...confers no special Eucharistic powers

by Gracia Grindal (WordAlone Network board secretary)

September 4, 2002

The WordAlone movement may have found the contradiction of the Lutheran movement.

Although Luther taught that the laity could say the words of institution effectively, and that ordination did not confer special Eucharistic powers on a candidate, the Lutheran church, over the years, has practiced a kind of ministerial practice that violates our theology. While Lutherans have always said that pastors and laity have the same duties, but that the pastor is called by a congregation to make sure that the Gospel is preached and the sacraments rightly administered, we have practiced a kind of ontological episcopacy. It comes as a complete shock to new students at the seminary that, according to the confessions, and the ELCA constitution, lay people can do communion. They have never seen anyone but an ordained person celebrate the sacrament, and now that communion is so much more frequently practiced we have exacerbated the situation. A congregation I visited recently announced that there would be no communion the next Sunday because an ordained pastor could not be found. When I asked the pastor why he taught that, he said he had argued with the church council about this, but the council insisted they needed an ordained pastor to do it.

By practice, then, we have become like the Episcopalians who have to ordain lay people, sacramentalists, they call them, in order to give them the power to confect the sacrament and make it valid. A sacramentalist is a sort of makeshift priest. It is a popular, not a technical, term, for an Episcopalian who has not gone through seminary, but is ordained to celebrate the Eucharist in parishes without a priest. Once ordained, however, a sacramentalist may even vote in the diocese as other priests can.

The Episcopalians also make provisions for a “deacon’s Mass,” which occurs when the Eucharistic bread and wine are pre-consecrated by a priest, and later distributed by a deacon to communicants in isolated places. This is now what is happening to Lutherans. “Occasional Services: A Companion to Lutheran Book of Worship”has a service, ÜDistribution of Communion to Those in Special Circumstances,” that increasingly is being used or interpreted as essentially bringing to people the “reserved sacrament”—bread and wine that already has been “consecrated.” (Proper Lutherans don’t consecrate anything and they don’t reserve the sacrament.) This is mind boggling to me. It changes the pastor’s role from caregiver of the soul to mere liturgical functionary.

Martin Luther noted once that one should not receive communion in a strange place because the pastor and community could not observe whether there was any amendment of life in the communicant. I've come to understand the wisdom of that. When communion becomes a ceremony of thanksgiving, or unity or community, the forgiveness of sins takes a back seat. Pastors in the Lutheran tradition are called to provide pastoral care, to absolve sins and distribute the sacrament as a seal on the words of absolution. Our local pastors know us and deal with us. When they give us the sacrament, they are doing their best pastoral work. But, this understanding is so far from actual practice today that most ELCA members hardly can understand it. If the pastors do not know us, or we them, communion is anonymous and I, as a stranger, have to do all the work myself. I am not under pastoral care.

For me, communing and absolving the people are at the heart of the pastoral office, not the mumbling of the words of consecration absent a congregation. We’re back to private Masses, ontological magic, the Mass as a work. What a pity, and what an opportunity for us in the WordAlone Network, to teach the faith again, in its simplicity and purity to people who haven’t heard.