Correspondence with Anglican Media Sydney

25th August 2004

Text of a post by the editor to the Lay Presidency topic on Anglican Media Sydney website:

First of all, I’d like to congratulate everybody for keeping the discussion relevant and intellectual. In my part of the world they usually degenerate into political name-calling and mock offence-taking, thus closing down any meaningful content.

From my Antipodean perspective I find this topic a fascinating insight into a totally different way of thinking about our faith, and that is something which needs to cross-fertilise with the rest of the world if both you and we are to be enriched by it. I hope nothing will happen to prevent that cross-fertilisation occurring.

The motion refers to “administration” rather than “presidency”, which perhaps indicates that a different paradigm is in operation. To the rest of us administration is what the laity already do: namely distribution of the elements. We see this as quite separate from the question of presidency. Nor can we understand why any Christian community would want the presiding role at its communal feast to be undertaken by anyone other than a recognised Elder of the community. In the Anglican communion, such Eldership is recognised through episcopal ordination. Other Christian groupings have other methods, but most would see the function as belonging to a recognised Elder.

It is unfortunate that the term Priest, derived from the Greek Presbyteros should have become associated with the sacerdotal ministries of pre-Christian religions, introducing a confusion of what, in Scripture, are two quite separate activities and stati. Christians are not a “royal priesthood” (I Pet 2.9) as most versions translate it, but a royal order of sacrificial ministers for which English, as a language that grew up in a purely Christian ethos, has no word. English translations of Scripture therefore fail English-speaking readers when we try to be Biblical in this area, especially if we try to judge Church tradition by the Bible as the Reformers taught us to do. We need to translate our terms very carefully when comparing Scripture and Tradition, and that is difficult to do without prejudice to our understanding.

This muddling of terminology began before the Scriptures were translated into English, and has continued since, creating an ongoing dialogue in the Anglican Communion as to the significance of the ordained ministry. It appears to be a contribution to that debate by your General Synod Doctrine Commission (Towards a Theology of Ordination) which led to a critical appraisal by your Diocesan Doctrine Commission (sic! - more later) in 1993 which provides at least part of the background for this current topic.

That Diocesan response recognised that “Questions of order in Christian ministry and church life are often not settled by direct Biblical prescriptions, and a certain liberty is recognised in such matters (Article 20). However order must reflect and express sound theology.” It went on to analyse the BCP Ordinal as a witness of the functions of priest/presbyters and deacons in the historical context of these ministries’ development in Anglican usage following the Reformation, and concluded that “In our received order... we do not separate the ministry of word and sacrament; those licensed to preach also preside at the table; those who preside also preach.” From this it was argued that those who now exercise the role of teaching/preaching the word should also preside over the sacrament of Holy Communion.

However, that conclusion is non-sequitous. The analysis on which it was based shows that there has always been some distinction between Priests who are ordained “(a) to ‘preach’, and also (b) to ‘minister the Holy Sacraments in the Congregation.’” and Deacons who are ordained to “‘read the Gospel... and preach the same’ if he is ‘licensed by the bishop.’” Furthermore, while a celebration of Holy Communion should always be accompanied by a sermon, preaching need not be accompanied by the sacrament. So while it may not be proper to separate the sacrament from the word, it is quite acceptable, by the Commission’s own argument, to separate the word from the sacrament. Therefore, only those who have been ordained to preach may also preside over the sacrament, but it does not follow that all those ordained or licensed to preach should so preside. On the contrary, their more specific authority reflects the greater number of occasions when word without sacrament is what is required.

This does not mean that the Diocese of Sydney is necessarily wrong in its belief that Lay Presidency is an appropriate next development in Anglican practice, but it does, unfortunately, mean that the current argument used to justify that position is flawed, which may explain why the rest of the Church remains unconvinced.

In England, the Church Representation Rules reserve to the General Synod the power to define the doctrine of the Church, and specifically exclude such a function from the role of Diocesan Synods. It would therefore be highly irregular, if not illegal, for an English diocese to set up a Doctrine Commission, hence my surprise expressed earlier. The ACA Constitution similarly states that it is the function of General Synod to “make statements as to the faith of this Church” and omits any such function from the purposes of Provincial and Diocesan Synods. I have not been able to find a copy of the Sydney Diocesan constitution to see whether that permits its Synod to define doctrine, but perhaps someone can enlighten me.

There’s that paradigm shift again. For Sydney, the issue seems to be ‘what is the Biblical doctrine about this matter?’ whereas, for the rest of us it is ‘does Biblical order permit a diocese to decide about doctrine on its own?’

The apostles wrote to the churches about doctrine not just because the Holy Spirit wanted us to have a record of correct teaching, though I trust that was part of God’s purpose in inspiring such letters, but because the local churches were departing from aspects of the truth and needed to be brought back into line. The New Testament epistles therefore, by their very existence, bear witness to the fact that doctrine is a matter for the whole Church and not for local congregations alone.

The precise forms of worship which existed or were evolving in the New Testament Church are hard to establish, even without Woodhouse’s destructive approach to the integrity of the Scriptures. What we do know is a combined understanding in which Scripture complements Scripture in building up our understanding. It is not helpful to isolate each passage and show that on its own it is not conclusive, and then exclude it from the argument until nothing is left. We can only surmise from the evidence we have, and the absence of a controversy over forms of service in the first two centuries, that what emerged seemed to those who worshipped then to be consistent with what they had received.

In the 16th century, Cranmer assumed that the Latin mass was a mediaeval novelty, invented to support the idea of transubstantiation, and he attempted to reconstruct a Biblical form of Holy Communion, apparently based on the idea behind the Passover meal of commentating on the story of Salvation. After all, the Last Supper was such a meal. We now know that the basic shape of the mass can be discerned in the elaborate rituals which had emerged by the beginning of the 3rd century. If they had been a sudden radical departure from Apostolic practice during those first two centuries, would there not have been much correspondence, essays and polemical books arguing about their introduction and the rights and wrongs thereof? We have writings from the period about other matters, so we know Christians of the time could be very vigorous proponents of positions and controversial changes could hardly have been slipped in without leaving a record. It follows that what was done at that time was either as ancient as Hippolytus claimed or seen as a consistent, uncontroversial development.

That does not mean the 3rd century practice was entirely Biblical, of course. We can see that Hippolytus’ prohibition on the conversion of eunuchs is contrary to the example of Philip and the Ethiopian official (Acts 8.27-39), but it is one thing to demonstrate such a departure by pointing to the evidence and quite a different thing to assume departure without having evidence. The culture and expectations of 3rd century Christians would have been closer to that of the original Jewish and Greek believers than ours in the 21st century so, unless we can show clearly that they got it wrong we need the humility to realise they were more likely than us to be right.

If that sounds like an appeal to re-introduce Tradition into our theologising, my answer is that Tradition is there already whether we like it or not. For it is Tradition which shapes our perceptions and paradigm, and we either take that into account consciously or let it influence us unconsciously and lead us into error. There is a right use of Tradition as illustrated by St Paul’s appeal to it in I Cor 11.16. Tradition must, however, be related to Scripture and judged by it, which is why it is right for Sydney to raise the issue of whether episcopal ordination is really a prerequisite for presidency over a celebration of Holy Communion. Interestingly, Hippolytus didn’t see the laying on of episcopal hands as the only way to achieve the presbyteral status. It was also achieved by those who had been imprisoned for their faith. That should give all traditionalists food for thought!

There were two small points made earlier in this topic which I feel deserve a brief response. The first is that I have always understood the term “eucharistic community” to refer to our gratitude for what God has done. We may reflect this gratitude in celebrating the Eucharist, but we don’t derive it from that. Secondly, Gordon Cheng wrote:

Denominations are not recognised in the New Testament, but neither are they prohibited.

Aren’t they? Jesus promised us that “Amen, amen I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” (Jn 16.23) Later he himself asked the Father “...that all may be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they be in us, so the world believe that you sent me.” (17.21) and “...that they be completed into one, so the world know that you sent me and loved them, even as you loved me.” (v23) Inasmuch as denominations hide from the world the unity of all Christians, deny the efficacy of prayer, imply that Jesus was a liar and deny that God sent him, I would think they are pretty much prohibited! By their collective existence, denominations deny Scripture, however much individually they might seek to uphold it.

Incidentally, how specific was your prayer for rain? We’re having one of the wettest summers on record here!

Ken Petrie


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