The Theology of the Laity: Description and Construction with Reference to the American Book of Common Prayer

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In his classic study of the theology of the laity, the Dominican scholar Yves Congar declared that the reappropriation or development of a theology of the laity would involve no mere adjustment of inherited ecclesiological views but rather a reorientation of the whole ecclesiological vision.1 Congar's context was the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, but his remark deserves recognition by anyone engaged in considerations regarding the theology of the laity. For as Congar's own study reveals, and as the many studies of the laity since the first World Council of Churches Assembly in 1948 testify, this particular ecclesiological concern touches almost all others, directly or indirectly.2 Baptism, priesthood, ministry, hierarchy, mission, creation, indeed soteriology itself in its broadest sweep-the theology of the laity is a flash point for them all.

No doubt that explains in large measure why the theology of the laity has proved so elusive, at least to Anglicans.3 Many of those theological concerns cited are ones wherein our tradition has prescinded from precise dogmatic interpretation and where too, in recent decades, there has been both change in pastoral practice, as well as acute theological disagreement.4 It should not surprise us, then, that no Anglican has produced a study as thorough as Congar's.

It might, however, be said that the Anglican situation has been and is qualitatively different from that addressed by Congar. That is, it might be argued that the Anglican ecclesial experience and the Anglican ecclesiological consciousness have been marked by factors which have not necessitated the sort of revolutionary document which Congar's study seeks, in fact, to be.

One might point, for instance, to the English pastoral tradition predating even the Reformation and find there a less rigorous, less distinct, more "homely" relationship between clergy and laity, a sensibility which did not so firmly divide clergy from laity in the pastoral setting.5 Or, we might note Cranmer's spiritual vision expressed in the Book of Common Prayer wherein, precisely as a book of common prayer, that is, prayer for the whole corpus ecclesiasticum, clergy and laity alike share the same ascetical path Godward.6 Or, finally, we might note the patristically inspired English concept of the "godly prince," who takes special care for ecclesial life. "Thy church, my care" was Queen Elizabeth's regular prayer as Supreme Governor.7 All of those features of English church life go some way to explain why the Anglican (and Episcopal) situation has not required so thoroughgoing a retrieval of an ecclesiology with an adequate interrelation and correlation between clergy and laity.

Still, the Anglican way has not been without ambiguity with regard to the place and role of the laity both at the practical and the theological levels. Were that not so, the issue would not recur as it does so regularly in official documents such as the resolutions and reports of the Lambeth Conferences or in reports of national churches. We will have occasion to refer to some of those statements below. Here it need only be said that such statements in themselves do not take us deeply into a theology of the laity and, more often than not, give the reader little sense of their informing theological themes or presuppositions. Therefore, this essay is both descriptive and constructive. It is descriptive in that I wish to give a sense of the concerns and views which typify Anglican/Episcopal views on the laity. It seeks to be constructive in that I want to take a step toward greater coherence in Anglican statements of the theology of the laity.

But where are we to begin? There are, admittedly, many possible points of entry. Insofar as the Anglican tradition has shied away from a hard confessional expression of its ecclesial "mind" and has let its liturgical tradition carry the theological freight, I think it is appropriate to structure this exposition according to the three "offices" of divine service which "settle," "establish," and "renew" the Christian's saving relationship with God in Christ: namely, baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist. …