Roland Allen Republished

Robert Schmidt

Editorial Note: In 2001 Robert Schmidt had the opportunity to visit with Hubert Allen, the grandson of Roland Allen and biographer of the famed missiologist. Together at Oxford’s Bodleian Library Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Allen re-examined Roland Allen’s unpublished manuscript, ”The Ministry of Expansion: The Priesthood of the Laity,” in anticipation of its possible publication. Thereafter they learned that nearly all of Allen’s works were to be republished by Lutterworth. 


Why now publish five books written by a missiologist who has been dead for over fifty years?1 Why, because now the crisis is coming home. Before, in missionary lands there were simply too few ordained ministers for too many parishes and small groups of Christians seeking to worship their Lord. Now in America and Europe there are too many small parishes that cannot afford to pay a pastor.

As a young missionary to Nigeria in the 1960s I was assigned ten churches in addition to teaching at a seminary. Most of the missionaries served thirty churches, and one was responsible for sixty. A quick survey at that time showed that throughout the world there was one ordained pastor for every fourteen congregations. With the rapid expansion of the faith in China and among the Christ Bhaktas in India and the desperate shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the West, there are probably even more Christian groups without the regular services of an ordained pastor.

Roland Allen addressed this crisis in his own time with numerous books and articles. Several of his most famous works were Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?2 and The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder it.3 In his writings he argued that church authorities should recognize and enable local elders of congregations to conduct a full ministry of word and sacrament. Not least because of his writings, there have been moves in many denominations and across the world to bless the ministry of the laity and authorize lay people to baptize and preside at the Eucharist.

Roland Allen came out of the “high church” tradition of the Anglican Communion with its great respect for the office of the ministry. As a student he had been inspired by his mentor, Charles Gore, the then principal of Pusey House, later to become the bishop of Oxford. In 1919 Allen asked Bishop Gore to write the introduction to the book Educational Principles and Missionary Methods. Although Gore penned the introduction, it was already clear that there were some tensions between his perspective, formed in the settled, organized church, and the insights of the missionary who had been forced to see things differently. Possibly referring to the position advocated in the book, Gore wondered about the modern lack of the “dogmatic” element in education.

Late in his life Allen penned an unpublished work, The Ministry of Expansion, the Priesthood of the Laity.4 In this book the stress between Allen’s position and the argument of Gore is brought to the breaking point. Yet Allen is careful not to make a radical split with the entire tradition with which he had been raised. In each chapter Allen is careful not to deny the basic points made by Gore. Rather, he argues time and again, those arguments are not applicable in a situation without ordained clergy.

Partly inspired by the insights of Allen and by the sheer magnitude of ministering to isolated groups in Alaska, a group of Lutheran congregations in the 1990s, affiliated with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, began training lay people to lead worship, baptize and preside at Communion services. At the same time some former missionaries sought to legitimize that practice through a resolution to the Northwest District, creating a lay ministry program. When it was clearly seen by the district that in that region it was a choice between lay ministry and no ministry at all, the lay program received the blessing of the district.

As much as Allen carefully wished to build his case for lay people to preside at the Eucharist where no priest is available, his opponents then and now argue that if the lay presidency is permitted where no priests are available, what is to prevent a lay presidency at the Eucharist even when ordained clergy are available? And if that is permitted, will it not call into question the whole identity, prerogatives and even financial support of the clergy also in the organized church?

This has become still more of an issue in the years since Allen wrote his books. At that time there were huge areas of Africa, Asia, North America and Australia where there were no ordained clergy. Despite the continuing lack of clergy in places like Alaska, opponents might argue that there are fewer of those geographical areas now than there were at his time of writing. Since then, however, a number of other crises have challenged the traditional views of church and ministry.

The Cultural Crisis

The first is the cultural crisis. Christian leaders from many traditions have been those ministering to people of widely different cultures. In Tanzania the Roman Catholic priest Vincent Donovan, inspired by Allen, helped the Masai people come to their own understanding of baptism and the Eucharist.5 In Columbia Bruce Olson, named “Bruchko” by the Moltilone people, enabled them to understand in their own culture the nature of the Christian faith.6 In India Swami Dayanand Bharati, a serious student of Roland Allen, found the freedom to make baptism and Holy Communion family rites in a Hindu context.7 Faced with such huge cultural divides, these visionaries helped the leadership of Christian communities to arise from within the group. In similar situations this may be the only way to provide a relevant ministry.

This is true not only of faroff places. A ministry to African immigrants in the United States within Lutheranism revealed that only eight ordained pastors are serving ninety-two different congregations. In my own experience working with an Oromo-speaking (from central and southern Ethiopia) congregation in the Pacific Northwest, the church thrives with five lay leaders who take turns preaching and leading in worship. Services are in the Oromo language; Oromo choirs introduce new music for Sunday morning services. Were the congregation to have waited for an ordained Oromo-speaking pastor, they may never have begun, nor would they have grown as fast numerically or spiritually.

The Financial Crisis

A second crisis challenging the traditional conception of the church and ministry is financial. Many small congregations simply cannot afford a paid ordained pastor. This includes many rural congregations in Europe and the United States. Several years ago while I was in Baden-Württemberg in Germany, the notice came that the government there could no longer afford to support the number of theological students about to graduate. This would mean that many smaller parishes would no longer be served by their own pastor, and pastors in larger parishes would have to work alone in blessing marriages, performing confirmations and burying people.

In Allen’s own Church of England numerous magnificent medieval churches have had to be declared ‘redundant’ and their parishioners invited to travel long distances to reach one of several other churches in the charge of an overburdened ‘team ministry.’ Not surprisingly, many people lack pastoral care and sadly often cease attending church services altogether.

In the United States the crisis is so bad in rural areas that many congregations which cannot obtain the services of a retired pastor or share a pastor with several other parishes will have to close. Even those congregations that do obtain the services of a seminary graduate know that the young cleric will leave for greener pastures after a year or two. In urban areas the situation is not much better. In many urban congregations the membership has eroded with flight to the suburbs and the aging of its most committed members. Now a small group meets in a cavernous sanctuary seeking to reach out to their community while supporting a pastor and keeping the building in repair. However, in both rural and urban areas outreach and social concern for their communities are sapped by the financial burden in supporting an ordained pastor.

Churchless Christians

A third crisis is less visible to churches but more profound. This is the mass exodus of Christians from the institutional churches. This phenomenon has long been recognized in the United Kingdom and on the European continent. It is also shaping the religious landscape of the United States. In a study of the religious preferences of people in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, those replying that they had no religious affiliation were in the clear majority. At the same time most of those same people clearly identified themselves with a Christian faith tradition. Such “churchless Christians” are the fastest growing religious group in the Pacific Northwest and may soon rival other faiths across the nation.8

While Roland Allen’s books do not speak directly to this crisis, they open the door for a variety of creative approaches in ministry to this growing, disaffected group. One such pattern is that of a house-church ministry carried out in conjunction with a larger “megachurch.” Already many evangelical churches are using this methodology with great success. However, an even more far-reaching house-church movement is underway across the world which sees the church in small gatherings as the primary form of the church.9 This may have the potential to reach those who have pursued their spiritual quest through greater sensitivities to the environment as well as those seeking greater economic justice and non-violent solutions to conflicts in the world.

Near the end of his life Allen wrote The Family Rite.10 In this essay Allen advocates that the family again becomes the center of the Christian church and its ministry. Church-going families have long realized that church activities often have had the effect of dividing families as the church sought to minister to various age and interest groups. Allen’s insights as well as the ancient Hebrew custom of a home-based Sabbath rite might interest those who continue in the faith without a church affiliation. Centered about the Eucharist at a special family meal, discussions about the purpose of life, the meaning of death and many ethical issues faced by various members of the family might encourage both a vibrant family life and a meaningful faith.

The Ecclesiastical Crisis

The republication of Allen’s works also addresses a fourth crisis. This might be called the “ecclesiastical” crisis. Though lay people easily move between denominations and among congregations, their clergy are usually locked into structures from which there is no escape. Clergy find that their salaries, their retirement, their hopes for promotion or a call to another congregation depend on how they respond to the next denominational crisis. When there is an honest debate about worship, church involvement in national politics, clergy’s sexual preferences or questions of Biblical interpretation, the issues often become political as various sides fight to gain control of the denomination and force others to accept their position.

Now nearly every denomination is wracked by divisions and threats of schism. Few lay people are involved in such conflicts because they have long enjoyed the freedom to accept or reject the teaching of church authorities especially on controversial matters. Because their income and future do not depend on the outcome of these quarrels they may be inclined to be more objective in the debates and more loving to their opponents.

Should some of these same lay people be called upon to preach, teach and preside at the Eucharist, one might see many of these denominational conflicts subside. Since their position is not dependent on a denominational party or seminary, they are most likely to represent the convictions of their congregation. Since few if any would aspire to leadership positions within the church body, personal ambition would not likely be a motivation for continuing conflict.

Such lay leadership within congregations might also serve to heal some of the divisions of Christ’s church. Despite the ecumenical progress made in the last century with the World Missionary Conference, the World Council of Churches, the World Conference on Evangelism and many inter-denominational discussions, many congregations from different denominations at the local level are still badly divided. When warned by denominational officials to watch out for the false teachings of another church, a lay minister recently said to me, “If they only let us alone, I think we could solve the differences between these two churches.” Were the leadership of more congregations made up of such lay people, we might find that congregations might better share the richness of their own traditions and receive the blessings of others.

There was a revival of interest in the insights of Roland Allen in the early 1960s. The new nations of the world were reclaiming their own heritage and independence. Like the sun, colonialism was setting in the west. Allen had long claimed that many native people in missionary lands had resisted the Christian message not because of its content but because of the imperial practices of the Western churches exercised through seminary-trained clergy. If Allen’s proposals were adopted, perhaps there might be another “spontaneous expansion of the church” across the world.

In Africa, China, India and Latin America this is indeed what has happened, not because of a change in mission policies but because the new wine of the Gospel could not be contained in the old wineskins. Independent native Christian leaders, referred to by Allen in chapter three in The Ministry of Expansion,11 simply carried out the mission. Using a wide variety of worship forms suited to their cultures, they sang their faith into the hearts of their neighbors. In the West, however, the home of the settled churches, Allen’s proposals were largely ignored. Perhaps the reason was best given by Sir Kenneth Grubb when he wrote that while Allen spoke of how to start from the beginning, he was less clear on how to start halfway down the course. For Grubb and most mission thinkers, change was possible in missionary lands but not at home, where the church and her policies were long established.

However, at the beginning of a new century the chief challenges to the church are not in missionary lands; they are within the churches in the West. Many denominations are aging and losing members; they also are rent by controversy. Rather than representing the ideal of a single apostolic ministry groomed by Christ, professionally-trained and paid clergy are most often responsible for continuing divisions. The most rancorous debates in the church are about such clergy, their education, their upkeep, their gender, their sexual preferences and even their sexual activities. With the vigorous debates about these professional clergy now paralyzing the very life of most denominations, will Christ’s people be able to meet the various crises they face at the beginning of a new century?

Allen was not sure that the established church as he knew it would be able to make the necessary changes. Near the end of his life he became discouraged. He saw quite clearly that the leaders of most established denominations were uncompromising in their adherence to their traditions of church and clergy. Furthermore, his own conscience forbade him to continue to accept appointments to serve as an interim clergyman because it would just continue to encourage the people’s dependence on the professionally trained and paid priests. If the regular church was not open to the lay celebration of the Eucharist, might Christians return to a more Biblical pattern and celebrate communion in their homes?12

While the lay celebration of the Eucharist is practiced by some in house churches and in a few congregations without clergy, it is evident that the great majority of church people are bound in the traditions they have inherited. While many may believe, as they did in the days of Allen, that the people of God can choose their own leaders to communicate the word of God and administer the sacraments according to the Biblical example, few will break with their traditions. The institutions are simply too strong, and the ruts in the road are too deep to make any radical turns. Is there any hope then for a new and reinvigorated faith and life in the church?

Allen would reply, “Only in the Holy Spirit.” For Allen, it was the Spirit who was the motivation for mission; the Spirit could be trusted to lead people into the truth. The Spirit lifted up leaders and invigorated their witness. The Spirit opened doors in the hearts of strangers and provided courage in the face of adversity. Allen believed that his best book was Pentecost and the World,13 in which he spelled out in detail how the church should trust the working of the Spirit through the Gospel rather than through their ecclesiastical rules.

Some thoughtful Christians, tired of institutional Christianity, are leaving denominations for house churches and their more intimate fellowship. Others remain in the established churches hoping for renewal and reform. Allen’s confidence in the work of the Spirit is likely to be far more important than any form of the church. He would observe that the Spirit’s work can be observed in any shape of the church. In his openness to the leading of the Spirit he celebrated both native prophets and sympathetic bishops. Above all he suggested that the unity of God’s people does not rest in the structure of their church life but rather in the working of the Spirit.

Allen argues that lay people be encouraged to celebrate the sacraments so that any small group of Christian can be completely supplied with all it needs to survive and grow as the church. Here he is careful to stress that he is speaking chiefly for those without benefit of clergy. Yet, once Christians realize that God has given the sacraments to the whole church and that each group of Christians can choose who should preside at the Eucharist and Baptism, a marvelous transformation is in the offing. Now a lack of funds need not limit the church from expansion; the ministry of peers can make the church more relevant in a time of cultural diversity. Old wounds between Christians can be healed, that together they can aid the world’s unfortunate. Though long viewed as a radical voice in missionary circles, Roland Allen’s chief contribution to the 21st century may be that he speaks a word of hope. If any group of Christians can be fully the church, no power on earth can prevail against it. Instead such a church can become the leaven in every society, and all of Christ’s people can be empowered to serve.


1 In August 2006 Lutterworth Publishing House in the United Kingdom republished the following books by Roland Allen: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?; Missionary Principles; The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It and The Ministry of the Spirit. In 2003 they published Reform of the Ministry, a collection of essays by and about Roland Allen by David Paton.

2 Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (London: World Dominion Press, 1956).

3 Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdman’s Publ. Co., 1962).

4 This book is cited in the biography of Roland Allen. Cf. Hubert Allen, Roland Allen: Pioneer, Priest, and Prophet (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1995), 160. The draft manuscript is on deposit at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Its publication is pending by Lutterworth.

5 Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995, 1978).

6 Bruce Olson, Bruchko (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 1995).

7 Dayanand Bharati, Living Water in Hindu Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2004).

8 Patricia O’Connell Killen & Mark Silk, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone (New York: AltaMira Press, 2004).

9 Victor Choudhrie, Greet the Ekklesia: The Church in Your House (Available from , English Edition, 2005). Author reports that by means of lay leaders and house churches there are 300,000 church planters and 50,000 cross cultural missionaries. He claims that 1,000 house churches are being planted in India every two weeks (p. 41).

10 Roland Allen, “The Family Rite” in Reform of the Ministry, ed. David Paton (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968).

11 Allen, “The Ministry of Expansion… op. cit.

12 Allen, “The Family Rite” in Reform of the Ministry.

13 Roland Allen, Pentecost and the World: The Revelation of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles(London: Oxford University Press, 1917) [reprinted (shorn of its preface and detailed analysis of its contents) in The Ministry of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 1-61].

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