s people".

The second group of people who are active in the church in their free time would consider themselves as belonging to the church as the people of God. Nevertheless they see themselves as lay people in the sense of non-experts who do not have a wide knowledge of the bible. Even those belonging to this group have problems articulating what they believe and what it means to be a Christian. Many of them are not really conscious of being Christians. They feel they need a pastor to help them find a language to articulate what they believe.

Perhaps lay persons of the first category, who work for the church in their profession, are aware of the fact that they are an important part of the church, and they would be willing to become more active in order to gain greater rights within their church.

This means that many lay persons in the Evangelical Church in Germany have no wish to be included to a greater extent in church life because they cannot see the link between the church and their own life and profession. People become individualists and specialists. Pastors are the specialists in the area of church and religion, and are seen as mainly responsible for the church.

4. Now, if we want to get back an understanding and an awareness of the church as the people of God, where everybody has the possibility to live as a Christian with his or her gifts and charisms, how do we go about it?

Perhaps we must show the link between the life of the church and our daily life. We must enable people to become self-conscious, aware of themselves as Christians in the life of the church as much as in their daily life. It seems to me that this is an assumption for them to discuss as Christians with people in the secular world and with people of other faiths.

For example, we have a project in our church at the moment called "evangelisch aus gutem Grund" - "evangelical with good reason". Its goal is to promote a Christian identity in church and society, and to initiate a responsible membership in our church. People are invited to discuss about what they believe, and parishes are being asked to develop their own profile in working out the main focus in their work. The answers will be helpful in developing new perspectives for a human image of our world.

a) Talking about biblical perspectives for the gathered life of the church

5. Therefore I would say we need on the one hand to talk about biblical perspectives which concentrate on the gathered life of the church, like "the body of Christ". Maybe I find it important because I am a professional church worker. But this is not the only reason. How we deal with each other in the church is an important question if we see the church as a sign for humankind -- in the same way as Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic theologians do. How shall we convince people to live responsibly in the secular world if we do not try to give an example in our communities?

In the teaching of some confessions about the laity, (cf. the paper on "A profile of the Laity" -- document no. 5) the lay vocation seems to be mainly part of secular life, while the clergy is responsible for the church. Even in my church, the oft-described "priesthood of all believers" in fact does not exist. Therefore, if we take seriously the biblical teaching of lay vocation in the church and in the world, we need to talk about the community in our churches too.

b) Rediscovering the meaning of baptism and confirmation

What could be helpful is the rediscovery of the meaning of baptism and confirmation as ordination for everyone, as Hans-Ruedi Weber mentions, showing the consequences for a Christian life-style. For many parents in Germany who want to have their child baptised, what is important is God’s blessing for the child, not the fact that baptism is the beginning of life as a Christian.

Already in 1968, there was a kind of major ecumenical consensus between Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians on baptism as a basis for the lay ministry. This had been worked out on the basis of WCC studies on the ministry of the laity and in statements of the Roman Catholic Church on the lay apostolate. I quote Hans-Ruedi Weber (The Ministry of the Laity - Reconsidered from an Old Testament Perspective, in: Laity, no.25/1968, p.21-22):

"a) Baptism is the ordination of the laity which authorises them to participate in Christ’s ministry in and for the world. Baptism is therefore the starting point for a theology on the laity.b) Baptism introduces each church member into a basic apostolic succession. Just as each apostle is called, so each member of the apostolic Church is called to discipleship and mission.c) In baptism each Christian becomes the responsible steward of the gifts of grace, the ‘charismata’ which have been given to him. These ‘charismata’ have to be used both for the up-building of the Church and for Christian service in and through the ‘secular’ jobs of the church members.d) In baptism, each member of the Church is introduced into the dying and uprising with Christ, who, as the eternal High Priest, offered himself to become the victim for the salvation of the world. From their baptism onwards, all Christians are therefore called to share in Christ’s priestly work by offering themselves in love and obedience to God and in love and service of men." (cf. The paper "Towards an Ecumenical Theology of ‘the people of God’", document no. 6)

This agreement should anew become part of our confessional and ecumenical teaching about the church, and we should talk about how to realise this theological agreement in our churches.

c) Developing Christian perspectives for humankind as a task for the church

6. But of course, to show the meaning of the Church for the world today, we would have to go one step further and make clear what our perspectives are as Christians of humankind, how we see history, what it means for us to live as truly human. If we can show that "God’s chosen people is not called to do something special besides its human calling, but to fulfil this human calling in an exemplary way", as Hans-Ruedi Weber described it in his article in 1968, people will recognise how important our service as Christians is, both in the church and in society.

Again, the biblical perspective of the image of God could help us to formulate a consensus in these questions too. This would continue the work of the Laity Desk of the past in the light of the current discussions in different Units of the WCC.

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