Sunday, May 08, 2005

An Ecclesiastical Head-Scratcher

Here's an interesting rhetorical question that a clergy-type person posed at a roundtable I attended not too long ago:

Why is it that Lutherans seem to be willing to let any layperson, no matter how untutored or theologically off the wall, preach a lay sermon in the pastor's absence, but when it comes to presiding over the Eucharist -- an act that's had pretty much the same basic script for 2,000 years, and which isn't about the celebrant anyway -- we create all kinds of barriers that prevent laypeople from serving the Body of Christ in this important way, in the absence of a clergyperson? What is the rationale, if any, here?

This is a great question. Anyone care to respond?


bls said...

Here's Aquinas on the topic.

Reason #1 given - and I love this one!: " Isidore says in an Epistle to Ludifred (Decretals, dist. 25): 'It belongs to a priest to consecrate this sacrament of the Lord's body and blood upon God's altar.'"

Thomas further adds:

"As stated above (Question [78], Articles [1],4), such is the dignity of this sacrament that it is performed only as in the person of Christ. Now whoever performs any act in another's stead, must do so by the power bestowed by such a one. But as the power of receiving this sacrament is conceded by Christ to the baptized person, so likewise the power of consecrating this sacrament on Christ's behalf is bestowed upon the priest at his ordination: for thereby he is put upon a level with them to whom the Lord said (Lk. 22:19): "Do this for a commemoration of Me." Therefore, it must be said that it belongs to priests to accomplish this sacrament."

Job security, anyway.

I think it's the laying on of hands - the "zap" - at ordination that does the trick, and allows the priest to act In Persona Christi. But apparently in other religions - Hinduism, maybe it was? - any old person can be "zapped" and giving holy power to perform the consecration.

I like this last thing better, and of course it's more respectful to God, who "zaps" as he wills. But I think the idea that the priest is in the line of priests back to Christ, by virtue of the laying on of hands, is quite important to some people. It might be a means to the contemplative state in which Eucharist is best received, for them.

bls said...

The key is, you need holy power so that you can be a conduit through which God can act and Christ and come as "Real Presence."

The question is whether or not holy power is bestowed in only one manner. Personally, I think not. But of course, I'm an Anglican, so that explains it.


LutheranChik said...

Technically, in Lutheranism -- priesthood of all believers and all -- technically, anyone can consecrate the Eucharistic, in the shipwreck hypothetical, where a bunch of laypeople wind up washed ashore on a desert island with some handy hardtack and a bottle of wine...anyone could officiate. Technically. (Believe it or not, back in college some friends, including our pastoral intern, and I got into this discussion, and it wound up riffing off into an exploration of what would happen once the wine and hardtack were gone...could, say, breadfruit and palm juice substitute for bread and wine? Lutherans are such theology geeks;-)'s enough to turn someone into a Wiccan, where the "cakes and ale" parameters are pretty loose.)

Practically, however, we affirm the concept of "good order" in worship -- Ordnung muss sein! -- so in ordinary circumstances consecrating the Eucharist is a pastoral responsibility.

What we were told in our program was that, in the absence of a pastor -- say in a little rural church without the resources to get a supply pastor when the regular clergyperson was unavailable on a Sunday -- someone who graduated in good standing from our program could get a special dispensation from the bishop to preside over Communion in that congregation, on a particular Sunday. There's a certain amount of bureaucratic hullabaloo involved (albeit made easier these days by e-mail) -- the pastor and the church council are supposed to request the dispensation, and then the bishop is supposed to generate a sort of ecclesiastical permission slip that the pastor and council can keep on hand when some cranky person in the pew inevitably gets upset at this outrageous descecration of the Sacrament.;-)

Frankly, I can't say that presiding over the Eucharist would be my ministerial task of choice; I'd probably be shaking so hard I'd commit some sort of major spillage faux pas. And our pastor has the liturgical choreography down so well -- it'd be a hard act to follow. I'm happy just helping with the chalice.

bls said...

(Ooops - you know, I thought I'd wrote out the disclaimer that "I'm not Lutheran, but...."

I think I edited it out myself. Sorry. I was speaking, obviously, from my own point of view and understanding.

But I do love the excuse that "Isidore says so," don't you? ;-) )

LutheranChik said...

It seems to me that "Isidore says so" has the potential for use in a wide variety of situations: "Oh, I wish I could let you borrow my laptop, but I can't...Isidore says so." I'll have to use that the next time I'm flummoxed by a question on Beliefnet.;-)

bls said...

And I'm sure Ludifred agrees. BTW.

LutheranChik said...

For some reason "Isidore" makes me think of Father Guido Sarducci.;-) Ludifred -- someone in a Monty Python skit.;-)

*Christopher said...

Even in the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions in extremis, like your shipwreck example, a lay Christian could consecrate the elements. In Lutheranism in Germany, this does happen, and some bishops here in the U.S. allow lay members to preside in certain cases with permission.

As I understand it, Lutherans do not "consecrate", but at best would use "sanctify" in describing the presiding action. This is in keeping with the shifting traditions on Eucharistic thinking. For example the Apostolic Tradition (3rd-4th century depending) and the Anaphora of Addai and Mari (2nd century) have a sanctifying rather than consecrating epiclesis (call for the Holy Spirit to come down on the gifts).

It's an understanding that recognizes that Christ is already present, and we're acknowledging this is the case "in, with, and under" the bread and wine by our prayer or words of institution.

LutheranChik said...

Christopher -- now you're making me go through my notes from my "gut" sacramental theology lecture the other weekend.;-)