Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lay Presidency

When I was training for the ministry, I remember someone drily commenting that the word president came into use for church orders of service around the time of Watergate. It wasn't the best start for the word used in Church of England service books to refer to the person who has the overall responsibility for officiating during a service of Holy Communion.

Apparently the C of E considered various options - putting priest probably upset people who prefer the word presbyter, and explaining that it includes bishops makes it all a bit wordy. Some churches use celebrant on their own leaflets, but that wasn't adopted. The movement to renew the liturgy, both in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in the 60s and 70s took very seriously the participation of all the people. As all the people gathered are celebrating, they didn't single out the person overseeing the celebration. In the end they settled on president.

My experience is that whenever anyone suggests lay people might preside at an Anglican communion it prompts a reaction. In the comments on my previous post, it was called 'daft'. I have witnessed otherwise reasonable Anglican clergy get very upset - often very much more upset than they do about lots of other issues. So I thought I'd use this post to muse a little about the issue and, having lit the touch paper, wait for some reaction.

Opponents are often dismissive, or resort to an appeal to tradition which is little more than "we've always done it this way, so it must be right". It may well be right, but it needs better argumentation. We can't be entirely sure of what happened in the very earliest days of the church - the New Testament indicates a period of transition, so I suspect it wasn't as tidy as some would suggest. However, it would be hard dispute that our current Anglican practise mirrors what most of the church has done for most of its history. Whether it has an authentic continuity with that historic ministry remains a very big question in Anglican-Catholic relations.

Let's do a thought experiment, which is contrived and silly, but might help us to get started. Imagine you're invited to Desert Island Communion. You're all lay people, washed up on a desert island with little immediate hope of rescue - it's a Robinson Crusoe job. Remarkably there is bread and wine, and with no prospect of a suitably ordained minister being present, the gathering has an ad-hoc communion. The question is whether it's a real communion or not. For some people, it would be irregular - put crudely, it's not conforming to the normal rules of the church, but as it's exceptional circumstances God turns up. For others, it will be impossible for that to be true. Depending which side you you land probably determines a lot of the rest of the discussion.

Over the years, my observation is that the proponents of lay presidency (which is what we call it in the trade) fall into a number of categories. However the different character of the arguments is rarely addressed, and is usually just dismissed.

The first example I came across in my school Christian Union. We had a weekend away, and some people wondered if we could just 'do' a communion. It was innocently proposed as a nice idea, but for reasons I can't remember it didn't happen. I don't recall having an opinion at 16, and I suspect quite a lot of people don't. The second are people from church backgrounds where an ordained person isn't required, but have subsequently started attending Anglican churches. "Having someone authorised makes sense, but why can't the Reader do it?" said a Baptist to me once. From their previous experience, it was a reasonable question.

However, there are people with more of an axe to grind - either simply rebels or pragmatists who think that the solution to the communion problem (see previous post) isn't extended communion, but lay presidency. As I've already said, I don't think any of the available options should be adopted as a quick fix for that issue, so my answer to them would be the same; it's answering the wrong question.

The most interesting rationale I heard for lay presidency was described by Tina Baxter at a meeting I attended in the early 90s. It was more persuasive because it didn't ignore the importance of history or ordination in the Anglican tradition and sought to put the possibility of lay presidency into an Anglican structure. Her argument was essentially that ordination to the priesthood/presbyterate was primarily ordination to responsibility - for the life, nurture, ministry and mission of a church. Priests delegate and share many of these responsibilities - including ones which are key to people's spiritual life and nurture - notably teaching the faith and leading some of the liturgy. In extremis lay people can even baptize, but all under the ultimate supervision of a priest/presbyter. Her question was, therefore, why is eucharistic presidency different. [That's my brief recollection of a discussion from 17 or 18 years ago, and it was a question, so don't hold her to that!]

Personally I think lay presidency is theoretically possible - I don't regard ordination to the priesthood as being primarily ordination to preside at the eucharist. Nor do I regard appeals to historic continuity as ultimately persuasive. Other ancient churches regard me as a lay person, so even my qualification to preside is already a matter of opinion and dispute. However, I don't think it's a constructive proposal in practise. We're already a church plunged into disputes about the legitimacy of people's ministries - based on gender, sexual orientation, doctrinal belief and so on. The last thing we need is another. And I suspect that the only driver to consider it would be pragmatism, which is the last reason to proceed.


DrLanky said...

I think you raise some interesting points here. I particularly like your thought experiment on the desert island. I use this myself a lot to keep my opinions grounded and reasonable (I hope anyway!). I suspect on the island rapidly a structure would evolve which would recreate some old tensions - anyway i digress.

I prefer myself not to have lay people preside over communion. I have attended services where for various reasons lay people of other denominations have presided at a Eucharist using an Anglican rite. It didn't feel good to me to take part in that service. I don't feel complete apoplexy at it, just a feeling of it not feeling right. I conclude that for me I need the connection with the church in the past that ordination provides. I think there is a sense that the laying on of hands at ordination is so powerful in handing on that connection. For me the Eucharist is bound up in that.

Still i sometimes wonder at the legal and spiritual knots we tie ourselves up in at times. I'm not sure that some of the rules and regulations we have ended up with are in the spirit of the early church. When I feel that I take myself off to my desert island and wonder what I would do there!

Unknown said...

I wonder if God sits there laughing at our convoluted attempts to make sense of a simple meal?

Mike Peatman said...

@Andy almost certainly

Steve Hayes said...

I don't regard ordination to the priesthood as being primarily ordination to preside at the eucharist.

Without going too deeply into the question of what other ancient churches think, I think that statement is the heart of the matter.

When I was an Anglican I attended meeting after meeting on theological education at which people discussed "What is a priest?" and eventually I said at one such meeting "Can't we just put up the newsprint from the last meeting and move on?"

No, we couldn't, because nobody could agree on what a priest was, and the net result was that we ended up with the one-man-band model of ministry and it was clericalism all the way.

If your ecclesiology is such that you either have a one-man-band ministry, or you have a mish-mash of anyone doing anything (to use St Paul's imagery, your little finger will wiggle today, see tomorrow, hear the next day, and perform excretory functions the day after) then I suppose "lay presidency" makes sense. But if you believe that different people have different ministries, then presiding at the eucharist (as a representative of the bishop) is the central and most characteristic ministry of a priest/presbyter/elder. Lay presidents would be lay priests, and the question then is why do you need ordained priests? What are they ordained for?

So if you go the "lay presidency" route, why not be honest about it and become Quakers? There might be some resistance to that -- the jealousy of the present clergy for their position -- to which Roland Allen ascribed the resistance to self-supporting priests, and I think he was right.

If someone is to be a "lay president", why can't they be ordained? That is surely the simplest solution.

Steve Tilley said...

Would the person chosen to preside on the desert island, if it was always the same one, in effect be being ordained by a distinct and unique community?

For me it is about community. My own church community would rather move communion to a different Sunday each month than have a stranger come and celibrate.

Mike Peatman said...

@STeve H. I think the argument I have outlines would point to the ordinal, which outlines a number of areas of ministry - pastoral care, intercessions, visiting the sick, teaching and encouraging, common witness - all of which are delegated and shared with lay people at the moment without undue controversy, and without the need to ordain them. The question is whether the eucharist is 'reserved' to the priest within that list, or whether the one thing which stays with the priest is the responsibility and oversight of these roles.

I agree with Steve T that community is important, and the eucharistic president ought to be someone who can draw the community together in its common celebration. When that is a total stranger, it diminishes that sense of celebration.

Revsimmy said...

Whilst I agree with ST that community is important, local community is not the be all and end all of church life, including its eucharistic expression. The visiting priest is not "a stranger" but a representative of the bishop and the wider church, of which the local community is the local expression.

There is a streak of congregtionalism that runs through many CE parishes, often fed by those of other denominations who have found a "home" within their parish churches. Although there are some positive aspects of this, it does not sit well with the episcopal nature of the CofE.

Fr Matthew McMurray said...

I will resist the urge to descend to an Anglo-Catholic rant but I will say the following:

Part of the answer to the question of Eucharistic presidency is to ask who received the commission of Christ to 'do this in remembrance of me'. My understanding is that it was the twelve (or at least the closest followers) who received this commission. By definition, this is therefore an apostolic commission which would then be passed down. [The New Testament writings are inconveniently silent as to who was permitted to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice. Sorry! Couldn't resist!] I suppose this is at the heart of 'Catholic' understanding of the Eucharist and apostolic ministry. The apostles were entrusted with this sacrament and with the teaching of Jesus and the those in ordained ministry are also guardians of this. You may be right in suggesting that the NT writings speak of a period of transition but there is no indication of from what to what. The scriptures are inconveniently silent as to the shape of ministry in the Church though we do seem to have clear mention of 'episkopoi', 'diakonoi' and 'presbuteroi'. If we look to Acts 6, we see that the first diakonoi receive the laying on of hands from the apostles. I certainly do not think that there was every any sense of liturgical free-for-all.

The appeal to tradition is much deeper than 'we have always done it this way'; it is a belief that this is the way that was entrusted to us by the Holy Spirit. The trouble is, of course, that all this is top-down ministry down through the centuries but this has become so unpopular that many people--ordained and lay--seem to advocate a bottom-up community based model of ministry. I personally do not think that this is a choice we have.

I don't think that the Church of England will ever be able to bring in a structure of lay presidency. I certainly pray that it will not. Those who are ordained are custodians of the traditions of the Church and its teaching, and I am not sure that any of us have the right to attempt to change these structures that are so core to even the most protestant of Anglican expressions.

Mike Peatman said...

Hi Matthew. Was expecting steam coming out of your ears rather sooner than this!

I wasn't for a minute suggesting that there was (or should be) a free-for-all, but the earliest days of church structure were probably messy. The overlap between the roles of presbyters and bishops has often been noted.

However, the lack of any explicit reference to eucharistic presidency in the Scriptures, to use your word, inconvenient. One would expect there to have been quite a lot of confusion and irregularity, but the only abuses referred to seem to be overeating and unworthy reception. Either noone rebelled or they were less bothered.

Your argument from those present at the Last Supper was also used back in the debates about women and the priesthood in the late 80s/early 90s. Jesus only commissions the male disciples, so therefore... Of course the same logic would point to a Jewish-only priesthood!

We don't know who else was in the room at the Last Supper, and who else we are to regard as included by Jesus' words. Some would argue that the real commissioning of the church was post-resurrection, which gave the Last Supper its full meaning.

As far as eucharist being a sacrifice is concerned, I think it's fair to say the Scriptures are fairly silent there too. However, I do have an excellent Grove booklet from 1982: "Eucharistic Sacrifice - the roots of a metaphor" by a certain Rowan Williams! A valiant attempt to find a way through the well-rehearsed reformation positions.

Fr Matthew McMurray said...

I hadn't kept up-to-date with my RSS feeds. I thought I had been fairly restrained: not too much steam I hope, and I hope that nobody got scolded!

In response to your response to my response, paragraph by paragraph:

Yes, and apologies if it came across as an accusation that you were advocating a free-for-all.

Yes, in regard to the only abuses mentioned. In regard to the expectation of confusion and irregularity, this is all guess work--as would be trying to claim a clear three-fold ministry as we now have it and priestly (or episcopal) leading of the 'breaking of the bread'. This problem is alleviated for the person who locates authority in tradition as well as Scripture, but of course for people of more Reformed convictions this becomes more of an issue. For me--and I suspect for you--there needs to be an acknowedgement that we cannot claim basis in scripture for either a 'catholic' or a 'reformed' view.

...and those debates about the ordained ministry of women are by no means over! I am not sufficiently pro(or con)-women's ordination to feel passionately about that argument. However, for me, it does seem to point to apostolic commission as that would develop in(to) the three-fold ministry of the Church.

You're right but I don't think arguing that the 'real commissioning of the church was post-resurrection' [presumably at Pentecost?] would be sufficient to escape the question of apostolic commission to 'do this in remembrance of me'.

And yes. I would love to read that booklet: I like reading Rowan Williams.

Does that seem fair/moderate enough? :)

Mike Peatman said...

Ah - you must be mellowing with age.

Just as well he didn't say do this in remembrance about the bread and fish. It wouldn't half make the aumbry stink.

Mike Peatman said...

@Matthew you'll also be pleased to know we're spending 7 weeks up to the Sunday before Lent on sermons about the eucharist.

Fr Matthew McMurray said...

I think it is always good when churches teach on the Eucharist. However, truly being pleased rather depends on what is being taught! ;) I could come up to engage in lively discussion if you like! :)

Mike Peatman said...

Sue K was excellent on word and sacrament this morning.