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Lay Presidency at the Eucharist? – Benedict Green C.R.

May 26, 2015

Benedict outlines three approaches to priesthood:

The first represents an understanding of priesthood that did not really emerge completely until the early Middle Ages. This view saw priesthood in terms not (as formerly) of a ministerial relationship to the Church as the Body of Christ, but of an unmediated relationship to the eucharistic Body of Christ, which his ordination conferred on him the power to ‘confect’ and offer.

When the early Fathers spoke of the ‘Body of Christ’ without qualification they had meant the Church; by his ‘mystical Body’ they meant his ‘Body in the mysteries’, that is, his sacramental Body received in the eucharist. But in medieval usage the ‘real’ Body is the historical flesh of Jesus Christ, miraculously made present and accessible in the eucharist, and the Church becomes the ‘mystical’ Body, the term ‘mystical’ being understood in much the same sense as in the expression ‘the mystical sense of Scripture’, i.e. non-literal, not readily accessible, even a hint of ‘not quite real’.

Then there’s the ‘priesthood of all believers’, clearly a corporate one, to the whole company of the redeemed (and in the case of Revelation 5:10 clearly in the context of worship). But the form of the expression used by the Reformers has in fact tended, both in their own time and since, to what has been called ‘a ruinous individualism’; it has too readily been construed as ‘the priesthood of every (or indeed of any) believer’. As applied to the presiding role in worship, it simply becomes the medieval understanding of priesthood with a minus sign in front of it. It asks what a priest is supposed to have power to do, and then goes on to say that any Christian ‘can do’ it. A particular form of this confusion, often heard at present, is that which asks: if a lay person can baptise, why can he or she not celebrate the other gospel sacrament also? It is a question that deserves a proper answer, and we will digress in order to offer one, but it has to be said first that in this form it is a question mal posee, for it asks what a lay person in him- or herself can do, by comparison with what a priest in himself can do, and this is to start from the medieval account of the latter. We should rather ask: how is the Church’s understanding of a sacrament expressed in its practice, and what is the part played in this by the individual minister or lay person?

What then of lay baptism? It has to be said first that tradition has not been universally in favour of it even in an emergency. Classical Reformation thinking was generally against it, and that not solely from political considera­tions such as those connected with the practice of the ‘popish baptism of midwives’ in Elizabethan England. The real objection was to do with baptism as a public rite of the Church, to be celebrated in the presence of the worshipping community, not just the child and its sponsors. In this respect the Reformers’ claim to be restoring the practice of the primitive Church was largely justified. But before the medieval distortions there was already a divergence between the practice of East and West. The Orthodox East has never subscribed to the position that any Christian can perform the rite of baptism. Partly this is the consequence of their never having split up the sequence of the developed rites of initiation (certain of which have always been held to require the ministry of a priest, if not a bishop). Partly it is because Orthodoxy has developed a strongly hieratic view of the role of the priest within the one liturgy of the Church (very different from the hieratic individualism of the priest in the medieval West). It may be mentioned in passing that in the Orthodox rite of marriage the minister of this sacrament is the priest who blesses the couple, not, as in the later Western tradition, the bridegroom and bride themselves.

The divergence over baptism probably goes back beyond any of this. In Syria from a very early date baptism was administered with a Trinitarian formula, ‘X is baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Whether this was derived from Matthew 28:19 or, as I have argued elsewhere,9 a very early interpolation into the gospel text (before its reception into the canon of the New Testament) from contemporary litur­gical practice in the region in which it first saw the light, it must represent Syrian practice in the years leading up to AD 100. The expectation would have been that such a solemn pronouncement would fall to the official local leader of the church — or, as he soon became, the bishop. In what became the Latin West the picture is different: in Rome at least, a formula pro­nounced by the baptiser at the moment of baptism is unknown before the seventh century. The one who spoke was the candidate himself, and his words were his response to the threefold interrogatory form of the Trinitar­ian baptismal creed (in essentials what we now know as the Apostles’ Creed). At some point this credal affirmation had superseded an earlier Christological formula such a ‘Jesus is Lord’ (see Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3). In this version of the early practice the baptiser is simply the witness to the candidate’s profession of faith; the latter and the water are the essentials of the sacrament. The East bears witness to this in its own way by its use of the passive formula ‘X is baptised …’; and we may also recall St Paul’s disclaimer in 1 Corinthians 1 of any special relationship between himself and the few to whom he had been obliged to administer the sacra­ment personally.

We can now go on to ask: what feature of the eucharistic liturgy played the corresponding part to that of the creed in baptism? It is important to ask the question that way round. If one inverts it and asks what feature in the developed baptismal liturgy corresponds to the eucharistic anaphora one is likely to get the answer ‘the blessing of the water’, which did indeed develop as a kind of counterpart in form to the anaphora, but has not been seen as essential to baptism in the way that the latter is to the eucharist. The answer is evidently not the Nicene Creed, a latecomer to the rite which, not always for reputable reasons,’ got itself inserted at various relatively insignificant points in the liturgies of different churches in East and West. The feature which corresponds to the part of the creed in baptism is actually the eucharistic prayer itself, which expressed in doxological form (i.e. addressed to God and giving him the glory) the faith of the worshipping Church, just as the faith of the individual convert was expressed in the creed to which he or she responded.

The third view comes from before the labours of missionary bishops led to the creation of territorially extended dioceses — and local presbyters came to lack education and to be subject to the control of local thanes and lordlings — presidency at the eucharist clearly belonged with two other things: the ministry of the word (involving a homily at each celebration) and pastoral responsibility for the worshipping community. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE reaffirmed as the Church’s authentic practice that none should be ordained presbyter except in relation to a particular, territorially defined, Christian community (hence ordination to a ‘title’, still standard practice in the Church of England).

Hovering around to criticise all three views, both on account of the Reformation principle sola scriptura and because the reception of charismatic gifts, never totally dormant for very long in the history of the Church, has enjoyed a revival in the mainline churches in our own time, there will be voices raised to insist that the formal ministry that emerged was itself a restriction of the freedom of the Spirit that characterised the Church of the apostolic age, and that we should now look behind it to what is found in the New Testament.

The only first-hand evidence for the day-to-day life and operation of the earliest Church is the authentic letters of Paul, and these were not entirely typical in their own time because he was dealing with specific issues which had arisen and was trying to correct them.

Who, he asks, would have presided over the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the house churches of Corinth when the apostle was not around? The short answer is that we don’t know. Since we have no narrative account of what happened at it, hard evidence is just not available. But if we go on to ask more speculatively which gifts of the Spirit might have been thought to qualify a local Christian for this role, the indirect evidence points us in two directions.

The first of these is the householder. Whether or not the Last Supper was an actual passover meal (the world of scholarship continues to debate this point”), the eucharist is rooted in the traditional practice at Jewish domestic meals and its central prayer in the thanksgivings which were recited at them. The duty of pronouncing these ordinarily fell on the father of the family, and the natural president of a house church would have been the owner of the house in which, by his invitation, it met.

By the end of the first century , an office (already found in the opening greeting at Philippians 1:1) which means `overseers’, connotes pastoral responsibility and implies that the liturgy of `offering the gifts’ belonged with this.

An account of eucharistic worship written at Rome about 150 CE by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, in which the ‘president’ is said to give thanks ‘to the best of his ability’.

(A fascinating detour: The early improvised character of the prayer has left its mark on the Roman liturgy and its derivatives in the persistence of the variable preface. This used to be called, in some English editions of the old (Roman) Roman Missal, ‘the Preface to the Canon’. That is a fascinating illustration of bad etymological currency driving out good. The true meaning of the word praefatio is not something prefixed but something spoken out loud; it came eventually to denote the initial section of the prayer which continued to be audible after the rest (everything following the Sanctus) had become silent. But before that regrettable development it meant the whole prayer, and there are good reasons for supposing that it renders the Greek propheteia, ‘prophecy’, and thus that the latter was a word used to designate the eucharistic prayer when the language of the Roman liturgy was still Greek (as it remained, in part at least, until the fourth century).

Now if Paul exhorts the Christians of Corinth to ‘desire earnestly the best gifts, and especially that you may prophesy’ (1 Corinthians 14:1) he also gives prophets the place of honour next to apostles in his list of those whose position in the Church is constituted by the gifts they have received through the Spirit (12:28); and this persists in the later, probably post-Pauline list in Ephesians 4:11, where the emphasis seems to be on ministers rather than ministries. In the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), a pseudonym­ous document which it is impossible to date with certainty, but likely to belong in its final form to the second century, visiting itinerant prophets are not only invited to recite the prayer over the gifts but encouraged to extend it for longer than is customary.

(Another tangent which is still debated today: it is worth spending a little time on the ancient exchange in the liturgy, ‘Dominus vobiscum’ ‘Et cum spiritu tuo’. I give it in the Latin to show that there (as in the underlying Greek) the verb `to be’ is sup­pressed, so that there is no clear indication of what ‘mood’ of it is intended. For centuries, in the West at least, it has been taken as subjunctive, express­ing a wish. On that interpretation it is no more than a benevolent greeting, stronger than ‘Good morning’, perhaps, but by the same token slightly weaker than ‘Goodbye’ (i.e. ‘God be wi’ ye’; compare the French ‘adieu’). But in our earliest liturgical texts it is not used as an opening greeting to the congregation; it is an introduction to prayer in which the president is going to lead the people (as in the eucharistic prayer) or to sum up with a collect (as in the intercessions). It thus conveys a transaction without which the prayer cannot take place, a mutual recognition. But of what? Certainly of something that is the case (so the verb must be indicative: ‘The Lord is with you’). But what is meant by this? That was the question that a theo­logian of the Dutch Reformed Church, now departed this life, put to himself when the liturgical reformers of his Church were proposing to intro­duce this little dialogue into its worship. He went into the biblical back­ground and found that the idea that it conveyed was something very potent indeed. In the Old Testament, to say that the Lord ‘was with’ somebody, e.g. Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Saul, David, Jeremiah, meant that he was beside them in power as a protecting, supporting and encour­aging presence. This again is the meaning in the Great Commission at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, itself closely based on Old Testament models, where the Risen Christ promises to ‘be with’ his disciples until the end of time. But (our theologian went on to argue) in post-resurrection settings in the New Testament it conveys the dynamic presence of ‘the Lord the Spirit’ (as in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). For a prospective eucharistic president to say ‘The Lord is with you’ to his congregation would signify that he recog­nises the presence of the Spirit of Christ among them — that they are, so to say, the ‘real thing’, a true church and not a counterfeit. Compare 1 Corinthi­ans 14:25, where Paul pictures the response of an imaginary visiting outsider to a well-conducted prayer meeting at which prophecy is encouraged: ‘falling on his face he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’.

What then is conveyed by the people’s reply? Here I am afraid that the compilers of the Alternative Service Book have done us a disservice. Their version of the ‘indicative’ interpretation of Dominus vobiscum, ‘The Lord is here’ was a gesture in the right direction, but the response, ‘His Spirit is with us’, does no more than repeat it, with a hint of self-congratulation. The whole idea of an exchange between president and people is lost. The president has declared to the people his recognition that by his Spirit the Lord is present and at work among them; the people have now to respond to this. The response ‘And with your spirit’ conveys their recognition of the authentic charism that he brings to the celebration of God’s redemptive work in the great thanksgiving — they acknowledge that he will speak by the Spirit as he speaks for them. Their recognition is not of course the source of his gift, for the enabling grace of ministry, any ministry, does not come from below. But if they are truly a community indwell and led by the Spirit, they will have the ‘mind of Christ’, and accordingly the capacity to discern the gifts that he through the Spirit bestows on individuals. There is a clear continuity between this and the later settled practice of the Church, in which its ministers were chosen from below (elected by the faithful) but ordained from above (i.e. with prayer to God for the bestowal of the requisite gifts and charisms).)

Benedict concludes that responsibility for leading a church’s eucharistic worship was from the beginning a very serious matter, far too serious to be shared out between all and sundry even among the baptised. Secondly, that if I am right in inferring that the natural persons to assume this ministry in apostolic times (in the absence, often prolonged, of apostles) were the leaders of house churches and those with recognised prophetic gifts, it will be natural also to see the former as the regular and the latter as the occasional practitioners of it. The normal president is the pastor of the flock, and the person to whom he gives way on occasion is the one more qualified than himself — the inspired minister of the word. That is what the charism of the early Christian prophet amounted to.

While the original habit of variation was not immediately changed, inspired extemporisation gave way to studied composition and ultimately to a fixed and authorised text. It is significant that in the days when that first began to come about it was often great episcopal teachers of the Church, true successors in their own way to the ‘prophetic’ bishops of the second century — among whom St Basil is surely preeminent — who set their minds to the composition of anaphoras, and that they concentrated their attention not on the nuances of offering and acceptance and conse­cration with which our own revisers have had to be preoccupied, but on the whole sweep of the economy of salvation for which God was to be praised?’ What had begun as a charismatic act of Christ in the Spirit (the great thanksgiving) was thus transformed into a representative act of Christ in -the Body; and the emergence over the same period of the settled form of the Church’s ministry, in which eucharistic presidency was linked both with pastoral responsibility and ministry of the word, was hardly coincidental.

However, scholar Armitage , Robinson warned many years ago against ‘trying to live in the apostolic age without the unifying control of the apostles.

Yet the village pappas of the Orthodox tradition in Greece has neither preaching nor pastoral responsibility. Nor do some ordained local ministers. The pejorative expression ‘mass priest’ applies.

In principle, presid­ency at the eucharist belongs both with ministry of the word and with pastoral responsibility. But if unavoidable circumstances compel a choice between them, the bottom line is the pastoral one.

The office of presiding at it ought not to be regularly divorced from pastoral responsibility at some level for those who will participate in it. The exercise of this should involve at least prior acceptance by the people at the receiving lend, if not indeed an initial approach from them. It will also call for a commissioning with prayer and laying on of hands, for which a bishop’s licence is not by itself an acceptable substitute. In essence this would be ordination to a form of the presbyterate which, however, need not and should not imply translation to the ranks of the professional clergy. However , difficult this may be to get across to the majority of our fellow countrymen, ‘ ‘a priest is not necessarily, in that sense, a clergyman. As for OLMs, it would be truer to Catholic tradition to say that a person is ordained to the ministry of the whole Church as embodied in the local eucharistic community. As the canon of the Council of Chalcedon mentioned earlier makes clear his ordination does not confer on him a prescriptive right to total mobility, but only as far as a bishop shall in future permit, license or institute him. The problems which present-day mobility raises for those ordained to a local ministry on the terms here envisaged are real, but by no means insuperable, given clear guidelines and a firm diocesan discip­line. The future ministry of an OLM who moved would not be ruled out, but it would need to be suspended until he could command the same kind of confidence in his new local community as had brought about his call to ordination in the old one.

See also

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