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