Monday, 23 June 2008

Come on and (Lay) Celebrate

All the stuff going on around the wonderful world of Anglicanism at the moment — GAFCON, Lambeth and General Synod come to mind — got me thinking that one of our problems is the unexamined nature of the Church itself.

Many of the current ‘issues’ come down to confrontations between ‘Conservatives’ and ‘Liberals’, and in the eyes of many (outside the Church as well as within) this conflict will always be a no-brainer: liberalism must be right if it indicates progress away from mere ‘traditions’ which do not stand up to examination. Indeed, my own sympathies in this respect are not entirely ‘anti-liberal’.

But supposing (I found myself asking) the Liberal viewpoint were, finally, to win, as many hope it will. What would we be left with to which people would belong? What, in other words, would be the meaning and identity of ‘Church’?

Obviously it would be a community — but a community defined by what? Presumably a belief in God and about Jesus, but also, I strongly suspect, a community identified by liturgical participation. What I see in my mind’s eye when I think of the phrase ‘Liberal Church’ is not people who are deeply secularised in their behaviour, but people who are passionately devoted to the clerically led, liturgically structured and sacramentally centred occasion.

Now maybe I spent too long hanging around the wrong sort of Liberal. (I have to point out that I grew up as a member of St Luke’s Charlton, and therefore have experienced both traditional Anglo-Catholicism and Southwark Liberal Catholicism at their best.) But I don’t meet many anti-clerical or anti-liturgical or anti-sacramental Liberal Anglicans. On the contrary, those seem to be characteristics of Evangelicals, and more so the more extreme the Evangelicalism.

So at this point I want to spell out, plainly and simply, how and why I am all in favour of lay celebration of Holy Communion, and why I think it is as much about the heart of the gospel as is homosexual practice or women bishops or anything else currently on the debating floor.

Since my conversion, I have always been convinced that any Christian can, and occasionally should, celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I wasn’t taught this, it just seemed obvious to me.

Today I am still convinced that is the case, and the question I would put to anyone who argues otherwise is this: any Jewish family or group of friends can celebrate the Passover without the benefit of a rabbi. But Jews are under the Law. We are not under the Law. So why is it not possible for any gathering of Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which is clearly based on the Passover, without the benefit of an episcopally ordained clergy person?

One answer is, of course, tradition. But as we know from the current debates, no tradition can claim to be sacrosanct. Another answer would be the nature of priestly ministry. But though I am sympathetic to those who hold this view (remember, I was brought up on it), I find little or nothing in Scripture to support their understanding. Thus, whilst I wouldn’t force them to participate in my celebration of Communion, I can’t see why they should be able to prevent me from holding it.

A few years ago, the Church of England did produce Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod, in response to a question about lay presidency raised at General Synod. This managed to condemn the practice without quite resorting to either an Anglo-Catholic or a biblical argument in favour. But the logic was very thin and the result was the sense that this was a conclusion in support of an argument. You can still read my online review of it here, where it is somewhat lost in cyberspace on my old BT internet account.

For some, lay presidency at the Eucharist is indeed about thumbing one’s nose at authority — a chance to cause episcopal discomfort via the liturgical equivalent of ‘Knock Down Ginger’. That is an attitude from which I would want to distance myself as much as possible. I would rather never have Communion celebrated by a lay person than have it celebrated to cause trouble.

But we have just been preaching through Galatians, and I am struck yet again by Paul’s message that the Law is history, and when he talks about the Law he means the entire Law — ritual, ceremonial, social and moral. We are under grace, and no longer under Law. Nothing could be clearer.

If there is, therefore, a reason why only an ordained person may celebrate for Christians what anyone can celebrate for Jews, it must lie in the gospel. And yet when I look into the gospel, I find no such reason.

For me, therefore, lay celebration is a gospel issue. Or rather, the clerical monopoly of Eucharistic celebration is a gospel issue. It was for freedom that Christ has set us free, no longer to be subject to the yoke of slavery to the Law. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper together is, I believe, a freedom issue which goes to the heart of what the gospel is.

To me, therefore, a Liberal Church which opposed lay celebration would not be truly Liberal, and would stand in need of reformation as a Church. The same reformation, however, is still needed in many Churches which regard themselves as traditionalist.

On this hang our view of priesthood (and therefore of what it means to be a Christian), sacrament (and therefore the place of God’s word), order (and therefore of what it means to be no longer under the Law) and the Church (and therefore what constitutes the people of God in a given place).

Revd John P Richardson
23 June 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. (Chelmsford)

    John, I support allowing only priests to celebrate Communion.

    But who are priests? This is the real question we need to ask. According to the New Testament all believers are priests. It does not depend on some kind of episcopal ordination.

    Of course I don't object to episcopal ordination, but perhaps it should be for all, to be administered alongside confirmation. After all, confirmees can hardly receive the Holy Spirit if they are not believers and so priests.

  2. I would call myself a Conservative Reformed Evangelical and I certainly don't want to be anticlerical (or at least not any ministers) nor antiliturgical nor antisacramental. These seem to me to be problems with some kinds of modern evangelicalism.

    One of the arguments against lay presidency is certainly tradition, but it is worth noting that it is the tradition of the whole catholic church including evangeical and Reformed tradition. This should make us very cautious about innovating.

    It seems to me that lay presidency is possible but not normally desirable since ministry of the sacrament should be tied to the formal public ministry of the word and church discipline in the context of the Lord's Day service of covenant renewal.

    I'm not convinced by the argument from the Passover since it was only the Father of the household who presided. It seems to me this is an argument for the elder to preside!

    I think we have to ask in what sense we are "not under the law". Clearly this does not mean total freedom or a free for all or no rules.

    It would be sad for evangelicals to campaign for this change when there are so many other things we need to fight for.

    Marc Lloyd

  3. Peter, I support your views on the priesthood, but the 'priesthood of all believers' is a phrase which begs a number of interpretations. 1 Peter ch 2, for example talks of a 'royal priesthood' - is that the whole church, or are the priests the individuals within that church? The liberal view tends to be that the priesthood stands as it is - after all, someone has to control and organise the priesthood of God.

    Richard Brown
    Westcliff on Sea

  4. Richard, I think the 'priesthood' of 1 Peter 2 clearly picks up on the promise of Exodus 19:5-6: "Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (compare, "you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" - 1 Pet 2:9).

    The priesthood, even in the Old Testament, is first and foremost collective. Israel's calling was to serve God as his "first born son" (Ex 4:22-23). All of life was the service of God. The Levites were special not in serving God, but in that only they could serve in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Moreover, the restriction of this service to the Levites was, to some extent, the result (and a sign) of judgement (see Exodus 32).

    The death of Christ, however, removes judgement and thus restores the full priesthood to the whole people of God. There is henceforth no need (or room) for a priesthood within the priests.

    As to your remark that "The liberal view tends to be that the priesthood stands as it is" because "someone has to control and organise the priesthood of God," I'm not sure if that was tongue-in-cheek! The idea that theological liberals are the people God would task to organise his people is entertaining, if nothing else.

  5. Wow Mark, lots of issues.

    First, what was the 'Reformed tradition'? I rather like this quote from Luther: "... all Christians, and they alone, even women, are priests, without tonsure and episcopal “character.” For in baptizing we proffer the life-giving Word of God, which renews souls and redeems from death and sins. To baptize is incomparably greater than to consecrate bread and wine, for it is the greatest office in the church — the proclamation of the Word of God. So when women baptize, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately, and do it not as a private act, but as a part of the public ministry of the church which belongs only to the priesthood" (Concerning the Ministry, LW 40).

    Luther's view (rightly, I think) was that God's work is done through God's word. Roles in the congregation are therefore a matter of authorisation, not empowerment. But this meant that any congregation could authorise someone to act 'sacramentally' within the congregation itself.

    As to the Passover, the point is that an external authorisation was not required. Similarly, with the Friday evening 'Kiddush', which bears a close resemblance to Holy Communion, this is celebrated by a household because it is a household. This contrasts poorly, I would argue, with the lack of freedom imposed by Canon laws, whether in Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism. Why should a Christian family not celebrate the Lord's Supper if a Jewish family can celebrate Kiddush? And why should a congregation not nominate someone to read the words of the institution of the Lord's Supper, without having to refer to the bishop?

    As to not being under the Law, it means not being under the Law! Rules, in principle, should therefore be minimalist, and should certainly not impose restrictions on Christians exercising gospel ministry, to one another or to others. This is why I think so much of the Clergy Discipline Measure is nonsense - it seems to be more concerned with preventing gospel ministry than preventing false teaching, for example!

  6. Nowhere else I can post this. Isn't Dick Farr in the best position to call himself the vicar of Ugley?

  7. Dear Madeline,

    As you will have seen in my profile, I own up to not, technically being the vicar of Ugley. However, I am licensed to the Benefice and within our staff team I have first responsibility for Ugley parish, its congregation and people.

    So I suppose it depends on whether you want to think in legal or functional terms!

    Most people, however, think of clergy collectively as being 'vicars'. (Try explaining the difference between a vicar and a rector to someone, let alone trying to describe what a curate is - apart from a 'vicar's mate'.)

    Anyone, the name has stuck, so there we go.

  8. I only ask, because that information about you is new on this blog. I had always assumed you were the incumbent. Still, laying that to one side (though I do wonder why you have now added it), are you non-stipeniary because the C of E doesn't want to pay you, or because you don't want to accept their money?

  9. Hi Madeline,

    I'm not sure why you think the information in my profile is new. It's been there for ages. The blog has been up since December 2006, and the profile was more or less complete then. I certainly haven't changed it significantly, apart from being on my fourth photo.

    I did manage to delete it from the blog layout a little while ago, but that was accidental - during some tinkering with layouts.

    As to my non-stipendiary status, I am paid by the Church of England, as are most stipendiary clergy. However, my income is collected locally and specifically for me, rather than being paid from pooled quota. The parish pays its quota in addition to this.

    My post was set up specifically to allow me to do things like write books and articles, speak at conferences, etc, as well as having a parish component. The post was agreed with the Area Bishop of Colchester at the time, who issued my license.

    But enough about me ... tell me about you? ;-)

  10. I just wondered if you refused to accept a stipend that was raised by the usury of the Church Commissioners. Is that a factor?

  11. Hi Madeline,

    No, the only clergy directly benefiting from the Church Commissioner's investments these days are the retired and the bishops.

    I hope you recognize the difference between income from an investment, which the Church has always allowed historically, and what is strictly 'usury', the charging of a fixed income on a loan. I would commend to you Martin Luther's essays on this subject which can be found here.

    Usury is, however, a good example of so-called 'structural sin', and therefore is something in which we are all caught up (just as we were all caught up in the invasion of Iraq, whether we approved or not).

    My own view on structural sin is that we must accept we are sinners, whilst at the same time trying, as much as lies in us, to extricate ourselves and others from it.

  12. PS to Madeline, you need to go to about here in the article to see what Luther is saying about trade as distinct from mere usury.

  13. No thanks. I've looked at this issue before, and it's a distinction without a difference.

  14. Hi Madeline,

    You wrote, "I've looked at this issue before [profit from trade, as distinct from usury], and it's a distinction without a difference."

    Yet surely it is one that Jesus recognized: “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest." (Matt 25:26)

    I'm quite happy not to go on discussing this - just surprised at your response.

  15. you think that story is about money?

  16. Hi Madeline,

    It is a parable - and just as the parable of the sower is not making a point about farming, so it is not making a point about business. However, just as the parable of the sower relies on the familiar realities of farming, so this parable relies on the familiar realities of trade.

    The trapedzites, translated 'banker', in the parable was a money changer one who exchanged money for a fee and paid interest on deposits. The point within the parable itself is that such an immoral way of earning income would have suited the accusation of immorality, but at least would have earned some income.

    People in Jesus' day would have understood the comment, which makes no sense if we take the modern understanding that this would have been a 'risk free' way of exercising some stewardship.

    So no, I don't think it is about money, and I don't think you thought that I thought it was about money.

    Actually I think you are trying to make a point, but I'm lost to know what it is. Am I right in detecting this is not a friendly exchange on your part?

  17. It's perfectly friendly, but bemused. I don't know where to start trying to discuss theology with you, because you seem to me to be incapable of reading texts. To my mind, you have a framework of theology, rooted in late-mediaeval thought, which you use like a sort of Procrustean bed. If something (anything, the Bible, Christian documents, tradition, reason, experience, psychology, science, personal relationships, anything) doesn't fit, then you will stretch it or chop it off to make it fit. That won't work for me. And don't forget, Procrustes was also known as Polypemon, which means 'harming much'.
    So, I don't know where to start with this particular quotation. The background of the parable doesn't teach us about money. It was probably not told by Jesus but by Matthew. You can't stretch an economic moral from a story like this.

  18. Hi Madeline

    I'm sorry if I wrongly imputed unfriendliness to you.

    I wonder why you would want to discuss theology with me, given that you and I have very different methodologies.

    For example, I cannot accept your view that Matthew, not Jesus, originated this parable. And in any case, that it is 'Bible' puts it before me as a Christian as the product of God's action.

    Discussions, however, can only be useful if they are either enjoyable in themselves or leading somewhere.

  19. I'd like to think it could lead to your completely rejecting your way of doing theology. That would be good for you and for the people you minister to.

  20. Hi Madeline

    I don't think that is going to happen, and of course I couldn't agree that it would be good for me or for them.

    I trust, however, you will continue to pray for us.

  21. Hi John,

    1. Would you accept somebody walking in off the street presiding at communion?
    2. What if they could establish bona fides from another church?
    3. Would you accept _anyone_ in a congregation presiding? Or is there any scope for discerning difference in gifting amongst a congregation?

  22. Hi Sam,

    It's not really a question of what 'I' would accept, rather what the congregation (including me as a senior pastor) would accept.

    This rather nuances the likely answers to your questions. Would the congregation accept anyone walking in off the street? I doubt it very much.

    What if that person had bona fides from another church? If they'd just walked in off the street, I still doubt it - even if they were wearing a bona fide Anglican dog collar! However, a visiting minister would no doubt be acceptable, since they would assume I or Dick had had some say in their being there.

    Would they accept anyone from the congregation presiding? Thinking of the specific congregations I work with, I know they would be very happy, as would I, with quite a few from their number doing so. We already deploy several people in leading large chunks of services on Sundays and I am sure that most if not all of these would be acceptable.

    There is a skill in (not perhaps the same as a 'gift for') leading services. Some people can do it, others can't. Many can learn how to do it, and almost all can learn to do it better.

    No doubt there would be a hierarchy of such leaders. Supposing we had a repeat of the local floods a few years ago, and suppose I couldn't get through - I've no doubt those who did would pick one of their number to lead, and if it wasn't one of the usual leaders, they'd pick the next least terrified person, and so on!

  23. John,


    Sure, all believers are priests (they were in Israel too) but not all believers are presbyter / elders?

    Are you saying Luther was in favour of lay presidency? Calvin certainly was not and as I understand it the Reformed consensus has been that the elder ought to preside at the Lord's Table as an undershepherd, overseer, guardian.

    Fathers were externally authourised to preside at the Passover, were they not? By the Word of God. As I would say elders are at the Lord's Table.

    Jewish families were not allowed to enact Temple worship at home and the Lord's Supper is at least partly analogous to the Peace Offering where the people eat together.

    Do you not see crucial differences between the Public / authoritative-ish Lord's Day Service and family times?

    Marc Lloyd again
    Eastbourne still

  24. I'm not sure I believe in clergy at all (whether we call them Pastors, Vicars, Reverend or anything else). I can see the historical logic, and I can see why someone reading the Old Testament would conclude this is the way to do things.

    But I'm not convinced there is any justification for any formal position within the church from the New Testament.

    Let me quickly say that all the Vicars I know (and I attend an Anglican church) are without exception overworked and underpaid - but I feel this is part of the problem. Most of the rest of the laity seem to think the business of 'being a Christian' is the realm only of the professionals.

    You might guess that I've been reading Kierkegaarde recently.

    Joe. Confused in Coventry.

  25. Hi John,

    So you/the congregation are willing to accept some discrimination between those 'who can' and those 'who can't' (however that may be defined)?

    (The desert island/ kept back by floods argument is a red herring. I wouldn't have any issues with a bunch of non-ordained Christians on the proverbial island celebrating communion. The question is: what is the right thing to do when not in such force majeure contexts, ie most of ordinary life? There is all the difference in the world between saying 'we'll do X because we can't do Y' and 'we'll do X because we don't want to do Y'.)

  26. Hi Sam,

    You wrote, "So you/the congregation are willing to accept some discrimination between those 'who can' and those 'who can't' (however that may be defined)?"

    As you say, the important issue is "however that may be defined."

    In my view (not the congregation's), anyone can, in the sense that they are able, 'celebrate' the Lord's Supper, just as they can baptize.

    Not everyone will be able to, or necessarily should, indiscriminately in every context.

  27. Hi John,

    OK, so would it be fair to sum up your view this way:

    - any member of the congregation (by virtue presumably of the gifts bestowed at baptism?) CAN preside at HC;
    - not every member of the congregation SHOULD [customarily] preside at HC, for various reasons including innate gifting etc.

    Is that accurate?

  28. Hi Sam

    I appreciate your trying to summarize what I'm saying, but to try and make it clear (and I would observe I take a line from Luther on this) I would put it like this:

    1. God's word does God's work.

    2. The word of God can be said by anyone and will do God's work in the hearer by the hearer's faith.

    3. The sacrament is effective by faith in the word.

    4. Anyone can be the vehicle of that word. All Christians, by virtue of being 'priests and kings', are entitled and required to be 'ministers of the word' (although the good works to which we are called are by no means confined to this ministry of the word).

    5. Any Christian may be the 'minister of the word' of the sacraments, but whether or not they actually will will depend on the context.

    I had started drafting a response to Marc Lloyd which might have made things clearer - especially on the 'Lutheran' origins of my views - but I've been (a) doing my tax return and 9b) at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, so I've not had time. I thought my reply to you would be shorter!!

  29. Thanks John - sorry to be persistent. I'm happy to wait for your further post before continuing!

  30. The difficulty I have with this issue is (mainly) the timing, a highly contentious issue arising between evangelicals and catholics at precisely the moment when unity within orthodox Anglicanism is most crucial, and when it is most important to make the pewsitters understand exactly what is at stake in the controversy.

    The catholic-oriented answer to this is, of course, that this is [a memorial to and remliving of] a Sacrifice, and in the Jewish tradition sacrifices were specifically the business of the formal priesthood. There is as far as I know no way of resolving this issue on a solely Biblical basis, but surely the unanimous witness of the first- and second-century Fathers should lend some weight to the assertion that the Apostles understood the Sacrament this way, which is why it is so strongly embedded in the Tradition. Anglicans have never been *sola* scriptura in their ecclesiology.

  31. I too agree with you. I accepted coming into the Episcopal Church that having only clergy celebrate was part of the "tribe" I was joining, but I never saw it as biblical imperative, merely a traditional imperative. I could see the benefits of such a tradition in that it could - or should - help keep the celebration of the Lord's Supper firmly centered on Jesus himself (and not on the priest) because of the strength of the liturgy.

    However, that has been so completely compromised that the idea that the clergy will protect the sacraments from being reinterpreted is frankly laughable. Even the 1979 BCP has at least one Eucharistic liturgy that is unbelievably bad.

    We also do not believe that the person celebrating makes the sacrament valid or invalid - but it does provide order and there is a lot to be said for that. I wouldn't dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

    But I don't think that somehow clergy are magically able to celebrate while the laity are not. That is just not biblically justifiable, for the reasons you have stated as well as the fact that the hierarchical ranking of clerical orders is just not present in the Book of Acts. What might constitute the "lowest" ranking - that is those who serve at table is the one who first preaches the Gospel with such fortitude he gets himself killed and Jesus stands in honor of him, Stephen.

    All that being said - my own personal leanings - I also understand that the Anglican Communion has a very strong and rich history of clerically led Eucharist. It is not wise, I think, for some provinces to take off in a direction without thinking through how this might affect the whole. Tradition is a part of our heritage as Anglicans and a question I might ask is whether this is a "salvation" issue. If it is - then it may be worth pressing forward. But if it's not, perhaps discernment is in order that we might prefer the needs of others over our own personal point of view.

    Thank you for your post.


  32. sorry - my Typepad has my blog name - I am Mary Ailes of - Virginia.