This article appeared in the Adbook for the
1996 Midwest Region Parish Life Conference hosted by
St. Elias Orthodox Church in Sylvania, OH
Unity of the Church: Clergy & Laity
by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
THE MEANING OF LAITY
The words lay, laity, layman come from the Greek word laos, which means people. The layman is the one who shares in Divine election and receives from God a special gift and privilege of membership. It is a highly positive vocation, radically different from the one we find defined in Webster’s Dictionary. We can say that in our Orthodox teaching, every Christian, be they a bishop, priest, deacon, or just member of the Church are laymen, for it is neither a negative or a partial, but an all-embracing term and our common vocation. Before we are anything specific we are all laymen because the whole Church is the laity – the people, the family, the community – elected and established by Christ Himself.
LAITY ARE ORDAINED
We are accustomed to think of ordination as precisely the distinctive mark of clergy. They are the ordained and the laity, the non-ordained Christians. Here again, however, Orthodoxy differs from Western clericalism, be it Roman Catholic or Protestant. If ordination means primarily the bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of our vocation as Christians and members of the Church, each layman becomes a layman – laikos – through ordination. We find it in the Sacrament of Holy Chrism, which follows Baptism. Why are there two sacraments of entrance into the Church? Because if Baptism restores in us our true human nature, obscured by sin, Chrismation gives us the positive power and grace to be Christians, to act as Christians, to build together the Church of God and be responsible participants in the life of the Church.
LAITY IN LITURGY
We think of worship as a specifically clerical sphere of activity. The priest celebrates, the laity attend. One is active, the other passive. It is another error and a serious one at that. The Christian term for worship is leitourgia, which means precisely a corporate, common, all-embracing action in which all those who are present are active participants. All prayers in the Orthodox Church are always written in terms of the plural we. We offer, we pray, we thank, we adore, we enter, we ascend, we receive. The layman is in a very direct way the co-celebrant of the priest, the latter offering to God the prayers of the Church, representing all people, speaking on their behalf. One illustration of the co-celebration may be helpful: the word Amen, which we are so used to, that we really pay no attention to it. And yet it is a crucial word. No prayer, no sacrifice, no blessing is ever given in the Church without being sanctioned by the Amen which means approval, agreement, participation. To say Amen to anything means that I make it mine, that I give my consent to it…And “Amen” is indeed the word of the laity in the Church, expressing the function of the laity as the People of God, which freely and joyfully accepts the Divine offer and sanctions it with its consent.
THE PLACE OF CLERGY
It is this Orthodox understanding of the laity that discloses the real meaning and function of clergy. The clergy is needed to make the Church what she has to be: the special people or part of God. Their special function is to perpetuate within the Church that which does not depend on men: the grace of God, the teaching of God, the commandments of God, the saving and healing power of God. It is not their teaching or their power; they have none, but that which has been kept and perpetuated in the Church from the Apostles down to our own time and which constitutes the essence of the Church.
THE BASIS FOR UNITY AND COOPERATION
The conclusion is clear: there is no opposition between clergy and laity in the Church. Both are essential. The Church as a totality is laity and the Church as a totality is the inheritance, the clergy of God. And in order to be this, there must exist within the Church the distinction of functions, of ministries that complete one another. The clergy are ordained to make the Church the gift of God – the manifestation and communication of His truth, grace and salvation to men. It is their sacred function, and they fulfill it only in complete obedience to God. The laity are ordained to make the Church the acceptance of that gift, the “Amen” of mankind to God. They equally can fulfill their function only in complete obedience to God.