John Richardson observes the House of Bishops at work with Occam’s razor
WHEN THE HOUSE OF BISHOPS was asked to respond to a Private Member’s motion on lay presidency with a statement about ‘the theology of the Eucharist and about the respective roles of clergy and laity within it’, the result was a foregone conclusion. As in the game Mornington Crescent, the only point of interest was how quickly, and by how tortuous a route, the required destination would be reached. The result is a triumph for that peculiar Anglican culturalism which represents the current orthodoxy, but must be a disappointment to both conservative catholics and evangelicals.
From the catholic point of view, the report consciously eschews any notion that either ordination or consecration make an objective difference to the recipients. Regarding ordination, the report is deeply critical of the notion that it consists of “the endowment of a personal power or mark which in some way belonged to the individual” (4.29), referring instead to the ordained as “called from within the community, and … then returned to serve within that community, though standing in a new relationship to it” (3.29). This new and permanent relationship is “signified by the … traditional term character” (3.29), but it seems to this non-catholic reader that the traditional term is being used in a very non-traditional way.
As regards the theology of the Eucharist, the report ducks the issue with an astonishing display of chutzpah. Having acknowledged in the Preface that the Bishops had received “a precise and particular request to elucidate eucharistic theology” (p x), the report declaims on p 34 that “the vast amount of literature which has and still appears on the Eucharist rules out even the attempt at an outline of a comprehensive theology of the Eucharist” (4.1). Hence what we get are a series of unexamined assertions, such as that the Eucharist is “a means of a genuine sharing in Christ” (4.2), even though exactly how is not said, presumably because, having glanced at this particular can, the Bishops realized it was labelled ‘Worms’.
The notion of “a supposed ‘moment’ of consecration” is specifically downplayed (4.7). Yet this same section contains the bizarre assertion that ‘The epiclesis – the invocation of the Holy Spirit – is … a crucial part of the eucharistic action’. Bizarre because, as Geoffrey Cuming pointed out, when Cranmer revised the Prayer of Thanksgiving in 1552 “the whole epiclesis disappears” (A History of Anglican Liturgy, p 108). Has the Anglican Eucharist lacked something “crucial” for so long?
Yet if the report lacks a truly ‘catholic’ theology of ordination and the Eucharist, how does it avoid playing into the hands of radical evangelicals? The answer is by a process of reasoning which is as bold as it is inadequate. We return to the report’s understanding of ordination as changing people’s relationship with the rest of the church without making them intrinsically any different (3.29). Accordingly,
… the ordained ministry is best conceived as a gift of God to his Church to promote, release and clarify all other ministries in such a way that they can exemplify and sustain the four ‘marks’ of the Church … (3.26, emphasis original).
This understanding is crucially important when it is later suggested that,
… the eucharistic president is to be a sign and focus of the unity, holiness and apostolicity of the Church, and the one who has primary responsibility for ensuring that the Church’s four marks are expressed, actualised and made visible in the eucharistic celebration. (4.45, emphasis original)
The conclusion is hence offered that,
… presidency over the community’s celebration of the Eucharist belongs to those with overall pastoral oversight of the community, i.e. to those ordained as bishop or priest/presbyter. (4.46)
This is genuinely quite clever. Without committing itself to any traditional doctrine of ordination or the Eucharist, the report has managed to reach the traditional position. Mornington Crescent!
However, the triumph should be short lived, for the argument founders on practices which soon reveal the lack of a sound basis. The report regards the notion “that the heart of ordination is the conferral of power or authority to preside at the Eucharist” as “a questionable assumption” (5.9). Instead, it is a relationship between persons which qualifies one to be the eucharistic president, and that relationship is specifically defined as “overall pastoral oversight of the community” (4.46, above). But in reality, as the report itself acknowledges, the Eucharist is habitually presided over by those without such oversight. Hence something that had hitherto been accepted without qualms has suddenly become a leak in the dyke:
Sometimes … a priest exercises eucharistic presidency without any or much pastoral responsibility. What account can be given of such circumstance? On the one hand it could be argued that, if regularly practised, it fractures the pastoral and liturgical roles we are concerned to unite … (5.11)
The leak is momentarily plugged with the bishop’s finger:
… on the other hand it might be replied that a visiting priest represents the bishop who, together with the college of priests, combine pastoral and liturgical leadership within the diocese as a whole. (5.11)
But at this point we hear the swish of Occam’s Razor. If this alternative justification of eucharistic presidency adequately accounts for all the phenomena of current practice, we should opt for the simpler explanation (that in ordination the bishop confers the authority to celebrate – but see the comments on 5.9 above) rather than the more complex explanation presented by this report. The difficulty is that the justification of eucharistic presidency contrived by the House of Bishops, whilst ingenious, is simply not the one which has been assumed (rightly or wrongly) for almost two thousand years of Christian history. Hence, not surprisingly, it does not entirely account for past or present Christian practice.
As an evangelical, I find many other inadequacies in this report, some of which, such as its criticism of a Christocentric ecclesiology (2.20-23) are positively alarming. It is lame in its acknowledgement of a lack of scriptural support for its assumptions (e.g. 4.22) and almost dishonest in its representation of Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (4.32-34). However, merely by being published it has probably ‘done the job’. The Bibliography lists an astonishing forty-one previous reports quoted or referred to, thus reinforcing the impression that the Church of England is more impressed by these than by Scripture. This report itself now becomes part of that ‘self-referential committee culture’ which increasingly governs ‘official Anglicanism’. It may be full of holes, but that just makes it all the harder to blow over.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London