Why Lay Presidency Over the Holy Communion is a Bad Idea for Anglicans (and Everyone Else)

While casting about the Anglican blogosphere, I ran across an idea from an unexpected source: an endorsement of the lay presidency from John Richardson, the “Ugley Vicar”.  This concept is usually associated with the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, the same archepiscopal entity which put subordinationism within the Trinity back into play in order to counter WO (the theology is correct in concept, but weak in execution and not suitable for the intended purpose).

For those not up to speed: lay presidency is the practice of allowing lay people to preside over the Holy Communion.  Personally I cannot see this, and in this 2007 post I laid out why:

The “empowerment” they’re (the Archdiocese of Sydney) proposing is allowing lay people to celebrate the Holy Communion, which traditionally is a no-no in the Anglican world.  Actually most churches reserve for their ministers the authority to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, irrespective of their theology of the church.  And this isn’t challenged in most places either.  The problems that these Australian Anglicans are wrestling with are a product of two trends in the Anglican world, one fairly recent and one of long standing.

The first is that many Anglican churches have made the Holy Communion the central order of worship.  This is largely the result of Anglo-Catholic and Affirming Catholic influence.  In the past Holy Communion, in common with other Protestant churches, was celebrated every so often (monthly, sometimes less) and the normal service was Morning or Evening Prayer.  The 1662 Book of Common Prayer specifically allows lay people to celebrate the Morning and Evening Prayer (even giving suitable modifications.)

Where Morning and Evening Prayer are still the central orders of worship in Anglican life, lay celebration is certainly possible.  But as long as Anglican churches insist on making the Holy Communion normative, they will not only be on the horns of the dilemma the Archdiocese faces, but they will also be a block to many visitors (since most Anglican churches still have closed communion.)

The second trend is the fact that the bar of entry into the Anglican ministry (I still hate calling them priests) is too high.  Anglicans are too hung up on extensive formal education that may or may not prepare them for practical ministry or even give them a sound theological education.  The classic example of this is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  Everyone knows he’s a brilliant academic, but his leadership capabilities leave a lot to be desired of (although he is in reality in an impossible situation.)  I’m no advocate for institutionalised ignorance, but much of what is taught in seminaries these days–liberal and conservative alike–is not useful for real ministry or even basic management or people skills.

If it were not such a long business to obtain an education that people–lay and clergy alike–would sniff at contemptuously, the idea to accommodate the laity with the Holy Communion would not even be considered.

 To this I might add the following:

  • Leaving aside the whole Catholic argument over the nature of the priesthood, lay presidency undermines the whole concept of the clergy.  If anyone can celebrate the sacred mysteries, why do we have a clergy at all?  (That question came to mind many times while doing church work, but I digress…)
  • The mania for formal education isn’t restricted to the Anglican world; my own church has in recent years jacked up the educational requirements of their own ministers.  What they fail to realise isn’t that our ministers lack (and I’m not being pejorative about this; our own surveys bear this out) formal seminary or theological education; they lack formal education of any kind.  If, for example, we took people with bachelor’s or higher degrees and the proper spiritual state (it really helps if ministers are saved, sanctified and baptised in the Holy Spirit) and made them into the ministerial equivalents of “ninety day wonders” we’d be further down the road than we are.

I still think this is a bad idea.  Broadening our ministerial ranks with those who don’t necessarily require a stipend would solve part of the problem, and getting away from the “Communion every service” business would take care of the rest.

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