What is to be done?

One of my friends commented recently, in a characteristically lapidary phrase: ‘the church [is] an institution with voracious direct sacramental needs’. This is perhaps more of an issue in a relatively ‘high’ branch of the Anglican Communion such as the Scottish Episcopal Church. As part of  my own ministry, I have from time to time spent a fair bit of time away from my own charge, covering in others where there are vacancies. To be sure, many of these congregations where there are long-term interregna (compounded by a chronic shortage of clergy) have, to their credit, kept themselves going with lay Worship Leaders and the like, and this has produced significant gains in the discernment and deepening of individual and congregational gifts. But there is still huge hunger for regular and frequent Eucharist, to the neglect of the potential spiritual enrichment offered by the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

This has two effects. It tends to make people like me feel sometimes like a ‘Mass priest’, being parachuted in to do the special bits that others are not authorised to do. More seriously, however, it has led to a generalised practice of Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, administered by a Reader, Eucharistic Minister or Worship Leader. I’m increasingly unhappy with this, because it commodifies the Eucharist, encourages an approach focused solely on individual devotion,  and takes it out of the integrated context of community celebration: Liturgy of the Word, anamnesis, epiclesis (at least in the SEC), and distribution. I have been taken aback on occasion when visiting another charge, when I asked if I should consume everything left over from previous celebrations, or reserve the sacrament for the sick, and was told, ‘Oh, we have plenty’. I have heard of instances where the consecrated bread and wine have been kept so long in the aumbry that they have become unusable. I have even heard of occasions when a new incumbent or a visiting priest found they were expected to step aside in favour of a lay administrator of the Reserved Sacrament, on the grounds that it was ‘Jack’s turn’.

This is clearly not a good situation, and it makes me want to advocate a radical re-think about the place of ordained presbyters in the spiritual economy, and consequently about appropriate procedures and principles for selection and training. In our diocese, there are four people in training for ordained ministry at the moment, all just completing their first year, so it will be another two years before they are priested, and there is no guarantee that they will stay in the diocese. On top of that, in a few years’ time, something between a quarter and a third of the stipendiary clergy in Scotland will retire. I’m not (yet) embracing the notion of lay presidency, but I do wonder sometimes if there is a way to identify people who might be suitable for ordination on the grounds of their personal holiness and other gifts, with a view to authorising them in advance of undertaking the theological training. If the SEC remains as ‘voracious’ as it currently is with regard to its sacramental needs, something needs to be done about this critical situation.

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7 responses to “What is to be done?

  1. I would join you in deploring the “we’ve got plenty” mentality – but for someone like me, who was attracted to the church by the celebration of the Eucharist, Morning Prayer has too much to remind me of the church which lost me as a young person. And I can’t help feeling that it’s not on for an ordained person to tell the rest of us what we should find satisfying – and this is not an attack, simply a comment I’ve made before. After all, an ordained person is never going to feel this lack, is he/she?

  2. This is one area in which the Church has been the victim of its own success in some ways. The triumph of moderated Anglo-Catholicism in getting the Eucharist into place as the principal act of worship has created both a demand and an expectation for the Sacrament to be “on tap” every Sunday. Our failure has been in educating people to “celebrate Eucharist” rather than “receive Holy Communion” i.e. to understand Eucharist fully as a corporate rather than a personal devotion. Cutting it down to it’s “bare bones” in the name of accessability, seperating Eucharist from exposition of the word or turning in into a clerical monologue have all served to reduce the Eucharist to a far more pietistic concept than it truly is.

    I actually do deplore the almost total loss of non-Eucharistic worship in the SEC because there was something useful to be said for it Mattins when simply said or led by a tuneless wonder is terribly CofS but when sung even simply it is quite distinct. But Chris, the clergy do feel the lack: if you went as I did from daily mass to one weekday you feel the lack. Not of communicating (there’s an aumbry), but of celebrating the eucharist with God’s people, of sharing word and prayer, as well as bread and wine.

    This isn’t a problem we ought to have : we have more clergy per member than any other province in the UK. Part of the problem is clergy who won’t go where needed when needed and this is really an NSM issue. In Kirkcaldy, it was easier to get cover from Edinburgh than dislodge one of the 7 NSM’s from St Andrew’s St Andrew’s when I was away.

    Just some thoughts!!

  3. Our failure has been in educating people to “celebrate Eucharist” rather than “receive Holy Communion” i.e. to understand Eucharist fully as a corporate rather than a personal devotion. Cutting it down to it’s “bare bones” in the name of accessability, seperating Eucharist from exposition of the word or turning in into a clerical monologue have all served to reduce the Eucharist to a far more pietistic concept than it truly is.
    What about congregations who make a big effort to sustain the full corporate nature of the worship, including sharing word and prayer to the best of their abilities, without ever thinking that their lay leaders are anything but lay leaders? Seems to me we’re swinging from one extreme to the other, polarising the argument (in a very un-Anglican way :-)) instead of seeking to improve and facilitate a via media.

  4. “polarising the argument (in a very un-Anglican way)” Blimey, which alternate reality Anglican Communion have you been living in love (and can I join?)? 🙂

    Good point. Where done with integrity and with no “clericalisng of the laity” I have no objection if it is meting a real pastoral and spiritual need. But I am uneasy when it becomes the norm in intereggna. Have seen it reach the stage that the Rector was in the back pew while the lay officiant took the service “to keep their hand in”. This is not right IMHO.

  5. What an odd order these comments appear in! It’s not on my radar either that a lay person officiate when there is a priest present. Maybe preaching – done that – but certainly not RS.

  6. Trust me, I’ve been sat in a Church where I and another priest were in pews whilst that happened. I had gone simply to go to Mass: he was the Rector and had inherited this.

  7. Sorry, Chris. I hadn’t noticed that the comment settings put the most recent comments at the top. This has been changed.

    I suppose it’s an index of the fact that I have been rather underwhelmed with comments until this post, so I wasn’t aware of the problem!

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