Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Lay Presidency: Mr Gog's response

Lay Presidency: Time for Change |

According to Atherstone, the Church's insistence that only a priest may preside at Holy Communion is the last bastion of clericalism that needs to be swept away. The denial of lay presidency, he argues, has 'no place in today's church.' But Mr Gog would suggest the contrary: it is Atherstone's kind who have no place in the Church of England, and still less in a College training ordinands for Holy Orders.

Just as his ilk tends to veil extreme theology in the modern vesture of pop music, flashy PR, and casual dress, Atherstone clothes regressive theology in an appeal to the spirit of the age. Yet the arguments that he makes are not '20th century,' as he claims, but belong to the Puritans of the 16th and 17th. Atherstone is not looking ahead, but back to the Cromwellian Protectorate.  His claims were firmly repudiated by the English Church then, and the repudiation has been continuously endorsed in the successive Books of Common Prayer which remain the touchstone of Anglican doctrine today.

The first giveaway is his use of quotation marks around the word 'priest,' the word that has been used without exception in all Anglican ordinals. This was despite the Puritans' insistence on the term 'presbyter,' which went hand-in-hand with their desire to abolish episcopacy. If he wishes to belong to a presbyterian church, then so be it: but the Church of England is not and never should be so.
As for the substantive 'mistakes' Atherstone outlines, his assumptions are highly questionable:

1. That "the ministry of the word (which may be entrusted to authorized lay people) is less important than the ministry of the sacraments."
The Church maintains that, according to biblical witness, the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper are essential to salvation. We might note that Jesus wrote nothing Himself, but made Himself known in the breaking of the bread and ordered his disciples to go out and baptise. Regardless of one's eucharistic theology, Laudians and Puritans alike insisted on frequent reception of Holy Communion, with proper preparation and reverence. The sacraments are at the very least as important as the ministry of the Word, and arguably more so.

2. 'Baptism (which may be administered by a deacon) is less important than the Lord’s Supper.'
Baptism is the precursor to Communion, and not the other way around, and according to the Exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer, it is the Communion 'whereby alone we obtain remission of our sins, and are made partakers of the Kingdom of heaven.' Indeed, from the earliest days of the Church, one was baptised in order to be allowed to receive Communion. Surely the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is the central event of Christian history, and its sacrament therefore the most important in Christian worship?

3. 'The essence of ordination to the presbyterate (or ‘priesthood’) is to allow the minister to lead Holy Communion.'
Half of its essence, at least, as the ordinal by which Atherstone himself was ordained made clear when he was explicitly ordained a 'priest' as 'minister of Word and Sacrament.' As all candidates for ordination to the priesthood, he was asked by his bishop: 'will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them?' From his article, it seems that he intends to do no such thing. If his understanding of Christian ministry does not involve the ministry of a priest as defined by the Church of England, particularly in its rubrics on the celebration of Holy Communion, then one might ask him how he justified himself being ordained to that Order. Like it or not, and dress it up in what language he may, Atherstone was ordained a priest, and a priest he remains.

4. 'The presbyter (or ‘priest’) is a different class of Christian.'
 Of course, as is the Reader, the Deacon, the lay youth worker, the organist, the schoolteacher, the shopkeep, the nurse or the bishop. The people of Christ have diverse callings. The priest's is defined particularly by the celebration of the Holy Communion. As Atherstone points out, that is the only thing distinguishing a priest from the deacon. Remove the distinction, and we remove the orders of priest and deacon altogether. If the abolition of threefold Catholic orders from the English Church is the subtext of Atherstone's argument, he might have the honestly to declare so openly. Or perhaps he would retain the orders of deacon and presbyter as distinctions of 'managerial' rank, though quite how this would escape the allegations of clericalism that he assumes, I do not know.

5. 'The validity of the sacrament depends upon the person who presides.'
On the contrary, it depends upon God's Holy Spirit acting through the order of the Church, which in the Church of England follows the historical threefold ministry. It is not at all dependent on who the priest happens to be, but on the fact that he or she is a priest, ordained by an apostolically descended bishop to that specific ministry. A personality cult is far more likely to emerge in a more flexible, congregationalist model of ministry where authority is accorded by little more than popular acclaim. Again, this is a wholesale rejection of the church order in which Atherstone was ordained, and requires far more than a paragraph to defend, just as it surely requires far more than a bullet-point for him to demolish.

6. 'The Lord’s Supper is a ministerial activity.'
This point is hard to argue, since its sense is so vague. But if it means that it is an activity proper to the minister of a flock, i.e. to a pastor, then again, the ordinal makes it clear that this is so. The duty of the priest there stated is indeed to 'to preside at the Lord's table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.' By the early AD 100s, it is clear that only the bishop presided at Communion, and there is no reason to suppose that such was not the case even earlier. This duty was later delegated by the bishop to the presbyter. But never in the history of the Christian church do we find any record of its celebration by lay persons, except by certain gnostic sects repudiated by the Fathers. Our only evidence shows that leadership at the table or altar was connected to leadership of the congregation.

The fact that not only an Anglican priest, but one involved in the training of future clergy, can even dare to write such an article as this shows how fragile the good order of the Church of England has become. There is a battle for its soul which puritanical Evangelicals like Atherstone are keen to win, flushing away not just hundreds of years of post-reformation moderation and balance, but our continuity with the pre-Reformation Church altogether. Atherstone frames the debate in terms of modernity and updating, but in reality, he wants to take us straight back to the tired old debates of the 1600s. Most Anglicans, the real Anglican mainstream, moved beyond that decades ago.

If he and his kind do get their way, we will be back to the age when candles, crosses, vestments and even organs were illegal, and the beauty, order and ecclesiological integrity of the Church of England will be lost forever. No more grand royal weddings in Westminster Abbey: the few who remain in our newly narrow church will be treated to some sort of worship band-driven pop gig-cum-Bible study instead.

I can only ask: if Atherstone objects so much to Anglican church order, then why does he not follow his conscience and leave?  Oh, for a Church without Puritans. 

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