In the secular world the world `lay` describes a person who lacks the knowledge, training, or designation to be part of a specific professional group. It has a negative connotation, meaning someone who is `not` (a doctor, lawyer, rocket scientist, electrician, engineer, etc.). We use lay terms to simplify complicated medical, legal, or scientific processes for a general audience. We respect those who have spent their lives to gain the expertise and proficiency in their profession for the good of others. After all, I did not choose to be a doctor and so do not expect to have a doctor`s knowledge. I am a lay person when it comes to the field of medicine.
In the church, the negative connotation of the term `lay` is magnified in our institutional structure, our thinking, and our ways of acting. To be `lay` is not who we are, it is what we are not. We are not ordained. (Technically, vowed religious women and men are still in the lay state.) It doesn`t get any more negative than that. To be not ordained means that you are automatically denied the right to many of the sacramental and teaching ministries in the church. To be not ordained means that you cannot hold any positions of power or authority by right. Lay women and men can be part of consultative processes on the parish, diocesan, and even the Vatican level, but the final decision making powers always lie in the hands of the ordained hierarchy.
Unlike the secular world, no amount of training, wisdom or academic accomplishments will take away the fact that you are still considered a lay person, a lay theologian, a lay minister, a lay pastoral associate, a lay chaplain, etc. If you are a woman, the lay designation is simply redundant. You have no other option but to be lay.
We have come a long way in the post Vatican II years in understanding that through Baptism we all share in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king/servant-leader. But, as laity we are too often reminded of the great divide between the clergy and us. Of course, this depends greatly on individual deacons, priests and bishops. Some understand the truth that together we ARE church, and to be true church means to work as one with a respect for the diversity of gifts among all God’s people. But, sadly, there are those who still view the church as a strict hierarchy of priests on pedestals and the laity as the great unwashed in the pews.