For you and for many (on "lay" presidency)

As this is again being discussed, I thought I’d bring it back to the top of the blog.

First posted July 2007, with a more personal follow-up here.

In the ‘I confess’ post, I said:

“I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It’s either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it’s simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

This has caused a bit of comment (off-line as well as on!) and it’s certainly something which is being discussed here in Mersea. So I thought I’d expand a little further. Click ‘full post’ for text.

This is still in the style of summary points:

– the role of the ordained minister is not ‘above’ the people, which would undermine the priesthood of all believers, but ‘alongside’ the people – separated out to perform a particular role on their behalf – if they were all one part where would the body be?;
– if a bunch of Christians were stuck on the proverbial desert island without an ordained minister, then clearly it would be good for them to celebrate together; it is the community gathered which does the celebrating (even when not on the desert island) – but I would lay odds that they would choose one person to do it, and not just take turns (unless they were already formed in that theology!) – NB there’s a thread in Lost that explores this, but I haven’t finished series 2 yet, so I don’t know where it’s going;
– a community celebrating because there cannot be an ordained minister present is very different from a community celebrating because they choose not to value what the ordained minister represents (ie unity with the wider church) – one is acquiescence to necessity, the other is an elevation of separation;
– it is precisely that elevation of separation which is the core problem with lay presidency, so far as I understand it, ie it is a mark of the local community gathering all authority to itself, saying to all outside their self-defined boundaries ‘we don’t need you’, whereas I see one of the essential tasks of the ordained minister as being to represent the wider church to the local community, and call it to account, not least through being the sign of fidelity to apostolic teaching;
– accepting ordained ministers is therefore accepting a wider church and all that that entails – it’s the definition of catholic, in its proper sense, and it’s the opposite of sectarian. It’s about being a part of something larger than the individual ego, or even a gathering of individual egoes;
– the task of the ordained minister is balanced – to represent the wider church to the local and vice versa – and the ordained minister is the one who has overall pastoral and teaching responsibility within a particular community – presiding at the eucharist is the function and sign of that authority, not the source of it;
– the ordained minister therefore also has important disciplinary functions – eg the excommunication of unrepentant sinners; the rooting out of bad theology – which cannot be delegated – or is this also included in ‘lay presidency’?!? I have visions of a church version of the grand Mexican Stand Off: ‘I excommunicate you!’ ‘No, I excommunicate YOU!’ ‘NO, I EXCOMMUNICATE YOU!’;
– of those whom I have met who advocate lay celebration, none actually want _anyone_ to do it, that is, they wouldn’t be happy if a stranger walked in from the street; nor even if some particular known members of the congregation performed the duty (for various reasons). Moreover, the idea that the person doing it should be trained up to do it is uncontentious – and this leaves open the real issue which is about the laying on of hands by the wider church, and the value of sacramental theology as such;
– in other words, what is being objected to isn’t the idea of some members of the community being allowed to preside rather than others, it’s the idea that being ordained by the wider church body represents something important – and so we are back to the idea of the local congregation being an authority unto itself, without any accountability to the wider church, either in space or time;
– at bottom, my strong reaction against this notion is a belief that it is yet another example of the idolatry of choice that has infected Western society, whereby each person is their own little God able to muster tributes according to their own taste (much the most insidious form of slavery) and where worship simply becomes an agglomeration of common preference, leading to the ten thousand things (denominations) rather than a unity with a Body much greater than oneself. I think this is one of the core things that identifies me as ‘Anglo-Catholic’ – though this is supposedly ‘whole-Anglican’ theology;
– I find great comfort in the idea that my ministry and authority does not rest upon meeting the particular standards of a local community but is bound up with the wider church as a whole (as signified by the laying on of hands). Without this form of acknowledged authority it seems that each congregation goes its own separate way, in smaller and smaller splinters, in more and more egotistical forms (even when the egotism isn’t exercised in a personal way, it is still a function of a theologically elevated egotism as such). One tyranny has replaced another (and the New Testament is hardly silent on the idea of ministerial authority). There seems to be no distinction between the idolatry developed in Western theology in the late Middle Ages, which separated priests from people, and the theology developed by the church – the same church that was inspired enough to put the Bible together – which progressively delineated who had authority to preside. Hence my comment that I see advocacy of lay presidency as “an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology… I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

None of this is to say that an ‘agape’ isn’t something wonderful, and to be encouraged, eg in small group ministry, only to differentiate it from ‘Holy Communion’ – that foretaste of heaven which is the celebration of the catholic church, local and universal. The ordained minister is the sign of that wider unity. ‘Just’ a sign? Only in the sense that the bread is ‘just’ a sign of the Body of Christ! It’s not an accident that the idea of lay presidency is most closely associated with the least sacramental understandings of the Eucharist. If what happens in communion isn’t ultimately that important, then it’s not that important who presides – but if what happens in communion is a means of grace and essential medicine for the soul – then it’s much more important that it is done rightly. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” – and ‘the body’ here isn’t simply the bread, it’s also the communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

16 thoughts on “For you and for many (on "lay" presidency)

  1. Sam, I think you’re missing the point. In the New Testament, churches were led by teams of presbyteroi – appointed, as far as we can tell, after the manner of Jewish synagogue elders. Not all of them were preachers, although ability to preach is later mentioned as a requirement of them. Their tasks seem to have been a combination of those exercised by modern clergy, lay readers, and vestry members (PCC in your case I believe).

    Each congregation had such a team, as Acts makes clear. The NT does not envisage a situation in which several congregations share one presbyter – especially when he or she lives many miles away from some of the communities they serve.

    If we were following the early church pattern, then, we should be ordaining not only our clergy but also our lay readers and PCC/vestry members (here in Canada we aren’t, and I don’t see a great movement afoot to do so). But if our modern lay readers and vestry members are descendants of the NT elders every bit as much as the clergy are, then I don’t see why it is a rejection of catholic order or a rebellion against connection with a wider church body to extend authorisation to preside at the Lord’s Supper to everyone who qualifies for the NT description of ‘elder’ in a given congregation.

    • The word “priest” means “elder”, and, of course, as all good Congregationalists know, the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Eldership of All Believers (se the Epistle of Stm Marcion to the Manichaeans if you don’t believe me).

      Everyone who presides at the Eucharist should be ordained. If you aren’t prepared to lay hands on them, and call them priests, then don’t lay hands on anyone. See What is a priest? | Khanya

  2. Tim, you’ll have to unpack for me what the difference is between ordination and extending “authorisation to preside at the Lord’s Supper to everyone who qualifies for the NT description of ‘elder’ in a given congregation”. I’m not sure there is a difference.

  3. Sam, I’m not sure there is a difference either. However, I’m quite sure that neither the C of E nor the Anglican Church of Canada are going to start ordaining lay readers and vestry members.

  4. Episcopalianism and Protestantism are mutually exclusive. You can either be a Roman Catholic and an Episcopalian, or a Protestant and a Congregationalist. Discuss.

    David Waters, Cheltenham

  5. Waters has forgotten 240+ million Orthodox and Armenians and Copts.
    It’s not all about England and the Italians, folks. There are other parts of the world.
    So provincial…

  6. Steve is making two points – that ‘priest’ = ‘elder’, and that presiding at the Eucharist is the primary ‘raison d’être of priesthood.

    As far as the first is concerned, it is definitely true etymologically. However, the functions exercised by modern priests are not the same as those of the early church presbyter. There were teams of presbyters leading each church, not all of them preached or taught, and if (as seems likely) they were based on synagogue elders, then they exercised together a group of ministries which today we see not only in priests but also in vestry/PCC members and lay readers.

    As for the second, does it not strike you as passing strange that, if presiding at the Eucharist is the raison d’être of the presbyter ate, it is never mentioned, not even once, in the New Testament passages about requirements and duties of Presbyters?

    • I don’t see any raison d’être of the presbyter mentioned in the New Testament at all. The NT writers presumably assumed that their readers would know what elders/priests were, and the main things about them are their qualifications, which are moral, rather than academic.

    • Indeed, and they would know that elders and priests were not the same thing too. Elder was ‘presbyeros’, priest was ‘hiereus’. If the New Testament authors had wanted to suggest that their leaders were priests after the OT pattern, they had a perfectly good Greek word to make that point. They chose, instead, the word that was used to describe synagogue elders – presbyteroi. There were teams of them in each church (‘Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church – Acts 14:23), just as there were in the synagogues, and as Bishop Lightfoot pointed out a long time ago, their main roles were governance and teaching – roles which, in many contemporary Anglican churches, are distributed amongst clergy, lay readers, and vestry/PCC members.

    • You miss the point, which is that Christian priests were not cohens after the OT pattern, they were elders, and the translators of the NT into English more than a millennium later caused huge confusion by using the word “priest”, which in everyday English referred to the second order of Christian ministry, to translate “cohen/ierefs”.

      But since you don’t appear to think that elders should be ordained, does that mean that you reject the rest of the Anglican ordinal, and don’t think that bishops and deacons should be ordained either?

  7. It seems to me that after 2000 years of the church, you guys still can’t work out who is ordained or not? I feel for you! Maybe in another 2000 years you may have it worked out? LoL!

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