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.