Opening a Debate for the Church.
In terms of its present practice with regard to the Lord's Supper the Church of Ireland might easily be accused of a creeping Catholicism. Whereas for the most part the entire congregation now joins in the erstwhile 'priestly' words of the Collect for Purity and the Prayer of Humble Access, or again it is admissible for a licensed lay reader to read, or preach, or even pronounce absolution in the first person plural form, only the ordained minister, and an ordained presbyter at that, is permitted to preside at the Lord's Table during the Prayer of Consecration. In a church which claims to be biblically reformed and reforming this surely must be questioned - if ever there were a case of Protestant priestcraft, this is it! For evangelicals who remain opposed to the use of stoles because of the division of word and sacrament which they imply, such a pattern is tantamount to a 'vestiture of praxis' in that the opportunity to serve for those who are otherwise seen as leaders in the local church is denied at this crucial point. Perhaps the time is now right for some considered reflection and courageous thinking as to how this restriction might be ended.
According to the New Testament there is only one 'priest'and that is Jesus Christ himself. Of supreme significance here is the whole argument of Hebrews and in particular the reference to the fact that 'he sat down' (10:12). The work of Christ on the cross is completed once for all and his priestly ministry continues through intercession. Apart from this the New Testament recognises only the 'royal priesthood' of all the saints (1 Peter 2:9) as an expression of the corporate worship and mutual encouragement of the Christian community.
All of this points very clearly to the fact that those who 'lead' within the structures of the local church are not priestly in any sacrificial sense. On the contrary they are those who are called to serve and to exercise the headship of Christ over his body by means of their teaching office. [It is worth noting that the only apostolic distinction between the office of a deacon and that of an elder is that the latter be 'able to teach' (1 Timothy 3:2).]
Naturally this foundation has far-reaching implications for the Communion practice of the local congregation.
The Present Situation
Above it was noted that current practice dictates a much greater involvement of the laity that was ever envisaged in the BCP. Further, the development of the ministry of lay readers has added an extra dimension to this whole debate and some would even argue that the rubrics of the BCP are sufficiently vague as to have foreseen such a situation. (In the Communion service Cranmer quite happily interchanges 'priest' and 'minister'.)
Anglicanism styles itself as being founded upon both word and sacrament. Given that a biblical view of this formula will certainly insist upon the priority of the former, we must ask why it is that those who are otherwise licensed to a word ministry are denied the right to similar participation in a sacramental one. In addition there is the glaring anomaly that while a deacon, a lay reader, or indeed anyone can administer the rite of Holy Baptism in an emergency, the same individuals may under no circumstances preside at the Lord's Table. Is Holy Communion some kind of 'super-sacrament'?
Or again, what are we actually saying about the nature of ordination? The reformers went out of their way to ensure that at ordination the candidates, whether diaconal, presbyteral or episcopal, were given not a font or a paten or a chalice, but a Bible. Where then is the equality of practice that ought to flow from this emphasis?
Possible objections to Lay Presidency
Not everyone would agree with the need for evangelical Anglicans to press for change in this matter. In his Reform pamphlet Donald Allister identifies three genuine objections:
- The danger of creating disunity within the church, especially between evangelicals and anglo-catholics who are allied together against liberalism. In response to this we might suggest that while anglo-catholic doctrinal orthodoxy in certain aspects is to be welcomed, the gospel is more that just orthodoxy, and I for one would detect as much of an enemy in anglo-catholic teaching about the sacraments as in liberal teaching about scripture.
- The undermining of a high reformed view of the ordained ministry. Granted that there is immense dignity in the preaching office - I should be the last to dispute that! - but it still remains as to what we are saying of those who are equally licensed to preach alongside bishops, priests and deacons. Are lay preachers really lesser preachers?
- A concern not to rock the ecclesiastical boat unnecessarily. No one wants to be radical simply for the sake of being radical, and yet, in Jesus Christ, do we not claim to follow the archetypal radical? Moreover, did not the reformation leave us with the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda? God does not change; the church should not stay the same.
Possible Ways Forward
It seems to me that there are three avenues which might be investigated:
- Lay concelebration whereby the whole congregation joins together in the Prayer of Consecration. This is merely an extension of what is now accepted to be normal practice for other parts of the liturgy.
- Fellowship group celebration. Church law does not govern what takes place in a private home or, for instance, on a Youth Fellowship Weekend. What is to stop a recognised leader giving thanks for bread and wine to be eaten and drunk in remembrance of the Lord in such a context? Some would even infer that such a gathering is much closer to the original intention of the Lord's Supper.
- Synodical debate. Surely the time has come for raising this issue to the wider church. If we are convinced as to the validity of the arguments and the errors of present practice, what is to prevent us from taking these to relevant decision-making bodies?
The Lord's Supper has been a controversial subject for Christians in every age (cf. 1 Corinthians 11, the Reformation itself, the Oxford Movement, etc.) and even only a partial implementation of these suggestions will be for many like the proverbial red rag to a bull. One thing is abundantly clear and that is the continuing trend within Anglicanism towards ever more frequent Communion services. If nothing else then perhaps this paper will serve as a call to fresh thinking about a proper place for, and a balanced practice of, the Lord's Supper in church life today.