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.