The Rev. John Richardson, who blogs at The Ugley Vicar, recently wrote a post arguing, somewhat cautiously, for the Church of England to consider allowing lay people to preside at the Eucharist. Richardson is a very interesting blogger. His perspective often differs from mine, but he is usually well worth a read. In a follow-up post, he invites people to respond to his argument for lay presidency. So, though it comes as something of an aside in this larger series on the Anglican doctrine of the Eucharist, I thought I might give it a go.
Richardson’s argument appears to be that a kind of controlled lay presidency, in which certain lay people who have studied theology would be licensed to preside at the altar, would give the efforts of the Church of England at evangelization a shot in the arm. His position is bolstered by an argument for the equality of all Christians within the “priesthood of all believers”:
It has always seemed to me that the best argument for ‘priests, and priests only’ is the Roman (and Anglo) Catholic one: that priests are different in kind and can do different stuff. Once, however, you accept the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, then rationalizations of the ‘priests only’ rule begin to look just like that.
The phrase “priesthood of all believers” is not found in scripture, but the general concept comes from 1 Peter 2 and a few similar passages. Peter says, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (verses 4-5). All Christians, including Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, accept this. It is a basic Christian tenet. As those who have been united with Christ through Baptism, we are united with Him in every facet of His humanity. We are united to His crucifixion and His resurrection, as Paul explains in Romans 6. We are also united to His priesthood. Unlike the priests of an earlier era who needed to make sacrifices for their own sins as well as those of the people they served, we now have a great High Priest who never knew sin and who can, thus, make a single sacrifice that atones for all sin for all time (Hebrews 5:1-10). And in as much as we are one with Jesus, we too are priests. We too can, in this limited way, offer spiritual sacrifices, which is why, in the prayer book liturgy, we “offer ourselves to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” We do this not under the strength of our own priesthood, but united under His.
Nevertheless, the Church has always set aside men to carry on the ministry of Christ to His people. This setting aside is itself begun by Christ when He breathes on His apostles, giving them the Holy Spirit and the ministry of forgiving sins (John 20). The Reformers often referred to this as the “pastoral office” or the “ministry of the keys,” after Jesus’ charge to Peter in Matthew 16:19 that He would give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Rome has infamously asserted that this passage endorses the papacy since the keys are received by Peter, but the Fathers tend to argue differently, that Peter received the keys on behalf of the apostles and thus all bishops are in some sense successors of Peter. Either way, though, the contention that Richardson is making only makes sense if the pastoral office is not a separate office that men are called into by God but simply a role that any Christian can fulfill for any other Christian at any given time. A church having a pastor, then, is a convenience but not a necessity.
Richardson characterizes this as a Catholic vs. Protestant division, but it need not be. You do not need to believe in the Roman Catholic notion of ontological change at ordination—that the person ordained is irrevocably transformed into something different, imbued with a special marking at the level of his being—in order to argue that lay presidency runs counter to a biblical worldview. I use the word “presbyter” in the title of this post for precisely this reason. Even if you are uncomfortable with the sacerdotal implications of the term “priest,” you can still affirm the notion that it is only appropriate for those who have been properly called and ordained to be carrying out pastoral duties within the Church. And if sharing the Lord’s Supper is not a prime pastoral duty, I do not know what is.
Martin Luther and the Pastoral Office
In defense of his position, Richardson cites Martin Luther’s address to the Prague Senate, Concerning the Ministry, in which he says, among other things, that even women exercise a priestly ministry when they baptize, “for it is the greatest office in the church — the proclamation of the Word of God.” It is interesting to see Richardson make rhetorical use of this line from Luther since Richardson has become known through his association with Reform to be an avid opponent of women’s ordination. That said, what is most telling about this particular quotation is what Richardson does not include. Luther argues in this address, largely as a matter of rhetoric against papal ordination, that the power and authority of the ministry of the keys is shared by all Christians who may claim it as a right. Yet Luther simultaneously discourages lay Christians from acting on that right because the wider community has an even greater right to receive the Gospel by way of the pastoral office:
The community rights demand that one, or as many as the community chooses, shall be chosen or approved who, in the name of all with these rights, shall perform these functions publicly. Otherwise, there might be shameful confusion among the people of God, and a kind of Babylon in the church, where everything should be done in order, as the Apostle teaches [I Cor. 14:40]. For it is one thing to exercise a right publicly; another to use it in time of emergency. Publicly one may not exercise a right without consent of the whole body or of the church. In time of emergency each may use it as he deems best.
This is consonant with the Augsburg Confession which says that God instituted the ministry for the sake of passing on the Gospel and building the faith (Article V) and that “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called” (Article XIV). Here we have exactly what Richardson has said does not exist, a purely Protestant argument which accepts the priesthood of all believers but still countenances the need for the Church to maintain an ordained ministry with normative authority over the administration of the sacraments.
A much stronger case can be made, however, from a purely Anglican perspective. While Richardson makes the claim that Thomas Cranmer was in favor of a sort of lay presidency—a claim which I would be interested to see substantiated—it has to be acknowledged that our authoritative formularies leave no room for such a possibility. Article XXIII tells us that “It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have public authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.” The manner of this calling is clearly ordination, which Article XXXVII affirms as being after the manner found in the ordinal. And, of course, in the Ordinal we find that “No man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had formerly Episcopal Consecration or Ordination.” Not only is it necessary for the man presiding at the altar to be one set apart for ministry, he must specifically be set aside for ministry by the ordination of a bishop.
Why is this necessary? Because the presbyter stands in the place of Christ amongst the people, receiving from God that which we need and giving to us the same. That is his office, which is to say nothing of his person. This is not a question of validity. It is a reasonably open question whether a Eucharist celebrated by a lay person would truly confer to the faithful the same Body and Blood of Our Lord as a Eucharist administered by a priest. Luther seems to think it would. But that is beside the point, both for Luther and for us. The question is not what is possible under duress. The question is what is appropriate and in the best interest of the Body of Christ. Given how muddied the understanding of the relationship between pastor and people has already largely become, a move towards regularized lay presidency would only further serve to disconnect people from the Gospel. The Augsburg Confession rightly points out that the ordained ministry was established by Christ Himself, given as a gift through which we may hear the Word preached and be drawn to faith. If God calls certain men to carry out this ministry, then it may just be possible for us to receive God’s Word in the way that God intends for us to receive it. But if suddenly every man becomes his own pastor, than the Word is heard by nobody. The ensuing chaos in the Anglican Communion if lay presidency were to become commonplace would make the last ten years seem like a day at the beach.