Friday 21 November 2008

Anyone for Lay Presidency?

We hear much about lay or diaconal presidency of the Eucharist thee days because the only thing preventing it from taking place now in Sydney Anglican Archdiocese is the Archbishop himself. The only reason he might say no for any length of time is the additional division this would bring to GAFCON.

GAFCON carries the extreme end of Anglo-Catholicism, which surely cannot last as the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration includes incorporating the Thirty-nine Articles. However, the biblical selective literalists also show a varying commitment to Anglican orders, that is to say the view that the Church in any place coheres around the bishop and that the presbyter represents the bishop. Here therefore is the restriction of who does the central representational act of the Church. If someone is to begin to preside at the Eucharist, then the person ought to be priested.

The Evangelicals who accept lay presidency say that scripture allows it, and then make a comparison with preaching. The bishop will licence a preacher, but the preacher can be anyone, clerical or lay. If preaching is more important than the central ritual act, then why can't anyone be licensed to preside at the Eucharist, clerical or lay?

Indeed the argument can be pushed further, that a preacher uses his or her words, which for an Evangelical runs the risk of the person saying heterodox things, whereas the president at a Eucharist uses fixed words and thus is at no risk of heresy. David Ould makes such an argument.

When I produced categories of mainstream Christians for my PhD thesis, one of these was traditionalist Evangelical, though always at danger of being swamped by the contemporary varieties. The traditionalist Evangelical was defensive rather than attacking, tending to fundamentalism, but connected to the interpretations of historical denominations and past divines. They reject (and do not use) the culture. Well, these have now surfaced against others because they in particular defend Anglican orders, including those who have escaped to GAFCON (not all have and not all would have it usurp the Church of England or other Anglican Churches).

Others also argue that practice and order matters, and cohering around the bishop is the well worn practice, the first ministry practice of the New Testament Churches. Some denominations interpret presbyter and bishop as one, the presbyter is as the bishop.

One wonders if there is a liberal view. Well, first of all most liberals are a bit of something else as well, so that a liberal Anglo-Catholic will uphold the priestly ministry, and the liberal Evangelical will probably uphold Anglican orders as historical, biblical and valid.

What is the liberal component viewpoint: is there one?

The issue is going to be one of competence and making the ritual work. Ritual is multi-faceted, and works at the level of the imagination as well as straight explanation. The purpose of ritual is that it should be effective. What it should do is a number of things, specific to the Christian tradition and moving out to a general effect.

The most specific Christian impact should be an intimate, relationship-generating identification with Christ - that is the ethical-theological teachings, the character of the person as received, the life and death as a drama of his service and sacrifice. In direct connection with this is an identification with the community that proclaims the resurrection life and that the person and message lives. The community is historical and present. Using food and drink is clearly bodily and personal - the one way we take in a foreign body and make it our own.

The second aspect and more general is the token exchanging binding nature of the ritual. It is like taking yourself through a door for renewal and then coming out through another door renewed and bound to one another and set up to again go out into the community. The purpose of renewal is your own orientation to serve others. There is a lot of social anthropological work about this, that one sets up material and spiritual gift-exchanges that have a renewing and binding social and communal effect.

Now it is possible that anyone can head up this ritual, but if the person is not perceived to have some sort of competence and charge, a sense even of personal power in service, then the ritual will not work. There has to be a drama to it: it has to have features of approach, the moment, and the coming away. It needs a good conductor.

The bishop system is just someone who is authorised as a means of selecting someone who has become competent. So training and education are important. However, the bishop system does add one more element, and it is the personal and the relationship. Carried through to the priest, the impotance of the pastoral side comes through.

It matters that, other than on some occasions of geographical distance, this particular person of pastoral relationship presides at the central communal ritual. That person has the privilege of knowing what the generality may not, and that privilege extends to other people in relationship with the same person. That pastoral relationship does extend to the bishop. So the personal matters.

When I married in 2001 it was important to me that it was done in the Unitarian church in which I had spent my worshipping life week by week, and done by the man with whom I had had a pastoral relationship. So the marriage ceremony extended that relationship, including to my wife who had only come upon this as a result of joining me. It is that sort of argument employed here.

It is why I will participate in a healing service from time to time and receive a direct ministry. It is not because so magic trick might happen, or some doodly wotsit with a God out there, but because it expresses a relationship and a working through.

Therefore my conclusion is that I am wary of lay presiding as such. Of course there are all sorts of possibilities of Church order, and one system is not the only that combines these elements of the ritual and the pastoral. Nevertheless the grounds of proceeding must be consensual and well understood, and there must be a power and intent in the ritual. It should be done by the main person in situ or those of that understood team, in a representative and relational setting. In some places this could be lay led, in other places ministerial without bishops, and in others with the bishop or representative. A lot of this comes down to forms of developing trust.

As for preaching, well that too should relate to the community of hearers, but I would extend who can do it quite widely. Again the pastoral relationship does come into this, and we should expect the main pastoral figure to reflect on matters of interest to the community. Orthodoxy or heterodoxy does not enter into this consideration: again it is whether it works. Much preaching does not work: it is like a lecture made worse. Again training and education are important. In the end, though, a sermon ought to be a conversation with that group on some ethically motivating topic that stands with the rest of the ritual. It should be a free and different part of the service, open to a variety of influences, and always an aid to contemplation. So preaching can be more varied in the persons to give the message that engages with others than the central person of the ritual act.

The liberal justification for restricting who does what is going to be functional - does it actually work - and other explaining lies with other traditions. In the end, whilst flexibility and creativity are important, a little restriction and in the right places enhances the task at hand and its motivating power.

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