Power and Presiding: The Reality of "Lay Administration"

The Diocese of Sydney's reaffirmation, at its recent Synod, of lay presidency (or as many of its leaders prefer, "lay administration") at the Holy Communion has had Anglicans around the world again wondering what we are putting in the (increasingly scarce!) water down here.

Sydney's motives are quite unlike the occasional stirrings in this direction voiced on the liberal edge of US or British churches. The original theological engine driving this is the theology of Church and sacraments taught by former Moore College principal Broughton Knox, and now pursued by his students including key figures in the Sydney episcopal leadership and the present staff of Moore. Some of these, like their "Reform" counterparts in the UK, see the Reformation as an incomplete work and the Elizabethan settlement as a bit of a Laodicean compromise. The real interest in "lay administration" lies, for them, in carrying through a principled protestant disposal of catholic accretions upon a supposed New Testament model of ministry and worship.

The question of “licensing lay persons for the ministry of Word and Sacrament” was formally raised in Sydney as long ago as 1977, and in 1983 the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission issued a report highly favourable toward lay presidency. Drawing on discussion papers by P. T. O’Brien and P. W. Barnett, it concludes that lay persons could and should be authorized to preside at the Eucharist, primarily because New Testament Church presbyters or elders “usually presided at Church meetings”, and that a “rector in the Anglican polity” is actually “the senior PRESBYTER among the permanent local PRESBYTERS” in a congregation. This is a familiar enough claim in a long debate, where Anglicans have actually been characterized by a quite different position.

In a paper on “Lay Administration of Holy Communion” offered to the provincial bishops of New South Wales a few years ago, Archbishop Peter Jensen (Knox's successor as Principal at Moore) argues for a reading of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s own ordering of priests as granting “recognition and authority…to exercise a pastoral – as opposed to a sacerdotal – ministry of word and sacrament in a community setting. That is to say, [it is] the role of incumbent…” That office of Rector, rather than the identity of priest – a political rather than vocational identity – is given an inherent significance here, although the historic three orders of ministry, bishop, priest and deacon, are not.

Another leading intellectual of the Sydney Diocese, R. C. Doyle, put it more starkly, saying that the generation of Sydney clergy trained by Knox at Moore – and presumably also those trained under his successors, Knox's students – “do not regard themselves as ‘clerical’ in any sense of the word, but as lay people who have the enormous privilege of being paid so that they may teach the Bible full-time”. Yet that same 1983 Sydney Doctrine commission paper had referred to would-be lay ministers of the Eucharist in a congregation as “permanent local presbyters”, which suggests that such local elders are just as much ordained as are the bishops, priests and deacons of the Book of Common Prayer.

So it is something of a red herring to call this a debate about "lay presidency" or "administration". Proponents already regard the priests of the Book of Common Prayer as lay people, and some lay people as local presbyters. The differences between various ministries in this view are functional, but above all political. Ministry is about power.

A key emphasis among these arguments is a competition between Word and Sacrament in ministry and liturgy. In a 1994 report prepared at the request of the Standing Committee of the Sydney Diocesan Synod, J. W. Woodhouse (current Principal of Moore) and B. C. Newman argue that the growth of leadership by lay persons in preaching, public prayer and other elements of the ministry of the Word, without such a development of equivalent sacramental ministries regarding the Eucharist, is an anomaly that suggests both “a division between Word and Sacrament” and that “the Sacrament can appear to be more important than the Word”. These authors speak rather of “the necessary dependence of the ministry of the Sacrament on the ministry of the Word.” Woodhouse and Newman also describe the notion that “the Lord’s Supper is the essential expression of the community’s life” as a “fiction” and a “novel invention”.

Archbishop Jensen has also argued for “lay administration” in terms of the same unequal parallelism of word and sacrament. In the 2003 paper to the New South Wales bishops he is critical of “the reservation of administering the sacrament to priests”, arguing that it “suggests very powerfully that the sacrament is prior to the word”. For him “the doctrine of the Church of England…gives priority to the word…rather than parity”. For him “the sacrament is dependent on the word and is an exemplification of that word”.

Ironically then, the push for "lay administration" is actually an effort to establish a particular reformed view of a single ordained ministry of the word – what becomes “incumbency”, or the (exclusively male) office of Rector, in the Sydney view. "Lay administration" is being pursued not because it does matter, but because it doesn't - relative to preaching at least.

This is really a development of medieval Catholicism’s tendency to focus solely on the order of priest, rather than on the diversity of various orders and their distinct ministries and charisms. This is actually clericalism in a new form, not lay empowerment. The massing priest now becomes the preaching presbyter, as a sacramentally-based system becomes a propositionally-based one. Catholic order is being sacrificed on this altar in Sydney, not one of democracy or lay empowerment.


  1. Anonymous10:10 pm

    [Jeremy Halcrow said:]

    Thanks for your theological analysis

    However you misunderstand the political situation within Sydney Diocese.

    As in any debate there are often diverse interests that coalesce in support of an innovation.

    There is a very strong push from the laity for this, particularly for pragmatic missional reasons.

    For some laity - such as myself- support for this innovation comes from a desire to reassert the importance of the Sacraments that have certainly declined in Sydney.

    Indeed I have been involved in a number of 'fresh expressions' / church plants - and have at times been denied access to the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion for up to a year because there was no priest available.

    This is not entirely to do with Sydney's policy on the permanent diaconate.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jeremy. I am sure I don't have all the knowledge I might either of politics or theology in Sydney.

    However my sin here was perhaps more one of omission, related to the scope of the blog entry.

    I am aware of that other set of arguments; in fact Peter Jensen used them himself in speaking to the NSW bishops and to General Synod in 2004. I admit that I find the missional aspect (e.g. in relation to different forms of community life) more interesting and difficult than the arguments I attempted to outline and criticize here.

    To clarify then, the entry was an attempt to trace the origins of the push for lay presidency in Sydney. It is indeed interesting that the push now seems to come simultaneously from two angles that are in some tension (even when the same people use both !). After all, there is some potential difficulty reconciling a push for lay presidency as a means of diminishing a supposedly improper emphasis on the sacrament, with a push based on the importance of offering the sacrament more widely and immediately...


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