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by James K Ross

The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church

Paul Lakeland has focused on the laity but has also reflected extensively on the whole church. His starting point is the concept of the People of God and the implications of this idea for the church as a communion and its mission in the modern world. Lakeland's work is scholarly, perceptive, challenging and filled with hope.

During the 1950s and 1960s, those of us who were engaged in lay apostolate movements looked to Chenu, Congar, Danielou, de Lubac, Godin, Suenens and Schillabeeck to provide inspiration and theological underpinning for our role as lay activists. It was refreshing to revisit these theologians, especially Congar, through the eyes of Paul Lakeland. He not only identifies the essence of their ideas but presents them in the theological and political climate of the church at the time. I find a degree of optimism in the discovery that a number of this group were moved from positions of influence or silenced by the Holy See yet re-emerged to have considerable impact on the direction and deliberations of Vatican II.

Paul Lakeland draws upon the writings of these theologians and the documents of Vatican II to lay the foundations for an understanding of the church and the laity in particular. There are four key elements in his integrated presentation. Lakeland argues that the image of the People of God is absolutely central to the Council's eccesiological vision: "Everything the council teaches on the nature of the church comes back to the fundamental image of the People of God." Lakeland goes on to assert that the fortunes of lay people will never be the same after Vatican II. "It is impossible to over-estimate the theological significance of explicating the mystery of the church in terms of the overriding image of the People of God. The laity are understood to share in the mission of the church and its liturgical life. They are called to full participation, not passive presence." Flowing from the idea of the People of God is the vision of the church as communion rather than institution. In Lakeland's view, the affective reality of a communion is solidarity among the members, an expression of human freedom and equality. Communion is, in turn, linked to collegiality or in Suenens' term, co-responsibility. If the church is to be understood as communion then the task of preserving and perfecting this communion is one in which all sectors of the church are responsible.

Another key element in Lakeland's presentation of the church is mission. He claims that what the church is is intimately connected to what the church is for. "The praxis of communion is visible in the church's faithfulness to its mission; the praxis of mission is directly connected to the understanding of communion." The essence of mission, according to Lakeland is to call the world to its own deepest selfhood, to free people from structural oppression and to build human solidarity in a common human purpose: "preaching the gospel means concentrating on justice, against what is anti-human." The final central aspect of Lakeland's understanding of the church is ministry. He draws substantially on Congar to outline the different ministries of clergy and laity as well as their integration. While some laity may provide special skills and leadership to leaven the community of the church, their essential ministry is in the secular world. On the other hand, the ordained minister has particular responsibilities toward the life of the faith community. But Lakeland is emphatic that while they serve in different ways, "they serve the same reality, namely, the People of God to which, as the Council taught, all people of good will are somehow connected."

It is his vision of the church in terms of People of God, communion, mission and ministry which facilitates Lakeland's insights on the liberation of the laity. To highlight the significance and indispensable mission of the laity, Lakeland gives lengthy attention to secularity. This chapter is both stimulating and informative. On a personal level, I would have liked to have read it forty years ago when I, and others, struggled to give meaning to a lay movement focused on acting in the concrete realities of our day to day lives. Lakeland rejects the contrast of secular with sacred and the tendency to see them as distinct. He points out that Catholic theology is both creationist and incarnational: "Creation is not an instrument of God's love but an expression of God's love... it is a free gift without any strings attached... Incarnation is not a ruse to subvert the deplorable effects of human freedom gone awry, but rather a demonstration of how human freedom is to be lived out." Lakeland gives emphasis to the unconditionality of the secular: "This simply means that God gave the world to itself, with its own autonomy, as the place in which human beings live out their destiny to be - human beings." The process of the humanization of the world is seen by Lakeland as the essential Christian mission. He asserts that "the world's own struggle toward a fuller humanity is salvation history."

In addition, he does not exclude non-believers in this process: "Like our unbelieving brothers and sisters, we have one task: to make the world a more and more truly human reality." He goes on to suggest that our difference as Christians is in the story we tell about the world, one that emphasises God's gift and how we are affirmed by God. Lakeland proposes that the stress of the gospel message must be on the truth that sets us free: "What we need to be saved from is our failure to be fully, freely human and to insist on the centrality of the human person and community in the secular world." While this is a thought provoking chapter in its entirety, perhaps two points indicate clearly the meaning of the secular for Lakeland: "God does not have a plan for the world that goes beyond the unconditional freedom of the human as God created it. The secularity of the world is the divine plan" - and - "Liberation/salvation is then to be found both in the struggle for a more human world and in the struggle to deal with our own internal weaknesses, which limit our willingness to exercise fully our freedom."

In the final part of his book, Paul Lakeland turns to the questions of lay liberation and accountability in the church. He argues that lay people in the church have been given much more recognition since Vatican I, when they were defined as "not Clergy." However, Lakeland claims that the infantilization of the laity has been a product of their systemic or structural oppression within the church. Lakeland draws upon liberation theology (and implicitly Friere) to propose that the first step to liberation is to recognise their oppression - a step to conscientization. "It is the primary awakening of a community through which it begins the struggle to pass from being object or victim of history, as defined by someone else, to subject of its own history. Through conscientization, people begin to take charge."

What then of the future church as seen by Lakeland? Throughout his book, his emphasis on "new theology", liberation theology and secular mission leads one to expect proposed radical changes. I was looking forward to an interpretation of basic Christian communities as the new church form in modern industrial society. Lakeland does make standard rejections of celibacy, gender and sexual preference exclusion. However, his vision is essentially to reform the existing structures and processes.

At the heart of his suggested reforms is the democratization of the church. He believes that change will come from the grassroots, starting initially with the parish. He lays down a number of principles. Lay people must find their own voice; lay people must share in decision making at all levels; lay people need to contribute to the choice of their priestly ministers; lay people need to focus on the secular mission and keep the parish community action oriented; within the parish there may be various ministries which, as a team, are accountable not only to the bishop but to the local community which they serve. Lakeland sees good governance and practice of the faith community bound up in an elected, deliberative parish council.

The same principles of democracy, openness and accountability are applied to the diocese. While the role of the bishop is retained in terms of leadership and ultimate authority, Lakeland proposes the formation of deliberative diocesan councils which include lay people - somewhat along the lines the synod in protestant churches. For the universal church, the key reform proposed by Lakeland is to implement fully the collegiality of bishops envisaged by Vatican II.

I found the changes in the church structure proposed by Lakeland somewhat limited. They did not follow the logic of much of his argument throughout his book. It appears that he has settled for tinkering rather than fundamental change. Nevertheless, Lakeland has provided a framework in which others can explore options. Overall, it is a serious contribution to reflections on the church in the modern world: it provides an historical dimension to current issues; it presents an integrated theology of the laity which has been generally overlooked in the last few decades; it highlights the secular mission of the church; it articulates many of the failings of the church to live out its own call to set people free; it establishes a positive, collaborative dimension between the church, other religions and non-believers. Above all, it pulsates with faith and hope.

The Book:

  • Liberation of the Laity (Continuum, $59.95)

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