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A photo of Bishop Ryle in his study

Ministry Monday: J.C. Ryle and the importance of the laity then and now

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Posted by Michael Hayden, 8 May 2017

Michael Hayden reflects on J.C. Ryle's teaching on the role of the laity in the church and how this can apply to the modern era.

In Church Association tract 191 “Church Reform—The Position of the Laity” Bishop Ryle wrote that “The position of the laity is a subject which demands the best attention of all who are disposed to take up the great question of church reform.” In Ryle’s day the laity were drastically under-represented in church structures and Ryle felt this to be of great disadvantage to her mission. He proceeded to outline proposals for how this should be remedied. As evangelicals in 2017, might Ryle’s recommendations from 1892 contain useful advice as we press on “Towards the conversion of England”?

Ryle felt that the laity in his time were “passive recipients and not active participants” in the Church of England—with decisions such as the style of worship, or who their incumbent would be, imposed on them without giving them a say in the matter.  Ryle saw this as falling well short of the New Testament Church, which he saw as giving the lay “multitudes” a voice in who the deacons would be in Acts 6, or the “brethren” having a place in the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 23. To put right this wrong, Ryle demanded that “Nothing ought to be done in the Church without the laity, in great things or in small.” The laity were to have a hand in everything the Church did, “except ordaining or ministering in the congregation.”

In practical terms, Ryle saw this as most applicable in five key areas:

1)  “Convocations must have equal numbers of laity and clergy.”
2)  “No Diocese ought to be governed by a Bishop alone, without the aid of a Lay Privy Council.”
3)  “No parochial clergyman ought to attempt the management of his parish or congregation without constantly consulting the laity.”
4)  “No appointment to a living or cure of souls ought ever to be made without allowing the laity a voice in the matter.” 
5)  “No system of ecclesiastical discipline ought ever to be sanctioned which does not give a principal place to the laity.”

These were certainly radical proposals at a time which saw such a disenfranchised laity!  However, as Lee Gatiss notes when editing the tract in question for publication in Distinctive Principles for Anglican Evangelicals, there have been significant developments in the years since CA tract 191 was published.  Perhaps the most notable of these developments is the Synodical Government Measure 1969, which saw the introduction of the current system of deanery, diocesan, and general synods (although these were not without their precursors—General Synod replaced the Church Assembly, which first met in 1919). Add this to the fact that the laity are (or should be) given much more of a voice in the running of congregations through structures such as PCCs as well as lay representatives who participate in the selection of a new incumbent and we might say that the representation given to the average lay person in 2017 is a good deal better than it was in 1892.

This leads one to wonder what reform could be achieved if we could just get evangelical lay people into the existing structures.  The structures are there to allow evangelical lay people to play their part in church reform, but this author has not exactly noticed a queue of lay people wishing to be elected to General Synod… There was a concerted effort by conservative evangelical groups (including our own Church Society) to remedy this at the beginning at this quinquennium, which was of moderate success. But imagine what could be achieved were evangelicals no longer a minority in the church hierarchies!  How different might February’s vote on the House of Bishops report have been had evangelicals been in the majority on General Synod?  If solid, ‘clued-up’ evangelical laypeople were to be in the majority in our raft of synods and committees, and the focus of those synods and committees were to be kept on the Gospel and its proclamation, then we would be well on the way to re-evangelising our nation. The opportunities are nearly endless; we’ve got the structures, now we just need to encourage the right lay people to fill them!


Michael Hayden is the Ministry Apprentice for Castle Church, Stafford

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