Theological reflection on lay administration

Peter Jensen

There are differing sacramental theologies in contemporary Anglicanism, which express themselves in quite different ways of conducting the Eucharist. The clearest distinction is between more "Reformed' and more "Catholic' emphases, and it would be naïve to suggest that these do not represent significant and even competing theological commitments. What is sometimes forgotten is that a number of the practices and ornaments to be found in the contemporary Anglican Church were illegal when they were introduced (often in the 19th century), and were certainly regarded as "unanglican'. Catholic innovation has now become very "establishment' " but there has always existed a Reformed and Evangelical tradition in the church. This may now seem strange and, for the historically uninformed, even innovative itself. But at heart it goes back beyond the 19th century. 

It is commonly suggested that the development of lay administration of the Holy Communion is contrary to the very being of Anglicanism.  Certainly it would have to be agreed that non-priestly administration would be quite contrary to some expressions of Anglicanism.  But the assertion that it is contrary to the ethos of the Anglican Church really speaks for one side of the Church only.  It suggests that one particular view of priesthood and of communion, and one only, is of the essence of the Eucharistic theology.  Without going into the question of whether there is only one valid opinion, it is empirically true that at least two views have been evident in the Church for a very long time.  According to the thinking of one such view, lay administration is impossible.  Accordingly to the other view it is possible, although opinions differ as to whether it is advisable.  From my point of view, the second opinion is a genuine and legitimate development of the theology of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles. Admittedly, however, that depends on your reading of Anglican history.

The magisterial biography of Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch locates our great Archbishop thus:

"Standing as he did in the developed Reformed tradition of Europe in the 1550s Cranmer's conception of a "middle way" or via media in religion was quite different from that of later Anglicanism. In the nineteenth century, when the word "Anglicanism" first came into common use, John Henry Newman said of the middle way (before his departure for the Church of Rome) that "a number of distinct notions are included in the notion of Protestantism; and as to all these our Church has taken a Via Media between it and Popery." Cranmer would violently have rejected such a notion: how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist? The middle ground which he sought was the same as Bucer's: an agreement between Wittenberg and Zurich which would provide a unified vision of Christian doctrine against the counterfeit being refurbished at the Council of Trent. For him, Catholicism was to be found in the scattered churches of the Reformation, and it was his aim to show forth their unity to prove their Catholicity." (617).

As far as the Eucharist is concerned, he identifies the mature Cranmer with a variety of Reformed theology which he labels (following B A Gerrish), "symbolic parallelism'. He quotes the Archbishop:

"And although Christ be not corporally in the bread and wine, yet Christ used not so many words, in the mystery of his holy supper, without effectual signification. For he is effectually present, and effectually worketh not in the bread and wine, but in the godly receivers of them, to whom he giveth his own flesh spiritually to feed upon, and his own blood to quench their great inward thirst' (614-15).

In Cranmer's thought, the word of God is that which gives the sacrament its power and substance, and this in its turn shapes the ordinal. Word and sacrament belong indissolubly together, and that is why it is reserved to the priest who is the preacher, indeed, the priest who is ordained to be the pastor of the congregation, the one responsible for "the cure of souls'.

The question of who administers Holy Communion is one of order: "As in a prince's house the offices and ministers prepare the table, and yet other as well as they, eat the meat and drink he drink; so the priests and ministers prepare the Lord's supper, read the gospel, and rehearse Christ's words, but all the people say thereto, Amen. All remember Christ's death, all give thanks to God, all repent and offer themselves an oblation to Christ, all take him as their Lord and Saviour, and spiritually feed upon him, and in token thereof they eat the bread and drink the wine in his mystical supper' (Cranmer, 350). Holy Communion is not a priestly act as such, but an ecclesial one. This is the significance of the absence of any direction about who is to celebrate the Lord's Supper in the New Testament.  The Eucharist is an activity of the whole congregation; the Lord himself is the focus as he was in the Last Supper; We focus on the priest, Cranmer on the congregation; we focus on the elements, Cranmer on the eating and drinking; we think of Christ coming to us, Cranmer thinks of us going to Christ in the lifting up of our hearts.

Our understanding of the BCP ordinal is that it grants recognition and authority to those who are ordained priest by the Bishop to exercise a pastoral " as opposed to a sacerdotal - ministry of word and sacrament in a community setting. That is to say, the role of incumbent, of the cure of souls is the end to which the service points, although priesthood may be exercised as an assistant, and it may be exercised across parish and Diocesan boundaries. This also reflects the first hundreds of years of Christian leadership, where ordination was not thought of as a priestly mediating ministry, arising from an ontological change, but a ministry arising from the community: "We may therefore conclude that a situation in which a community was unable to celebrate the Eucharist because there was no bishop or presbyter present was unthinkable in the early Church" On the basis of the right of the community to the Eucharist, the leader of the community also had the right to lead in the Eucharist" If there is no leader, it chooses a suitable candidate from its own ranks.' (Edward Schillebeecx). In other words, priesthood must be understood in connection with the Christian community which is being served.

The fact that there is no decisive biblical text available to settle this matter is admitted. This is in contrast to the matter of the ordination of women where at least one text (and I would say more) speak directly to this issue. The unwillingness of the Church down through the ages to ordain women rested chiefly on the reading of Scripture (thus see Hooker, for example).  The same cannot be said concerning the administration of the Lord's Supper.  In terms of the 39 Articles of Religion, therefore, the question of who should administer the Supper must fall into the category of a tradition to be accorded great respect when no "repugnance to the word of God" and yet be able to be changed by due authority provided that "nothing be ordained against God's Word", but so that "all things be done to edifying". How to understand what is "edifying' depends, therefore on biblical and theological principles rather than on an explicit word.

According to the 39 Articles

"Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or token of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our Faith in Him". 

On this view of the sacraments, as the rest of Article 25 reveals, the being of the sacraments depends upon their explicit appointment or ordination by Christ.  Furthermore (and this is what distinguishes them from other "commonly called Sacraments") this makes them "Sacraments of the Gospel".  That is to say the two dominical sacraments depend for their life upon the explicit word of Christ and upon the fact that they visibly proclaim the gospel.  In particular, the Lord's Supper focuses us on the death of Christ with the assurance of God's favour towards us.  It is a "Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death" (Article 28). 

There is an indissoluble connection, therefore, between the word of God and the sacraments indicated by the necessity of the sermon in the service of Holy Communion. It is not "Anglican" to equate word and sacrament.  A non-preaching communion service is a contradiction in terms, where the taking of bread and wine is removed from the context of the preaching of God's word.  It is the word of God which warrants the sacrament and explains it.  The communal eating of bread and wine is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, namely the grace of God towards us in Christ and at work in our lives.  Despite the current emphases of Eucharistic theology, the emphasis of the Book of Common Prayer (including the Catechism thereof) dwells on the Lord's Supper as spiritual union with Christ (the refreshment of our souls by the bread and blood of Christ) and the faithful remembrance of what Christ has done on our behalf.  What is required of those who come to the Lord's Supper is that they "examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins;  steadfastly purposing to lead a new life;  have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death;  and be in charity with all men" (Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer).  Not surprisingly, the ordination service published with the Book of Common Prayer emphasises the priestly role of preaching and living the word of God rather than the administration of the sacraments.

Lest you imagine that what you have just heard in brief outline is somehow wildly eccentric, let me refer to Theological Statement of the English House of Bishops, entitled Eucharistic Presidency.  I ought to say that this statement is the best and strongest critique of the proposal for lay administration as yet available, and it comes with the highest authority. I commend it to you. The Statement says:

"Behind this lay a conviction to be found in all the mainline reformers about the intimate connection between word and sacrament. Ministers are ordained to the ministry of the word and sacrament, and both convey the evangelical promises of grace. The sacraments must not be allowed to take on a life of their own for they are subordinate to the proclamation and reception of the word. The case which the mainstream reformers made for restricting the Ministry of the Sacrament to appointed ministers rests ultimately on their understanding of the indissolubility of words and sacrament, and the dependence of the latter on the former. The Ministry of the Word is made available and applied to the life of the Church only through authorised ordained ministers " so it should be with the sacraments.' (para 4.35)

As far as the English Reformation was concerned, the Report says: "we find the same heavy stress on the Ministry of the Word in relation to ordination, in line with the continental reformers. In the pre-Reformation Sarum rite, the candidate for priesthood was handed the chalice and/or paten as symbols of priestly office with the words, "Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God", whereas in the 1552 English Ordinal, the Bible alone is given, accompanied by the words, "Take thou authority to preach the Word of God, and to minister the holy sacraments in the congregation".' (para 4.42)

Towards the end of the Statement, attention is paid to the arguments for lay administration. Finally it arrives at the substance of the case I have presented. It says:

"The parity of word and sacrament would appear to weigh heavily in favour of some form of lay presidency. In its commonest form, the argument runs like this: if, as is now the case, a non-ordained person can be licensed or authorised to preach, then the same should apply to presiding at the Eucharist; the non-ordained are allowed to preach without all the training and gifts necessary for full-time pastoral oversight of a congregation; moreover to refuse lay presidency but to allow lay preaching is effectively to exalt the sacrament above the word, which as we have seen has no justification.' ( para 5.12) (note: in speaking of the "parity" of word and sacrament the Report is contradicting its earlier and more accurate statement about the relationship between the two).

Its answer is as follows: 

"It is undoubtedly true that, especially since the evolution of the office of Reader, there has been a persistent tendency to allow the ministry of word and sacrament to be separated, with a consequent danger that the Ministry of the Sacrament will not be undergirded by proper training. This is a matter which undoubtedly needs addressing. However, we need to be careful about drawing parallels too hastily between the ministry of the word and sacrament. It needs to be recalled that teaching authority belongs properly to the ordained priest/presbyter as part of his/her ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament. This may be delegated to a lay preacher who has received appropriate preparation and training, but responsibility for or oversight of the proclamation of the gospel still belongs to the ordained minister of a congregation.' (para 5.13).

It is precisely at this point that the Report fails " and it is at the crucial moment. If responsibility for the oversight of the proclamation of the gospel still belongs to the ordained minister of the congregation, despite lay preaching, why would the same not be true of the administration of the sacraments? To this reader, it is as if the author of the Statement could see the logic of the position being attacked, and gave up the attempt. But it shows that the theology I have enunciated here has a secure footing in Anglican Eucharistic theology and it shows why developments in ministry, and especially lay preaching raises the question of lay administration. 

In short, the doctrine of the Church of England as understood in this way gives priority to the word in both of the sacraments rather than parity.  Not surprisingly, in a famous remark by Dom Gregory Dix (The Shape of the Liturgy, p672), the Book of Common Prayer communion service is characterised as "the best exemplification of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the Reformation liturgies".  It is not a disordered attempt at a catholic rite, but the only effective expression of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  If in the end the attempt does not succeed " if we are left with a sense of the disconnection of the token communion in bread and wine with that mental "eating and drinking of Christ's Flesh and Blood", i.e. remembering of the passion which is for Cranmer the essential Eucharistic action " that must be set down to the impossible nature of the task, not to the manner of its performance".

I do not agree with Dix's final remarks, but he is right about Cranmer's Holy Communion service. In this understanding of the Lord's Supper the emphasis falls on the death of Christ remembered, union with him through faith, the activity of eating and drinking rather than the emblems themselves, and the necessity of faith in the person who would receive the benefits of the Supper.  Likewise, there is concern with the communal nature of the Holy Communion;  of the necessity for a group of persons to be present, and for love to be manifest amongst them.  I understand this to be the reason why the Book of Common Prayer makes no provision for extended communion (even to the sick), but instead provides for a shortened version of the communion at the bedside.  In extremis, the dying person eats and drinks by faith.  Reservation and extended communion are contrary to this way of thinking.  In short, it is not the ontological status of the priest which in any way secures the validity of the Lord's Supper, but the word of Christ and the faithful reception.  The practical restriction of the Supper to those ordained priest arises more from the fact that these are the ones especially charged with the administration of the word of God in God's flock, and the desire to keep word and sacrament together for fear of superstition.  It is therefore a matter of order in the service of theology.

The possibility of lay preaching at the time of the Reformation was not unknown.  However, it was by no means normal and was not connected to congregational life in the way that the priesthood was.  As we all know, the Church of the 21st century orders its life in many ways which are different from that of the Church prior to the 20th century.  One of the most remarkable and universal developments has been the growth of lay ministry.  This takes many forms but it certainly includes extensive use of lay persons in preaching the word of God.  Usually such preaching is rightly restricted to those who have been trained, tested and recognised, at least in the congregation.  Usually this is accompanied by the licence of the Bishop.  One of the consequences of this multiplication of ministry, however, has been the disconnection of word and sacrament.  The reservation of administering the sacrament to priests alone suggests very powerfully that the sacrament is prior to the word.  We have seen, however, that there are certain Anglican reasons for thinking that the sacrament is dependent on the word and is an exemplification of that word.  Certainly, the virtual horror felt by many Anglicans with the thought that other than priests may administer Holy Communion, in the absence of any similar horror when a lay person may preach the word of God, seems to indicate that for such Christians Holy Communion is the greatest mystery of the Faith.

It is true, of course, that there are likewise many for whom the administration of the Lord's Supper should be reserved for the priest precisely because normally the administration of the word should also be reserved for the priest.  According to this way of thinking, the multiplication of lay ministry has obscured something essential about priestly pastoral ministry.  There is a uniqueness to the pastoral ministry of the priest in relationship to his congregation which can only be lost if it is shared comprehensively with others.  While I am sympathetic to this point of view at one level, it belongs to an age in which the clergyman had a place in society and the Church no longer possible or desirable.  Among other things, it suggests small rural or suburban congregations able to be looked after by a single pastor.  The development of many ministries within the Church reflects not only the New Testament but also the needs of the modern word, particularly in urban settings.

In a box:

1 Scripture is silent on the question as who may administer the Lord's Supper.

2 The Reformers retained the link between administration and priesthood in order to safeguard the priority of the word on which the sacrament rests.

3 The priestly role is above all that of pastor of the congregation and cannot be handed over to someone else.

4 Delegation of the various elements of the role is possible, however, and given developments in ecclesiology, desirable.

5 The retention of administration of the Lord's Supper as the only element which cannot be delegated detaches word from sacrament and confuses the congregation about the nature of the sacrament and the priestly role. 

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