Friday, December 17, 2010

Communion by Extension

Despite the title, it's not about church services in conservatories. It's quite a churchy thing, so if you're not interested in that sort of thing, feel free to call back later!

I keep meeting people who talk about church services moving to communion by extension, led by an authorised lay person. This happens in some places because in the Church of England only people ordained priest can preside at a communion service, and there aren't enough priests to take services in every location and at every time that churches currently require. The logic goes, therefore, that if consecrated bread and wine can be taken from one venue to another by a lay person and then distributed by them, this can meet the requirements.

Aware that I may be accused of all manner of things at this point, perhaps I should clarify before I go on:

  • I think the celebration of holy communion is central to the life of the church, and should be available to the whole people of God on a regular basis.
  • The ministry of lay people needs to be expanded and developed and is sometimes restricted unnecessarily by clergy  - either through insecurity or an inflated sense of their own importance.
  • Communion by extension is what several of us do in my own parish when we take communion to individuals or small groups of people who are housebound or in residential homes.
However, I think communion by extension is not the way forward for the Church of England's Holy Communion service staffing problems. It's a reasonable answer to the question: "how can we maintain the present system, with its patterns of services, congregational expectations and church structure". There are other solutions - fast track ordinations for local leaders or even allowing lay people to preside (which would be hugely controversial). But I think they are all answers to the wrong question. 

We should be asking what the church needs to look like in order to develop and grow communities which can transform both individuals and neighbourhoods with the love of God. I don't think that necessarily means providing Holy Communion at every venue and in every time slot that we have become accustomed to. Change won't be popular, of course, and some people get very agitated about it - I've heard people talk about "my communion" which they would defend at all costs.

If the Church of England is going to do more than "keep the show on the road" we need to have a bigger picture in our imaginations than communion services. We need to get away from thinking of communion as a commodity we're entitled to at XX o'clock on a Sunday, and rather as a gift we appreciate whenever it is available. We need to move away from being parochial in our vision - what about thinking in terms of areas or Deaneries with a certain number of celebrations at specific locations, but other forms of worship elsewhere which lay people can lead. I even dare to ask whether not having communion as a weekly routine might actually make us appreciate it more when it happens.

My own view is that participation in the eucharist or communion isn't just about consuming the elements - it's about the entire journey of the communion service. In some traditions that is affirmed by the fact that people unable to consume the bread or the wine are still deemed to have received by being present (it's in the 1662 Prayer Book, for example) If we drift into a widespread practise of communion by extension, we potentially lose that insight. And maybe it's an undervaluing of non-eucharistic worship to assume that it cannot feed people's spirits adequately - assuming they are still able to attend the eucharist sometimes.


Depending on our upbringing or spiritual preferences, we'll react differently to some of these ideas. I grew up on communion once a month - and it was a special occasion; those of a more catholic tradition may find it more difficult, although in the developing world the mass is sometimes an infrequent but joyful occasion. However, we need to be thinking about these things now, before expediency takes over and we acquire habits and practises which we might not have chosen if we had paid more attention.

10 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

Lay celebration is daft.

If they are competent to celebrate the Eucharist, why not ordain them?

Have you read Roland Allen?

Revsimmy said...

I think you are right to say that we need to go back to principles rather than to drift into patterns of practice out of simple expediency. Trouble is, of course, as with so many things in the CofE, different people and different churches are working to different principles. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we need to know and appreciate what it is we're trying to achieve and why.

Since beginning theological training I have appreciated more and more that the basis of it all is relationship and connection not only between God and individuals but within the church as a universal expression of God's will for humanity and creation. One apsect of my ordination is the connection it brings between the local congregation and the wider church - through the diocese represented by the bishop who licensed me and the whole church through the bishop who ordained me in the first place. This is more than simply the mechanics of presiding at a eucharist, but is an important consideration.

For me, communion by extension is Ok, but only to deal with an "abnormal" situation. The housebound are able to participate in the eucharist of the wider church. A congregation which wouldn't otherwise be able to do so are enabled to participate at a distance either geographically or in time with another congregation. But as a regular thing? Perhaps we will just have to make do with fewer eucharistic services in each church. But the shadow of the "massing priest" looms a little larger.

St said...

I think I'm with you most of the way Mike although probably more in favour of lay presidency than you and, obviously, more than Steve Hayes. I am not convinced that competence at presiding at communion is anything like enough to correspond to competence at being a priest. It is a small part of priestly function. As such, I feel utterly awful not being able to allow a committed, lay member of my church to preside on the odd occasion I am missing on a third Sunday. And even worse getting a stranger in to do it.

Revsimmy said...

St

I suppose it depends what you mean by "competence at presiding at communion." If all this means is the ability to pronounce the right words and do the right actions at the right time, then sure. But the point of ministerial orders within our episcopal governance saying something about the place of that ministry within the catholic (small c, as in the creeds) church? The Eucharist is wider than simply what is being done by this congregation at this place and this time, and the stranger that comes to preside is not "a stranger" but a representative of that wider reality.

Revsimmy said...

Sorry. Third sentence in above comment should have started "But isn't the point of ministerial orders..."

Steve Hayes said...

I supplise a lot depends on one's ecclesiology and eucharistic theology. Priests may do all sorts of things, but most of them do not require ordination. The one thing that priests do that requires they laying on of the bishop's hands is presiding at the Eucharist, because, as St Ignatius says, without the bishop, the eucharist is not a eucharist.

Mike Peatman said...

Steve H - the logic of your last point would be that you regard all celebrations by non-episcopal churches as invalid. Although I would uphold and abide by Anglican discipline on this issue unless the Church came to a mind on a change, I have a strong commitment to sharing with ecumenical partners. Episcope is important, but we probably differ on whether that necessarily requires an episcopos.

Mike Peatman said...

In other words, I would happily receive at a Methodist eucharist.

Matthew McMurray said...

And I would not, do not and most probably will not for the reasons you yourself stated.

The ecumenical issue is an interesting one. As you probably know, teaching here in Camridge is shared among the theological colleges and we even have worship together. The vast majority of people are happy to receive Communion when the service is 'eucharistic'--apart from Roman Catholics and Orthodox who have a clear official position and some Anglicans like me who see episcopal ordination (by an episkopos by consecration not just function) as a sine qua non of Eucharistic celebration. There are of course those people who don't see these issues as important and even some who don't think we should express what we truly think. I find it much more helpful to be completely honest and open with people--and consistent--and generally find that leads to better ecumenism.

Mike Peatman said...

I wouldn't have expected you to say anything else, Matthew!

However, I would want to clarify that my willingness to receive at a Methodist celebration is not about not wanting to offend anyone. That's no reason to receive, and you are correct to say that good ecumenism is open and honest.

Thinking about a blog post on lay presidency soon, to open up that question with Steve & Steve