This post makes little sense unless you are aware of the common NZ Anglican practice of having a lay person “lead the first half of the Eucharist”. [Such a “lay worship leader” is often called a “liturgist” sic!] The practice appears to have developed from the union of three different trends

  • The desire to give laity a greater leadership within church services
  • The initial idea of the NZ Prayer Book revision commission to not have a special rite as an office (Liturgy of the Word) but to be able to use the “first half of the Eucharist” as that, and hence writing rubrics that enabled lay people lead and use such an office. These rubrics continued uncritically into revisions.
  • The custom of seminarians training for ordination to lead parts of the Eucharist while at the seminary/theological college that did not require ordination as a way of practising and forming their liturgical leadership. They then uncritically took this into their parish ministry – continuing having laypeople lead those parts without any realisation that this undid the very intention of what they had been training and being formed for.

I think there are significant issues for such lay leadership. It can

  • reduce priesthood to a magic role
  • clericalise the laity
  • totally confuse the concept of lay ministry
  • disenfranchise the assembly from understanding themselves as full participants and
  • increase the amount of words, especially re-cluttering the vestibule of the gathering of the people in order to give the lay worship leader something to do.

Recently I was at a Eucharist where a deacon was leading with the presider. But after bringing in the Bible at the start, the next thing the deacon “did” was read the Gospel. And the next was prepare the altar table… The deacon did not call to confession, introduce and conclude the intercessions,… When I spoke to the deacon about this I was (unsurprisingly) informed of a variety of practices. I was also told of a general desire not to take over the now-understood roles of “lay worship leaders”. “So sometimes deacons are worship leaders and sometimes not.” I understand fully the need to be able to adapt ideal into the concrete real. In this Eucharist, however, the deacon’s role was not being usurped by a “lay worship leader” it was taken on by the presider!

Once again, although I might write things a bit differently to what I wrote two decades ago, I think my thoughts in Celebrating Eucharist about The deacon at a Eucharist are still a good starting-point for reflection:

A pattern of leadership within the Eucharist which complements that of the presider is provided by the roles traditionally assigned to the deacon. These roles include introducing the confession, proclaiming the Gospel and sometimes preaching, providing leadership for the Prayers of the People, inviting the congregation to exchange the Peace, preparing the holy table and setting the bread and wine upon it, assisting at the elevation at the end of the Great Thanksgiving, helping distribute the bread and wine, and dismissing the congregation.

This book is advocating that many of these tasks be done by lay people. In a community in which there is a deacon, this deacon should not take back all these ministries from the laity but s/he can appropriately be seen as the leader of these diaconal tasks. Deacons can, for example, train and roster people in leading the Prayers of the People, and lead the Prayers themselves on occasion. This leadership of these ministries can be expressed in the service by the deacon sitting (and standing) immediately to the right of the presider. If there are concelebrating presbyters (priests), they should not usurp the deacon’s place. It is preferable to conceive of concelebrating presbyters as being more a part of the assembly rather than giving the impression that they are presiding as a committee.

With the growing renewal and restoration of the diaconate, it is worth reflecting on the integrity of that order. Priests damage this integrity when they dress as deacons rather than as presbyters in the liturgy.

It appears that these issues may not be confined to New Zealand. This deacon pointed me to a report by the The Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England, The Mission and Ministry: Biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives of the Whole Church

At the present time, some Readers* are experiencing a crisis of morale: they are feeling squeezed between their ordained colleagues, on the one hand, and the upsurge of local expressions of lay ministry, on the other. Some Readers, it seems, would not welcome any encouragement of a distinctive diaconate, seeing the ministry of deacons as too close to their own for comfort. We do not think that a solution to this difficulty, which has been identified by Readers themselves, lies in an enlargement of the canonical duties of Readers.

In some RC dioceses there is reluctance to introduce (married) “permanent” deacons because they may take away roles from lay people – particularly because RC deacons must be male and so could take away ministry now done by some women as well as men.

* There are about ten thousand “Readers” in the Church of England. A Reader is a layperson authorised by a bishop to lead some parts of a service of worship. This includes being authorised to preach. They may exercise this ministry in the absence of a priest. In this present form they have existed since 1866.

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