Thursday, 12 April 2012

Could lay celebration renew the Church of England?

One of the things that literally causes me sleepless hours is the present state of the Church of England.
It is not just the doctrinal and moral issues currently being raked over as we consider, for example, the appointment of the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
It is also the lack of evangelistic impact the Church of England has on the country and the lack of effective energy amongst many of its members. Somehow, despite its best efforts — and some of them are considerable — the Church as a whole fails to impress or enthuse.
I must have been musing on this the other morning when my thoughts turned yet again to the topic of lay celebration — the practice of allowing ordinary laypeople to preside at that activity we know variously as Holy Communion, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
When I say ‘yet again’, I do mean that this is something I have thought about often. Indeed, I first gave it conscious consideration back in the 1970s, soon after I became a Christian. Despite growing up in a strongly Anglo-Catholic tradition, it seemed obvious, subsequent to my conversion, that any Christian group ought to be able to commemorate the Last Supper, regardless of whether an ‘ordained’ or authorized person were present.
The same thought persisted throughout my college years at St John’s, Nottingham. When David Sheppard, then the Bishop of Woolwich, took part in the only college debate we had on the subject, I was simply struck by how much his arguments seemed to depend on special pleading, not common sense and Scripture.
The same was true when I read and reviewed Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod, published in 1997. On the one hand, the Bishops seemed unwilling to commit to a ‘Romanesque’ theology of priesthood. On the other hand, they wanted to make sure that only priests could celebrate the eucharist.
The result was an appeal to the notion of ‘overall pastoral oversight’ supposedly possessed by the incumbent, but of course not possessed by curates or visiting clergy called in when the incumbent is unavailable. Hence we were back to the (desired) conclusion: ‘Only priests can do this,’ but lacking the old justification, ‘Because they are priests,’ and relying instead on a new, functional, justification which in the end is either too narrow or (potentially) too broad.
It has always seemed to me that the best argument for ‘priests, and priests only’ is the Roman (and Anglo) Catholic one: that priests are different in kind and can do different stuff. Once, however, you accept the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, then rationalizations of the ‘priests only’ rule begin to look just like that.
And this is why it matters.
If you truly regard the Christian community generally as a ‘priestly kingdom’, you ought to act accordingly. If you don’t act like it, then you either don’t believe it, or you do believe it but are prepared to act in disobedience to it.
Arguably this also has some bearing on why it is so difficult to harness the energies of our laity. Whilst they consider themselves ‘disenfranchised’, why should they take responsibility. And if they are capable of taking this responsibility, why do we reserve the sacramental role to the clergy?
Certainly the view of at least some of the early Reformers was consistent with this attitude. Martin Luther, in particular, had a ‘theology of the word’ which meant that anyone, including women, could act in a ‘priestly’ manner:
To baptize is incomparably greater than to consecrate bread and wine, for it is the greatest office in the church — the proclamation of the Word of God. So when women baptize, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately, and do it not as a private act, but as a part of the public ministry of the church which belongs only to the priesthood. (‘Concerning the Ministry’, LW 40:23)
Rather less-widely known is Thomas Cranmer’s view that in the absence of bishops, anyone, including the laity, could authorize some of their number to act as priests.
Now of course the Puritans, of whom I am generally a fan, opposed lay baptism, and therefore presumably may have struggled with lay celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But I may be wrong — and in any case I cannot understand their reticence on the baptism issue.
I have long been of the opinion that the Reformation generally fell short when it came to reforming the Church’s ministry. In my heart of hearts, I am persuaded that in this regard the Church is indeed still ‘but halfly reformed’.
Nevertheless, there are a number of things that hold me back.
First, I am concerned for Anglican Catholics. I do not agree with their arguments, but I understand them and recognize their internal consistency and their long history. So whilst I would like to see change, I would want to discuss it and clarify the reasons for this with others who take a different view, just as one ought to in a congregational setting.
Secondly, we have all seen what happens when groups and individuals, overwhelmed with enthusiasm for a spiritual novelty, go off the rails.
It is simply not the case that ‘clergy led, bad; lay lead, good’. On the contrary, lay led is often subject to abuse and domineering personalities. That there is some control over this in the episcopal system has long seemed to me one of the key arguments in its favour. Purist ‘congregationalism’ is, I think, a bad thing, and before taking steps in the direction I am suggesting, is one of the things that should also be discussed.
Yet it does seem to me that we need to break the spiritual-monopolistic tendency of Anglican clericalism and to empower the whole people of God.
I have said before that I believe the current Anglican model of ministry is essentially ‘aristocratic’. We are a community divided into an elite and the rest, and no one can cross from the ‘wrong side’ of the tracks without being admitted by the gatekeepers, who are virtually all themselves members of that elite. But the chief qualification for exercising your ‘elitism’ is simply that you are of the elite — I am a ‘priest’ and you are not, and there’s an end to it.
The answer, however, is not democracy! In a religious democracy — at least in the sense I am using the word — every ‘Jack’ or ‘Jill’ is as good as his or her master or mistress. Here there is no submission to leaders, as advocated in Hebrews 13:17. Instead, ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’, and to disagree with or contradict the erstwhile leadership as much as they feel inclined.
Actually, of course, such disagreement goes on all the time in the Church of England. But thanks to our aristocratic system, the ‘mob’ of the laity can never actually seize the Bastille of sacramental privilege. It is rather like the old Victorian rhyme about the colonial wars: “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun — and they have not.’
But there is a third way, which is ‘meritocracy’ — which it seems to me is already exemplified in Judaism, and indeed Islam. In Judaism, the path to the rabbinate is through study. Thus whilst being an intellectual does not make you a rabbi, to be a rabbi requires learning.
And one thing is sure: no one could expect to become a rabbi who did not have a substantial grasp of the Hebrew language. Certainly you could not expect to be a rabbi (or an imam, come to that) without being able to read and engage with the sacred texts of your community. Yet how many Anglican clergy have a grasp of the original languages?
Now I am not saying that you have to be able to read Greek or Hebrew in order to be able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper — far from it. But at the moment the privileged few who can do this may have little or no ability in areas that other religions would consider fundamental, whilst those who could, through personal effort, acquire such skills, are potentially excluded by the elitist system from ever exercising the role of ‘leader’ conceived in Hebrews.
Whatever our views, the system is surely in need of renewal. Full-time, full-time trained, clergy are in increasingly short supply. The return of the ‘mass priest’, able to recite the service but skilled in little else, looms — either that or we must accept the practice of sacramental reservation even whilst our formularies deny the principle.
We live in radically challenging times. Should we not be considering radically alternative answers?
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  1. Well, I do hope Andrew Godsall chimes in on this!
    Preaching well is a much more demanding task, and we have readers (thoigh not many of them are skilled preachers). Why can't readers be authorised to 'celebrate' communion?
    Mark B., W. Kent

  2. Why is it that not many readers are skilled preachers? One of the few things readers are licensed to do which are not permitted regularly to laity is preaching.

    David Brock

  3. A couple of things I would like to note:

    (1) I have had experience of Baptist and Evangelical Free churches where often the preacher presides at communion.

    (2) I remember a former vicar of mine emphasising that there is a difference between every-member ministry (everyone haa a role rather than "the minister ministers and the congregation congregations") and any-member ministry

  4. "Why is it that not many readers are skilled preachers?"

    Alas, how many clergy are very good in this department either? But part of the answer is that the selection and training of readers in the C of E doesn't focus much on this, and it isn't valued much. Most 'central' Anglican preaching is boring thematic stuff, trying to weave the lectionary readings together without ever really engaging with them. Some groups lke the Proc Trust do try to turn out good expository preachers.
    Preparing readers to lead communion well shouldn't be too hard.
    I always thought 'holding the line' on communion was about keeping the catholics in the C of E. Now the catholics are no longer wanted, what is holding liberals back?
    Mark B., W. Kent