Lent Course 2006: The People of God

Unit Three - Lay presidency at the Eucharist

One of the problems in using scripture in understanding what God wants of us (on which Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and Church Times columnist has commented) is that dividing it into chapters and verses gives it a completely different 'feel' from that of a set of continuous (though aggregated) texts; it takes on, so to speak, the characteristics of a Tractatus. Many key issues are dealt with through quoting verses which are handled as 'Propositions' in a tradition that runs from Euclid (325-265bce) to Wittgenstein (1889-1951) when they were originally sentences in a continuous story.

The accounts of the institution of what we call the Eucharist (Thanksgiving) are very brief (1 Corinthians 10:15-21; 11:23-26; Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20), compared, for example, with accounts of its pre-figuring in the 'Feeding of the 5000'. The accounts are substantially the same, comprising the breaking of bread, the pouring of wine, blessing and distribution. The "words of institution" are very simple and straightforward: "this is my body", "this is my blood" but there is one factor which has complicated our understanding and that is the potential antithesis between the is of Institution versus the phrase: "Do this in memory of me". This is the danger of the propositional approach to the Scriptural theological accounts of real events; are the propositions about Institution contradictory or mutually supportive?

No matter what subsequent disagreements have arisen, the Christian Church, from the very beginning, has always believed that God is truly with us when bread is blessed, broken and given and when wine is poured, blessed and given. These acts which Jesus first performed at the Last Supper were repeated at Emmaus on the day of his resurrection which theologically underlines their importance. The early Church was quick to grasp the significance of these actions by Jesus and enshrined them as its central rite in which, over time, a presidency was evolved in the episcopate and the presbyterate

The Scriptural evidence is rather flimsy (see the list of references at the end of Unit Four on the New Testament and ministry) but the early Church came to understand that there should be a "threefold ministry" of bishops, priests and deacons. The bishops were said to be in "apostolic succession" from St Peter, the first leader of the apostles after the death of Jesus (although even this is problematic).

We do not know what attributes or authority were required of those who initially presided at the Eucharist when it took place in private houses but by the end of the 1st century there is already a strong sense of an "apostolic succession" of people selected for their uprightness of life and confirmed in their office through the laying on of hands. Over time this succession divided between bishops and priests with the former delegating presidency at the Eucharist to the latter because they could not be in all places of worship at the same time, notably at the Easter Vigil.

Naturally enough, the idea of an apostolic succession in eucharistic presidency coalesced with a theological understanding that something special happened at the Eucharist which could not happen without a bishop or priest who had been given special powers as part of that succession.

The mechanics of what happened when the bishop or priest presided only became a matter of controversy when Aristotle was reintroduced to Western European thought and had to be accommodated into Christendom's self understanding and its understanding of God. This led to the somewhat abstruse concept (at least to modern sensibility) of Transubstantiation which says that at the Words of Institution the appearance (the accidents) of the bread and wine remain the same but their reality (substance) change from bread and wine into the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is not important in any way in describing what happens, which is a mystery, but only purports to explain how it happens. We might say that what happens is a mystery, how it happens is a speculation. From our point of view what is important about transubstantiation is not the theory of accidents and substance but the doctrine behind it, that only a bishop or priest using the Words of Institution could effect the change from ordinary bread and wine to sacred body and blood.

It had been generally agreed from both scripture and the tradition of the Church in its first 1500 years that somebody had to take physical action - in the breaking of bread, the pouring of wine, their blessing and distribution - before the sacrament of the Eucharist could occur but this importation of Aristotelian philosophy as the foundation of mediæval Scholasticism underlined the mysterious and cultic nature of the sacramental rite. At the Reformation the anti-clericalism which resulted partly from Scriptural scholarship and the printing of vernacular Bibles and partly from a quite legitimate socio-political reaction against the excesses of the Renaissance Catholic Church centred on a succession of weak and venal Popes, became entangled with the issue of clerical competence. It was easy, in opposing the over-mighty role of the clergy, to question whether they should retain certain kinds of ecclesiastical monopoly. Nonetheless, in spite of popular prejudice, particularly in the Roman Church, the major Protestant reformers, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64) were fully committed to the 'Real Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist and believed that only specially trained people could preside at it. They did not believe so strongly, for example, as the Church of England after the Reformation (see Unit Two) in the importance of the apostolic succession but thought legitimacy came from uprightness of life, love of the scriptures and peer recognition of the "elect of Christ".

This was not the view shared by a third reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) whose starting point was the direct access of the Christian to God through the vernacular Bible. This meant there was no need for clerical intermediaries; the only role for pastors was to give scripture lessons and preach the Word. Zwingli seized on the phrase we noticed at the beginning of this discussion: "Do this in memory of me" and, in doing so, he discounted the definitive "Is" in the Words of Institution. The Eucharist was an important focus for Christian piety but it was simply a re-enactment (Anamnesis). Zwingli's final step was that Christ was only with us at the Eucharist through the faith in our hearts and not through the agency of any other person.

It might be a good idea at this point to think for a few minutes about how each of us relates to the Eucharist. Is Jesus present to us in a special way or are we simply remembering what happened at the Last Supper? Are we sure that we have made a distinction between the idea of the special presence of Jesus with us and the way in which this comes about? Do we think that what is going on is a mystery or simply a memorial? How do we relate special presence to general presence?

Zwingli's position immediately raises two issues that we need to consider:

We can immediately see where the argument is going and it should remind us of our discussion of ranking in Unit Two. If the only change which takes place at the Eucharist is a personal re-affirmation of faith in the real Christ, this is a third order issue which relates to worship and the spiritual life; if, however, something does take place which we understand as sacramental, then this is a second order issue. Immediately we can see that our understanding of what happens will dictate where we put the issue on our ranking scale.

What we need to think about, having examined our own position, is how this relates to the Church of England. When people advocate lay presidency are they, in effect, asking the Church to abandon its commitment to the Eucharist as one of the two "Dominical" Sacraments? If this is the case, then what is the position of Baptism as a sacrament if it can (uniquely) be performed by a lay person? Is Holy Order an administrative procedure laid down by the General Synod and Parliament? Should our clergy be like Zwingli's pastors? In short, is there a radical agenda behind lay presidency?

Let us now try to look at this issue from a different standpoint. What would we say are the attributes required of a priest who is seen to be fit to preside at the Eucharist. There are full lists of qualities in Ramsey and Richardson, (see bibliography) but, in summary, they are not very different from the kinds of requirements we would expect of any full time professional:

A priest must be

Looked at from a non theological point of view, would we not expect lay presidents at the Eucharist to fulfil very similar, if not identical functions? Would we want a presider who was not holy, did not pray or who did not understand theology?

From this perspective there is a fundamental question? What is the difference between the fitting lay president and the fitting priest in the context of the Eucharist? Is the only plausible answer that the key difference is not life or function but how the person reaches the position of president? In other words, is the key difference the status of Holy Order and, if so, does this not lead back to questioning the whole superstructure of priests and, going back again, to bishops? Is the call for lay presidency a call to disregard the Apostolic succession?

No matter how interesting these questions are, there is one even more vital set of questions which we alluded to at the beginning of the Unit. Is there a specific act which a bishop or priest undertakes in invoking the mystery of the real presence of Christ at the Eucharist which a lay person cannot invoke? In other words, is it the nature of ordained ministry that it has a Eucharistic monopoly?

In attempting to answer these questions we need to reflect a little more deeply on the subject of the Eucharist. The following is a summary of an ecumenical understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist:

There are at least five different meanings or interpretations of the Eucharist:

If we were to accept a lay presidency of the Eucharist, would we have to abandon any of these understandings of the Eucharist?

So far we have focused very tightly on the words and inner meaning of Eucharist but next we need to consider this in the context of the people of God. In terms of the doctrine of many Christian denominations, including the Church of England (but excluding, for example, the Orthodox Church), the celebration of the eucharist is not simply a local matter. The priest, as president, represents the bishop and the bishop represents the whole of the people of God, the whole of the body of Christ. As the people of God we are blessed every moment of the day by Eucharistic celebration taking place all over the world. That deeply significant representational, embracing aspect of the Eucharist is made possible because of the apostolic succession of those who have been chosen to represent the whole people of God in invoking the Sanctifier (epiklesis) so that the Redeemer might be present for us in the sacrament. How much does it matter that the Eucharist is held by the Church to be a universally significant, as opposed to a local, act?

Finally, we need to think about the idea of bishops and priests as our representatives. We are accustomed to the idea, [passage=1 Peter 2:1-10], that the whole of the people of God is a Royal Priesthood but this concept has become rather obscured because of the hierarchical nature of the Church. Herbert McCabe acutely observed that the Church was a church of love and that love was in fundamental opposition to hierarchy but that some hierarchy was necessary. While we must never forget that love is more important than hierarchy, that the people of God are the Church, how far do we require some of our number to undertake representational functions?

One way of looking at the situation is that a priest represents the whole people of God when presiding at the Eucharist whereas a lay president would only represent those present, from whom the person had been chosen. Is it important for us to think of ourselves as part of a "Catholic" Church? Would it really make any difference if the Eucharist was just a domestic celebration enjoyed on a parochial basis?

Here is a closing quote from the Lima document:

"The Eucharistic communion with Christ who nourishes the life of the church is at the same time communion within the body of Christ. The sharing of one bread and the common cup in a given place demonstrates and effects the oneness of the sharers with Christ and with their fellow sharers at all times and in all places. It is in the Eucharist that the community of God's people is fully manifested. Eucharistic celebrations always have to do with the whole church, and the whole church is involved in each local Eucharistic celebration. In so far as the church claims to be a manifestation of the whole church, it will take care to order its own life in ways which take seriously the interests and concerns of other churches.

"As God in Christ has entered into the human situation, so Eucharistic liturgy is near to the concrete and particular situations of men and women. In the early church the ministry of deacons and deaconesses gave expression in a special way to this aspect of the Eucharist. The place of such ministry between the table and the needy properly testifies to the redeeming presence of Christ in the world."