Sunday, November 23, 2008

Church order (or, disorder?)

Recently the Diocese of Sydney agreed to a resolution which affirmed that both lay people and deacons may preside at the eucharist. It did so knowing that (a) their Archbishop is unlikely to license lay people to actually preside at the eucharist; and (b) a recent ruling on another matter in the Australian Anglican church created a legal means for deacons to preside at the eucharist without the Archbishop needing to adjust their licenses in any way. That is, following the resolution, nothing is altered concerning lay presidency (Sydney has been agreed to it in principle for years, but not practised it) but something has altered concerning diaconal presidency. Unexpectedly this move has generated a great deal of controversy which you can follow on sites such as Stand Firm, and Fulcrum (to say nothing of a few posts by me on Anglican Down Under).

It seems to me that at the heart of the controversy are two issues: whether as Anglicans, being part both of Anglican history and of the Anglican Communion, this move is a plausible 'Anglican' move; and whether as part of GAFCON with its Jerusalem Declaration's clause 7 upholding the BCP Ordinal, Sydney can with integrity support both the JD and its own resolution.

Here I do not want to tackle the whole controversy, but to take up a query raised in a comment on the Fulcrum forum - a query which is entirely reasonable and proper to raise in a fair and full discussion of Anglican order:

"In Anglican tradition word and sacrament go together. If we allow deacons and lay readers to preach why can't they then preside/administer at communion. In Anglican tradition word and sacrament go together, surely."

Word and sacrament do go together in Anglican tradition concerning eucharistic ministry. There is also, we should acknowledge, a strong Anglican tradition of non-eucharistic worship expressed through services such as Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer - services of the word and not of the sacrament. But if we are to speak of word and sacrament 'in Anglican tradition' then we can make the following observations:

(i) Anglican tradition goes back into the great tradition of the undivided church itself, and in that tradition priests/presbyters or bishops have been the presiders at the eucharist.
(ii) Anglican tradition has made distinctions between orders of the church in respect of sacramental ministry: bishops may ordain, confirm, marry, baptise, preside at the eucharist; presbyters may marry, baptise, preside at the eucharist, and join with the bishop in laying hands on a deacon being ordained a priest/presbyter; deacons may baptise, assist the priest at the eucharist. It is not inconsistent with this tradition of distinction of orders of ministry to approve lay people preaching but not presiding.
(iii) Anglican tradition does not understand 'ministry of the word' to be equivalent to 'ministry of the sacrament'. A sacrament is a visible word, and the ministry of the word may include explanation of the sacrament taking place in the service, but the ministry of the word is not a straightforward equivalence of the ministry of the sacrament. Preaching should flow from a recognised spiritual gift within the preacher (e.g. 1 Peter 4:11), but presiding at the sacrament flows from a recognised appointment to the office of priest/presbyter. (Later addition: nevertheless all priests should be able to teach/preach since the pastoral responsibility of the office of priest should be expressed through the ministry of the word and of the sacrament. My point is that gifted preachers within the congregation should not be denied opportunity to preach even if they are not called to pastoral responsibility through the priesthood. From a utilitarian point of view, accepting that good sermons take time to prepare, it can be useful for the priest(s) of the parish to be able to share the burden of the ministry of preaching).

I will probably think of a few more things. Here is a final thought for now: in my discernment a considerable motivation for pressing for approval of lay and diaconal presidency is fear of 'clericalism' - domination of the church by clergy; misunderstanding of the role of clergy so that they assume an unbiblical sacerdotal priesthood. This pressure, perhaps fuelled by some post-modern Western desire for as much inclusion and as little exclusion as possible in the life of the church, presses for 'opening up' the ministry. But what does opening up presidency of communion to lay people and to deacons do? It diminishes the point of having a distinct priesthood/presbyterate. Now, let's assume, at least for the moment, that is a good thing. The question then arises in connection with lay presidency, which lay people will be able to preside? If the answer is 'specially selected people', then (effectively) we smuggle the priesthood/presbyterate back into the church. If the answer is 'any baptised lay person' then we have a completely different kind of church, essentially one already in existence called Plymouth or Open Brethren. Similarly with diaconal presidency: effectively deacons become priests/presbyters, even if not actually named as such.

In other words, what, on the face of it, is a plausible desire to broaden the ministry of our church in connection with the sacraments involves a paradox whereby the outcome in the long term is either no actual broadening of the ministry, or a completely different kind of church!

1 comment:

liturgy said...

I think you present some very fine reasoning here, Peter.
Also, I think implicit in your points, is the concept that the blurring of orders makes the church even more inward looking. The primary ministry of laity and deacons is in the outward mission of the church to and in the world. The primary mission of presbyters and bishops is within the community of the faithful.

Advent Blessings