Chris Findley’s piece (Why) Are Priests and the Liturgy Necessary for Holy Communion? is an interesting exploration of the topic, but it’s also (for me at least) an illustration of some of the weaknesses of the way Anglicans “do theology.” Perhaps it’s too much to ask in one internet piece (which need to be brief and to the point) but I’d like to point out some of the things that Findley manages to dodge in his presentation.
Why are Priests Really Necessary?
We’ll start with the central question of the piece. He responds as follows:
The short answer is because the charge of conducting the sacraments is an apostolic charge for the care of the Church.
That leaves the serious questions unanswered. We know that Our Lord himself instituted the Holy Communion and Paul is a witness that this was continued in the New Testament church, and Findley underscores that. Although, as Findley notes, the institution was done with the disciples (soon to be apostles, Judas excepted,) does this really restrict its celebration to the priests? Citing the 2019 Book of Common Prayer expresses the way Anglicans are supposed to understand the role without really justifying it.
The problem is that there isn’t a unity in Anglicanism either on whether their bishops are successors to the Apostles or whether their priestly role in the Eucharist is a sacrificing one. You can get Anglicans to blow their stack (and I have) for suggesting that Anglican bishops are successors to the Apostles, and my guess is that Findley would rather avoid that kind of unpleasantness. Those who object to the successor idea generally tie the issue of successors to the issue of the role of the priest. But there’s no reason to do this. In fact, the whole idea of a sacrificing priesthood–one which is borrowed from Roman Catholicism–is patently unBiblical, as I noted here. But again you can get into trouble in some circles for saying that.
Why Do We Have a Liturgy?
One would think that anyone who would “join up” with an Anglican church would accept the liturgy as a given, but that’s not always the case these days. I think the simple answer to this question is “why not?” In other words, why is it superior for some person in skinny jeans (to say nothing of the cheap polyester suits we had to endure in the 1970’s) to get up and ad-lib it to celebrate the sacred mysteries? The advantage of the liturgy is that it insures (if the liturgy is properly constructed) that all of the theological and penitential bases are covered. The liturgy should express what the Holy Communion is all about and how one should prepare oneself to receive it. Some emphasize the aesthetic superiority of liturgical worship, but focusing on that at the expense of theological integrity is a big reason the Anglican/Episcopal world is in the mess it’s in these days.
Why Is It a Sacrament?
In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The whole concept of sacramental theology is controversial in some circles, who believe that grace is infused (if they use that terminology) only when someone received Christ by faith. The Baptists and others like them have traditionally referred to those things that Anglicans call sacraments as ordinances, just to underscore the difference. (Why, in a Reformed context, people who are absolutely elected and persevere need any kind of additional grace is another issue.) However, I think that sacramental theology is justified provided that the necessary preparatory prerequisites are fulfilled, and I’ve discussed this both relating to Baptism and the Holy Communion. Whether the church has the authority to dispense this is another subject that Findley asserts without really showing whether it’s true or not, but that again is tied up with the nature of the church and the apostolic succession.
What is the Holy Communion?
This is the biggest dodge of all; Findley concentrates on the effect of the Eucharist at the expense of its nature. I’ll not bore everyone with my thoughts on this subject; Anglicanism has been all over the map on this subject, it is still the subject of extensive (and sometimes heated) debate. Like the apostolic succession, the nature of the Eucharist brings up too much unpleasantness. Another interesting topic which, Lord willing, I plan to take up down the road is the relationship of the faith of the church to the nature of the Eucharist. But that, people, is another post.