Deciding what Priests are For

The argument about lay presidency rumbles on in the Australian church. The synod of the diocese of Sydney made two significant decisions when it met in October. it voted to withdraw its application to the Appellate Tribunal for an opinion on the validity of its lay presidency ordinance and it deferred the third reading of the lay presidency bill until its next meeting in October, 1996.

Few believe the official excuse that recourse to the Appellate Tribunal was abandoned because the diocese could not afford the cost. What seems to have happened is the supporters of lay presidency came to the conclusion that they had little hope of winning their case and decided to withdraw before they had a damaging judgement against them. It is still possible for the Primate to allow the case to remain before the Appellate Tribunal and the likelihood is that he will do so although there may be some changes in the way the question is phrased so that the judgement will be of wide-ranging application.

The decision to defer the third reading of the bill in the Sydney synod was also taken after careful political calculations. In a courageous speech Archbishop Harry Goodhew made it clear that he would refuse to assent to the measure and if the vote had gone ahead many lay members would probably have opposed the bill to save the archbishop embarrassment. Before October, 1996, fresh synodical elections have to be held in Sydney and the radicals will no doubt make a determined effort to increase their numbers. There is now a clear division between the moderates who support the archbishop and the radicals who are members of REAPA (Reformed Evangelical Protestant Association) and who find their spiritual home at St Matthew’s, Centennial Park, where the Rev. Philip Jensen is the rector.

A number of factors are fuelling the call for lay presidency. Many people in Sydney are angry at the way in which, as they see it, legal and constitutional restraints were ignored in the rush to get women ordained as priests. In demanding lay presidency they are simply following a tactic recommended by radical feminists and maintaining the rage. A statement by the Primate, Dr Keith Rayner, at his synod in Melbourne that General Synod should proceed as soon as possible to make it possible for women to become bishops will have only served to increase the rage in Sydney.

Another argument advanced in favour of lay presidency is the claim that the Word and Sacrament are of equal status in the church and that if we allow laypeople to administer one we should also make it possible for them to administer the other. To restrict the celebration of the holy communion to priests and bishops runs the risk of sacerdotalism and of encouraging magical views about the sacrament.

A factor often ignored when this argument is put forward is the low morale of many clergy in Australia. Sacerdotalism is far from being a problem in the Australian church at the present time. According to research commissioned by the Diocese of Brisbane, many Anglican clergy are under great stress and a significant proportion are on the brink of burn-out. A survey undertaken by a university academic, Dr Ian Hay, revealed that 45 per cent of the clergy felt they were bordering on burn-out and 10 per cent felt “empty and depleted”.

Overwork is the cause of clergy stress and lay presidency might alleviate that, but I sense that the major problem for many of them is the lack of a clear sense of their role and a feeling that there is little they can do as priests to help those who come to them in need. Morale will only improve when clergy recover confidence in their vocation. Lay presidency could have the result of making many priests feel even more redundant than they do at present.

The Anglican Church needs a renewed sense that its priests are set apart by ordination to speak and act both in the name of the Christian community and in the name of Christ. As a report drawn up in 1986 by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England put it, “their ministry is an appointed means by which Christ makes his priesthood present and effective among his people”.

Lay celebration would undermine the sense that the true celebrant of the eucharist is Christ. The fact that lay celebrants had a licence from the bishop would make little difference. The giving of an episcopal licence lacks the sense of empowerment by the Spirit and solemn commissioning to act in the name of Christ present in ordination.

Part of the problem is that it has become common in recent years to talk about every Christian having a ministry and to suggest that the main focus of this ministry is the church. An Australian Catholic biblical scholar, John N. Collins, has argued very forcibly that this picture is untrue of the New Testament where he sees a clear and distinct ministry being exercised. All Christians have a share in the church’s mission but that is not to say that all Christians have a share in the ministry of guidance and pastoral oversight.

Emphasis on the fact that all Christians have a role to play in mission might also prevent us from using up the energies of committed lay people in purely church activities. Bruce Kaye, the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia, has suggested that calls for lay presidency have arisen because of what he calls a “vocational failure of nerve” which has led Anglicanism to lose its sense of mission to society and of the crucial importance of lay people in carrying out that mission and to concentrate instead on the role of the laity in the internal life of the church.

Members of an older generation of anglo-catholic theologians like J.V. Langmead-Casserly, used to teach that priests were meant to be signs of Christ to the Church so that the Church could be a sign of Christ to the world. In the current debate about ministry this is an insight we need to recover. The priest is a bearer of the mystery to the church so that the Church can be a sign of the kingdom to the world. Far from leading to sacerdotalism, a renewed vision of the priesthood might lead to a renewed vision of mission in the Church.

Paul Richardson is the Bishop of Wangaratta, in the Province of Victoria.