Paul Griffin defends the traditional understanding of the Eucharist against an interpretation that would support the idea of lay presidency
The Archbishop of Sydney’s support for Lay Presidency at the Eucharist has a certain appeal to the modern mind. It is, I suppose, based on the belief that what enables the Eucharist to be more than just another service arises from the presence of a Christian congregation rather than of an ordained priest. These are deep waters, navigable by experts, and therefore better understood by ordained clergy than by the laity. One problem is that the commonly received explanation of the Eucharist is the very one in which ordained clergy can be said to have a vested interest. The Archbishops belief will therefore be greeted happily not only by those laypeople who never attend religious services anyway, but also by those who do, but have a confused notion that the priesthood through the ages has been the root of much evil.
The Last Supper
Some of the latter will take the view that the Eucharist is not anything more than a memorial, a way of saying ‘Hello, Lord.’ The Anglican Catechism itself, having produced its beautiful definition of a Sacrament, is not entirely clear on the subject. It says firmly that the Eucharist is a source of grace, but it does not spell out the difference in nature or intensity between grace through a Sacra-
ment and the grace that comes in other ways: through prayer, abstinence, or the Offices, for example.
In these deep waters, the uninstructed laity may easily drown, though I have not heard many preachers undertake to guide their flocks, or perhaps I should say shoals, through them.
However attractive the Archbishop of Sydney’s contention may be, I would advise anyone unprepared to accept the traditional view of the Eucharist to consider first the nature of that Last Supper at which it all started. This is clearly stated in the New Testament: Jesus, on the verge of his Crucifixion, spoke to the eleven Apostles over a ceremonial meal, telling them that the bread and wine he blessed were his Body and Blood, and that they should do what he was doing. There is, I think, no suggestion that it was the presence of the eleven that brought this about: rather it was the blessing by Jesus himself of the food.
This was followed by centuries of argument about ‘transubstantiation’. When the theologians of the Church of England and of the Roman Church eventually got together under ARCIC, glory be to God! for they concluded that the two Churches agreed on the matter. Here Screwtape, who does not like unanimity, stepped in and proposed further topics that effectively
lost the ground gained, separated the two Churches as deeply as ever, and made necessary the founding of this journal.
Let us be fair to the Archbishop: he is not saying that the bread and wine are not Christ’s Body and Blood, only suggesting a way by which they become so, differing from the normal way of the Universal Church. He believes, I suppose, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper are directed at all the Christians who would hear them in after times; consequently, all that is necessary to effect the miracle is for them to be pronounced on behalf of a gathered community by one of themselves.
We, on the other hand, take it that the words were addressed to the Apostles, with the intention that they should go out and repeat his actions on his behalf, ordaining successors so that every person whose hands bless the elements has been empowered as a successor of the Apostles and, through them, Jesus.
So what happens to those congregations who follow the Archbishop? Or indeed those of his up-to-date colleagues here in England? These are even deeper waters, through which I have no power to guide you. Only I remember, desperately, that there abide still faith, hope, and charity.