Lay presidency in the Anglican Church

This post started its life as an essay on how legalising lay presidency at the Eucharist could liberate or undermine structures of Anglican ministry.  I’ve adapted it a bit to make it a little easier to read, and post it here, hoping for discussion.

Legalising lay presidency in the Anglican Church might take a number of different forms.  The most common proposal, and the one which is considered here, is a situation in which a ministry of lay presidency might exist under the authorisation and oversight of the bishop, in a similar way to current practices of lay preaching.  This is significant because it is not the opening up of presiding at the Eucharist to all baptised persons, as in some other denominations, which would entail different considerations.

Lay presidency is generally taken to mean “the consecration and administration of the sacrament by a person who is not an episcopally ordained priest.”    However, given the integrity of the eucharistic liturgy as a whole, it might more appropriately be taken to mean “the overseeing of the entire eucharistic celebration by any person who is not an episcopally ordained priest.”  This sense is important because of the integral relationship between eucharistic presidency and the wider sense of presidency as the overseeing of the community in all its worship and mission, from which it cannot be separated.  That is to say, being ‘president’ of the liturgy on one particular Sunday is not the same as being ‘president’ of the congregation with permanent pastoral oversight.

All of this speaks to the related question of the role of priests in the community of faith.  This role has been defined as working “to enable the church to be a royal priesthood, to serve the world and to be a sign of God’s reign to the world.”  This is a service of leadership.  If current structures of ministry are undermined, they are prevented from fulfilling this purpose.  If they are liberated, they are liberated to fulfill this purpose.

Clericalism distorts true leadership in the gospel.  Clericalism – the giving of excessive power and deference to the clergy – has been a besetting problem for the Church.  It has been argued that legalizing lay presidency might allow for the correction of misunderstandings around the ordained ministry, thus acting as a powerful corrective to these distortions.

Common misunderstandings of the ordained ministry which contribute to such distortions are around the theology of sacraments, (for example, that ordination confers the spiritual power of consecration of the elements, or that the validity of the supper depends on the person administering), the theology of ministry (that ordination has the sacrament as its chief end in view, or that the priest is essential to the celebration of the Eucharist though not for any other event in the church’s life), or the relationship between preaching and the Eucharist.  These are important areas of concern in the Church’s life, and the distortions of a healthy exercise of the ordained ministry which exist need to be taken seriously.

Lay presidency has been suggested as a remedy for more practical problems as well.  It is not really satisfying, nor does it have much liturgical integrity, to have clergy rushing from centre to centre – not even necessarily being present for the whole service – in order to “celebrate” the Eucharist for multiple congregations.  Nor is it helpful to have to cancel eucharistic services or replace them with other forms of liturgy, or to have visiting clergy, who have no substantial relationship with the people of the parish, drafted in, at short notice.

However, it should be noted that addressing these problems might be done in other ways than legalizing lay presidency.  Indeed, it is difficult to believe that legalizing lay presidency alone would overcome them all and lead to a robust, thriving, healthy Church where before there was not.

As far back as Tertullian, the Church has recognised that on occasion, there may be a need for laity to take up the functions normally reserved for the clergy.  However, this sits alongside a very strong commitment to church order; for Tertullian, where lay people could assume the functions of clergy, it is not to subvert established authority but to constitute a church where none would otherwise exist.   This suggests that where no access to the oversight of a bishop is possible, a group of Christians might independently order their communal life, leadership and worship to the glory of God; but this would not be healthy where provision for oversight and a wider network of relationships is in place.

Presiding at the Eucharist is not, at its heart, a matter of saying certain parts of the service.  It is a leading of the gathered people of God in the fulfillment of their priestly vocation of self-offering to God.  There is an argument that legalizing lay presidency would diminish the connection between liturgical leadership and leadership of the community in other ways, thus undermining the authority of the priest and his or her ability to be effective in leadership in the broader sense.

An analogy is drawn with Jesus’ act of presiding at the last supper.  The ‘last supper’ was not an egalitarian or unstructured occasion.  Jesus’ presidency at the meal derives from the network of social relationships he had initiated by forming the group of his disciples.  The question therefore is, who is able to maintain and sustain that network of relationships, and to preside over the ritual and corporate life of the group?  This situation, in which leadership was entrenched and enhanced through ritual, no doubt continued so that from the first, liturgical presidency would have been the ritual expression of leadership and authority in and over the Christian community.

Priests, who share in the work which belongs primarily to the bishop, are a symbolic link to the greater reality of the church, beyond any given instance of a gathering for worship.  A lay president, authorized to minister within his or her own congregation but not more widely, would diminish that link and thus encourage an ecclesiology which does not fully recognize the unity and catholicity of the church, and which places too much emphasis on the local, temporal expression of church rather than recognizing that this is part of a greater reality.  This speaks to the reason why ordination is never a private event but takes place in the context of the gathered church.  It is a communal and relational matter.

The liturgy of the Eucharist is a feast of the imagination whereby the body of Christ is drawn together, empowered and sent out.  The leadership of God’s mission community, the bishops and priests, are thus the leaders of this mission liturgy; those charged with leading the church to manifest Christ in life will naturally and properly be those leading the church in its eucharist, which is a sacramental microcosm of that life.

Just as clericalism is a crippling reality in the life of the church, it has been suggested that to introduce lay presidency would likely upset the balance in the direction of anti-clericalism and congregationalism.  As Nicholas Taylor puts it,

The Eucharist is presided over by a priest who not merely represents Christ by virtue of his or her baptism, but embodies the apostolic ministry sustained in the Catholic Church through the sacrament of orders, and is explicitly authorized to act on behalf of the universal Church in the ministry of word and sacraments, and in conscious communion with the wider Church…any loosening of the bonds which the ordained ministry embodies may not be conducive to the unity or the mission of the Church.

If presiding is about leading and oversight of the worship of the gathered people of God, the question then becomes one of which acts within the liturgy are proper to the presider.  The House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England has identified “the opening Greeting, the Collect, the Absolution, the Peace, and the Blessing; [the President] must take the bread and the cup before replacing them on the holy table, say the Eucharistic Prayer, break the consecrated bread, and receive the sacrament on every occasion.”  Other parts of the service may be delegated.  (There is provision for a deacon or lay person to preside over the Ministry of the Word when necessity dictates).

The challenge then is how best to give liturgical expression to the exercise of the diverse gifts of the community without improperly displacing the leadership of the priest.  A particularly important aspect of this is about allowing people’s gifts to each be expressed in a way which truly builds up community, rather than an exercise in a gathered individualism.

An argument can also be made that legalizing lay presidency undermines the role of the laity in the church’s “extensive liturgy,” the shaping of their own lives and events in the world according to the eucharistic vision.  Lay presidency removes the proper focus of the work of the laity from the world, and thus undermines the ability of the laity to carry out that work, instead locking them up in “churchiness” which is a poor excuse for genuine lay ministry.  Nicholas Taylor articulates it thus:

For the majority of lay Christians, their vocation and mission consist primarily in their lives in the world, in family life and in their places of work, but also in the community, in charities and organizations concerned with what it has become popular to call ‘civil society,’ and in politics…The church has been the place at which Christians have gathered for corporate worship, but not the context in which…their vocation [is] fulfilled during the week…Lay Christians are present and active alongside their neighbours in all aspects of community life, not excluding their workplaces, and it is there that their witness is proclaimed and their ministry exercised…faithfully and meaningfully.

This is not to suggest that presiding should be reserved to the priest as a privilege, but that true privilege should be found in a condition of interdependence.  The eucharistic prayer has never been a manifesto, but a dialogue.  To render the term “priest” vacuous by authorizing lay presidency the church would in fact create one undifferentiated laos before God, which is surely not the gospel vision of the church.

In a way, this principle is illustrated by Article XXXVII, which makes clear that even the reigning sovereign, with responsibility to rule “estates…Ecclesiastical” is not given “the ministering…of the Sacraments.”  This demonstrates clearly, in a foundational Anglican document, that there is a difference “between ordination and nomination to ecclesiastical office.”

There is also a question of what the real difference would be between an authorized lay person, and a priest, presiding.  In a sense, the episcopally authorized lay person and the episcopally ordained person are one and the same reality because they are authorized to exactly the same set of functions, and as a person is in act, so is that person in identity.  If they can do the same, then they are the same.  Is the question not, whether lay people should preside, but whether we call authorizing them to do so, ordination?  Is an authorized lay presider not a priest? Is licensing not simply a minimalist reduction of what has been, hitherto, effected by ordination?  Is this not an undermining of the structure of liturgical ordination?

This also follows the principle articulated by Cranmer, in which he argued that “a person lawfully appointed by a Christian monarch to an ecclesiastical office thereby becomes a bishop or a priest, irrespective of whether or not he has received the ‘comely’ and ‘seemly’ rite of ordination.” Why, then, would we scruple to perform the comely and seemly rite?  This undermines the liturgical means of authorising a ministry (the laying on of hands with prayer, in public worship), since it replaces it with an administrative procedure.

Further, the question arises as to what the basis would be for the choice of lay person to preside.  Would it be “their seniority in the congregation, their good reputation,” or some other such measure of worth?  Would this not shift the focus onto the piety of the individual, rather than the representation of Christ which the priest is intended to signify?  Does it not shift the focus from the grace of God, ex opera operato, to the works of good and fit persons, reinforcing any tendency in the congregation to a delusional self-satisfaction?

That there is a need for change, for liberation of structures of ministry to better fulfill their purpose, is not really at issue.  The diagnosis of various problems is not wrong.  However, to propose lay presidency as the means by which these problems may be solved, is to attempt to make that question carry far more, theologically and liturgically, than it can.  One suspects that legalizing lay presidency would find the church continuing to experience the outworking of these problems in new ways; true cure for them is going to take deeper, longer and harder work than this simple legal reform.

Although the desire for regular celebration of the Eucharist in areas where there are insufficient clergy is one concern driving proposals for lay presidency, it does not have to be a problem for a community to celebrate the eucharist only infrequently.  From the Reformation until the twentieth century, Matins would have been the principal Sunday morning service in nearly all Anglican churches, preceded or followed on occasion by a sparsely attended eucharist.  Although this pattern has changed, and this change is not in itself unhealthy, it is possible to maintain a healthy worshipping life of a community which does not depend on the uninterrupted presence of a priest, should there be a problem ensuring such presence.

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