I have written about lay presidency of the Eucharist previously. You can find one of my blog posts about lay presidency here. The publication of Sydney Anglican The Lord’s Supper in Human Hands – Epilogue (click to download PDF) makes a revisit possibly worthwhile. If you haven’t read my earlier post, that background may be worth a visit, even though some of it will be repeated here.

The context of Sydney diocese’s advocating of lay presidency is the pressing of an anti-catholic theology and practice. There is nothing more sacred than the Eucharist as the heart of catholicism. Sydney Anglicans are forbidden such “popish” practices as wearing a chasuble, adding water to the wine,… if they could get rid of the connection between priesthood and Eucharist they would have removed a central piece of the catholic hardware on which Anglicanism runs.

There is also the understanding that the sacrament is a “symbolic preaching of the gospel”. Those who are not bishops or priests are allowed to preach the gospel (but not preside at the sacrament). The perception is that this elevates the importance of the sacrament over the preaching of the gospel – in other words, the symbolic preaching of the gospel is more important than the literal preaching of the gospel. [This also assumes a ranked understanding of orders where one order is “more important” than another].

“However, if unordained people are permitted to preach, with all the importance the New Testament places on that function, why are they forbidden to administer the Lord’s Supper? By retaining such a prohibition, do we not elevate the Lord’s Supper above preaching the word of God?” (page 47 of The Lord’s Supper in Human Hands – Epilogue)

Sydney’s ecclesiology is congregational rather than diocesan. Anglican ecclesiology is diocesan. The primary community is the diocese, the primary leader is the bishop. Sydney appears, from the text, to be moving towards one presbyter per congregation.

“The presbyter, as incumbent, is the leader of the congregation, who oversees (or ‘presides over’, if we were to use this term) the congregation. All ministry that the deacon performs is by way of assistance to the presbyter. The deacon is responsible to the presbyter and his or her ministry is in that sense derivative.” (page 28)

Sydney’s document

  • has no sense that the presider presides over the whole Eucharistic liturgy
  • has no sense that the primary Eucharistic community is the diocese led by the bishop

What Sydney is doing, with its congregational ecclesiology, is transferring ministry appropriate to a bishop to the presbyter (one per congregation), and, hence, transferring ministry appropriate to a presbyter to the diaconate.

  • neglects the understanding of the diaconate as an “outward-facing” ministry

Let us put to one side that Sydney Anglicans also struggle with women bishops, “local priests” (whatever they are) and non-stipendiary priests (page 25).

I have no objection to the term presbyter – in fact, in many ways, I find it a helpful term. But I do object to terming presiding “administering” and I think that using the latter term obfuscates rather than clarifies. [I also prefer not to speak of the presider “celebrating” the Eucharist or as “the celebrant”, as I understand all of us celebrating the Eucharist together, being led by the one “presiding”].

“There are practices across the Anglican Church of Australia to do with the Lord’s Supper that if not commonplace, have become accepted practice, with Episcopal consent, but without General Synod approval, …
These include (a) the reservation of the sacrament (not just for extended communion in nursing homes) for use in parishes without priests (against the Article) (b) the practice of giving newly ordained priests a chalice as well as a Bible at ordination (against the rubric) (c) the praying of certain words prior to consecration that would imply an offering by the priest of bread and wine as works of our own hands to God (against the order of our services).
This latter practice, (c), is so serious that it turns the service of Holy Communion on its head from a sacrament of God’s grace to one of our own works.” (page 14 cf. page 32)

Someone more versed in the Prayer Book for Australia than I will have to point out how giving newly ordained priests a chalice (b) as well as a Bible at ordination is against the rubric – because I certainly can’t see it! As for “so serious” point (c) – such words are specifically included in both A Prayer Book for Australia and An Australian Prayer Book.

For an attempt at a systematic piece of writing the booklet is appallingly sloppy. It uses the word “priest” for presbyter and then says “The New Testament knows of no ministry in the church of ‘priests’ (save that of all the Christians, usually called the priesthood of the believers following 1 Peter 2).” (page 14) This is either just profoundly ignorant or they are dissembling. The word “priest” derives directly from the Greek New Testament πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros). What is often translated as “priesthood of believers” actually uses ἱερεύς (hiereus).

“Since the New Testament provides no direction for the administration of the Lord’s Supper our church would be unwise to do so save the direction that the person celebrating [sic] should be (a) a Christian (b) well regarded (c) accepted as a congregational leader (d) involved in the teaching and pastoral ministry of the church.” (page 13)

What is ironic is that this four-point description traditionally would be a categorisation of a priest!

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that denominations that have abandoned episcopally ordered eucharistic presidency in the manner that Sydney wants to do, regularly fragment into smaller and smaller discordant communities. The Holy Spirit appears to have been doing something sensible when, in the early church, the structures of eucharistic presidency developed.

Luther pastor Robb Harrell writes, “One is hard pressed to find lay presidency in the first 1500 years of the church’s history. Even after the Reformation occurred, it was the radical reformers that Lutherans rejected that pushed for things like lay presidency.”

Robb Harrell goes on to ask “if a four year residential Master of Divinity, a unit of CPE, and an internship are really required to be a good pastor. Yes, theological training is essential, as is ongoing spiritual and academic formation, but are we married to a process that ultimately hurts our churches? Perhaps the answer lies not in licensing lay people, but in carefully selecting, training, calling and ORDAINING people at the synodical level to be bi-vocational pastors.” What Rob Harrell seeks in his denomination is fully possible within Anglicanism [in fact, within my own province the pendulum IMO has swung too far and needs to swing back towards “a four year residential Master of Divinity, a unit of CPE, and an internship” – but that is a different story and blog post].

The Sydney theologians are trying to cut a branch off the Christian tree. What they are not noticing is that they are sitting on the very branch they are cutting. These Sydney Anglicans want to find their structure of Christian leadership in the Bible alone – not in the teaching and practice of the early church. But the Spirit’s presence in the early church is the very source of the Biblical texts as well as the recognition and acknowledgement that these texts are inspired. Cut off episcopal and presbyteral eucharistic presidency and with it we are cutting off the New Testament as well.

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