UGLEY VICAR – seeks to promote Lay Presidency at The Eucharist

THURSDAY, 12 APRIL 2012

Could lay celebration renew the Church of England?

            One of the things that literally causes me sleepless hours is the present state of the Church of England.
It is not just the doctrinal and moral issues currently being raked over as we consider, for example, the appointment of the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
            It is also the lack of evangelistic impact the Church of England has on the country and the lack of effective energy amongst many of its members. Somehow, despite its best efforts — and some of them are considerable — the Church as a whole fails to impress or enthuse.
            I must have been musing on this the other morning when my thoughts turned yet again to the topic of lay celebration — the practice of allowing ordinary laypeople to preside at that activity we know variously as Holy Communion, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
            When I say ‘yet again’, I do mean that this is something I have thought about often. Indeed, I first gave it conscious consideration back in the 1970s, soon after I became a Christian. Despite growing up in a strongly Anglo-Catholic tradition, it seemed obvious, subsequent to my conversion, that any Christian group ought to be able to commemorate the Last Supper, regardless of whether an ‘ordained’ or authorized person were present.
            The same thought persisted throughout my college years at St John’s, Nottingham. When David Sheppard, then the Bishop of Woolwich, took part in the only college debate we had on the subject, I was simply struck by how much his arguments seemed to depend on special pleading, not common sense and Scripture.
            The same was true when I read and reviewed Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod, published in 1997. On the one hand, the Bishops seemed unwilling to commit to a ‘Romanesque’ theology of priesthood. On the other hand, they wanted to make sure that only priests could celebrate the eucharist.
            The result was an appeal to the notion of ‘overall pastoral oversight’ supposedly possessed by the incumbent, but of course not possessed by curates or visiting clergy called in when the incumbent is unavailable. Hence we were back to the (desired) conclusion: ‘Only priests can do this,’ but lacking the old justification, ‘Because they are priests,’ and relying instead on a new, functional, justification which in the end is either too narrow or (potentially) too broad.
            It has always seemed to me that the best argument for ‘priests, and priests only’ is the Roman (and Anglo) Catholic one: that priests are different in kind and can do different stuff. Once, however, you accept the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, then rationalizations of the ‘priests only’ rule begin to look just like that.
            And this is why it matters.
            If you truly regard the Christian community generally as a ‘priestly kingdom’, you ought to act accordingly. If you don’t act like it, then you either don’t believe it, or you do believe it but are prepared to act in disobedience to it.
            Arguably this also has some bearing on why it is so difficult to harness the energies of our laity. Whilst they consider themselves ‘disenfranchised’, why should they take responsibility. And if they are capable of taking this responsibility, why do we reserve the sacramental role to the clergy?
            Certainly the view of at least some of the early Reformers was consistent with this attitude. Martin Luther, in particular, had a ‘theology of the word’ which meant that anyone, including women, could act in a ‘priestly’ manner:
            To baptize is incomparably greater than to consecrate bread and wine, for it is the greatest office in the church — the proclamation of the Word of God. So when women baptize, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately, and do it not as a private act, but as a part of the public ministry of the church which belongs only to the priesthood. (‘Concerning the Ministry’, LW 40:23)
            Rather less-widely known is Thomas Cranmer’s view that in the absence of bishops, anyone, including the laity, could authorize some of their number to act as priests.
            Now of course the Puritans, of whom I am generally a fan, opposed lay baptism, and therefore presumably may have struggled with lay celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But I may be wrong — and in any case I cannot understand their reticence on the baptism issue.
            I have long been of the opinion that the Reformation generally fell short when it came to reforming the Church’s ministry. In my heart of hearts, I am persuaded that in this regard the Church is indeed still ‘but halfly reformed’.
            Nevertheless, there are a number of things that hold me back.
            First, I am concerned for Anglican Catholics. I do not agree with their arguments, but I understand them and recognize their internal consistency and their long history. So whilst I would like to see change, I would want to discuss it and clarify the reasons for this with others who take a different view, just as one ought to in a congregational setting.
            Secondly, we have all seen what happens when groups and individuals, overwhelmed with enthusiasm for a spiritual novelty, go off the rails.
            It is simply not the case that ‘clergy led, bad; lay lead, good’. On the contrary, lay led is often subject to abuse and domineering personalities. That there is some control over this in the episcopal system has long seemed to me one of the key arguments in its favour. Purist ‘congregationalism’ is, I think, a bad thing, and before taking steps in the direction I am suggesting, is one of the things that should also be discussed.
            Yet it does seem to me that we need to break the spiritual-monopolistic tendency of Anglican clericalism and to empower the whole people of God.
            I have said before that I believe the current Anglican model of ministry is essentially ‘aristocratic’. We are a community divided into an elite and the rest, and no one can cross from the ‘wrong side’ of the tracks without being admitted by the gatekeepers, who are virtually all themselves members of that elite. But the chief qualification for exercising your ‘elitism’ is simply that you are of the elite — I am a ‘priest’ and you are not, and there’s an end to it.
            The answer, however, is not democracy! In a religious democracy — at least in the sense I am using the word — every ‘Jack’ or ‘Jill’ is as good as his or her master or mistress. Here there is no submission to leaders, as advocated in Hebrews 13:17. Instead, ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’, and to disagree with or contradict the erstwhile leadership as much as they feel inclined.
            Actually, of course, such disagreement goes on all the time in the Church of England. But thanks to our aristocratic system, the ‘mob’ of the laity can never actually seize the Bastille of sacramental privilege. It is rather like the old Victorian rhyme about the colonial wars: “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun — and they have not.’
            But there is a third way, which is ‘meritocracy’ — which it seems to me is already exemplified in Judaism, and indeed Islam. In Judaism, the path to the rabbinate is through study. Thus whilst being an intellectual does not make you a rabbi, to be a rabbi requires learning.
            And one thing is sure: no one could expect to become a rabbi who did not have a substantial grasp of the Hebrew language. Certainly you could not expect to be a rabbi (or an imam, come to that) without being able to read and engage with the sacred texts of your community. Yet how many Anglican clergy have a grasp of the original languages?
            Now I am not saying that you have to be able to read Greek or Hebrew in order to be able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper — far from it. But at the moment the privileged few who can do this may have little or no ability in areas that other religions would consider fundamental, whilst those who could, through personal effort, acquire such skills, are potentially excluded by the elitist system from ever exercising the role of ‘leader’ conceived in Hebrews.
            Whatever our views, the system is surely in need of renewal. Full-time, full-time trained, clergy are in increasingly short supply. The return of the ‘mass priest’, able to recite the service but skilled in little else, looms — either that or we must accept the practice of sacramental reservation even whilst our formularies deny the principle.
            We live in radically challenging times. Should we not be considering radically alternative answers?
________________________________________________________________________________________
            I was interested to read of the intentions of the Rev. John Richardson, the non-stipendiary Vicar of Ugley, in the Church of England, when I clicked on a link on  the web-site ‘Anglican down Under’, hosted by a solleague of mine in the N.Z. Dioceses of Christchurch, the Revd. Dr. Peter Carrell. 
           In this article, on his ‘ Ugley Vicar’ web-site, Mr. Richardson seeks to find out what his readers think of the idea of the Sydney Diocese’s intention to allow Lay Presidency at the Eucharist in that Australian Diocese. There is a connection between Sydney and Ugley, in that Mr. Richardson advertises on his web-site that: “In 1993 I was fortunate enough to spend a year studying at Moore College in Sydney, Australia, where I gained First-Class Honours in the Diploma in Theology”.
            Obviously, that diploma did not connect too well with the intrinsic theology of the catholic and apostolic tradition of the Anglican Communion – otherwise, Mr. Richardson would scarcely be advocating what, to most orthodox catholics, would be a complete departure from The Tradition. One can only surmise that this is an attempt by the Vicar of Ugley to try to implant an unorthodox tenet of Sydney Evangelicalism into the C.of E.
            At the moment, from the statistics on his web-site, it would seem that the Ugley Vicar is not gaining many converts to his, and Sydney’s,  understanding of the theology of the ministerial priesthood in the Anglican Tradition. I can only sigh with relief!
            Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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11 Responses to UGLEY VICAR – seeks to promote Lay Presidency at The Eucharist

  1. Bro. David says:

    Father Ron,
    The first thing that comes to my mind here is, if we start having lay leadership at the Eucharist, why do we then have priests and what does that say about what has actually become of our theology regarding bishops? Until we return to a well founded theology of bishops, which leads to a theology of deacons and priests, we will continue to have folks who wish to constantly question and gray the lines.

  2. Kurt Hill says:

    As I remarked over at Fr. Carrell’s, there is a much more Anglican alternative–weekly communion from the Reserved Sacrament (or, as Fr. Carrell calls it Extended Communion). It should be a non-controversial answer to the problem, too. After all Anglican churches in Scotland and America have been using the Reserved Sacrament for the sick and the dying for centures–in America probably before the 1730s.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    • kiwianglo says:

      Thanks, Kurt and Bro. David, for your observations. As a matter of fact, the Roman Catholic Church – because of a lack of priests – certainly in New Zealand – have used the Faithful Laity to facilitate ‘extended Communion’ from the Reserved Sacrament for some time now. They call this (in a congregational setting) a para-Liturgy. All very official, and in line with the tradition of needing an ordained priest to preside over the Consecration of the Blessed Sacrament at the Mass.

      Another alternative, which I know has been used in the Anglican Church in the Arctic, has been the raising up of local non-stipendiary priests, in order to facilitate the Holy Communion, which remains the most essential worship of the Church. It must also be realised that, in the Sydney Diocese, the Eucharist seems to take second place to the preaching – which they never trust to the women of the Church. Lay presidency in Sydney must be seen in that particular context.

      • Dan says:

        “the Eucharist seems to take second place to the preaching”

        As per Acts 2:42 I should think. Both “fellowship” and “breaking of bread” are subordinate to “the apostles’ teaching” – see 1 John 1:3 and Matthew 5:23,24 respectively. The Word defines the Sacrament, therefore the latter depends on the former.

      • kiwianglo says:

        Not if you accept that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – indicating that The Word, Jesus, is incarnationally present in the Eucharist. The ‘Real Presence’ of God, in Christ, for the catholic Christian is both inspiration and goal of, and for, all worship.

  3. Joshua Bovis says:

    While I acknowledge that there is no Biblical prohibition for lay people to preside over the Eucharist, I think the notion of lay presidency is not a good idea for three reasons:
    1.Although it is not heretical, it is not Anglican in that it departs from the Anglican understanding of the threefold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons and their respective roles. And this I believe will create a massive stumbling block for other Anglican brothers and sisters. If it harms a Christian brother or sisters conscience, to do this would be very unloving. For argument’s sake – just say that those who are wanting LP think that those who don’t are the weaker brother or sister, would not Romans 15:1 apply? By the way I am not suggesting that those are against lay presidency (myself included) are weak, but all of God’s people are obligated to strengthen, encourage and build up each other.
    2. I have noticed that those pushing for lay presidency are Reformed-Evangelical Anglicans. Yet there are many Reformed-Evangelical Anglicans who disagree with lay presidency and want nothing to do with it. If it causes division and concern amongst Anglicans of the same ilk then I don’t believe it is worth it. There are bigger hills to die on.
    3. I believe that Presiding over the Eucharist is an act of headship and therefore is to be reserved for the Ordained Priests/Presbyters of the Parish.

  4. davidaustinallen says:

    I think, Joshua, that one needs to be very careful with that first argument or we will never attain marriage equality in the church nor the universal ministry of all the baptized, because there will likely always be someone who objects to GLBT folks and views it as a stumbling block.

  5. Can I just say, as the author of the article, it has nothing to do with Sydney? And I do find it frustrating when people jump to conclusions (it must be because he went to Sydney) rather than read what is said. As I make clear in the original post, my early ‘formation’ was in a London Anglo-Catholic parish (I was a server and later crucifer), but immediately consequent on my conversion (which took place quietly, on my own, when I was 21), it seemed obvious to me that any group of Christians could celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper without the benefit of a ‘priest’ as I’d been taught. I am pleased that in Sydney there are people who think the same way – but my connection with Sydney post dates my conversion by twenty-two years.

    As to the arguments themselves, they are missiological, but I believe they are also coherent theologically. However, if you want to blame anyone, blame Martin Luther, not one of the Jensen brothers.

  6. Harry Macdonald says:

    It seems perfectly consistent with biblical teaching to keep the ordained Priest as a leader with a universal authority (within the Anglican church at any rate) but allow a Priest to authorise the leader of any group, (small church, Youth Group etc) to preside at the Eucharist in the context of the group of which he is already the leader. This preserves the principle of doing all things in order and preserves the role of the Priest without needing him/her to be present on every occasion.

    • kiwianglo says:

      Well, Harry, if you want to overturn the traditional understanding of the task of priesthood – to see the priest (a’la Sydney mode) primarily as the seat of authority and power in the parish, and not in the traditional catholic and orthodox understanding of the priest as the sacramental enabler in the Christian community – you would probably have a point. However, the priesthood of the Laity is in a different category.

      • Harry Macdonald says:

        Well we are all priests anyway. As regards the rather convoluted doctrine of sacramental enabler, or whatever else you wish to call it, if Bishop can enable a priest (at ordination) why can’t a priest enable a lay leader. There’s nothing biblical about the role of a bishop other than him (her?) being a recognised leader.

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