The pastoral need for lay administration of Holy Communion

Peter Jensen

The clear desire of the Synod of the Diocese of Sydney for lay administration provokes puzzlement, dismay and rejection in some other parts of the Anglican Communion.  Sometimes it is seen as a sort of "pay back" for the ordination of women.  Often it is regarded as thoroughly un-Anglican, almost a betrayal of the Anglican theology of sacraments and ministry.  Frequently it is used as evidence that Sydney is extremist and totally unlike any other Anglicans anywhere. Sometimes, with more sympathy, the question is raised why such a development would be needed in an urban setting such as Sydney and in a Church with hundreds of priests available for Eucharistic ministry. That this development may be an answer to rural problems is sometimes conceded; that it is needed in the city is another matter altogether.

Let me state from the outset that the desire for lay administration in the Diocese of Sydney certainly does not arise from a desire for "pay back'.  I believe that the real genesis of this lies with developments in thinking and experience over many years in our doctrines of church, ministry and sacraments.  Discussions have been going on for over 30 years, well before the ordination of women even became a major topic. I understand that it was first raised in the synod of 1970. Nor are the discussions only in Sydney. Evangelicals " and others - round the world have been talking about his issue for many years. Indeed, diaconal administration was introduced in the Armidale Diocese by Bishop Chiswell, and I understand that it is practised in at least one African province and elsewhere also.

The only relevance of the introduction of women to the priesthood is this: if you are going to argue against lay administration, it is now difficult to rely on an argument from the long tradition of the church and also from the ecumenical consequences of the innovation. Neither of these arguments prevented the ordination of women. In fact, whereas for a many of us the ordination of women was forbidden by the word of scripture, the New Testament seems to be silent as to the question of who may administer the Lord's Supper.

In Sydney, however, consideration started with ecclesiology and with sacramental theology and they have remained theologically driven. Far from it signalling the unimportance of the sacraments, it is a indication of their importance. We make no apology that our concerns are theological. Indeed, it is central to our argument.  We see lay administration as being a thoroughly defensible development of what we understand to be the church doctrines on these matters, not a radical break from them. In particular we appeal to key strands of the theology of the English Reformation. From one point of view, this development is required to draw out the true significance of that theology in the modern context. Thus we claim not to be breaking with Anglicanism.

But it is also true that this development is pastorally important, and will become far more so as the Mission to which the Diocese has committed itself becomes a reality.  The modern urban parish consists of an average of 80 to 100 adults and one ordained minister. There are usually some other small churches nearby, but overall it is set in the context of thousands of non-Christians or nominal Christians.  There will probably be multiple schools in which he or she has a ministry to conduct or supervise.  There are likely to be hospitals, nursing homes and many elderly and frail people. It is true that ministry is generally available to those who are mobile and in charge of their own circumstances. For many others, ministry which does not in some sense come to them is as remote as though they were living in rural isolation. More than that " a ministry which does not reach out in some concrete way will never involve the many citizens for whom the church building is an immense psychological barrier to finding Christian fellowship. It is simply beyond the capacity of one person to exercise an embracive pastoral ministry in such a setting.

It is sometimes suggested that while lay administration may well be needed in rural areas it is hardly an issue in an urban setting.  The number of clergy available for eucharistic ministry is large and, even if an incumbent is incapacitated or on leave, provision for such ministry can be made.  I would respond that this is an outdated view of the realities of urban mission.  The number of clergy per head of population is certainly less than in many rural areas.  The loss of the sense of parish and the size of the city requires an extension of ministry far beyond the ability of one incumbent to handle.  Not only that, if we expect the incumbent to be fully engaged in evangelistic mission, and if the Mission takes place with the evolution of many groups outside the actual church building, we are dealing with a new world to which the normal Sunday morning communion celebration is almost irrelevant.

As the population ages, ministry to the sick is going to become more burdensome rather than less.  Nursing homes and hospitals will need Christian ministry.  Likewise, the many aged persons living in their own homes will need to be looked after.  It is beyond the bounds of possibility and of wisdom that the incumbent of a parish of say 100 people could fulfil his sacramental ministry to the number of people who may legitimately expect it.  It is clear that lay people are going to be heavily involved in ministry to the sick. Indeed, I think that you would say that this is precisely where sacramental reservation in order to provide for extended communion is so helpful. 

In the face of this reality, there has been a key revolution in the modern Church to do with the multiplication of ministry though lay people. In our churches we have encouraged lay people to offer spiritual and public leadership at every level. It is seen as essential " theologically and pastorally " that lay people take a large measure of responsibility for what occurs in their church, including the ministry of the word. This is a sort of congregational eldership. None of this diminishes the role of the incumbent; it extends and supports it. These developments have been welcomed by most Anglicans as theologically more akin to the doctrine of the church. They have succeeded in revolutionising the experience of church for most people. The fellowship of the local church has been immeasurably strengthened, and lay people have taken spiritual not just temporal responsibility for the life of the parish.

It is mainly the laity who teach scripture in schools;  it is often the laity who visit the sick and disabled.  Such lay people have again rightly taken the task of ministering the word of God in the pastoral situation.  They bring the gospel in word and deed into the lives of those who may never appear in the local church on a Sunday. In our Diocese, we have accepted the challenge of "those outside' by encouraging the development of small congregations meeting in homes, institutions, opportunity shops, campuses " wherever people gather.

As our urban mission develops we want to maintain durability and flexibility. Our priests are " and we want them to continue to be, carefully selected and highly trained clergy. On the other hand, we need flexibility; we need to have clergy who are not going to have the same training and whose responsibilities will be commensurately less.  We are experiencing a major shift from "parish' to "congregation', with the rector still responsible for the whole, but others responsible for the particular congregations.  Thus, for example, we may have an "ethnic' or indigenous congregation looked after by a pastor. It is often impossible for the pastor to receive the training we require of a priest. Nor do we want to suggest that he is being given "portability of orders' so that we are thought to regard him as fit to minister in a range of congregations. For him to be a priest, with all its possibilities and apparent indelibility, is inappropriate.

For us to deprive the congregation of the sacraments except through a visitor is equally inappropriate. We need a "local priesthood' but since in Anglican polity, a priest cannot be merely "local' , we need lay and diaconal administration, under the license of the bishop.  In short, the "job description' of ministry is undergoing change, just as our buildings and our music and our liturgy is changing almost beyond recognition.

An important part of the provision of ministry involves Holy Communion.  With the decline in the numbers in ministry and the rural population, there are various innovative attempts to provide sacramental ministry in the circumstances of contemporary rural Australia. But physical distance is not the only distance people experience when it comes to relating to the local church. Remoteness is an urban problem as well as a rural one. Amongst many Anglicans the difficulty of supplying Holy Communion without a priest is met by "extended communion". As well, in remote rural communities, we have developed so-called "local priests". There is even (so I am told) the development of "holy communion' services without consecrated bread and wine. In other places, Anglicans are being encouraged to have sacramental fellowship with non-episcopal churches. 

The difficulty is that for theological reasons explained below, extended communion and local priests are not possible for evangelicals who wish to be consistent in their (Reformation) sacramental theology.  Furthermore, it could be argued that elements of such developments are inconsistent with the Book of Common Prayer as well as having unfortunate practical consequences.

The Mission requires a substantial multiplication of ministries, leading, we hope, to a multiplication of congregations.  The incumbent will continue to play a fundamental and indispensable role in all this, but ministry will have to go far beyond the work that he could be expected to do in person. We want to develop mature congregations in which leadership does not devolve upon one person alone, although there will be a person who has the chief responsibility. He will preside by appropriate delegation. Lay administration is an evangelical way of meeting one of the problems of mission as we experience them in our largely (though not exclusively) urban setting.  The Anglo-Catholic way is not open to us.  We are aiming to develop a theologically shaped, pastorally responsible method of achieving a sacramental life for our people.

The proposed legislation will safeguard the rights of the clergy and congregation to reject this development. It will require the licence of the Archbishop, it will be open to both men and women, and it will demand of those licensed a level of Christian maturity and understanding at least commensurate with that required for preaching the word. Our understanding is that there exists at the moment no legal barrier to lay people administering Holy Communion, except on church trust property. If we delay too long, it may be very difficult to license and order this practice. The unsatisfactory result will be that a priest will be required for the Lord's Supper simply because of the nature of the building in which the service is being held.

Archbishop Peter Jensen

This is an edited version of address given to the clergy of the Newcastle diocese.