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Towards a Common Understanding of Laity/Laos: Opening remarks

In May of 1997 the team held an international consultation on the theme: "Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God." The aim of the consultation was to begin to clarify the theological understanding and terminology of laity, laos, people of God (Laos tou Theou), and the whole people of God.

07 May 1997

Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997

Opening Remarks by the V. Rev. Fr Nicholas Apostola

The current effort to shape a program and focus a discussion on the issue of the laity within the Church has a long history within the World Council of Churches. Much of this history you have read already in the documents that have been sent to you in preparation for this meeting. I would like to review for you some of the more recent history, especially since the restructuring of the Council that has take place following the last WCC General Assembly held in Canberra.

After the Department of Laity faded into the background within the WCC, its concerns began to be taken up by the more specialized concerns and desks, as well as by related organizations such as the World Collaboration Commission of Christian Lay Centers. Within what would become Unit I, its concerns were continued in the sub-unit on Renewal and Congregational Life. I could say that from the Orthodox perspective, but I suspect also from the perspective of the whole Church, it is in the local congregation where we find the most concentrated concern for the role and the place of the laity. In short, this is the basic unit of the Church, the place where most people experience and live out their faith most of the time.

In the reorganization of the WCC the issue of laity reemerges, but with an interesting focus: Lay Participation toward Inclusive Community. Here the emphasis shifts slightly to bring sharper attention to the special concerns of women and the differently abled. However, the intention is the same: to increase participation toward the goal of a vibrant and renewed congregational community.

Since that reorganization the Stream, in addition to other efforts, has been working to develop a new profile the laity that could inform discussion of both theological as well as social justice concerns within the WCC and in the larger ecumenical movement. This Conference is the culmination of that effort. There also have been other activities of the Stream, and the WCC that have led us to this juncture.

In September of 1993 the World Convention of Christian Lay Centres met at Montreat, North Carolina/USA with the theme: "Weaving Communities of Hope." The over 300 participants listened to a Keynote Speech by Konrad Raiser, the General Secretary of the WCC, entitled "Towards a New Definition of the Profile of the Laity in the Ecumenical Movement." Of the fourteen workshops, four workshops concentrated on: (a) Concepts of Laity and Laity work; (b) Biblical images and symbols for laity formation; (c) Concepts of work and understanding of the role of the People of God in this world; (d) Lay training, ecumenical formation, ecumenical learning. Follow-up work to this Convention is being done in centres locally and regionally. Association of Christian Lay Centres in Africa and NARDA (an Ecumenical Christian Association of Retreat and Renewal Centres and Leaders in North America).

In October, 1993 The Ecumenical Review devoted the entire issue to the theme: "Reopening the Ecumenical Discussion of the Laity." This was followed by a Plenary session on the Laos at the 1994 WCC Central Committee held in Johannesburg, South Africa. A  considerable discussion had taken place in the Unit Committee as to the definitions of laos and laity as result of the Plenary on the Laos. It was felt that work needed to be done to clarify the terminology with regard to these two concepts. It was also felt that the question of laity had strong ecclesiological implications. Further work needed to be done on the general issue of lay movements and their relationship with the church.

Following that Central Committee meeting members of the Working Group began to address the request from Central Committee, October 1994. Fr. Nicholas Apostola, (Orthodox); Dr. Anne Tveter (Reformed); Prof Guzman Carriquiry (Roman Catholic) prepared papers on the Ecclesiology of the Laity. In May of 1995 another Plenary and small group discussion on the Laos - the whole People of God were held at the USA Conference of the WCC held in Nashville, TN.

During the Summer of 1995 Harlan Stelmach conducted interviews with the WCC staff in preparation of a Discussion Document for Cross-Unit Exploration on the subject: The Whole People of God. This was followed with work by Barbara Schwahn, a Faith and Order intern from September, 1995 - March, 1996 in which she prepared two research papers: (a) A Profile of the Laity. Results of a comparative study; and (b) Towards an Ecumenical Theology of the "People of God".

These two papers were shared with members of the Working Group and extensively discussed in March, 1996. They helped in the preparation of this Consultation: "Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: the People of God." The recommendation of the Stream's working group to hold this Consultation was presented to the Unit I Commission in March, 1996 and then to the Central Committee in September, 1996. Both of which endorsed the recommendation.

There have also been other mini-consultations on the laity held in collaboration with member churches, and council of churches. Two of these were: (a) Cuba, January 1996 (Habana, Matanzas, Cardenas, Santiago de Cuba); and (b) Prague, Czech Republic, September 1996.

So in some sense, all of the efforts over the past four or five years have lead us to this Consultation to which we have invited all of you. The members of the Stream's Working Group have all helped through their participation and sacrifice of time and wisdom; we have benefitted greatly from the work of Harlan Stelmach and Barbara Schwahn, but the bulk of the work has been done by Evenly Appiah and Valerie Mendri who have been faithful stewards of this gift that has been entrusted to them, make much fruit blossom in what has become a very rocky soil. And they certainly have my gratitude as well, I am sure, as all of yours.

I would like to review with you the "Questions" that will form the basis of our work here during the next few days. They were prepared by the Working Group to help structure our discussions and as an outline for our final report to the Central Committee.

There are two main areas: The first is the relationship between the church and the world: that is, the relationship between the people of God (Laos tou Theou) - those people who have chosen to belong to the church, and the whole people of God - all human beings created in the image and likeness of God.

The second area is the relationship between the clergy and the laity, that is the ministry of the laos - the people of God, and the "set apart" ministry.

In an attempt to address the First point, we raise the following questions to focus the discussion:

    • How do we understand the general Biblical assertion that every human person is created in the image of God, sharing in His likenesss? This is the Biblical anthropology of the whole of humanity (and in fact the whole of the creation) in relationship to the Creator.

    • How does this anthropological assertion relate to the distinctiveness of the Church as the people of God (Laos tou Theou)?

    • In this light, how do we understand the mission of Church (taken here to mean clergy and the unordained)?

    • What significance does this have for our understanding of the Church as agent for the transformation and sanctification of the world? In addressing the second point we raise the following questions:

There are different theological terms and approaches that are used to describe the same mystery of the Church.  These include: People of God; Body of Christ; Sacrament of the Kingdom; Community of Faith. How do these enrich our understanding of the participation of the unordained in the life of the Church?

There is an ongoing dynamic between the unordained and the clergy within the life of the Church. How does this relate to and influence their common participation in the sacramental and ministerial life of the Church?

Every person receives charisms - gifts - from God. Some of these we consider "natural". Others are clearly of divine origin as we see recorded in the Scriptures.  How do both of these relate to the various ministries in the Church?

In the next few days I hope that we will engage these questions and others as we try to penetrate the Mystery that is God's Church.

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