The Lord's Supper in Uncertain Hands

Is the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper or Holy Communion or Mass...) a necessary or characteristic practice of the Christian Church, or of Anglicanism in particular? Until very recently there could have been no doubt about the answer to the question. Like other Christians, Anglicans regard the sacramental meal as a distinctively Christian action, commanded by Jesus, observed in universal tradition, and enshrined in Anglican formularies, from the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion to the Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Not necessarily in Sydney, however. While many Anglicans are aware of the somewhat idiosyncratic position held in Sydney on the subject of presidency or leadership at the Eucharist, fewer seem to have realized that this debate is the tip of a much bigger sacramental iceberg.

Lay presidency reared its head again last October when two organisations strongly associated with the leadership of the Diocese of Sydney published The Lord's Supper in Human Hands, an oddly-named (weren't Jesus' hands human?) apologia for lay presidency. It takes the form of essays that seek to explain and argue for the position in Sydney's terms. Despite some unevenness, it probably does that about as well as it could; perhaps those who share the sort of biblical minimalism that characterizes some Sydney Anglican theology might find themselves won over. Others will be somewhat helped in understanding that position, at the same time as better understanding how odd it is in Anglican terms.

Yet the apologetic character of the book means that it does not reveal everything about where the issue stands, even in Sydney itself. For despite the appearance often given of a monolithic party-line approach to this issue, there are differences underlying it that are more startling than the public dispute between Sydney and others about liturgical leadership.

Last night's showing of "Anglicans: Sydney Style" by Compass on ABC television included a brief but telling reference to the celebration of the Holy Communion at Northmead Anglican Church; apparently they don't. Or rather, they believe that fellowship meals rather than the sacrament of the Holy Communion are an expression of following Jesus: "We wouldn't have the Lord's Supper in a formal ritualized sense because that's not how people do meals in our community".

Northmead's weekly bulletin is peppered with references to prayer breakfasts and seniors' lunches (and an advertisement inviting you to 'come and meat the community' at the butcher's shop!), but there is no mention of the Lord's Supper. Northmead may or may not be exceptional in Sydney, I can't tell; but they are not alone.

Sydney support for lay presidency began with a strongly principled "reformed" position about the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Proponents of change seem to have felt that the opening-up of lay participation and leadership in ministries of the Word in recent decades revealed or reinforced a sort of sacerdotalism, insofar as such openness did not extend to sacramental leadership. This is clearly the position Archbishop Peter Jensen himself holds, along with a continued valuing of, and reverence for, the Lord's Supper.

Yet for some other Sydney Anglicans, the Word/Sacrament contest is more like a fight to the death than a jostling for precedence. At Moore College itself there is some sympathy for the view that Jesus did not institute an ongoing sacramental practice at all. In two editions of Matthias Media's The Briefing in 1993 (124) and 94 (128), John Woodhouse - now Principal of Moore College - argued precisely that. Surveying the NT evidence, Dr Woodhouse argues that it does not lead to the conclusion Jesus instituted a sacramental meal. Responding to some letters arising, in the second Briefing he reasserts that the Lord's Supper is not a clear command of Jesus, and that the 'traditions of men' are not to be imposed on Christians [I add that I can't be sure of whether Dr Woodhouse still holds these positions].

Northmead shows the results. Being an historian of eucharistic origins myself, I acknowledge the complexity of determining the relationship between Jesus, meal traditions and the sacramental practice of the Church, and the need to explore the issues without fear or favour. I also believe strongly in the necessity of revealing the character of the Holy Communion as meal in its use of liturgical symbolism, and in the importance for the Church of sharing food in other ways, not least with the hungry.

Yet I have no doubt what the conclusions of Christian orthodoxy about the practice of the Holy Communion are, as one of the two sacraments connected with Jesus himself, and constitutive from the earliest times of the Christian Church. And like many others I am wondering how the language of "orthodoxy" in the Anglican Communion can be claimed at all, let alone exclusively, by or for those who are so far from the universal tradition of the Church.

The Lord's Supper in Human Hands (eds. Peter Bolt, Mark Thompson & Robert Tong; Camperdown, NSW: Australian Church Record/Australian Church League, 2008).


  1. Steve Warren, Perth7:29 am

    Thanks, Andrew. I,too, can't see how anyone who holds so (apparently) to the Thirty-nine Articles could express doubts as to Jesus' instituion of the Eucharist. Thanks be to God that there "real" Anglicans like Chris Albany in that diocese!

  2. Steve, I'm sure Perth can take some pride in both Chris Albany and Susanne Chambers being featured - both former curates at St John's Fremantle in fact!

    For that matter they also represent the two Melbourne theological colleges - Trinity and Ridley (yours too, yes?).

  3. Yet I have no doubt what the conclusions of Christian orthodoxy about the practice of the Holy Communion are, as one of the two sacraments connected with Jesus himself, and constitutive from the earliest times of the Christian Church. And like many others I am wondering how the language of "orthodoxy" in the Anglican Communion can be claimed at all, let alone exclusively, by or for those who are so far from the universal tradition of the Church.

    Andrew, can you explain how this conclusion stands against what you perceive at Northmead? My experience of such "meals" is that the words of institution are still used and taken seriously. That being the case, they would look like that one Last Supper that Jesus shared with His disciples - a very "real" meal, surely?

  4. Thanks David,

    It's helpful to hear that the words of institution are used. I guess the next question is how they are used or for what, given Neil Macken's comments in the Compass interview. Although I agree the Last Supper was a meal, I don't think Irenaeus or Augustine or Aquiinas or Calvin (etc etc etc) thought that the conduct of the Holy Communion was defined by "how people do meals in our community".

    Anglicans are required to use an authorized liturgy, not their own local or individual ideas about what they read in the Bible last week. You may be able to enlighten readers further on the reality of Northmead or other Sydney congregations.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  5. thanks Andrew.

    I don't myself know the Northmead congregation (although I know some of the ministers).

    Yes, I think the words are important but it's interesting to see how even the BCP uses them - inserting them into various different contexts as necessary.

    Given that the Articles give us the right to change certain rites and customs is it not helpful for us to use those words in other contexts if used well?

  6. Very insightful conversation... is there some real sense of liturgical inculturation happening here, or is it sacramental aversion guised as liturgical inculturation?

  7. I would say that Northmead is extreme. In my very ordinary evangelical lowerthansnakesbelly parish we have communion once a month in the ceremonial form.

  8. Thanks Michael. Your comment encourages me to note that the diversity of belief and practice in the Communion - and even just in your or my Dioceses, or the Australian Church - is more complex than some of the current discussions are recognizing.

    I for one want to be very respectful (as I hope the original post showed) of those who have a more classically-Reformed practice and belief. Our differences and arguments may be real, but lie within a recognizeable diversity of historic Anglicanism.

  9. Anonymous6:37 pm

    [Jeremy Halcrow said:]

    In my observation, Michael Jensen is 100% right.

    Northmead is well-known for being at the far end of the spectrum in the Sydney Diocese, which came out in Synod debate a few years ago. I take it this is why Compass wanted to feature them.

    The vast majority of (established) Sydney Anglican parishes would provide Holy Communion (in the Prayer Book ceremonial form) every week at one of their morning services. For most 'family' services' this would be once a month, with a traditional Holy Communion service 3 in 4.

    That said: there has been a lot of fuzziness out on Sydney's suburban fringes in the new church plants run by lay pastors and/or deacons. In my experience this was only resolved somewhat last year with the more to 'approve' diaconal presidency.

  10. Julie8:58 am

    From my personal fairly simple perspective, as I have little formal theological knowledge, the eucharist is so central to the practice of Anglican faith in my parish that not having it as the centrepiece would seriously diminish my experience of worship. Your article is a very interesting and insightful discussion of the issues, Andrew......I'm not sure how I would defend my position, as perhaps it comes from the heart rather than the head....


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