Sunday, October 4, 2009

Anglican priesthood and eucharistic presidency (2)

Following up on an initial posting here, I have some further thoughts on eucharistic presidency, beginning with some clarifications from the first, in response to some comments.


Scriptural underpinnings

In some ways I can only state that not everything about being Anglican is 'scriptural' if, by that, one means that we do nothing without clear Scriptural warrant. It is part of historic Anglicanism that we did not accede to Puritan tendencies to become a bibliocratic church.

But this, we might observe, is not weird with respect to the Reformation! A recent read of a paper on Calvin's eucharistic theology, "Union and Communion: Calvin’s Theology of Word and Sacrament" by MICHAEL S. HORTON in International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 11 Number 4 October 2009 (h/t to my friend Bryden Black), reminds me that no less a person than Calvin, seeking in his predictably intelligent and learned way to develop as error-free a theology of the eucharist as possible (i.e. avoiding some of the pitfalls that Luther and Zwingli fell into) found his way as much by digesting the subtleties of Eastern Orthodox eucharistic theology as by absorbing the participationist understanding of St Paul himself (1 Corinthians 10). In taking up the former subtleties, Calvin was very much in favour of the epiclesis - the calling of the Spirit - which is about as 'unscriptural' as one can get when reviewing important aspects of eucharistic theology and practice

Change in Anglicanism

When some moot change in Anglicanism, and others respond that change should be through consensus rather than unilateral action, a swift response often cites the case of the ordination of women, which was introduced to the Communion through unilateral action (although reasonably quickly received and accepted as a viable change even though not unanimously agreed with).

My argument re consensus being required for the introduction of lay presidency is that this is a more significant change to Anglican orders of ministry than the ordination of women (which, after all, did not introduce a new order of ministry) and arguably requires a greater degree of agreement than for the ordination of women. But I use the word 'arguably' advisedly: there is an argument to be had over whether any one province could decide for lay presidency and not cut itself off from Anglicanism.

A key issue

One of my correspondents to the first post raised the practical question which, across the Communion, must often arise: when a priest is not available to be president at a eucharistic service, why cannot another person such as a deacon or a lay leader be authorized to preside at communion until such time as a regular priest is available? One tension in modern Anglicanism is between the desire for weekly eucharist (rather than, say, weekly Morning Prayer and monthly or even irregular Holy Communion) and the supply of priests to fulfil the role of priest-in-charge or vicar of a parish (to say nothing of priests to preside at eucharists across a multi-centre parish). It certainly seems like a good idea to appoint non-priests to preside when priests are not available.

One response to such an idea is to make the point that presiding at the eucharist is a special task, in particular a special task of leadership. The eucharist is not a mere recitation of prayers in thankful remembrance of Jesus' death, followed by distribution of cup and bread. Rather, the eucharist is a gathering of the community of the faithful with the risen Christ in their midst, with the intention of feeding and drinking of Christ in accordance with his teaching and his commandment. Over this event which lies at the centre of the life of the church one ought to preside who is discerned and recognized as an appropriate leader to do so: eucharistic presidency is a special task of leadership (according to long and unbroken Christian tradition from the days of the apostles). This leadership is associated with episcopacy and eldership (bishops and presbyters or priests, in terms of church office set out in Scripture). On this line of thinking, a deacon or lay leader authorized to preside would logically be authorized to be a temporary presbyter.

In turn this would raise questions about whether (a) temporary presbyters are a good idea (they might be) and follow a concept known in Scripture (that, in my opinion, would be difficult to substantiate), (b) people can become presbyters on the basis of either authorization (without ordination) or ordination which has only temporary effect (either is possible, but neither, as far as I am aware, has precedent in the tradition of the Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican churches).

Certainly it is true that Anglicans in different parts of the Communion have raised the question of lay presidency over several (or more) decades now. Various commissions have looked into it, reports written and recommendations made. The Diocese of Sydney seemingly has been within a hair's breadth of promulgating lay presidency for time beyond remembering. It may be an idea whose time will yet come.

But it is also true that it is the task of Anglican churches to discern priests, and the role of bishops to ordain priests and to appoint priests to communities of faith in order to ensure that eucharistic worship is conducted 'decently and in order'. A church working in this way is acting consonant with Scripture.


Janice said...

Hi Peter,

it is the task of Anglican churches to discern priests, and the role of bishops to ordain priests and to appoint priests to communities of faith in order to ensure that eucharistic worship is conducted 'decently and in order'.

Forgive my ignorance but I still don't get it. To "ensure that eucharistic worship is conducted 'decently and in order'" why wouldn't it be sufficient only to require that whoever conducts the service follows one of the prayer book orders of service? I confess that I don't understand what a sacrament is but I'm pretty sure that having an "unworthy" priest administer one is regarded as not nullifying whatever sacrament is administered. If that's correct then what difference does it make who administers it?

Another thing that bothers me is the idea that you can have a community of the faithful with only one "priest" or "elder". (In the Bible that word always seems to be plural.) It's a particularly dissonance-causing thought, to me, when I remember that probably all of the final-year theology students who visited us fairly recently were half my age or less. Obviously it will be a few more years (3?, 4?) before they get priested, and I guess most of them will be working as assistant priests for quite a while before they get to be made priest-in-charge of a parish, but even so, they'll still be officially regarded as an "elder" when they're only about 35, or even younger.

That's just weird, or I'd imagine it's weird to anyone a couple of decades or more older who has continued to learn and grow in wisdom. Obviously I'm including myself among those but only because I've learned so much in the more than 2 decades since I turned 35. Rock singers used to say not to trust anyone over 30. I don't trust the wisdom of anyone under about 45. Timothy can be an exception, but only because Paul vouched for him.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Janice
I confess I have never thought of the issue you pose, in my own words, 'What is the difference between an unworthy priest presiding at the eucharist and a 'not a priest' presiding at the eucharist? I shall think about that!

Just one priest or presbyter (elder) for each community of faith? There are variations on that ratio in different parts of the Anglican Communion, especially in the ministry model followed by a number of rural and urban parishes here in Aotearoa NZ called 'mutual ministry' or 'local shared ministry'. But your point generally is true across the Anglican/R. Catholic/E. Orthodox churches: one reason for it being so lies in the concept of 'communion' being 'unity' and the 'priest of the parish' serving to focus that unity.

Nevertheless in some Christian denominations more is made of a shared eldership and your critique of Anglicanism on this point would be well understood in those denominations.

Age and the presbuterate or eldership? As I understand 1 Timothy 3 there is no specific age given as a qualification for being a presbyter, but there is a strong sense of the presbyter being someone the community respects. I would hope that when the church discerns (say) a 25 year old for priesting, they recognise not just their potential to be wise and mature when 45 but already having gifts and abilities, and wisdom, which will engender the respect of the community of faith to which they are going to be appointed. In the parish system, local nominators often work with the bishop in the choice of priest or presbyter and have an opportunity to say 'X is not the right person to be the elder of this community at this time'.

Of course the wisdom of the aged can be turned in another way (speaking as an almost 50 year old myself): some parishes, desperately missing younger adults, youth and children, are very keen on the wisdom a 30 year old priest will bring to the situation!

Anonymous said...

"'What is the difference between an unworthy priest presiding at the eucharist and a 'not a priest' presiding at the eucharist?"

This reminds me of a great joke from the 19th century, during some Tractarian (or the Gorham?) controversy:
"I used to doubt the theory of apostolic succession but now I've changed my mind. I am now sure the Bishop of Exeter stands in a direct line from Judas Iscariot.'


Peter Carrell said...

Now, that is a good joke!

Kurt said...

There is a simple solution to this problem of Holy Eucharist without resorting to either lay presidency or “Mass priests”: promotion of use of the Reserve Sacrament in Australian parishes. Deacons can administer the Holy Communion from the Reserve Sacrament in most Churches today. It would not be problematic for most Anglicans to allow licensed laypeople to also administer the Blessed Sacrament from the Reserve. Evangelicals should not think of the Reserved Sacrament in a partisan way, since its use in Anglican Churches predates the Oxford Movement.

It is impossible to say when the Blessed Sacrament began to be reserved in the American Church, but it was well before the Oxford Movement of the 1830s, and probably followed the 17th century custom of the Scottish Church. For example, from c. 1824 the famous Rev. Dr. Wyatt of Christ Church, Louisville, KY always reserved a large portion of the Precious Blood of the Holy Sacrament, in a large glass receptacle which was silver mounted and locked. This was always placed in an ambry or small closet, locked, in the wall of the Christ Church sacristy. Nowadays, the Blessed Sacrament is usually Reserved in both kinds (eg, bread and wine).

Brookyn, NY

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Kurt
Reserved Sacrament (or, as I prefer, 'Extended Communion') is a solution to the problem raised herein, but I have a feeling it will not be uncontroverted by commenters!

Kurt said...

Oh, I guess I just didn’t recognize what you meant by Extended Communion. Why should the practice be in any way controversial? Particularly if one follows ancient Scottish custom and keeps the Reserved Sacrament an ambry in the sacristy? The Blessed Sacrament need not be kept in a Tabernacle on the High Altar (or, on the Lady Altar, as is done in my parish, Ascension Greenpoint: ), if folks are worried about “Adoration” issues.

Anonymous said...

The question is whether 'the sacrament' is a total action or an object (consecrated bread and wine). Medieval theology a la Aquinas focuses on the material object; Reformation theology doesn't separate these from the total, congregational action of thanksgiving.
The BCP rejects reservation. I have some sympathy with the notion of 'extended communion', but it still smacks a bit of a pharmacist preparing a prescription (pharmakeia tes athanasias!). Over against this western legalism, I favor a more charismatic/pneumatic understanding of the Spirit's presence and working in God's people.

Janice said...

Anon1 wrote,

I have some sympathy with the notion of 'extended communion', but it still smacks a bit of a pharmacist preparing a prescription (pharmakeia tes athanasias!).

Frankly, much of the activity associated with the sacraments strikes me as magical thinking. It's one thing to believe that a sacrament is "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". But it's another thing entirely to think whatever a presbyter does when he blesses the bread and wine turns it into something so imbued with ... what? ... that it works even if the presbyter isn't worthy, just because of the words said over it, and there's a whole big rigmarole involved in subsequently guarding it, and the dregs of it, from misuse.

I don't mean to be offensive or dismissive. I just don't get it and I'm getting less and less sure that there's anything to get that's more satisfyingly explanatory than the idea that the institutional church may be stuck, inappropriately, in Reformation era cultural attitudes. Weren't they scared of witchcraft in those days?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Janice
There is a danger of magical thinking skewing the picture of things to do with sacraments and sacramental actions. But, I suggest, there is an opposite danger of unnecessarily de-mystifying the 'holy mysteries' of God.

With that general comment in mind I would simply respond by saying that (a) order-in-community is important in the service of holy communion (beginning with the Last Supper, moving through 1 Corinthians and through church history) - few if any Christians would argue that communion is something I can have anytime I feel like it and just need to take some bread and wine from the cupboard, pray appropriately, and bingo, Communion! (Even Catholic priests saying mass alone each day will go into their church to do so, and will say the prescribed service, not just a prayer);

(b) in Anglican tradition we have prescribed that order-in-community means there must be two or more present, and a priest must preside;

(c) on any theology of the eucharist in Anglican contexts, the bread and the wine are being consecrated or set aside for the holy work of obedience to Jesus' command to 'Do this ...', whether or not we ascribe to some theology of change in or to the elements of bread and wine, the status of the bread and wine has changed;

(d) whether that change in status makes a difference to the manner of disposal of excess bread and wine, or to the way it is preserved for use as 'reserved sacrament' or 'extended communion' varies (in my experience);

(e) but the fact remains that this change in status is a result of a prescription (if we wish to think with Anon1, pharmaceutically!) that the setting aside of bread and wine for the act of holy communion is an order-in-community event;

(f) incidentally, this does mean, on the logic here, that a priest about to go away on holiday, alerted by (say) a lay minister to a rest home that insufficient quantities of the elements for extended communion are available, should not race into the church vestry and say a prayer or two to 'make it all right'!

Janice said...

Well thank you very much, Peter!

Your explanation has been very helpful and enlightening to me.

Anonymous said...

So I take it you favor stopping lay people from preaching then, Peter? Surely this is a function of the episcopoi-presbuteroi in the NT church?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anon1
No, for the record, I am in favour of licensed lay people preaching in accordance with the doctrine of their licensing church, presided over by episcopal and presbuteral leadership. There could be many reasons for this which are coherent with the NT, including lay preaching being a pathway into presbuteral ministry.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know you are, Peter. & I think licensed laypeople could do a good job in leading the occasional communion service, maybe as a pathway into presbyteral ministry!

liturgy said...


It always intrigues and confuses me that those traditions that press most strongly for a revisionist position on leadership at the Eucharist, are normally those traditions that are quite happy to dispense with Sunday Eucharist altogether! This makes me sorely suspect the motivation of this drive.

Similarly, in my experience, those clergy who "race into the church vestry and say a prayer or two to 'make it all right'" have tended to come from within that similar tradition.

These also "magicify" the Eucharist by, rather than clearly presiding throughout, step up at a couple of times in the service to pronounce some words ("absolution", "consecration"). It is no wonder when such is the context, that many will be confused about presidency.

Anglicans in fact do have presbyters always in the plural - as our basic community is the diocese.

I do not know Janice, but if a husband throws away his wife's wedding ring - I think there may be some reaction, as there is when we burn a flag, or a $100 note. It's not about magic at all, it is about our human experience of symbol and sacred. If we are not present to the sacred in the Eucharist, then there is something SERIOUSLY wrong.

As to not having reflected on the difference between an unworthy priest presiding at a Eucharist and a non-ordained doing so, I am surprised that this is new. It was the subject of much controversy in the early church, and is covered by Article 26 of the 39 Articles. All priests are unworthy!

Finally, there appears repeated undercurrent of the priest doing stuff. It is God that consecrates in response to the praying community led by a priest or bishop.



Peter Carrell said...

Thank you Bosco, on all counts!

Anonymous said...

"...those traditions that press most strongly for a revisionist position on leadership at the Eucharist..."
I guess this is a reference to women's ordination. Yes, I undestand your feelings here, Bosco. The revisionism that makes a denomination break with the universal practice of the Church Catholic should give one pause.
As for your perplexity about those who 'step up at a couple of times', you are surely aware that church law requires these words AND THESE WORDS ONLY to be said by one in priest's orders. Anything else can be said by a layperson. That's the explanation - not a medieval mindset (except among the composers of liturgies).
Did you know the Norwegian Lutheran Church allows lay celebration?

& nobody has yet explained to why a layperson can preach the Word of God but not lead a communion service. Quite illogical.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anon1
In the NZPB, though much observed in the breach, the presiding priest is required to lead The Peace!

liturgy said...

To continue your list, Peter, the priest leads the prayer at the Preparation of the Gifts, the fraction, invites to communion, the prayer after communion, and gives the blessing - so I do not know which "church law" Anon1 refers to.

In any case, such legalism and rubrical fundamentalism will soon end up in debates about what to do with a bakery if an annoyed priest walks in and recites the "words of consecration"! I am far more interested in how Christians celebrate liturgy fruitfully - not some minimum legal requirements.

"nobody has yet explained to why a layperson can preach the Word of God but not lead a communion service. Quite illogical."

I thought there had already been several logical explanations, including from you, Peter, but perhaps Anon1 missed them.

a) His own answer: "The revisionism that makes a denomination break with the universal practice of the Church Catholic should give one pause."

b) I've said this before: the priest is still presiding during the Liturgy of the Word. A teacher presides in the classroom during the whole lesson, a judge presides over a courtroom during the whole case. This does not mean the teacher does everything in the lesson - far from it. S/he facilitates & enables learning to occur by all. The judge does not do everything in a court - far from it. S/he facilitates & enables justice to occur. The priest or bishop presides over the whole Eucharistic celebration. This does not mean s/he does everything - far from it. S/he facilitates & enables worship to occur by all.