Jeremy Sheehy reflects on the Bishops’ Report

AS A RESULT of a General Synod Private Member’s motion in 1994, which was passed in an amended form, the House of Bishops was asked to make a statement about the theology of the eucharist, and, in particular, about “the respective roles of the clergy and the laity within it” (Eucharistic Presidency, p.1) It seems to be the case that it was hoped that in that report the House of Bishops would try to explain why “lay presidency” at the eucharist is incompatible with Anglican tradition, and to give that incompatibility, which was acknowledged in the 1994 motion as amended and approved, a theological basis.

Now, three years’ later, with a Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Preface by the Bishop of Ely (on behalf of the House of Bishops’ Theological Group), we have a report which attempts to answer the request made in the motion. I think that I want to start by calling for “Three Cheers” because there is much that is very good in the report, and it is probably the most weighty and considered argument for presbyteral eucharistic presidency that has yet appeared in the life of the churches, and it is an answer to the pressure for lay presidency. Furthermore, it has about it, as have the recent reports of the Doctrine Commission, a concern for the central affirmation of God as Trinity, incarnation, and salvation and an air of fundamental theological seriousness that, I would have to say, did not always characterise such reports during the rather different theological climate of the 1970s and 1980s.

In this short article, I want, first of all, to make a point (which the report also makes) about the terminology of the debate, then to survey the contents of the report, then, thirdly, to make a comment about what is not in the report (although it would be arguable that this would not have been within the terms set by the General Synod Private Member’s motion), and, finally, to make a comment about the basic argument against lay presidency as I believe it to be.

A TERMINOLOGICAL QUIBBLE It is important to begin with the terminological point that, strictly speaking, to talk of “lay presidency” is odd. Our English term “laity”, in its usual meaning of those members of the church who are not ordained (as in, for instance, “House of Laity”) is a theological nonsense. For “laity” comes from the Greek word “laos” and denotes the whole people of God. The “laity”, strictly speaking, is the whole church and the ordained are within the laity. This may seem simply to be ‘nit-picking’, but I think that it is symptomatic of the way in which down through the centuries, we have often been in danger of losing the Biblical and Patristic conviction that the Church is a body, with many members and many ministries. So, on the one hand, the word “laity” comes to denote only those who are not ordained, as though the ordained do not belong to the people of God, and, on the other hand, it is also common for people to talk of “going into the Church” as a description of ordination, as if the non-ordained do not belong to the Church! Nonetheless, as in the report, I shall here accept the common usage and use “laity” and “lay” to describe those members of the Church as a body who are not ordained. This loss of the sense of the Church as a body with many ministries seems to me to be one of the root causes of the request for lay presidency. As the report says, “the recovery of the conviction that the entire membership of the Church celebrates the Eucharist is one of the key requirements for providing an adequate account of the roles of the various participants at the Eucharist” (pp 1f)

THE CONTENTS OF THE REPORT The Report begins with an introductory chapter which explains why it has been drawn up and defines the terms with which it is going to work. It describes lay presidency (usefully, I think) as “the overseeing of the entire eucharistic celebration by any person who is not an episcopally ordained priest” (p.3). The opening chapter then gives brief survey of the discussion of the issue in the Church of England. Throughout the Anglican Communion and in the churches with which we are in ecumenical dialogue. It is noticeable that very often where it is practised, presbyteral eucharistic presidency has been assumed or implied rather than explained and that therefore relatively little has been written by those of any Christian tradition giving theological undergirding and justification for the Church’s practice.

In chapter 2, there is a discussion of the relevance of the doctrine of God as Trinity to our doctrine of the Church, and some emphases that can result from a stress on trinitarian doctrine are outlined. It is because we believe in a God who is perfect society, that we are, as Christians, concerned not only for individuals, but also for the society which is the Church and for all society and community. When Baroness Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society, I wanted to direct her attention to the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity! And from that “social gospel” of God as Trinity, the “social gospel” of the Church’s concern for relationships and social ordering springs. The report reminds us that “the Church has been described as a ‘pattern’, ‘icon’, or ‘echo’ of the Trinity” (p.16), and that “a trinitarian theology of the Church will speak of the oneness of the church not as a homogeneous unity, but as a differentiated oneness of distinctive persons in relation who discover their particularity in active relationships of giving and receiving” (p.20).

Chapter 3 considers ministry and ministries in the light of the points made in chapter 2. The basic understanding is “that patterns of order and responsibility between persons of the Trinity exist without any inferiority or superiority of personhood” (pp22f). Therefore, of course, such patterns can also exist (and might be expected to exist) in the life of the Church. There is a consideration of the sharing by the whole church in the unique and continuing priesthood of Christ, and of the varieties of the ministries of all the baptised. Furthermore, there is a “distinctive” ministry, from which the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of ordination arises. The report points out that Anglican Christians hold to “the three-fold order of bishop, priest/presbyter, and deacon” (p.27), and asks how this three-fold order relates to the three dimensions of ministry which have been acknowledged as necessary in recent ecumenical discussion, the personal, the collegial, and the communal.

The report rightly criticizes any tendency “to treat the institutional aspect of the Church as somewhat more authentic than the people who make us the Church” (p.28), and I would also want to add criticism of another opposite present tendency to undervalue the institutional and visible aspect. It seems to me to be very important to hold, after the manner of the incarnation, the visible and the invisible together, and to affirm that they are equally important, equally authentic. It has often been pointed out recently that as a nation, the English seem to have fallen out of love with their institutions. There have, no doubt, been many reasons for this, but terms such as the “real church” or “the institutional church” seem to be equally open from the opposite point of view, to the same sort of criticism as that made in the report.

Chapter 4 sets the eucharist in the context already established. The chapter draws heavily on the idea used for ecumenical agreements on the nature of the eucharist over the past few years. “The Eucharist is the means of sharing in the one who was sacrificed for us” (p.34). “To share in Christ is not only to receive him as the Father’s gift to us but also to share in his offering” (p.35). We are both drawn back to the mighty acts of salvation, and are also pointed to the coming banquet of the Lord’s glorious kingdom. And in the eucharist the Church is made visible and constituted anew. I found this a very useful section (although I think there may be things to be said in favour of the concept of a “moment” of consecration (cf p.36) which gets short shrift). From these ideas of the place of the eucharist in the life of the Church, the report suggests that despite diversity in the early centuries and the lack of particular attention to the issues of presidency at the eucharist, “a common thread in this period was the oversight of the community and presidency at the Eucharist belong together”. If the eucharist makes the Church visible, then the presidency at the eucharist should make the pastoral presidency and responsibility in the life of the church visible. The chapter closed by drawing some conclusions about the role of the eucharistic president, and by usefully indication what elements in the eucharist the president cannot properly delegate. If this particular section (p.51f) were read and pondered in all Anglican Churches it would, I suggest, improve the liturgical life distinctly.

The main substance of the theological case has now been set out. In chapter 5 various arguments for lay presidency are considered, and it is indicated why the position set out by the report does not allow for support for such presidency. Finally, chapter 6 is a very brief conclusion.

WHAT IS NOT IN THE REPORT In the concluding chapter, the report says of the tradition that presidency at the eucharist is amongst the tasks of those who have been chosen, trained and formed in the life of priesthood, and that such ordination is a life long commitment: “even in the greatly changed circumstances of the modern Church we find ourselves keen not merely to affirm that tradition, but to celebrate it” (p.61). What none of this tells me is whether the House of Bishops considers that allowing lay presidency would be within the competence of the Church of England (and, interestingly, this is not raised on pp.7ff., where it might have been expected). I know that it lies within the legal competence of the Church of England, by law established, for the constitutional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty tells me so, and in terms of legal theory there is no doubt in my mind that the Crown in Parliament can establish lay presidency, change the books of the Bible or alter the Creeds, But that is about the legal theory. The question I am left with after reading the report is what, in terms of theological theory, in terms of the mind of the Church of England, of the General Synod, and of its House of Bishops, are the limits to the competence if the Church of England. I would want to argue that the authorisation of lay presidency falls outside the competence. But I find very little sign that this argument has been considered in the report.

A FINAL COMMENT If it is right that presidency at the Eucharist is the form and expression of the priest’s ministry, and if what a bishop does at priestly ordination is to take a new member into his college of priests to act as a delegate in his stead, then ordination to the priesthood is the licensing of a lay Christian (by laying on of hands with prayer, because that is how we do that sort of thing) to celebrate the eucharist. The real point of discussion ought perhaps to focus on the lifelong nature of the ordained ministry, and what that symbolises and signifies. If that can be sorted out, I think some of the issues implicit in the discussion of lay presidency will be a lot clearer.

Jeremy Sheehy is Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford