Eucharist ruling fuels new debate

Published April 1, 1998

Should lay people be permitted to celebrate the eucharist? The answer to that question, posed recently to an ecclesiastical court of the Anglican Church of Australia, could cause another rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Australian court ruled that lay presidency, the term used to describe permitting lay people to preside at the eucharist under certain circumstances, does not contravene the church constitution.

But, in a 94-page ruling, the court found that any change to allow lay people to preside at the eucharist would have to be adopted by two thirds of all three houses of the national church at a general synod.

The surprise ruling left critics of lay presidency wondering what happened to the authority of the Book of Common Prayer, Anglican tradition and worldwide practice, and the 39 articles of faith.

Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, says lay presidency has never come up in the Canadian church. “But I’ve learned never to say never,” he said. “Certainly, the question has not arisen yet.”

Bishop Peter Chiswell, of the Australian Diocese of Armidale, was a member of the Appellate Tribunal, highest court of the Anglican Church of Australia, which made the recent ruling.

Bishop Chiswell said the ruling has sparked a lot of criticism inside the Australian church. The General Synod, which met after the ruling, referred the issue to a select committee, which will recommend further action. The earliest any decision could come is at General Synod in 2001.

While the bishop allows that the current Australian Anglican constitution ties celebration of communion to those with priestly orders, because of its adherence to the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 articles, the tribunal found that it is within the power of synod to change that.

Supporters of lay presidency have argued, he said, that since the Australian church gives parity to word and sacrament, lay people should be allowed to preside at communion. Others argue pragmatically that lay presidency for those in outlying areas, where clergy are not available, is better than frequent use of the reserved sacrament.

Since the Armidale diocese and Bishop Chiswell have been in the forefront of the move for lay presidency, some have questioned whether the bishop’s presence on the tribunal was a conflict of interest. But Bishop Chiswell replies that he was elected for the tribunal, and his role was to rule on the legal issues, not decide on the merits of lay presidency.

The Primate says Canada has found ways of coping with the need for sacramental ministry in far-flung regions of the country, like the Arctic, without considering the possibility of lay people presiding at the eucharist.

Canadian Anglicans, he said, should realize that the demand for lay presidency in Australia comes from Sydney diocese, which is home to a radical Protestant group of Anglicans who are very “low” in their understanding of the sacrament.

While there is a Protestant tradition in some parts of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Peers says it has not had the same expression in Canada as in the Australian experience.

Lay presidency itself is not a new issue. The question arose three decades ago in New Zealand, and it was discussed unofficially at the 1978 Lambeth Conference. Archbishop Peers calls the issue “potentially as divisive as sexuality” for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

For some, lay presidency is not merely a response to the need for sacramental ministry to remote congregations, it is a reflection of a strong emphasis on congregations calling forth ministers.

In England, a shortage of clergy has prompted the General Synod to investigate what is called “extended communion,” a simple liturgy that will regularize the practice of priests consecrating bread and wine, then sending it off to lay people to distribute where there are no clergy.

Dr. Christina Baxter, principal of St. John’s Theological College, Nottingham, England, said in a Journal interview that extended communion tackles the wrong side of the question. While not an ardent advocate of lay presidency, she thinks the church must look at it, rather than finding more ways to justify people “running about the country carrying bread and wine.

“As a lay person, I find this contrary to the spirit of the eucharist. I think people should hear the words of institution and see the fraction (of the bread.)”

Rather than change the euch-arist, Dr. Baxter says, the Church of England should consider changing the pattern of ministry and allowing lay people to preside at the eucharist. She sees this as an even more important issue in areas of the world like South America, where the church is growing rapidly and demands for the eucharist far outstrip the number of ordained clergy.

Authorizing lay people to preside is also more effective than hasty ordinations, which could later cause problems. “We have to realize as the church in the West,” she said, “that we ought to be much more attentive to the life of missionary activity in areas where the church is growing, rather than the pattern of church life where it is declining, like England.”

But Archbishop Peers stands squarely in favour of clergy remaining exclusively responsible for exercising sacramental ministry by celebrating eucharist. “It is a highly symbolic role,” he said. “It is not just a matter of the bishop simply licensing someone to celebrate.”

By requiring ordination in order for a person to celebrate the eucharist, the Primate says, the church is demonstrating how central the eucharist is to its existence. A candidate’s call is tested not only by theological education, a congregation, a bishop and a regional committee. “There is considerable involvement of the whole church.”

That, along with the tradition and practice of the church, rules out lay presidency as far as Archbishop Peers is concerned. “We have to remember,” he says, “the eucharist connects us with Jesus at the last supper and with Christians around the world.” And while congregations are local in the scope of their ministry, ordination has a unique worldwide function. A priest is licensed geographically to a diocese, but can function anywhere in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

To Canadian Anglican theologian Rev. Stephen Reynolds, assistant professor of theology at Toronto’s Trinity College, adoption of lay presidency would be “tantamount to schism.” Allowing lay people to preside “negates the fundamental significance of the liturgy” because the celebration of the eucharist is cut off from the universal church.

Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer.


  • Bob Bettson

    Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer.

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