Short Commentary: Lay-led house churches in the Church of England?

Wow. Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell argues that “the future lies not with clergy in the pulpit, but with worshipping communities led by lay people.” There are proposals for “groups of 20-30 people meeting in people’s homes” – a radical change for the Church of England which is  led by ordained clergy and known for the beauty of its ritual language, ceremonial, and choral music.

What’s going on? The rapid dissolution of Christendom is what’s going on. As the article notes, though every citizen theoretically belongs to the established church, only about 1.34% of the populace attends Anglican worship on Sundays. Church attendance has declined 40% in 30 years.

The dilemma for those of use committed to sacramental and liturgical renewal is well stated by the RNS author:

Anglicanism has always performed a balancing act between a sacramental approach that puts the Eucharist at the center of the life of a worshipping community, requiring a priest to celebrate the sacrament — and an evangelical idea of church focused more on Scripture and lay leadership. Influenced by American evangelism, the latter has gained momentum in recent years.

What will happen to sacraments and liturgical rites when existing institutions are not sustainable? What will the collapse of current structures mean for the celebration of the liturgy going forward? What will survive of sacramental life? Will it change, adapt, grow, be renewed, become less important for the Christian life, or wither away?

I think I know what I would like to happen and what all I would like to survive and flourish. But we don’t get a much of a choice about that. And we must not be too sure that our wishes coincide with God’s will. The reality is what it is, and it is precisely in situations of rapid change and decline that we are called – hopefully and joyfully – to serve God and the church. And, together, make the best and wisest decisions we can.

No easy answers from me on this one. No predictions about the future either. Just lots of prayers for my dear, fellow Christians in the Church of England.



  1. I recognize the same undercurrents….maybe not so under any more….of the pietistic strain of Lutheranism to overtake the liturgical and sacramental essences of our Tradition. Only the Lord knows where this will take us, but I for one am not willing to roll-over and let it happen….but then again, I am just a retired priest serving where needed or desired, and am asked to adapt to the culture of a given parish on a given day. Lord have mercy!

  2. “[T]hough every citizen theoretically belongs to the established church…”

    This will come as a surprise to–among others–England’s Mohammedans!

    1. Many of my Muslim parishioners (around 60% of the population) recognize me as their parish priest. Not for religious purposes (though for some strange reason they think I am a holy man) but for social leadership, advocacy, and community cohesion. Precisely the things which will be lost if the parish system goes. A bit of mutual respect goes a long way.

      1. I write as a man who left the Church of England at age 18, but have still retained a great affection for it, even though at times I have to smile!

        Yes, the Church of England is ‘Established’ and so in theory we are all the flock of our local vicar. But since 1662 we have had in England a significant Nonconformist tradition, which led in places to almost empty Parish Churches on Sunday mornings and packed to capacity Methodist chapels down the road. This was particuarly the case in parts of the West of England (and of course in Wales).

        The ‘Great Ejection’ of nonconforming anglican clergy in 1662 led to the establishment of nonconformist congregations, to the setting up of nonconformist colleges (no access for nonconformists to the old Universities of Oxford and Cambridge) and was, at least in part, the origin of the great socio-political divides that have marked English life to this day: Church v. Chapel, Tory v. Whig, old landowning v. new mercantile wealth, and so on.

        In my estimation the C. of E. has in more recent times used its privileged position to act as an avenue of access to Government for nonconformist groups (Catholics are also Nonconformists) and indeed for other religious groups too. ‘Establishment’ has been to the benefit of all of us.

        The C. of E. has always had this tussle between ‘sacramental’ and ‘evangelical’ – the ‘sacramental’ side is not just the result of the Oxford Movement but can trace its roots much further back. But certainly until the later 19th century your average parish church was not a place for frequent celebrations of Holy Communion, though that is not to say that people did not think ‘The Sacrament’ was of importance. Maybe it was thought too important to be held every week, and something which required due spiritual preparation.


  3. “Anglicanism has always performed a balancing act between a sacramental approach that puts the Eucharist at the center of the life of a worshipping community, requiring a priest to celebrate the sacrament…”

    I’m not sure what the writer knows about Anglican history. For the Church of England, until well after the end of 19th c. Oxford Movement, the Eucharist was not at the center of the life of the worshipping community [sic]. The Holy Communion was usually celebrated quarterly or in some places, monthly at best. Mattins and Evensong were the center of the worship life of the parish.

    1. I think John is right. The rise of the Eucharist as the principle weekend celebration in Anglican churches only happened as a result of their liturgical reforms, which were in turn prompted by the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms of the Roman Catholic Church. I watched this change beging in the mid-1970s and accelerate through the 80s and 90s. Perhaps the RNS reporter is too young to remember what it was like before that.

      1. Indeed. A C of E friend of mine grew up in rural Shropshire (pleonasm?) in the 1970s. He remembers people complaining about the vicar, in part under the influence of the local Viscountess, a granddaughter of Lord Halifax, gradually replacing sung Mattins as the main Sunday morning service by the Eucharist. They didn’t like “Having Holy Communion shoved down their throats (sic)!”

      2. I think there were places influenced by the Oxford Movement that celebrated more frequent Eucharists. Indeed in Brighton where I grew up in the 1950s the only way to be sure that it was a RC church was to check the notice board – somewhere among the daily scheduled Masses there would be an indication of which diocese the church belonged to. Southwark good, Chichester bad.

      3. Paul Inwood is right.

        However, I would caution against making the assumption that infrequent celebration of the Holy Communion was a sign of a non-sacramentalist piety, equally that multiple celebrations represented ‘putting the Eucharist at the heart’ of Parish life. A friend of mine, a member of the Church Of Scotland, used to say that the Lord’s Supper was too important to be held every week.

        The ‘Parish Communion’ movement in the C. of E. was often criticised for allowing too casual an approach to the Eucharist. My upbringing in a ‘High Church’ Parish taught me both that the Eucharist was the most important thing we did together on Sunday, and also that it required due spiritual preparation. My impression was that the same spirit existed in many churches where Holy Communion was at 8am on Sundays and Morning Prayer formed the ‘main service’ (i.e., with a choir and a sermon). You did not come to the Lord’s Table unprepared. It is certainly the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer.


    2. I thought I remember reading Robert Taft quip something like the hours were functionally more important than the Eucharist in daily lives of the ancient Church. I wonder with lack of priests that would probably continue even with an end to celibacy, this mindset could not be restored.

      I would much prefer lauds or vespers with the Sunday readings than a detached service of the Word.

  4. Isn’t this development ironic in a country with vast network of state-supported cathedral, collegiate, and parish churches, forcibly confiscated from the communion that built and endowed them, sitting largely empty week after week?

  5. The argument of the Archbishop of York should be considered. It states that “the future lies not with clergy in the pulpit, but with worshipping communities led by lay people,” more specifically, “groups of 20-30 people meeting in people’s homes.” In a less provocative way: the future belongs to churches that can mobilize many lay groups meeting in homes during the week and “with the clergy in the pulpit” on Sundays.
    There is clear evidence that the most successful churches, Protestant and Catholic, are those that have developed many lay groups meeting in homes. The Charismatic renewal of the 1970s and 80s was a boost for the Anglican churches and the Catholic parishes. In the Global South, it is charismatic and Pentecostal forms of piety, active on weekdays as well as Sundays, that boost parishes. There is little of this today in the US.
    The official category of lay ministers serves only a limited function in the US. How many Eucharistic ministers and lectors can you have in a given parish? Eucharistic ministers may enhance the Sunday liturgy but may also de- mobilize those in attendance. Evidence shows that what is needed is not just “clergy in the pulpit,” but also, and increasingly, numerous lay worshiping communities meeting during the week.

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