The Ministry of Women: a Biblical Affirmation

The recent failure of the General Synod of the Church of England to support the ordination of women as bishops by a wide enough margin to carry the motion[1] has had the effect of focusing attention again on this issue, even in churches like ours[2], where the ministry of women as priests and bishops has been accepted and affirmed for a long time. Arguments purporting to be a biblical justification for reserving ordination for men have been given a fresh airing; some have found them persuasive, and others have seen them as proof that biblical and evangelical Christianity is so out of touch with the modern world that it is not worth a second thought. It is sometimes necessary, in situations like this, to go over the ground once again, so that people can be clear that it is not only possible, but imperative, for Christians – even Christians who think of themselves (as I do) as biblical and evangelical – to accept and affirm the ordained ministries of women. Let me list the two arguments that seem pertinent to me.

First, we need to be clear that episcopacy, priesthood, and ordination, as we know them today, did not exist in New Testament times. This fact can be obscured for modern readers because some of the words are, in fact, used in the New Testament; they are not, however, used in the same sense as we use them.

The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Barnabas planted Christian congregations in Asia Minor, they ‘appointed elders for them in each church’ (Acts 14:23)[3]. Biblical scholars have long accepted that in doing so Paul and Barnabas were intentionally replicating the government of the Jewish synagogue. ‘Elders’, in the synagogue, were not the same as ‘rabbis’ today; they were teams of people who shared responsibility for the leadership of the synagogue. It was not, for instance, their responsibility to do all of the teaching themselves, although it was their responsibility to ensure that teaching took place. They were not full-time synagogue employees; they earned their living in the usual manner. In modern Anglican parlance, they were far more like a cross between lay-readers and vestry/church council members than they were like priests as we know them today. Let me state it again: the modern concept of a seminary-trained, full-time, professional priest, who by ordination has been set aside from worldly employment for a career of doing all of the preaching and sacramental ministry in a congregation, did not exist in New Testament times.

The Greek word for ‘elder’ is ‘presbyter’ – from which, we are often told, the English word ‘priest’ is descended – and yet this is confusing because there is another Greek word, ‘hierus’, used to describe a sacrificing priesthood in the Old Testament and Greek and Roman senses. This word is never used to describe Christian ministers, in an exclusive sense, in the New Testament. It is used of Jesus, our ‘Great High Priest’, and it is used of the whole church, which is described in 1 Peter as ‘a royal priesthood’ (see 1 Peter 2:8-10).

The word ‘presbyter’ is not the only one used to describe Christian ministers in the New Testament. Paul speaks in Ephesians 4:11 of ‘pastors and teachers’; the word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’ and is of course an illustration used by Jesus himself (John 10:1-18) to describe his care for the flock of God. Another word used for an elder in the New Testament is ‘overseer’ (eg. 1 Timothy 3:1), which is in Greek ‘episkopos’, from which we get our words ‘bishop’ and ‘episcopal’.

These words are used interchangeably, in New Testament times, for members of the leadership teams appointed in every congregation. Teams are of course necessary because many different spiritual gifts (teaching, preaching, administration, counseling, leadership, evangelism etc.) are required in a healthy congregation and no one person has been given all the gifts.

After the deaths of the last of the original apostles, the Church seems to have decided, almost universally, that in every local church one of the elders/pastors/bishops should take the leadership role, and gradually the custom arose to reserve the title ‘episkopos’ for this person. But let us be clear that we still do not have the modern situation of the bishop as having authority over a wide geographical area, with fifty or a hundred local churches under their care, along with a large synod office staff and huge amounts of money to administer. We have a local congregation with a leadership team of elders, one of whom takes overall responsibility as the overseer. Later on as churches grew and multiplied in a city, those overseers added more congregations to their charge, but it was many years before the office of a monarchical bishop, as we know it today, evolved in the church.

All this is by way of argument that our modern system of church government did not exist in the New Testament. And this has implications for what we argue about today. For example, for many years now it has been widely accepted in Anglican churches for people other than ordained clergy to preach regularly in congregations. Sometimes those individuals are trained lay readers, and this office has long been open to both men and women. It has also been customary, for a long time, for rectors of parishes to share leadership of those parishes with churchwardens and vestries, and to do so in a consultative manner. Almost the only role that continues to be reserved for ordained clergy alone, in our system, is presiding at the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and the effect of this has been that, for many Anglicans, sacramental ministry has been seen as the essence of ordained ministry. But it was not so for the elders in the New Testament.

Nowhere in the New Testament is the issue of who presides at Holy Communion even addressed, and in the texts which opponents of the ordination of women usually appeal to, it is not the issue at all: the issue is of women ‘teaching or having authority over a man’ (1 Timothy 2:12). But most Evangelicals appear to work happily in churches where women minister as lay-readers (and, in the Church of England, they are also required to accept the authority of a female ‘supreme governor’); for them to then turn around and appeal to these texts as somehow supporting the idea that Holy Communion services presided over by women are invalid seems like very dodgy exegesis to me, when the texts do not even address that issue.

So, having established the principle that our modern practices of episcopacy, priesthood, and ordination had not yet evolved when the New Testament documents were written (so that biblical texts cannot simply be lifted out of their context to support or disallow ‘the ordination of women’), we must go on to recognise that, when it comes to leadership ministries in general, the New Testament texts do not speak as clearly as is sometimes assumed by opponents of the ordination of women.

New Testament Christians, of course, fully accepted the authority of the Old Testament view of the creation of human beings. The Book of Genesis tells us that ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). There is no hint of hierarchy in this verse; male and female equally express the image of God, and are charged equally, in the succeeding verses, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

The next chapter contains another creation account, in which the man is created first, and then God looks for ‘a helper suitable for him’ (2:18) because ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’. But the word ‘helper’ should not be seen to imply subordination; indeed, the Hebrew word in question is regularly used in the Old Testament to describe God himself! The chapter goes on to speak of the man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife, so that they become ‘one flesh’ (2:24). Once again, there is no hint of subordination or hierarchy of any kind. In fact, it is not until the third chapter of Genesis, with the story of ‘the Fall’, that subordination enters into the picture (‘your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ – Genesis 3:16). Subordination is seen, then, not as a creation ordinance of God, but as one of the evil effects of sin.

But the New Testament argues that, in Christ, there is a new creation. Christ is the new Adam, the one who comes among us to heal us from the curse of sin and death and to restore us in the image of God. What, then, is Jesus’ attitude toward women? Unquestionably, he would have been seen by his contemporaries as radically egalitarian. He took no notice of social norms that forbade Jewish men from speaking to women other then their wives; he was glad to include women in his theological discussions and refused to send them off to the kitchen in conformity to conventional views of ‘women’s roles’ (see Luke 10:38-42). Women were present among the disciples of Jesus, in their own right, and supported him out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3).

It is often said that Jesus only appointed male apostles, and showed by this that he intended the Christian ministry to be restricted to men forever. It is true that none of the Twelve were women, but we need to remember that the word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’ – i.e. one who is sent as a representative of the sender, with a message to give to others. That being the case, surely it is instructive that the first person to be ‘sent’ (with a message to the male apostles, no less!) as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection is Mary Magdalene (see John 20:10-18). The gospels make it clear that the tomb was visited on Easter Sunday morning by male apostles too, and presumably Jesus could have chosen to appear to them first if he had wanted to, but he chose not to do so; instead, he chose to appear first to Mary Magdalene, and to ‘send’ her as a witness to ‘my brothers’ (John 20:18). The other gospels mention that Mary was not alone; other women were with her, including ‘Joanna’ and ‘Mary the mother of James’ (obviously names known by the people for whom Luke was writing in Luke 24:10); they told the apostles of his resurrection, but ‘they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11).

The Book of Acts makes it clear that women were among the company of believers who waited expectantly and prayerfully for the coming of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:12-14). The group of believers then numbered about one hundred and twenty, and presumably it is this same group that was present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came. On that day Peter, explaining to the crowd what had just happened to the early believers, appeals to Old Testament prophecy:

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, quoting Joel 2:28-29).

So women and men share equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit and are able to share equally in the ministry of prophecy – speaking God’s message in God’s name, saying (as the Old Testament prophets put it) ‘thus says the Lord’.

It is true that there are few stories in the New Testament about women fulfilling this ministry (although we do hear about the four unmarried daughters of Philip the Evangelist, all of whom had the gift of prophecy – see Acts 21:9). But we do see, for instance, the Jewish tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla (or Prisca), who worked together with the apostle Paul in Corinth (see Acts 18). This excellent couple obviously took a leadership role together in the Corinthian church and later accompanied Paul to Ephesus, where they both together exercised a teaching role with the young preacher Apollos, instructing him ‘more adequately’ in the way of Jesus (Acts 18:24-26). Paul describes Priscilla and Aquila in Romans 16:3-4 as ‘my co-workers in Christ Jesus’ and he also refers to ‘the church that meets at their house’ (v.5). We also meet Phoebe, ‘a deacon of the church in Cenchreae’ (Roans 16:1), and, interestingly, ‘Andronicus and Junia (a feminine name), my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was’ (Romans 16:7, emphasis mine). We also meet Euodia and Syntyche, Philippian women who seem to be having a quarrel. Paul asks a friend to ‘help these women since they have contended at my side for the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life’ (Philippians 4:2-3).

Some might object that the term ‘co-worker’ is a loose one and does not imply any sort of official ecclesiastical or apostolic office; that is, it is not a recognized title like ‘apostle’ or ‘pastor’ or ‘presbyter’ or ‘overseer’. To this I would respond that the term ‘co-worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s most common ways to describe and honour people who have worked with him in his ministry of spreading the gospel, both in travelling missionary work or in local situations. It appears at least nine times in his letters, and they are worth quoting in full: Romans 16:3-4 (‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.’), Romans 16:9 (‘Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys’), Romans 16:21 (‘Timothy, my co-worker, sends his greetings to you’), 2 Corinthians 8:23 (‘As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you’), Philippians 2:25 (‘But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker, and fellow-soldier’), Philippians 4:3 (‘Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side for the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life’), Colossians 4:11 (‘Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me.’), 1 Thessalonians 3:2 (‘We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith’), and Philemon 1 (‘To Philemon our dear friend and fellow–worker’).

It seems clear to me, from these references, that to be called Paul’s ‘co-worker’ was no small thing. It did not imply, for instance (to use a modern illustration), simply receiving his monthly prayer letter and making the coffee when he came to visit! Timothy and Titus had travelled with Paul and shared his evangelistic and missionary labours, and Epaphroditus may well have been the first person to take the Gospel to the Colossians. In being included on the list of Paul’s ‘co-workers’, surely women like Priscilla and Euodia and Syntyche were members of a distinguished and honoured company!

What is the overall picture, then? In Galatians Paul says, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:28). This verse has been overworked somewhat, and it needs to be used with caution, as it is not talking about ministry roles but about the fact that all alike can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, it does give a picture of a Christian community in which these distinctions are seen as part of the old creation, as something that is passing away now that Christ has come.

But surely, some will protest, that is not the whole picture? What about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church’)? And what about 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety’)?

Yes, it is true that these texts exist as part of the New Testament witness. And yet even these texts seem somewhat inconsistent with what we know of New Testament church life. Take Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14 that ‘women are not allowed to speak’. This refers to standing up and speaking to the congregation in the name of God, right? Well, apparently not, because in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 Paul says, ‘Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as having her head shaved’ (emphasis mine). Obviously Paul is referring to some social interpretation of a head covering which we no longer see as valid today, but be that as it may, it is quite clear that women prophesied (speaking to the congregation in the name of God) and prayed regularly in the Corinthian church, so that whatever ‘women are not allowed to speak’ meant, it obviously did not mean that![4]

To me, this says that the small minority of texts that appear to restrict the ministry of women need to be treated with caution. We obviously are not fully informed about the context in which they were written, and in the one case that we have examined carefully, it is clear that the text does not mean what we might naturally assume it to mean. That Jesus and his apostles carried out their ministry in a world formed by patriarchy, we cannot doubt. That the apostles were not always successful in shaking off that patriarchy, we ought not to be surprised. But that the New Testament ideal was that of the new creation, in which men and women shared equally in the image of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in which ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’, we can, it seems to me, be reasonably sure.

So what ought we to do? Obviously I write as a contented member of a church that accepts and affirms the ministries of women as deacons, priests, and bishops; in this, I believe, we are faithful to the overall New Testament witness. But there is no room for complacency here. Yes, we are being fairly successful in shaking off the chains of patriarchy and recovering a New Testament picture of partnership, where men and women are co-workers for the Gospel. But what about the rest of the picture? What about the picture of a church where the question of who presides at Holy Communion is not even an issue? What about a church where every congregation is led by a team of people (elders, presbyters, or whatever you want to call them) who share the work of leadership in the congregation? What about the fact that in the New Testament every Christian is seen as a member of the Body of Christ with gifts of ministry to share for the benefit of the whole body?

Do we encourage this view of the work of the Church when we exalt the ministries of pastors and bishops above all others, when we give them special robes that they alone are allowed to wear, and when we give them titles like ‘the Reverend’ and ‘the Right Reverend’ and ‘the Most Reverend’? Do we encourage New Testament ministry when we seat our bishops on thrones in cathedrals (the word ‘cathedra’ means ‘throne)? Do we encourage a New Testament view of ministry when we exalt the presidency of the Eucharist above all other functions of the ordained, even making it the be-all and end-all of their work?

I believe we do not. I believe it is time for us to ask serious questions about whether our received practice of the threefold ministries of bishops, priests, and deacons bears any resemblance to that of the early church at all. I believe it is time for us to reconsider our traditional practices around ceremonial, around clergy dress and nomenclature, and around ministry roles in general. It is not enough for us to open all ordained ministries to both men and women. We need to go further than that, to examine our whole understanding and practice of ministry and ordination, in order to recover the New Testament concept of the whole people of God as ‘a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9). Only then, it seems to me, will we experience the fullness of ministry that is Christ’s will for his Church.


[1] I use this language deliberately. The Church of England’s General Synod did not ‘vote against women bishops’. To carry the motion, a two-thirds majority was required in all three houses of Synod: bishops, clergy, and laity. The motion was supported by over 90% of the bishops and over 75% of the clergy, but fell 6 votes short of a two-thirds majority among the laity. This is hardly a decisive rejection: approximately three quarters of the Synod were in favour of the motion!

[2] I am a member of the Anglican Church of Canada.

[3] All biblical quotations are from the New International Version, 2011 edition.

[4] And I note in passing that the text says absolutely nothing about the question of whether or not a woman may preside at the celebration of Holy Communion; as I have already said, this issue is of no interest to the authors of the New Testament documents

‘Who Presides?’ (Part Two)

(See part one here).

Who presided at celebrations of Holy Communion in the early church?

Truthfully, it’s hard to know. And one of the problems is that we have such a hazy idea of what actually went on.

We tend to assume that the early Christians did things pretty well as we do them – getting together on Sundays, sitting in rows facing the front, taking part in a service led by someone at the front, which included Bible readings, set prayers, a eucharistic prayer and so on. And I think you can make a good case for something like that by at least the mid second century. But is it in the New Testament?

In 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul describes the Lord’s Supper, it actually sounds a lot more like a pot-luck supper than a liturgical celebration.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (11:20-22).

True, he does go on to describe something like what we know today as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, in which the bread and wine are eaten and drunk in obedience to Jesus’ command at the last supper:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (11:23-26).

Taking the text as a whole, however, it seems most natural to assume that at Corinth, in the mid-50s, the Lord’s Supper was still being observed as the last supper had been – as part of a communal meal, with the bread and wine of the Eucharist being shared as an integral part of the meal, perhaps at the beginning and the end as they had been at the last supper, at least in Luke’s account (see Luke 22:19-20). Worship at Corinth, it seems, was much more like a real supper with prayers, teaching, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper attached, whereas today it is more of a liturgical celebration with a tiny bit of food and drink attached to it! And Paul’s directions for who will speak, who will prophesy or speak in tongues and so on (see 1 Corinthians 14) seem to assume that there is not usually just one person ‘up front’; rather, worship seems to be taking place ‘in the round’, as it were, with many different voices contributing.

So it’s not entirely clear from the New Testament that Christian worship looked anything like what we think of when we use the term today. And neither is it clear that Christian leadership looked anything like our concept of ministry, or priesthood, or the pastorate.

For one thing, the term ‘priest’ is never used to describe a Christian liturgical minister – which is striking, as it was one of the most commonly used terms for religious leadership in the Gentile world, and of course had a good Jewish pedigree as well. But the Greek word for ‘priest’ – meaning a mediator, a go-between, one who brings God and people together – is used in the New Testament in only two ways: first, for Jesus himself, our great high priest (see the Letter to the Hebrews), and secondly, for the whole people of God, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10). The word is never used to describe what we might today call ‘Christian ministers’ or ‘pastors’.

We have a clear indication in the Book of Acts of the sort of leadership that was commonly exercised in the young churches founded by the early Christian missionaries. In Acts 13 and 14 Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey through what is now Syria and Turkey, preaching the gospel and gathering the new converts together into Christian congregations. On their way home they retraced their steps and established a leadership structure of sorts in these little churches:

After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch.There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’ And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. (Acts 14:21-23).

In establishing this ‘eldership’ structure, they were consciously imitating the way Jewish synagogues were organised. Each Jewish synagogue in those days was governed by a council of elders (the word used in the Greek New Testament is ‘presbyters’); their functions were not only liturgical and educational but also organisational and administrative. It does not seem to have been their job necessarily to give the teaching every week; rather, it was their job to make sure someone was there to do the teaching (and so it was natural, for instance, in Acts 13:15, for the ‘officials’ (clearly the elders) of the Jewish synagogue to invite Paul and Barnabas, who were obviously travelling preachers, to instruct the congregation that day).

What the early Christians set up was obviously something similar. J.B. Lightfoot, in his influential essay ‘The Christian Ministry’ (1868), pointed out that

The duties of the presbyters were twofold. They were both rulers and instructors of the congregation… Though government was probably the first conception of the office, yet the work of teaching must have fallen to the presbyters from the very first and assumed greater prominence as time went on.

However, not all of the presbyters in each congregation were necessarily preachers or teachers; this is clear in 1 Timothy where we read ‘Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching’ (5:17). Clearly, then, not all of the elders were teachers, but they were all involved in the ‘ruling’ of the congregation. And clearly, also, they worked as a team; Luke says that Paul and Barnabas ‘appointed elders’ (plural) in each church (Acts 14:23), just as each synagogue had been led by a team of elders.

It seems to me that these elders were something like a combination of our modern Anglican offices of ‘lay reader’ and ‘vestry member’ (U.K. readers: ‘PCC member’). They were obviously not seminary-trained, and although Paul does mention the idea of remuneration in a couple of places, it seems unlikely that they were all full-timers. It seems much more natural to assume that they earned their living in their normal jobs and worked together as a team to guide and rule the congregation committed to their charge.

One thing that is very striking, however, is that at no point does the New Testament ascribe any liturgical function to them. They are not mentioned as leading the congregation in prayer, nor are they mentioned as taking turns to preside at the Lord’s Supper. The only specific functions given to them in the New Testament are teaching and ruling, and the qualifications required of them are mainly that they be people of exemplary character (see 1 Timothy 3:2-7).

This does not necessarily mean that they did not do these things. It may mean quite the opposite; it may mean that their liturgical function was so well-known that no New Testament author felt it necessary to mention it. But it does seem somewhat strange, if presiding at the Eucharist is the primary function of the priesthood (to use later terms), that this is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament.

But even if it could be clearly demonstrated – and I do not think that it can be – that in the New Testament only the presbyters/elders presided at the Lord’s Supper, we need to ask ourselves whether these New Testament elders are in fact the same as what we now call in the Anglican tradition ‘priests’. And the answer to me is clearly that they are not. Some of them, but not all, are preachers and teachers; some are presumably primarily involved in governance and are much more like churchwardens and vestry members. And even the ones who teach don’t usually do it full time or as ‘lone rangers’; they do it as part of a team. So in fact, as I have said, the ‘presbytery’ of the average New Testament church appears to have combined the functions of what Anglicans today would describe as vestry members, lay readers, and priests. Even an argument, then, that in the apostolic and post-apostolic church it was the presbyters who presided at the Lord’s Supper does not necessarily mean that only priests should do so today, because the New Testament and post-New Testament ‘presbyter’ and the modern ‘priest’ are not necessarily the same thing.

‘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?