Monday, October 19, 2009

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).