Is Lay Presidency necessary?

Dr Andrew McGowan

By Dr Andrew McGowan

There is a growing desire on the part of leading figures especially in the predominantly evangelical Diocese of Sydney, in particular, to authorise lay presidency, or "lay administration" as they term it, of the Holy Communion.
We should actually be grateful to those in the Diocese of Sydney who have raised the question, since it forces all of us to re-examine our inherited tradition.  The real opportunity for most of us in this debate is not to fulminate about what we are against but to remind ourselves of what we are for, and to ask how well our teaching and our practice represent truth, charity and the demands of the Gospel, and whether and how we might all need to consider changes. Perhaps this may even lead others to reconsider their positions.

The earliest descriptions we have of Christian worship " the series of instructions about conduct in the assembly in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians " have seemingly been ignored in this discussion, despite the fact (or because of the fact) that they provide a fairly clear indication of forms of communal participation, and in particular participation of various sorts in the ministry of the Word, linked neither to presiding nor to eldership.
Addressing a tendency on the part of the Corinthian Church to set some of its members up with greater status and power, the apostle argues that "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues" (1 Cor 12:28).  This picture of a diversity of discursive gifts " of the ministry of the word, as it were " continues in Chapter 14, where Paul has to de-emphasise that spectacular ministry of the word known as speaking in tongues, expressing a preference for comprehensible gifts of prophecy and interpretation.
Crucially, Paul here gives a picture of genuine lay ministry " that is to say, the ministry of the whole community, the whole laos or people of God, saying "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (14:26). After this he gives further advice in those terms so beloved of Anglican liturgists, that "all things should be done decently and in order" (14:40).
Paul at no point relates the capacity to minister the Word " to contribute to the discourse of the community, whether in ecstatic or learned terms - with leadership. Rather it is implied that leadership exists to promote good order in the whole of the community gathering as they minister the word to one another.
What of presiding at the meal? Paul is silent on the matter, but this is presumably the one thing where the Corinthians did not need instruction, because the host, the head of the household where the meal was held, or else a recognised head of the community would have presided, as was customary in ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman gatherings. Such examples as we do have in the New Testament reflect the sense that presiding over the meal was not a matter for any member of the community, just as it would not have been for other ancient associations or households. Jesus at the Last Supper, or Paul on board ship in Acts 27 may not be typical scenes, but they reflect typical conventions.  The host or one who led the community undertook the central ritual actions of the meal, such as blessings, which in the Christian setting may be said to have evolved from a form of saying grace or giving thanks " Eucharistia in Greek " the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer in the developed liturgies of the fourth century and beyond.
Only a society that has lost a sense of the value of hospitality, of the bonds formed at tables, would see this as a matter of indifference. I hasten to add that the Sydney proposals do not see this as a matter of indifference, but seem to presume as I do that presiding at the Eucharist is about leadership and communicates and reflects power.
It might be argued, by comparison with this evidence, that the proposal to authorise local presbyters to administer the Eucharist in the Diocese of Sydney does have some support from ancient Christian models; but this would have to involve acknowledging that "lay" ministry is not at issue here, and to face different consequences.
All are ministers, and all are given gifts; all are part of a nation of priests " but not all should preside, and the core of presiding is leadership at the sacred meal.

Why then should we defend as the Anglican polity a three-fold order that is more than a shell within which a system of local ordained elders operates more or less opportunistically as in this proposal, but rather a living reality directly related to the Eucharistic life of the Church? This seems to me the key issue that remains for the rest of us " not why we are externally constrained to live and minister thus, but why are we inwardly so driven, believing that the grace of holy orders really does say and effect something significant about what it means to be Church?
It seems to me absolutely crucial that ministry be about more than power. This is among the greatest dangers of the proposals. While Catholic order has also proven capable of terrible abuse, there is an important resource for the Church in the notion that ministry is not merely about function but about character " not merely as qualification or duty but as lived reality " that there is a necessary connection between who we are and what we do. In Anglican tradition, where it is possible to think about sacraments in a systematic way even without binding ourselves dogmatically to particular views, we can see persons themselves as signs, just as bread and wine and water can be.
I think it is essential, however, that that connection between being and function is based upon the common Christian call to such a connection. At this point I have to admit that I must part company with those for whom ordained ministry has a sort of independence or even priority over the ministry of the Church as a whole.  It seems to me that the charisms reflected in ordained ministry really are fundamentally those of the whole Church, embodied in specific individuals in whom the Church has discerned " and formed " the gifts necessary for particular forms of service.

Until recently, the issue of lay administration was being presented as one of principle rather than pragmatism. Yet in the paper he shared with the NSW bishops last year Dr Jensen also raised with some force a quite different argument about mission and ministry in the contemporary world.

The context for Eucharistic celebration implied in his discussion is not so much the main liturgical assembly of the large parish governed by elders as evoked by the two earlier papers. Although he does still affirm such a view of local order, the Archbishop envisages a world in which "the normal Sunday morning communion celebration is almost irrelevant",  but where plentiful celebrations of the Lord's Supper might take place in smaller settings such as hospitals, schools and nursing homes, where authorised lay ministers can celebrate the sacrament according to pastoral need. He is careful to note that Anglicans of his reformed protestant cast of mind would not find the practice of communion from the reserved sacrament acceptable, hence the need not merely to bring the Eucharistic elements from the celebration of the whole community to those unable to attend as some of us might immediately have suggested, but to celebrate again in each local setting. This paper thus actually implies forms of mission and community life in which the celebration of the Lord's Supper does have a significant place, even if the manner of its "administration" may be different from the traditional one.

This argument is interesting but also quite curious in relation to the previous papers and a general sense of Anglican liturgical practice in Sydney. The 1994 paper already cited, for instance, had labelled the idea that "the Lord's Supper is the essential expression of the community's life" as a "fiction" and a "novel invention". That paper had even resorted approvingly to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer's quaint and very Medieval Catholic requirement that every parishioner communicate just three times a year, in order to downplay the importance of the Eucharist as a fundamental strategy in arguing for this change in patterns of presiding.

Now the proliferation of local celebrations envisaged in Dr Jensen's reflections might happen, but it is far from clear why we should imagine that ministers and communities in the Sydney Diocese who have not hitherto been accustomed either to using the Holy Communion as a central aspect of their pastoral ministry, or to viewing it as an essential expression of Christian community, would suddenly do so simply because they have been authorised. And so it is tempting at this point to see the drive for "lay administration" as a sort of sacramental Cinderella seeking a theological Prince Charming at the ball, deftly changing partners and rationales as the dance progresses.

The inherent plausibility of a more sacramental approach to pastoral ministry suddenly appearing in Sydney aside, the unnecessary refusal of the practice of extended communion has less to do with evangelical principle than with a reactive anti-Catholicism, admittedly enshrined in the Articles of Religion. Granted that many Anglicans, myself included, believe the sacrament is to be eaten and drunk in community rather than to be worshipped out of context, it is hard to see how the primacy of the Word or the ordinance of Christ is threatened by taking communion from the celebration of the community to the sick and the housebound.

However, there is an important point here about the availability of the sacrament that we must all consider in our own various settings. Those of us who have long considered regular reception of the Eucharist not simply a worthy spiritual discipline but a centre of Christian community do face real issues about the capacity of our present structures to accommodate the needs of our communities and members. I imagine that it is really in the rural areas of our various dioceses, in small multi-centre parishes, that the question of assuring the ministry of ordained presbyters and the availability of Eucharistic celebration really does become an issue, rather more than in the large suburban congregation where the professional educated elite wants to have its leadership adequately recognised.

For many of us " not all I am sure, whether of more Catholic mind or not " the recent experiments in what is often called "Total Ministry" are promising and challenging. In parts of rural Australia such as the Goldfields region in the Diocese of Perth, models of local ordination are being used that draw on Roland Allen's principles of the Church's sufficiency for its own mission and ministry, and on the experience of some sparsely populated Dioceses in the United States such as Nevada and Alaska. In these cases, deacons and priests are raised up from the local congregation and trained in locally-appropriate forms (I must note that I am more convinced about some of those local forms than others, but that is another story). Proponents of local ministry are very mindful of wanting to avoid some sort of return to the notion of "massing priests", and of course those who are in priest's orders might well be seen as "local presbyters" to use language more akin to those of the Diocese of Sydney.

Yet the importance of tradition in interpretation is never clearer than in this issue. Although the Catholic wing of the Church has sometimes been intransigent about its own interpretations and is always in need of breaths of biblical fresh air, so too the reformed wing of the Church does itself no favours by limiting its view to the letter of scripture read through a 16th and 17th century lens, which distorts as often as it clarifies. For at this and other points, the unwitting preservation of the shortcomings of the Medieval Church in reformed confessions and controversies has dictated an argument we never needed to have.

I do not view the proposals being made from Sydney and Armidale as completely unconscionable or outrageous. I do view them as unnecessary, and informed by polemics to which we need not cling. There are worse things that could happen than that the Diocese of Sydney take such actions, but there are far better. Unfortunately some of those worse things may also be happening, but not all are. The rest of Australia's Anglicans are being challenged here to ask whether we can respond in ways that are not purely defensive of clerical privilege and power, but can acknowledge the issues and make authentic responses, conscious that both tradition and reform are gifts that make their own demands.

Dr Andrew McGowan is Director of the Theological School and Joan F W Munro Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College in Melbourne.

This is an extract from Dr McGowan’s address to General Synod, October 2004. Read the entire address here.