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Lay Ministry as a Manifestation of Baptism

This post continues a series on Vocation in the Episcopal Church. The other essays in the series can be found here.

By Hannah Bowman

As the Episcopal Church has developed more of a “baptismal ecclesiology,” to use Ruth Meyers’ term, since the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the refrain about lay ministry has become common: all baptized Christians are commissioned to ministry by virtue of their baptism. But what does baptismal ministry mean, in practice? The answers seldom seemed satisfying to me, as I groped towards an understanding of my own lay vocation.

My own commitment to lay ministry started with years of unofficial discernment towards ordained ministry, across multiple traditions. When I finally landed permanently in the Episcopal Church, the first step towards discernment for ministry was the sacrament of confirmation. So I — a confirmation skeptic who had been baptized, but not confirmed, as an adult — did the natural thing and looked up every academic article on the Anglican understanding of confirmation that I could find.

In studying confirmation, though, I grew more and more certain of one truth: I had already received every gift and commissioning I needed for ministry in baptism. The more I considered even “confirming” my call to ministry by confirmation as a kind of “ordination of the laity,” the more strongly I sensed that such a confirmation would not be a supplement of any spiritual gift missing from baptism, but rather a reaffirmation of the reality of the specific and particular ministry God had called me to in my own baptism.

This is not to deny the value of confirmation. Kathryn Tanner writes of confirmation as “a shift from actuality to manifestation or epiphany… What is already made real for us at baptism — our becoming one with Christ (Christ’s own) and therefore set upon a new way of living — begins to be manifested as our own activity for a whole new way of life at confirmation” (“Towards a New Theology of Confirmation,” Anglican Theological Review 88:1 [2006], 86).

This understanding of confirmation as “manifestation” of baptism seems to me to make it a fruitful way of ritualizing and strengthening with sacramental grace a vocation created through baptism and discerned thereafter. I disagree with Tanner on one point: I would say that confirmation is, among other things, a way of affirming and strengthening a baptismal vocation to a specific lay ministry, not only to the general call to live as a Christian in the world. The manifestation of what was “already made real for us baptism” is made concrete for us in our individual and specific lay vocations. Because baptism is significant in so many ways — expressing incorporation into the body of Christ, adoption as a child of God, participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, God’s universal grace, commissioning to Christian ministry, and more — confirmation plays an important role as the commissioning of each individual baptized Christian to her own specific vocation, through which her “Christoform life in witness and service to the world” [Tanner, 87] is made visible in particular and concrete acts of ministry.

But this still leaves the question of what that specific baptismal vocation is. Too often, the church expresses baptismal vocation in ways that have felt to me reductive and insufficient to my own experience.

We nearly always imagine baptismal vocations as either occasional or secular. Either we encourage people to consider the occasional ways they serve their congregation — serving on vestry and committees, lay eucharistic ministry, teaching Sunday school — as their baptismal vocation, or we describe the “special vocation of the laity” (as the collect for Frances Perkins in Holy Women, Holy Men phrases it) as living out Christian values in their secular jobs and the secular sphere. Both of these are ways of affirming that the work the baptized are already doing is called and blessed by God — as it surely is. But discerning vocation is about more than affirmation. Vocation calls us to do more and go farther than we thought possible; to continually devote more and more of ourselves to the service of God and the church until it is our most valued and central work, even if we maintain secular occupations as well.

Certainly, our occasional support of the church community and our secular occupations can be specific vocations for which we are equipped in baptism. But to let those possibilities exhaust our understanding of baptismal vocation reduces the heart of lay ministry. Lay ministry is also all-encompassing, full-time, even professional service to the Church and to the world in the name of the Church. That is the goal towards which our baptism calls us, and more importantly, empowers us.

Every failure to emphasize the value and feasibility of such all-encompassing lay ministry encourages an unintentional clericalism. The message promulgated in the church is still, too often, that if you “really” want to give your life to God and the church, you have to do it in a professional way, as a member of the clergy. In fact, this sort of “credentialism” is at the root of various dysfunctions in American society – including the increase in jobs requiring expensive bachelor’s degrees as a sort of general proof of education, rather than for job-specific skills – but it should have no place in the church. After all, the radical message of the Gospel is that God’s Spirit is poured out upon all people to commission them for ministry (Acts 2:17).

To live out this reality means providing Christians not only with general encouragement to consider “lay ministry” but also with equal resources for discernment and formation of serious lay ministry as are given to those considering ordination. It also means lifting up examples of lay ministry undertaken in a serious or full-time way for the sake of the church — pastoral care, spiritual direction, chaplaincy, scholarly theology, community organizing, prophetic witness — and articulating why these forms of ministry are actually better served by laypeople than clergy. Whether full-time and professional or not, these calls are just as specific and all-encompassing as calls to ordination.

Ultimately and at its most general, baptismal ministry is conversion of life, transformation into the image of Christ, discipleship, and dying to self. This is the most all-encompassing call of all! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Call of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” [Macmillan, 1959, p. 99] Specific lay vocations — particular individual calls which we are given and for which we are equipped by baptism alone — give us specific ways to live out this discipleship as an example for the church. Lay ministry is not only service to the church, but a constant witness to it of the power and sufficiency of baptism to form the body of Christ for ministry in the world.

Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the Diocese of Los Angeles, where she works as a literary agent and serves as a volunteer chaplain in the LA County Jails. The founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, she is pursuing an M.A. in Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. 


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