Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Down Under Muddle?

At its recent Synod the Diocese of Sydney agreed that deacons could preside over the eucharist (they also agreed that laypersons can do so, but I am not going to discuss that, save for one observation below, because for the time being the Archbishop of Sydney is not going to authorise laypersons to actually do so, whereas deacons are up and running already as licensed ministers). Bishop Alan Wilson (CofE) offers some interesting critique, and throws in a bonus, quite superb image of the true character of Anglicanism as evangelical software running on catholic hardware, while reminding us that Hooker and co consciously chose not to shape the C of E as a Zwinglian sect!*

Personally I discern at least two things going on in the (collective) mind of Sydney. First is a clever way through some issues not going away about women in ministry: "Sydney does not ordain women" is not true - in fact, women are ordained as deacons, but not as priests or bishops. Diaconal presiding enlarges the scope of women's ordained ministry while preserving what has become fundamental to Sydney's 'identity', that is, no woman has authority over a man (since only priests become rectors (equivalent to vicars), leaders of the leadership in parishes). The cynic might see this as a bone thrown to women to keep them happy; the via media Anglican might see this as an honourable and astute compromise.

The second thing going on is a way of thinking about being Anglican which pays little or no attention to the unfolding character of Anglicanism as a matter of historical reality while asserting the right to define Anglicanism in terms of a brief point in Anglican history, around about 1549-1552, when one form of biblical understanding drove the reform of the Church of England. In Alan Wilson's terms, this way of thinking thinks that the C of E should have become a Zwinglian sect, and regrets that it did not. Since the Bible says very little about the precise nature of church order, it is possible, by ignoring the history of the Church of England, to decide that deacons may preside at the eucharist.

But it is precisely at this point of clear thinking about the Bible and what it does or does not prescribe about ministry that we have the possibility of a Down Under muddle! As long as Sydney is in communion with Anglicans outside of itself, as it most certainly is post-GAFCON, it is part of a wider grouping of Anglicans embroiled in a debate about what may or may not be 'revised' within Anglican theology, ethics, and practice. Given that one of the catch cries of the conservative groups within this debate is 'revisionism' when it responds to the ordination of a gay man as bishop or to the blessing of a gay couple, it is mighty strange that Sydney would choose this time to 'revise' its understanding of who may preside at the eucharist.

And it is a revision they are making: the presiding over the eucharist is the role of one ordered to undertake this solemn and sacred action, which role has always been that of the priest or bishop in Anglican understanding and practice, and most definitely not that of the deacon. Moreover, this is a revision which is being undertaken unilaterally which, again, is a striking feature, since part of the charge against 'revisionists' is that they have acted without consulting the wider Anglican Communion, let alone sought the agreement of the wider Communion.

I happen to think that only priests should preside at the 'ordinary' eucharist (with appropriately authorised deacons and lay ministers able to extend the properly ordered eucharist into other parts of a parish or into the homes of the sick and the elderly) because the priest is one of the community set aside for 'eldership', a particular role of leadership of the community of faith delegated by the 'overseer' or bishop, and thus expresses that leadership through presidency of the special eucharistic gathering of the community. But the point here is much less who may do what in the church, and much more whether our thinking is coherent in respect of a set of issues which engage us at this time. As a Down Under Anglican I am struggling to see the coherency in the thinking at this time of my brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Sydney!

*Ruth Gledhill also posts about the decision, but in one respect I think her instincts lead her to a wrong conclusion. She writes,
"Just as making women deacons was a first step to the priesthood, everywhere except Sydney that is, surely making deacons celebrants can only be a step to lay presidency in full, especially in Sydney." This misunderstands that Sydney has been one step - the signature of the Archbishop - from lay presidency for ages, and the recent motion changes nothing in that respect. If anything diaconal presidency steers the Diocese further away from lay presidency because it relieves certain pressures to embrace it, such as a shortage of priests, and, perhaps with unintended irony, reinforces the principle that ordination is necessary for presidency.


Anonymous said...

The words 'Zwinglian sect' are evidently pejorative but don't seem terribly apt. I'm not sure that Zwinglian ideas had much purchase in 16th century England or present day Sydney, who I think are much more nearly Calvinist in outlook.
In truth, I can't get too exercised about 'lay celebration' in a church that allows, nay encourages, 'lay preaching'. I have a hunch which of these - preaching or communion - impacts more on the life of a church. Does an Anglican priest exercise sole 'eldership' over a congregation, as you seem to imply, Peter? If he or she can share the preaching and leading of worship, why not 'presiding' at communion as well? (Incidentally, I don't think the NT Church would have understood the expression 'presiding at the eucharist'; I suspect their primitive practice of 'breaking bread from house to house' was probably located in the heads of households rather than appointed apostles or elders. Of course, everything gets routinized in time.)
Having attended communion services in Baptist, Brethren and Pentecostalist churches (none of whose 'presidents' would count as a 'priest' in Planet Anglican), I find that the issue for me is whether the service was true to Scripture, reverent, prayerful and marked by love in the Spirit. (I could also mention the occasional horors of sloppily planned and led 'charismatic' Anglican communion services - fortunately not too frequent.)
Alan Wilson has a clever line on 'primitive evangelical software run on catholic hardware', but it doesn't bear close examination. The ordination of women isn't part of Catholic orthodoxy at all, as the vast majority of Catholics (RC and Orthodox) recognise. It's a unilateral protestant act. For my money, it's much easier to train people to be good leaders of worship (and communion) than it is to make them into deep and stirring preachers of the Word.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
I'll post separately about lay presidency.
I see your point re Alan Wilson's line on evangelical software/catholic hardware, but do not think women's ordination changes that if we take the 'hardware' to mean (i) threefold order of ministry (ii) liturgy and sacraments (of baptism and eucharist) (iii) an interdependent church (episcopacy, dioceses, provinces, synods) rather than a congregational church.