‘Who presides?’ (part one)

I expect that this will be the first in a series of posts on the subject of whether or not a person who is not an ordained priest may legitimately ‘preside’ at the Eucharist or Holy Communion service. This series will inevitably include some theological discussion, but I want to begin, not with theology, but with a practical issue.

In the Diocese of the Arctic, where I ministered for seven years, there were in those days a number of what we would call in the south ‘multi-point parishes’ – that is to say, parishes in which one full-time ordained priest looked after churches in two or three different communities. The reason for this was of course financial; there was not enough money to pay a full-time priest to live in each community. This situation is common in rural Canada, and in the south it isn’t too complicated; a priest becomes a road warrior who gets up on Sunday morning and drives between the communities of his or her parish, leading two or three services of Holy Communion in different places each week. The different congregations all fight for prime time, of course, which is a drawback (11.00 Sunday morning is always better attended than 3.00 Sunday afternoon), but for the most part the situation is workable, and parishes celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper frequently, if not every week.

In the Arctic, however, there was the added complication that the distances are much greater and the only way of getting between the communities is by air. This was ridiculously expensive and so, rather than the ‘out stations’ receiving communion every week or two at less convenient times, they actually received a visit from their priest three or four times a year, and when he or she came, they stayed for a week or more, visiting and catechising and administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion and so on (I should point out that this was the situation when I lived there twenty years ago; it may have changed since then).

Many of those out-stations actually had quite well-trained lay readers or catechists resident in the community: locally raised-up leaders who had received a pretty good preparation for the work of leading services of morning and evening prayer (which was the usual Sunday fare when the priest was not present), preaching and teaching and so on. For the most part these were well-respected local Christians. However, they had not been to seminary, and there was a long-established tradition in the Diocese of the Arctic (for reasons involving complicated family dynamics) that when a person was ordained they were not sent back to their own community as a priest. As a result, rather than the bishop giving permission for a perfectly competent local leader or leaders to preside at Holy Communion on a more frequent basis (which would be contrary to ancient ‘catholic’ tradition and practice), these communities became what we might call ‘occasionally sacramental’ – that is, their customary form of worship was Morning and Evening Prayer with sermon, and once a quarter or so a priest was flown in, at great expense, to provide sacramental ministry to the community.

The irony here is that this is the very kind of parish life that the Anglo-Catholic revival of the nineteenth century found so problematic. It was common in England in the early 1800s for churches to celebrate Holy Communion once a quarter, even though they had resident priests; it was the Anglo-Catholic revival (which insisted that Holy Communion was the only form of Sunday service instituted by Jesus) that aimed to change this. The high sacramental theology of Anglo-Catholicism insists that a weekly celebration of Holy Communion in each parish should be the Christian norm, and yet its high theology of priesthood in the apostolic succession (another feature of Anglo-Catholicism, but also one which all Anglican Christianity practices, whether it agrees with it in theory or not) coupled with the desire for a properly educated priesthood (hence the requirement in many places for a Master’s degree and a full- or part-time salary for the priest), have made such a weekly celebration impossible for many parishes around the world in the Anglican Communion – for my story about the Arctic could be duplicated in many parts of Africa and South America.

Consider further the situation that occurs in parishes with their own full-time priest when the rector goes on holiday. In my parish I usually go away for a three-week holiday in the summer time, and take a couple of other weeks at other times during the year. What happens when I am away? Well, we are not quite so insistent on a weekly celebration of Holy Communion as many Anglican parishes (it is our custom to have a ‘service of the Word’ on the last Sunday of the month), so usually we arrange for a priest to visit the parish during the middle week of my holiday, and for our lay-readers to lead Morning Worship without Holy Communion on the other two Sundays. It is not always easy to find a visiting priest, but usually we are able to do so with a bit of effort.

We do of course have four perfectly competent lay-readers in the parish, who are well-respected local Christians and have been properly trained for their ministry of leading non-sacramental worship and preaching; they are also up-front with me and share in the leadership of the Holy Communion service every week, although not saying the Eucharistic Prayer (the part of the service reserved, in our Anglican polity, for the priest).  But once again, rather than the bishop giving permission during the priest’s holiday for one of the lay-readers to preside at Holy Communion and consecrate the bread and wine, we are obliged to bring in a stranger to the parish (who has to get used to our way of doing things) to consecrate the elements. Either that, or in some parishes they ‘reserve’ bread and wine from a previous celebration of Holy Communion and have what is called a ‘reserved sacrament service’ – i.e. something resembling a Holy Communion service, commanded by Jesus to be done ‘in remembrance of him’, without actually including the specific prayer that remembers him!

And this is where the discussion about lay-presidency at the Eucharist (as it is called) needs to begin, in my view. It is often caricatured, by opponents of the idea, as a free-for-all: members of the congregation presiding at the service in a haphazard, random sort of way, without any proper preparation or training or order of any kind, so that the Eucharist becomes, not the sacrament of the whole catholic Church presided over by the local representative of the universal church, the duly-ordained priest, but a purely local thing, the property of the local congregation or, worse, of individuals within it, each of whom feels that he or she ‘has the right’ to preside.

This caricature needs to be knocked on the head immediately. I am aware of no responsible advocate of lay-presidency who is suggesting such a thing. In the second century A.D., Bishop Ignatius of Antioch laid it down as a rule that no celebration of the Eucharist should be considered valid unless it was presided over by the bishop, or one who had been appointed by the bishop. The question I would like to consider in this series is whether this ‘appointment’ should be understood strictly as permanent ordination as we now understand it, or whether the bishop might legitimately and validly appoint other, non-ordained persons to preside at the sacrament of Holy Communion, in the full sense of saying (on behalf not just of the congregation but of the whole catholic Church) the Eucharistic prayer or prayer of consecration, by means of which the bread and wine of Holy Communion become for us the Body and Blood of Christ, .

Next up: who actually presided at the Eucharist in the early church?

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7 thoughts on “‘Who presides?’ (part one)

  1. Casper

    I think I too will read the series with interest. Being one more inclined to abolish the full time clergy the question I asked myself is what right do the bishops have to withold the eucharist from the people of God (there’s a reason i’ve been flirting with Quakerism recently!)

  2. I would turn the question round: what does it mean to ordain someone to the priesthood other than give them authority to administer the Eucharist? High level education or receiving a salary is certainly not of the essence – and these are already considered optional in the Church of England. I suppose permanency and a specific form of service are considered to be requirements, but they are not really of the essence. I suspect that when this is properly answered, and some of the recent Anglo-Catholic accretions are stripped away, the answer to the problem might simply be for the bishop to ordain and license suitable lay readers as non-stipendiary priests. When their service was no longer required, they would technically remain priests but their licences could be withdrawn.

  3. Casper

    From a C of E perspective probably not much but personally the idea seems utterly alien to me. With the exception of Jesus as my High Priest I recognise no priesthood but that of all believers, no divinely sanctioned mediator but the spirit of Christ.

    What can I say? I’m one of them there nonconformist Christians.

    On a more pragmatic level what are the numbers per parish like for the CofE nowadays – if the.y’re still low as i recall then surely its a matter of time before ‘the laity get clericalised!) isn’t it?

  4. Casper, I share your non-conformist instincts, but accept that within an organised denomination it is not wrong for the central authorities, in this case bishops, to authorise those who lead services. I see priests in the church as presbyters or elders, not as mediators between humanity and God.

    The Church of England is very varied. There are a few large churches and a large number of rather small ones. A congregation of 100 is now considered quite large. So as in Canada there are now many “multi-point parishes” who share a priest. We don’t have the problems of distance that there are in the Arctic. It may be more common than in Canada for churches to have lay led non-Eucharistic services most Sundays and a main Sunday Eucharist perhaps only once a month.

  5. Gordon

    I can’t help but smile at the “problem” you have created for yourselves. As a Christian from a totally different denomination that believes in the priesthood of all believers, its hard to understand why the Anglican church can’t adapt to present reality and allow other dedicated, committed Christian congregants to administer communion. I am looking forward to following the discussion.

  6. Pingback: ‘Who Presides?’ (Part Two) | Faith, Folk and Charity

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