World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Response by Maha Milki Wehbe

Response by Maha Milki Wehbe to the paper "On Being Christian in the World" by Hans-Ruedi Weber at the May 1997 international consultation on the theme: "Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God."

10 May 1997

Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997

Response by Maha Milki Wehbe to the paper "On Being Christian in the World"

In Orthodox theology and practice, there is nothing called the "laity". In the liturgy, two words are mentioned: the "clergy" and the "people", without making a specific demarkation between the two. Even the monks and nuns are considered "lay" people (in the Western sense of the word) in the Orthodox church. Thus, there is no specific vocation of the laity (as the paper suggests) but of the clergy. All people are considered to be a "royal priesthood" according to St Paul (his own words).

The true way to understand what the term "people" (of God) means is really by clarifying what "clergy" means for the Orthodox. There is nothing called a "call" which comes to a person from God asking or prompting him to become a priest or a member of the clergy. A certain person is recognized for his piety, devotion and involvement in a particular parish or setting by the people there and/or by the bishop, and he is thus pushed to service. He becomes "offerer" of prayers and intercessions not on their behalf but leading them into God's kingdom. He, because of this, stands in front of the people in the church with his back to them, i.e., leading them, not facing them, i.e., drawing a two-way face-to-face relationship of teacher (teaching church = clergy) and teached (taught church = people). What is important is that the priest in the Orthodox Church can never hold the liturgy alone but people have to be present. He is praying with them not on their behalf.

This is why the priest is from the people and with the people (of the world, in the world) trying to sanctify them and himself (and all the prayers of the liturgy which he uses use the term: we).

However, he does have a specific function not of distinction but of service. He, through apostolic succession, can call on the Holy Spirit for sanctification (even bread and wine, water, absolving sins, etc.) which a member of the people does not have. He, we say, has a specific priesthood while they enjoy a priesthood which all believers share in given by Christ to the disciples and through them to the bishops. A bishop, thus, is the custodian of the teaching, the insurer of its passing on and supervision, and the priest assists him and acts on his behalf in ministry. As such, the people share in the ministry of the clergy.

If we understand this, the role of the "people" (for argument's sake: the "laity") becomes clear. And people in a particular area form a church. Therefore, in Orthodox theology, every church (i.e. group of believers assembling in worship) is the PEOPLE OF GOD, fulfilling within its midst the Kingdom of God. It is what we mean by an "apostolic, catholic church": the small group around the eucharist with the priest/bishop. It realizes as such the fullness, theologically and ecclesiastically, of the church. No distinction is permitted here between priest and people. They are all in the same boat.

Therefore, it is dangerous to talk of the "lay vocation" as apposed to the "vocation of the clergy". There are no first-hand and second-hand Christians. There are no commandments or call only for the priest and others for the laity. Partaking of God is the right and call to all. Many saints were and are not clergy. Many clergy are not saints. There is the Church and simply the Church.

The relation between the laos and the set apart ministry

They are together, united in the Holy Spirit whereby they form the one church - At Pentecost the Apostles, the disciples, Mary and the Holy Women received all the gifts of the Spirit.

The church becomes one in the Eucharist. We partake in the same Eucharist. When the altar up to the 4th and 5th centuries was almost at the centre of the church building the unity was made by the book of the gospel put on the altar at the first stage of the celebration and the Holy chalice at the second stage. Around the altar stood the bishop with the priests and deacons and around the "set apart" the laity in different circles around. The disposal was called hierarchy by the Pseudo-Denys author of the 6th century. The idea was that every order (lay people) was ordained/arranged to the other order and all were ordained to the word and sacrament.

The lay person in this unity receives the gift of the laity and the "set apart" that gift of being ordained arranged (in togetherness) to the word and the sacrament.

Both parts of the church obey the whole community. The priest in harmony with holy tradition and canon law leads the congregation to that which it is ordained to. And because he is the witness to that tradition transmitted by the Spirit he is obeyed to by the congregation. He is also intimately, more personally obeyed to when he is consecrated "spiritual father" by the bishop, that is he receives the authority to hear confession.

The theology of laity is rooted in chrismation. It is the unction of the Spirit, Pentecost which is condusive to witnessing. This is a charism (gift) common to believers, be they lay men or lay women, since they fully received the Spirit and responded to him. In the Orthodox canon law "laos" is radically different from "ochlos" (the mub). In our canonical rules the bishop is nominated by the laos (involved in the church) and not by the ochlos.

The real responsibility of the lay is to be involved in the world. Involvement in the world does not mean worldliness. Nobody is tolerated to be less spiritual. Holiness up to glorification is to be lived here -- All Christians are animated by the contemplation of the ultimate, the eschaton. The only Orthodox spirituality is monastic spirituality without formal vows. This started and remains a lay movement. There is an interior monastism (spirit of poverty, chastity, obedience). Eschatological mind diminishes the virtual gap between ordained and not ordained people.

Still lay people are more directly more closely linked with creativity and art. This is their way to express the mystery of creation, to be the continuation of the creator. They are more linked with history, with making history while clerics do receive the gifts of taking us to the eternal through the sacraments. If laymen reflect more the mystery of incarnation priests represent more the movement of Ascension.

So no radical gap between the more worldly oriented and the more unworldly oriented. The church being one body where all charisms exist together.

The seeds of leadership are in many women sometimes dormant but all the time exhibiting themselves in indirect ways, developing. It is true that all things work for the best for those who love God. All the past, with its sweet and bitter, was slowly engraving the shape of what was to evolve. The Grace of God and a considerate and open-minded milieu who permitted and encouraged the potential in those to actualize helped them to grow and become active. The church leaders and spiritual fathers, brothers and sisters are still pushing them in the direction of ministry. I learned that to grow up and be effective as an Orthodox meant a deep awareness of being part of the church and not merely a cut-off individual. The church, being the world and not only the neighbourhood, along with all those who struggled before us. This communal feeling, which in part means always belonging to groupings seeking the Grace of the Lord, has meant for me that the church is a place of transfiguration.

But growth is always a function of Grace, which is the only factor that changes people. Knowledge of God is also experiencing Him, and this only happens in a community. Knowledge is togetherness. But this togetherness should never be one-sided or sexist. We are not to create a parallel female body to combat male dominion. all are one in Christ, because each is perfected by the one God, and as such every female and male is perfected the more he or she comes closer to the centre of the circle - Jesus. The female should never seek to compete with the male but rather to fulfill the potential of harmonizing mind and heart in a unity which she is more equipped to harmonize. She is not a diminished human being wanting to become complete according to the male historical model. Christ is her model. He perfects her. This vicious circle has to be intentionally cut so that true liberation can take place. And true liberation only happens in, through and with the help of God.

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