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Move to empower laity raises church ire

The idea of the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney (Australia) to empower the laity raises the ire of many churches. It’s an issue that has some peculiarly Anglican implications, but it’s also interesting for many of the rest of us.

The "empowerment" they’re proposing is allowing lay people to celebrate the Holy Communion, which traditionally is a no-no in the Anglican world.  Actually most churches reserve for their ministers the authority to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, irrespective of their theology of the church.  And this isn’t challenged in most places either.  The problems that these Australian Anglicans are wrestling with are a product of two trends in the Anglican world, one fairly recent and one of long standing.

The first is that many Anglican churches have made the Holy Communion the central order of worship.  This is largely the result of Anglo-Catholic and Affirming Catholic influence.  In the past Holy Communion, in common with other Protestant churches, was celebrated every so often (monthly, sometimes less) and the normal service was Morning or Evening Prayer.  The 1662 Book of Common Prayer specifically allows lay people to celebrate the Morning and Evening Prayer (even giving suitable modifications.)

Where Morning and Evening Prayer are still the central orders of worship in Anglican life, lay celebration is certainly possible.  But as long as Anglican churches insist on making the Holy Communion normative, they will not only be on the horns of the dilemma the Archdiocese faces, but they will also be a block to many visitors (since most Anglican churches still have closed communion.)

The second trend is the fact that the bar of entry into the Anglican ministry (I still hate calling them priests) is too high.  Anglicans are too hung up on extensive formal education that may or may not prepare them for practical ministry or even give them a sound theological education.  The classic example of this is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  Everyone knows he’s a brilliant academic, but his leadership capabilities leave a lot to be desired of (although he is in reality in an impossible situation.)  I’m no advocate for institutionalised ignorance, but much of what is taught in seminaries these days–liberal and conservative alike–is not useful for real ministry or even basic management or people skills.

If it were not such a long business to obtain an education that people–lay and clergy alike–would sniff at contemptuously, the idea to accommodate the laity with the Holy Communion would not even be considered.

The Archdiocese needs to reconsider its options in this case.


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