On the Ministry of the Laity

[This essay by Father Dallman appeared in the May 2018 issue of The Spire, the newsletter of the Parish of Tazewell County.]

Saint Paul teaches in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians that saints (the baptized) are to be equipped for work of ministry, for “building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” He also teaches elsewhere of the centrality of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity to the Christian life.

The pressing question then becomes, within the context of Baptism, how do equipping the saints for ministry and the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity hang together as part of an overall “baptismal spirituality” or “baptismal life”? What is the shape or pattern?

In the interests of edification, let us state up front that the progression from Baptism to virtue looks something like this:

  • Baptism means becoming a Christian (a saint).
  • Increasing spiritual maturity leads to ministry.
  • Ministry leads to living virtuously like a Saint.

Unsurprisingly, this shows up in our Prayer Book Catechism. It speaks, on one hand, of “the duty of all Christians,” and on the other, “ministry of the laity.” This distinction is not at all artificial, but fits common wisdom: people live the spiritual life in a variety of ways, and respond to God’s call differently. This is why Christianity is called an incarnational religion.

Let us take the two notions one at a time. The “duty of all Christians” is described in this way:

The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. (BCP, p. 856)

These are the actions of “sacramental personhood,” a term which describes our baptismal identity—following Our Lord, coming together through Liturgy, and working, praying, and giving in the work of Mission. This duty is not “second-class” whatsoever, but is vital to the life and health of the Church. For many it is a challenge to fulfill, and there is no shame in acknowledging that to be the case.

Let us look at how lay ministry is defined:

The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP, p. 855)

Lay ministry likewise is vital to the life and health of the Church, yet note the changes from the first to the second description:

  • Duty becomes ministry.
  • Following becomes representing.
  • Coming together becomes wielding gifts.
  • Working for the spread of the kingdom (which is general) becomes participation in the life, worship, and governance of the Church (which is more focused).

Is this not common sense? Do we expect newly baptized infants to be lay ministers? Do we expect adults newly converted to Christianity to immediately wield gifts and saintly virtue? Of course not. Saint Paul and the Prayer Book rightly teach that the life of a Christian develops into a life of Christian lay ministry. Ministry emerges through increasing desire to respond to God’s call—the blooming forth by grace of seeds planted in Baptism.

The call to lay ministry results from intentionality and thoughtful discernment of vocation: the personal identity God’s grace has shaped, the station in life to which He has beckoned, and how personal gifts might manifest outwardly. Fundamentally it is the result of growing further into relationship with the Triune God through Christ, more intimate with His will.

The distinction, then, is a progression from membership into ministry. The gift of Baptism means the journey of sacramental personhood begins through membership in Christ’s Body: a journey of discipleship, which “built-up” becomes virtuous ministry. Ministers of the Church, as stated in the Catechism, are “lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” As intimacy with God deepens, a person becomes more seasoned in matters of the Spirit—following Christ becomes ordering one’s whole life so as to show forth in our lives what is professed in belief—showing forth Faith, Hope, and Charity.

The means for building spiritual maturity—the “sacramental tools” for growth into virtuous living—are Formation, Sacraments, and Prayer. These are the means God has given to His people so that they can better cooperate with grace and grow into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

  • Formation (or “catechesis”) is the developing of the virtue of Faith. This virtue is the habit of wanting to learn about the character of God—it is the habit of being a learner, of being open and desirous of who God is and what He has revealed to His Church. Faith is the habit of openness and wanting to be filled by God. Its basis is humility.
  • The Sacraments develop the virtue of Hope. All seven are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. By the Sacraments, Jesus is actually present again to us so we can live habitually with confidence in newness and fullness of life, awaiting His second coming.
  • Prayer develops the virtue of Charity. Prayer is responding habitually to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words through the Liturgy (Mass and daily Offices), as well as through works of personal devotion both private and offered in service of loving Christ in other persons.

Through Formation, Sacraments, and Prayer, sacramental personhood grows into maturity. Ministers—lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons—uniquely represent Christ in the world, indeed are means for others to perceive Him in the world—reconciled to Him through them. This is God’s will, hence it is our task and true calling: He wants His members, without exception, to be virtuous. He wants us to be Saints.