Anglican Patrimony: the voice of the laity

church council 1928

church council 1928

One of the most obvious features of a parish church in the C of E is its Church Council. It has huge legal responsibility for the building and finances, and more general authority – in tandem with the Vicar – for the worship and mission of the parish. It is the relationship of the vicar with the members of the Church Council which is key. In some churches the Council is the stronger partner, and willingly or unwillingly the vicar goes along for a quiet life. In some places the Vicar is the dominant figure, and manages to ensure that only people who agree with him (or her these days) get elected at the Annual Meeting each year. Domineering clergy usually result in some of the lay people moving to other churches or ceasing to go to church altogether. The same things happen when a group of lay people oppose the authority of the vicar, and the life of the parish becomes dominated by this struggle. In the C of E it may well be theological: the new vicar is too evangelical and wants to stop wearing ‘robes’ and sack the choir – or he may be too catholic and uses incense or talks about ‘going to confession’. Yet at its best the Church Council is a vital part of the life and mission of the parish. I am glad that some form of this council structure has been recognised as part of the Patrimony, and must be appointed in an Ordinariate parish.

priest and people 3
In the Diocesan Parish a Council of the lay people to advise and assist the Parish Priest is not obligatory. I was surprised in my Catholic Deanery to find that only two of the parishes had such a Council. One parish priest spoke warmly of its work in mobilising the laity to ‘get things done’; the other priest was not enthusiastic about his group. As far as I could tell, this was not a ‘liberal/conservative’ divide, as might be expected, with the ‘liberals’ keen to share with the laity, and the ‘conservatives’ jealous of the prerogatives of the parish priest. For Roman Catholic Canon Law makes it clear, I think, that the duty of ‘governing’ the parish lies with the Parish Priest. I am reminded of the advice given to me by my local bishop when I was an Anglican. I had been very upset by what I perceived as trivial opposition on the PCC, sniping and time wasted by people gossiping behind my back, while the parish was set to founder. The bishop said to me, ‘It is your responsibility to lead; if you don’t there are others in the parish who will. The difference is this: you are accountable for your leadership to me: they are not and if things go wrong they will just up and leave.’

the People of God

the People of God

For the wise parish priest the advice, support and guidance of a good Council of laity is invaluable. He refers and checks his own plans and ideas. He gains insights and information which he could never have known otherwise. He is able to encourage new initiatives which he could not possibly undertake himself. He is able to exercise oversight (which is not the same as control) through listening and advising. As the parish grows is size no one priest can hope to relate personally to the many hundreds of people coming to Mass and the Sacraments. But in these difficult days people quickly lapse if they feel that they do not ‘belong’. The risk for the Ordinariate Groups is that they lose the will to grow because being small is comfortable. So the group revels in its warmth and closeness. But this can also be excluding to anyone trying to join. In my Anglican days I have certainly seen small congregations which talked endlessly about their desire to be bigger: but did everything to keep going with just the same numbers and people as they always had: with the unwritten message ‘Will the last person out after the last funeral please return the church keys to the Bishop.’

As Anglicans we used to say (admiringly) that Catholics would go to Mass anywhere: unlike Anglicans they were not so attached to their buildings that they would walk out if someone dared to move a flower vase! But the attachment to the building could, rightly channelled, give to the laity a sense of ‘ownership’, of responsibility not only for the building but for the life of the parish. My argument in the ‘Catholic Herald’ article on the Ordinariate as Church Planting still holds good. The former Anglicans of the Ordinariate need buildings and parishes into which to pour their energies. Put Ordinariate Groups on the margins of existing parishes with ‘their own’ Mass and you risk wasting a real resource to the renewal of Catholic life in this country.

A wise priest trusts his laity. And the laity respond to his challenge to them with enthusiasm and affection. When the People of God (laity and priests) get it right it is a joy to be part of.


About Scott Anderson

Formerly an Anglican priest (ordained 1975) received into the Catholic Church in February 2012, and ordained to the Diaconate on 27th July 2013. I took early retirement, and divide my time between London and northern France. I am deeply committed to the Ordinariate as a gift of the Holy Spirit in the search for unity. Like many Ordinariate members I feel a personal gratitude to Pope Emeritus Benedict, together with loyalty to our Holy Father, Pope Francis. My blog tries to make a small contribution to the growth of the Ordinariate by asking questions (and proposing some answers) about the 'Anglican Patrimony'. I have always been fascinated by the whole issue of growth and decline, and therefore concerned for appropriate means of evangelisation in western Europe. I believe that the Holy Spirit is constantly renewing the People of God and that we must be open to him. My love of music and motorcycles will occasionally surface in my posts. On Saturday 19th October 2013, I was ordained to the Priesthood at Most Precious Blood, Borough, by the Most Revd Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, for the service of the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham. I continued to serve the Ordinariate group and Parish at Most Precious Blood until the end of 2014. Subsequently, I helped in the care of the Ordinariate Groups at Hemel Hempstead and Croydon, and in the Archdiocese of Southwark, until the beginning of September 2015. With the agreement of my Ordinary, Mgr Keith Newton, the Bishop of Amiens appointed me Administrator of the Parish of Notre Dame des Etangs (Pont Remy) in Picardie, France. This appointment is to last for a year, to give the Bishop the opportunity to assess the future of the parish.
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3 Responses to Anglican Patrimony: the voice of the laity

  1. Harry says:

    Allow me to be controversial, in a less than ideal world, how do you stop things developing into the “clumsy, dysfunctional and dangerous” body as Fr Philip North described the General Synod?

  2. Rhiannon says:

    Has General Synod really changed so much since I OH! ed my father from the gallery? He shook his fist at me, and told a delighted General Synod that he would make sure of being in the gallery when i made my first speech. No, I’m not going to name the year
    Father Scott
    (I wonder how long it will take for me to stop cheering internally when I write THAT)
    As I’m sure that you remember, I don’t agree with that bishop (and never have believed) that lay people are not accountable to the bishop in following their Christian vocation, nor that lay people may “simply up and leave” – either the parish, or the ecclesial group, or any other relationship into which they have been led.
    (Some might observe that, in practice, I’ve done a fair amount of “upping and leaving”, but it’s “counsel of perfection” I’m proposing here, not my own failures.)
    Apart from that strong conviction, you might also remember that another thing that held me back, for most of my Anglican life , from “upping and leaving” (and becoming a Cathoilc) was that I was happier in the smaller Anglican congregations, where I’d been previously led, than I thought that i might be in much larger Catholic congregations.
    However, I don t think that we are likely, after all these years, to quarrel over these matters.
    Most certainly, when I did take the plunge, the fact that, within weeks of reception, I was elected into the “core group” or “committee” of the Catholic parish council, and asked to be secretary to the group, and to the council, gave me the smaller group in which I felt comfortable.and useful
    It’s been a shock since to discover that, in many Catholic parishes, either there are no parish council meetings, or they have never been open to the entire congregation, Some parishes have even dropped open quarterly parish council meetings, in favour of .a restricted “Pastoral Council” or “core group”.
    Clearly, if there had been no quarterly open parish council meetings in the parish where I was received, the first seven years of my Catholic parish life (four as secretary,three as ordinary member of the “core group”) would have been very different. Without those quarterly open meetings, how would anyone, ,in that huge congregation (two packed Sunday Masses, and a third only slightly thinner Vigil Mass) have thought of electing me to that group or offering me that work?
    I’m not drawing any conclusions from any of this, simply offering my own reflections on your reflections. I’m sending you an email about my plans for Easter, hoping that they won’t go so awry as did Christmas, and hoping to see you some time in the spring or summer

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