Lay presidency issue heats up

Published October 1, 1998

The Diocese of Sydney, Australia’s largest, is expected to vote in favour of lay presidency at its October synod, setting up one of the main criteria for the successor to Archbishop Harry Goodhew when he steps down in March of 2001.

In an interview during the Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Goodhew indicated he would not consent to any vote at synod authorizing lay people to be licensed to celebrate the eucharist.

“It’s not likely to happen before I step down in March of 2001,” he said. “But it will be an issue for my successor.”

Australia’s primate, Most Rev. Keith Rayner, took the lay-presidency issue to the Appellate Tribunal, the Church’s highest court, in response to attempts by Sydney to permit the practice through its own ordinance. Sydney’s bill had passed the second-reading stage and was put on hold while the tribunal deliberated.

It was widely expected that the seven-member tribunal would find lay presidency in conflict with the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the church’s constitution, which tie the church to the doctrine and principles of the Church of England. Instead, the tribunal voted 4-3 that it was constitutional.

However, the court said a diocese would have to wait for approval from Australia’s General Synod before proceeding.

Archbishop Goodhew said that’s the “most appropriate way to go,” if Sydney votes as expected. He doesn’t believe any diocese or other branch of the church should “flout the rules” on any issue, whether lay presidency, the ordination of women or homosexuality.

But “hell will freeze over” before the General Synod approves such a measure, said one observer, referring to the wide gulf between Australia’s evangelical and Anglo-Catholic dioceses.

As a result, in order to be elected Sydney’s next archbishop, a candidate will almost certainly have to agree to consent to a request from clergy and lay representatives at synod for lay presidency, meaning that Sydney will go it alone.

Bishop Paul Barnett chairs the doctrine committee of the diocese. He said he has no objection to lay presidency but worries about the impact on the unity of the church if Sydney does go it alone.

He points out that the ordination of women – fiercely opposed in Sydney because it believes women having authority over men is unbiblical – went ahead in the Anglican Communion before there was anything like consensus.

But he conceded that the diocese – which opposes homosexuality even more fiercely than women’s ordination – would have difficulty opposing ordinations of non-celibate homosexuals and blessings of same-sex unions in other jurisdictions if it goes ahead with lay presidency.

“It’s a major deviation from tradition,” Archbishop Goodhew conceded.

At the heart of the matter is both a practical and theological problem. Like many other large dioceses in the world covering vast rural areas, Sydney has parishes which cannot sustain a full-time priest, meaning they can’t have eucharists as frequently as they would like unless the sacrament is brought from another far-away church. But there is strong objection, said Bishop Barnett, to “distance communion.”

Theologically, there is also the different view evangelicals have of ordination and the eucharist from Anglo-Catholics.

In evangelical theology, there is no change in the underlying being or character when a person is ordained. It’s just a matter of how the church governs itself, a question of “order,” Bishop Barnett said.

He said there is also a strong desire to link “preaching of the word and presiding at the table.” Since lay people are already licensed to read the Gospel and preach – as in many other Anglican dioceses around the world – proponents of lay presidency see no reason not to license lay people to preside at the eucharist when necessary. They are opposed to the idea of non-stipendiary priests, a solution used in many dioceses in Canada, Britain and the U.S., because they fear that would lead to untrained, second-class “mass priests” who, although ordained, could never serve in full-time parish situations like full-time professional priests.

Bishop Barnett admitted that the selection of suitable candidates for lay presidency would not be fundamentally different from selecting candidates for any other form of ministry in the church. He also agreed that the theology behind lay presidency is open to criticism that, while it seeks to unify the ministry of word and sacrament, it divorces the pastoral role, making that the primary distinction between a priest and a layperson licensed to preside at the eucharist. And that too is at odds with traditional Christian practice that people cannot be ordained unless they have a place with people to minister to.

If Sydney does eventually go ahead with lay presidency, it is likely to send as strong a shiver down the spine of Anglican-Roman Catholic talks as the ordination of women and the expected ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and blessing of same-sex unions in the U.S.


Keep on reading

Skip to content