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Towards a Common Understanding of Laity/Laos: Consultation Statement

From 7-10 May 1997, twenty-seven men and women in cooperation with the World Council of Churches met in Geneva to consider together the possibility of a common understanding of the theological concepts of laity/laos/the people of God. We talked about the present situation and future challenges to the Christian churches. The meeting was chaired by Fr Nicholas Apostola (Romanian Orthodox Church) and Dr Anne Tveter (Lutheran). It was organized by Evelyn Appiah, Executive Secretary of the Stream of Lay Participation towards Inclusive Community.

10 May 1997

Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997

Consultation Statement

Introduction

From 7-10 May 1997, twenty-seven men and women in cooperation with the World Council of Churches met in Geneva to consider together the possibility of a common understanding of the theological concepts of laity/laos/the people of God. We talked about the present situation and future challenges to the Christian churches. The meeting was chaired by Fr Nicholas Apostola (Romanian Orthodox Church) and Dr Anne Tveter (Lutheran). It was organized by Ms Evelyn Appiah, Executive Secretary of the Stream of Lay Participation towards Inclusive Community.

The group came from a variety of ecclesial traditions, which demanded thinking together, speaking together, doing together, to make sense of the same imagery from different perspectives. At the same time, we shared a commitment to the Bible, the common heritage of the churches. Many of us and our churches are living our Christian commitment in contexts of pluralism - cultural, religious, political, social.

In the course of our time together, we discovered that almost any term, any image has strengths and weaknesses. These can not stand alone, but need the perspective of the whole church in the whole world. We also experienced the ways in which all of us are bound by the limitations of our particularities of church and culture. We need each other to conceptualize these particularities.

As a preliminary observation we would remind ourselves that the "laity" constitutes ninety-eight percent of the church in its life of worship and service. The laity are the "agents" of Christ in the world, daily missionaries. The laos is the common element between the life of the congregation and the life of the world. The laity are the church in the world. One could say that within the life and workings of the WCC the laity similarly forms the basis of each and every programme. One could say that the former Laity Department has now been localized in the work of each of the Units and Streams.

The following are some recommendations which surfaced during the presentation of papers and group work which we share with Christians and Christian churches associated with the World Council of Churches for prayerful consideration and action.

Opening prayer

Because we were involved in this process prayerfully, we share a prayer which informed the drafting of this text:

Grant, O God of truth, that what is written for the reading of many may fully and accurately reproduce the views of those who engage in the quest for the visible unity of your church, having them say what they actually do say and in the way that they mean it, so that even those divided in faith may come to see that they are divided within the same faith, because they believe in the self-same Lord; for that Lord's sake we ask it. Amen. (Source: Martin Cressey, Encounters for Unity, p.45).

Some preliminary remarks about images and models

The mystery of the Church is so profound that the earliest communities who followed Jesus found it helpful to describe it through images. Biblical scholars say that ninety six different images of the church appear in the New Testament, one of which is "the people of God," a designation inherited from the people of Israel.

Such symbolism is a way of describing the community, of holding it together, and of fostering loyalty and commitment. These images also suggest attitudes about the church and courses of action in the world.

Soon we will reach the close of the second millenium in the life of the Church, and the New Testament images continue to be employed to deepen the understanding of new generations in the church. As a model, "people of God" points to a network of inter-personal relationships -- to a living, breathing community.

The situation: What is the same? What has changed?

Congregational living. Congregational/parish life has many variables - different histories, confessional commitments, understandings of ministry - but one aspect is a constant: most members of our churches are laity. This is evident when we worship. In church people search for meaning and try to make sense of the Scriptural affirmation: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Hebrews 13:8)

Fifty years ago, most people who sought theological education at seminaries became ordained, or worked professionally in the churches. Most of these were men. Today, many people who seek such education are not or will not be ordained. Some, even many, of these students are women. And many will not necessarily work professionally in the church.

Ecumenical implications. When we gather in ecumenical meetings, however, the preponderence of laity no longer is evident. Clergy often are representatives in ecumenical gatherings, regardless of the ecclesiological self-understandings of particular churches. In fact, in these contexts, we sometimes talk about laity as objects to be trained, rather than people in partnership.

When we used to gather "experts" at Bossey to discuss key issues confronting the churches and the world, many of these people were laity. We have moved away from thinking and behaving in these terms.

We recognize that, in the history of the Church there has been much clericalisation. This has been reinforced by the institutional model of church. It often has led to the devaluing of unordained members. In this situation, the churches working together through the World Council of Churches have been concerned about taking seriously the knowledge and experience of unordained as well as ordained members of the body of Christ. The work on "Church as koinonia," on the viability of theological education, on theology by the people/ecumenical spirituality - all have been attempts in diverse ways to restore the unordained to their rightful place in the mystery of the Church.

In earlier days this work was structured through the Ecumenical Institute at Château de Bossey and the Department on the Laity; then the sub-unit on Renewal and Congregational Life; and now by Lay Participation towards Inclusive Community Stream.

Interfaith issues. Christianity is born out of the People of Israel, and Islam counts herself as one of the three religions of the Book. Hence, these dialogues have their special problems and possibilities. While using similar language, all three give this language distinct and different meanings. In other words, we might ask, in what ways is Christianity which uses the image People of God different from Judaism and Islam which also claim to be God's people?

The yearning for meaning. Whereas earlier generations of Christians understood that there is a necessary connection between church and believer, this no longer is so in some parts of the world. Many Christians think they do not need the church as an institution or as a community. They resist meetings. They do not participate in worship. They are not involved in events sponsored by the church. They are in a desperate search for meaning and community, but are less likely to seek it through steady, stable participation in a Christian congregation.

Some parts of the contemporary church and world have been influenced strongly by the culture of the Enlightenment and of Christendom. The former, with its devotion to progress and its mantras of "fact", "theory" and "objectivity", has led us to disengage understanding from being and behaving. Rationality reigns supreme.

In some cultures, we see signs of dissatisfaction with this over-emphasis. The affirmation of "Jesus Christ yesterday, today and forever" now is made in the context of a widespread yearning of the experience of the numinous and a desire to obey the will of God. How people choose to express this dis-ease can have positive or destructive results.

Changes in ways of understanding the church. In some places, Christians lived with a Christendom ideology which was an ideology of power. This fostered a model of the church as a kind of Solomonic temple set over against the world. Today there is growing dissatisfaction with that model. It has been supplanted with an understanding of church as servant. In the third world, which has become the heartland of world Christianity, churches now face the question of how to live out this new model.

Changes in ways of understanding the world. The world, as the "arena" in which the laos works and lives, has also undergone a change of meaning. Is the world the "secular city" or is it the oikoumene? Is it the "darkness" which did not comprehend the Light and has tried to extinguish it (cf. Jn 1:5), or is it the light of reason and human knowledge? The question of radical secularization - which is occuring in different ways and at different speeds in different parts of the world - has changed the terms of the discussion in many places. Not everyone believes that the world is in need of salvation.

How do we define laity/laos/people of God
The question of terminology with regard to the "laity" has begun to take on ecclesiological significance. We have come to use words like lay, laos, people of God, and whole people of God almost inter-changeably. At the same time, people from different confessional backgrounds use the same terms with quite different meanings.

In some ways, this terminological dilemma is a particularly modern phenomenon. It represents both an uncertainty about the nature and role of the churches in the world today, and a desire to affirm that everyone - indeed, the whole creation is a focus of God's love.

In the course of church history the laity usually were seen as Christians who are not clergy. Such a distinction can be helpful because those who are set apart for a special ministry within the church and members of religious orders do have a differently oriented vocation than Christians living more fully in the world. However, this negative description does not do justice to the specific vocation of the laity.

Clergy, members of religious orders, and lay people (who assume a variety of responsibilities) have received the ordination of baptism for a Christian life. All form part of the church. Nevertheless, the positions held within church membership and the differently oriented vocations strongly influence for each the special interests, the priorities, conceptions of the church and the understanding of the world. If such different priorities and points of view are not recognized, talk about the laity soon looses its focus and gets confused.

The twentieth century ecumenical discussion on the laity has rightly focused on laity who spend most of their time in "worldly" environments. Nevertheless, there always was a tendency to concentrate very soon on clergy-laity relationships, on church structures and church educational activities rather than on what it means to be Christians in the world. This is mainly due to the fact that many clergy and professional church workers became the spokespersons in the ecumenical laity discussions. Therefore the real challenge of the rediscovery of the laity has until now seldom been faced.

The vocation and the experience of lay people in worldly environments are marked by the fact that they almost always live in penultimate realities, although as Christians they attempt to live according to what Christian faith teaches about the ultimate reality.

In the east the Church has traditionally presented an open attitude towards the world, even though there may have been times and situations when the world and its distractions were viewed skeptically there. In the west the Church's attitude toward the world and secular knowledge has been more mixed. Nonetheless, as Christians we believe that God, in creating human beings in God's image, created us to know and be in communion with God. God has created every human being good, to do good. God created every human being with a desire to know and worship God.

We find this deep longing to know God and to do good in every civilization, in every people, in every person. We see evidence of this everywhere. It is not the exclusive province of Christians or the Christian church. It is a natural phenomenon, present everywhere by the design of God.

In addition to this, however, the church also has had a clear sense of itself as a people set apart. There are many words and images used in the New Testament and the writings of early Christians to describe this special relationship with God that Christians felt in the person of Jesus Christ.

This tension between being "in the world but not of the world" (cf. John 17:15) has given the Christian tradition a variety of ways of understanding the church, of understanding the role of Christians in the world, and of how Christians should interact with people who may not share the Christian belief of God's self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, the Christian community's understanding of itself as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (I Pt 2:9) can be used triumphalistically.

We are keenly aware, however, that "God desires that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (I Tim 2:4). God's revelation and truth and light is for all people. God is at work in creation. All persons are objects of God's love. Yet Jesus Christ did come. As Christians we affirm that there was a uniqueness to his person, his presence, and his message. His coming was and is the fulfillment of God's promise not only to Israel, but to the whole of humanity, to the whole of creation, regardless of time, regardless of location.

So terms such as laity, laos, people of God have a very special meaning for those who follow Jesus Christ. To highlight the sacred role the Christian community has in the transformation, sanctification and salvation of the world is not to delimit the work of the Holy Spirit.

What are the implications of these matters for the churches?

  1. Often there has been a failure to be aware fully of the presence of Christ in a person's vocation, dignity, responsibility, and destiny. The churches are not sufficiently aware of the rich human resources in their midsts. Through Decade Team Visits consciousness has been heightened of the ways in which women are pillars of the churches. Insufficient efforts are made to discover, celebrate, and invite new people to offer their gifts in the church and the world. Creative, systemic ways are needed to do this within our churches, and to share our discoveries wherever they are needed. We pose these questions to ourselves and our churches: How can the laity be empowered and given entitlement? What structures will do this most effectively?

  2. The superficial attribution of matters "sacred" to the clergy and "secular" to the laity must be transcended. The whole Church has a "secular dimension." We live in the world even though our Christian faith cautions us not to become captives of it. Those Christians whose vocations involve them in this world struggle to do so responsibly -- sometimes in the face of complex ethical dilemmas and compromising challenges.

  3. The spiritual formation of the people of God is based primarily upon a covenantal relationship: "Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people" (Jer 7:23). Our relationship of trust with God shapes our thinking, doing, feeling, and being. Thus, formation of the laos is both a spiritual and physical process. How people are introduced to and instructed in the faith in the various stages of development through their lives will affect their relations with God, with others, with creation and with themselves.

    Growing toward maturity as people of God would require taking seriously one's baptism, one's worship and prayer life, and one's sensitivity to the needs of others. As a pilgrim people we are formed by our experiences of suffering and joy, by our daily living in the world, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    In this regard it is important to highlight the family as the primary location of Christian formation. For most people their first instruction in the faith is met in the family. The experience of God that we encounter in our families often marks us for the rest of our lives. The family, however it might be configured, is both the fundamental organizational unit of the church and of society. The churches must take care to strengthen and support the family spiritually as well as materially. When one speaks of the formation of the laity, therefore, the family is the first and often the most powerful location where this formation takes place.

  4. Renewed reflection about the full implications of the "people of God" may lead to a more inclusive understanding of the church. Movements of people who have been disenfranchised continue to expand our horizons, adjust our definitions, and change our behaviours.

  5. All too often, the manner in which our ecumenical work has been conducted has become bureaucratized, professionalized, and specialized. Although expertise has its proper place in the working out of issues among our divided churches -- because we seek unity of the whole people in the whole church for the whole world -- the churches need to recommit themselves to taking this 'professionalization' of ecumenism seriously in the healing of our divisions.

    At the same time, it must be noted that, all too often, ecumenical formation has been neglected in our churches -- thus widening the gap between those who are interested in becoming involved and comfortable in ecumenical arenas, and those who are not. If reconciliation is essential, then every follower of Christ must be involved, and provided with the tools to reflect on the unity we seek. New models are needed to achieve this aim. More persons need to become involved in areas of practical ecumenism, i.e. churches and Christians doing things together, thinking together, because they are conscious of belonging to one body of Christ by Baptism.

  6. Sound Biblical teaching is necessary for all Christians, because it is the source of our faith, a corrective to brokenness, and a connection with the struggles Christians face in the world. Many churches voice concern that not all that could or should be done in this area of Christian nurture -- among our youth, in our families, in our churches, is being done. This makes it harder for Christians to live in congruence between their believing and their behaving. Because many of us experience this challenge, we may be able to respond most fruitfully if we respond together.

What are the implications for the churches together?

  1. During the opening worship of the Consultation, the participants prayed for each other with these words: "Gracious God, make (name) into a living stone, chosen and precious in your sight." Subsequent discussions deepened the meaning of these words. However, it also became apparent that, regardless of variations in theoretical understanding of the nature of the church and its ministries in the churches represented in the persons of the participants, the practical functioning within these various traditions seemed to be the same: the devaluing of the vocation of the laity in the church and the world. It would appear that all of the churches are similarly challenged.

    Because the churches bring this behaviour into the ecumenical movement, it also is a challenge for our churches together. The restoration of unity among our churches is fundamentally the restoration of relationships in the fullest sense. Thus, in addition to dialogue about differences in theory, the churches also need to affirm and/or admonish one another for the gap between theory and practice, to pray for a change of mind and heart, and to explore concrete ways in which to become more consistent.

  2. Mixed/ecumenical/interchurch marriages are a common phenomenon among laity and some married clergy. This is a relatively new development. The consequences have not been digested fully by our churches. In fact, some religious leaders are disturbed by this fact. Thus, what potentially is an avenue of increased growth and understanding among Christians borne of human love, sometimes becomes a problem for couples because of the remaining divisions between churches.

    Is it possible for churches to maximize the ecumenical potential of this phenomenon, and minimize the pain experienced by families in mixed marriages? What progress have the churches made at official levels that is not yet fully received by congregations/parishes? What changes might be made to lessen problems? Can the churches mine the ecumenical potential of these relationships in new and creative ways?

  3. When the history of the twentieth century ecumenical movement was reviewed, we were reminded of the vision, strength, insight, and dedication of laity from all our churches. They have been leaven in our churches, salt which gave flavour to the fledgling quest for Christian unity, lights of reconciliation to the world, prophets who sought peace and pursued it, harbingers of an inclusivity ahead of their time. They were and are "Christophoroi" -- Christ-bearers. We confess how easy it is to forget these witnesses, saints and martyrs. They still have much to teach us. The churches must rededicate themselves to finding ways to remember and appropriate this ecumenical tradition; to teach it to future generations; to honour their gifts to the church catholic; and to continue their witness.

    Moreover, lay persons are a major source of pressure towards the unity of the church. In their relations across denominational lines, the pain sometimes experienced by those in "mixed marriages," their participation in common parishes, and their refusal to accept the continuing divisions of the churches, the laos challenge the churches to overcome their divisions.

  4. The meaning of ordination and oversight, and the relationship between the ordained and the laity, continues to be one of the most vexing areas of disagreement among our churches. Though the way through these church-dividing issues is still unclear, they are sufficiently crucial to achieving Christian unity and renewal that the churches cannot stop talking about them and working at them until unity is achieved. These discussions must occur within the context of our understanding of the role of the laity in the life of our churches. For this reason, it is crucial that we not be satisfied with texts that convey an apparent agreement, but rather be mindful of the underlying tensions that persist whenever we begin our dialogues. Furthermore, the laity must be involved in the dialogues. The laity are the people whose primary experience is in congregational life.

    Another aspect of clergy-laity relations is the use and abuse of power and authority within the church. All are called to be Christ's agents of transformation in the world, serving in different ways and means according to one's gifts and heartfelt enthusiasm. These differences do not infer a superiority of one means of service over another. All need to be critically aware of how one's gifts are being utilized in service and whether it inhibits the full potential of others. Examples should be gathered and lifted up of ways in which power and authority may be used that demonstrate the full expression of people's gifts for ministry.

  5. The faithful are incorporated into Christ by their baptism. Baptism and confirmation is the ordination of the laity which authorizes them to participate in Christ's ministry in and for the world. "Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ. It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people." [BEM on Baptism: II,2] In addition, "baptism, as a baptism into Christ's death, has ethical implications which not only call for personal sanctification, but also motivate Christians to strive for the realization of the will of God in all realms of life." [BEM on Baptism: III,10] The churches have achieved a growing convergence about the real, though imperfect communion we share through our baptism. This agreement should become part of our confessional and ecumenical teaching about the church and we should talk about how to realize this theological agreement in our churches. We will look for ways to recognize and celebrate this ecumenical growth through appropriate liturgical acts and forms.

    Further study needs to be made of the issue of baptism in relation to the laos, that is to say the whole Body of Christ. For example, common reference is made to baptism as a universal ordination "to" the "people of God." This is helpful, but what does it imply about the "second" ordination of the clergy to their particular functions? Is it possible to use this language without implying that the "second" ordination is more "complete," or a "perfection" of the first? Can we speak of baptism of all Christians as a "general" ordination without implying that clerical ordination is a second ordination?

  6. Any consideration of the church as the people of God actualizes the relations between the church and other communities of faith. No common Christian theology of religions has as yet emerged out of the increasing awareness that Christians -- also in the places where they once dominated the culture -- live in a world of religious pluralism. Yet, since the WCC established interfaith dialogue programmes in 1971 (Addis Ababa), programmes that were confirmed in Nairobi in 1975, a substantial body of experience and guidelines for interreligious dialogues has become an official part of the WCC work. During the consultation, the urgency of incorporating the insights and concerns, that have been recognized in and through the dialogue experiences of the WCC, was recognized and the sentiment was voiced that this urgency not be dampened by the lack of agreement in the matters of theologies of religions.

  7. Ecumenism deals with healing relationships -- between Christians, among churches, for the sake of the world. Christian spirituality deals with a relationship -- to the Triune God we know through Jesus Christ -- and through God, to each other. Both ecumenism and spirituality recognize that all too often our relationships with each other, indeed with the whole created order and thus with God, are broken and in need of mending. A loving God beckons us to the Godhead and also to our neighbours.

    We see among many Christians from all churches a desire for a deeper and richer experience of God, for holiness, for transcendence. This yearning is transcending the remaining divisions among our churches. It evidences itself in ecumenical prayer groups, Bible study groups, retreats, reading of each others devotional literature, ecumenical pilgrimages, hymn festivals, special worship services such as during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in special youth gatherings, etc. It also must be the fertile soil in which this quest for unity occurs. We all pray "Our Father" even if we are alone. There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart.

    At the same time, we acknowledge that, all too often, our churches have not adequately responded to this yearning -- and have not responded together. We recognize great potential for growth, and for growth together, by responding to this yearning together. In 1950, the World Council of Churches' Central Committee committed themselves in the Toronto Statement to "enter into spiritual relationships through which they seek to learn from each other and to give help to each other in order that the body of Christ may be built up and that the life of the churches may be renewed." We will seek new ways to do this, and/or reclaim traditional ways for new generations of the faithful. Because the church is a worshipping and praying community, we especially will look for ways in which we can show the unity we already have in acts of worship.

  8. Christians are called to bear one another's burdens. People around the world -- some with whom we share a common bond in the Christian community, others with whom we share the common bond of our humanity -- suffer from disasters, strife, war, famine, oppression, and economic deprivation. When we worship, we bring the world before God, offering prayers of intercession for all those who suffer. We recall another commitment the churches made in the Toronto Statement, that churches "should recognize their solidarity with each other, render assistance to each other in case of need and refrain from such actions as are incompatible with brotherly (and sisterly) relationships." We celebrate the many ways that Christians and churches around the world have fulfilled this responsibility in our life together through the World Council of Churches. We repent of those times when we have missed the mark. We recognize and celebrate those people -- many lay people in all our churches -- who have exercised persistent leadership in responding to these human needs.
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