Lay presidency?

by Gracia Grindal (Professor of Rhetoric at Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, MN, WordAlone board member)

Date Unknown

What will happen to the practice of lay presidency after we are in final full communion with the ECUSA?

Robert Wright claims the Concordat says "rather less about the mission and ministry of all the baptized being that our churches have never seriously diverged in understanding on this point," but fails to treat the ELCA's practice of permitting lay presidency at the Lord's Supper.

The ELCA's Task Force for the Study of Ministry reaffirmed this Lutheran practice in its paragraph on lay presidency at the Lord's Supper: "To reaffirm the universal priesthood of all believers, namely, that all baptized Christians are called to minister in the name of Christ and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the promise of God in the world...and, in unusual circumstances and where authorized, to administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion."[1] [1]

The 1997 Churchwide Assembly reaffirmed the practice again when it adopted The Uses of the Means of Grace. The practice is no novelty, it existed in both the ALC and LCA which licensed lay people to celebrate communion in rural Central Pennsylvania, Montana, Alaska, and the Dakotas.

As a pastor's daughter who grew up in North Dakota, I believe people currently without pastors should be able to receive communion when they so desire. Our Confessions hold that the Word Alone is sufficient when it comes to consecrating the elements: "The person adds nothing to this Word and office commanded by Christ."[2] [2] This practice, with its attention to due process, reinforces the Lutheran notion of "good order" (AC 14) while taking seriously the pastoral needs of the people.

What will happen to this practice after we are in final full communion with the ECUSA? To answer that question we should be aware of how the ECUSA is dealing with this issue now.

Determining Who Officiates

At present, there are two official ways in which this problem can be addressed in the ECUSA:

(1) By creating a sacramentalist, 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.

(2) By making provisions for a deacon's mass. This occurs when the Eucharistic bread and wine are pre-consecrated by a priest, and later distributed by a deacon to communicants in isolated places.

There is also a kind of sacramental, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in which some bishops allow a minister from another tradition to celebrate the Eucharist for Episcopalians where there is no priest.[3] [3] If someone reports this practice, or publicizes it, the practice is terminated.

These practices contrast sharply with the Lutheran theology of Word Alone: for Episcopalians it is only priests in historic succession who can celebrate the Eucharist. No priest, no Eucharist.

"Our lay people are already reconciled by their baptism; the remaining problem is with the clergy!" Wright notes. Not if the possibility of lay people being licensed is precluded by this agreement. Martin Marty has assured us in his letter to Linda Lee Nelson that the laity can still serve communion, but ducks the question about lay presidency.[4] [4]

As a member of the ALC and ELCA Ecumenical Committees, and the Task Force on the Study of Ministry, I am always stunned by how experts can hide troublesome issues in ecuspeak: the CCM says that final full communion "will not be fully realized until both churches determine that in the context of a common life and mission there is a shared ministry of bishops in the historic episcopate." (Called to Common Mission (CCM revised, 14)

For Lutherans who believe in the "one office of ministry," this sounds good, but it is misleading. Final full communion will be reached only after the temporary suspension of the 1662 Ordinal ends. (CCM 14). The Ordinal will end when all Lutheran pastors and bishops have received the gift of episcopacy from the Episcopalians and are irrevocably bound to episcopal forms. Lutherans, like Episcopalians, will be required to allow only episcopally ordained priests to preside at communion.

According to the current Book of Common Prayer: "The persons who are chosen and recognized by the Church as being called by God to the ordained ministry are admitted to these sacred orders by solemn prayer and the laying on of episcopal hands. No persons are allowed to exercise the offices of bishop, priest, or deacon in this Church unless they are so ordained, or have already received such ordination with the laying on of hands by bishops who are themselves duly qualified to confer Holy Orders."[5] [5]

Bridge Document

This is the shape of ministry we are ultimately adopting by approving the CCM. The (revised) Concordat is a bridge document in force only for a limited time, that is, during the temporary suspension of the 1662 Ordinal. When the Ordinal is reinstated, the ELCA must amend its Constitution to conform to it.[6] [6]

The CCM states this rather clearly: "The purpose of temporarily suspending this restriction, which has been a constant requirement in Anglican polity since the Ordinal of 1662, is precisely in order to secure the future implementation of the ordinals' same principle in the sharing of ordained ministries." (CCM, 16).

Here the language is deliberately obscure. The Concordat requires "fully interchangeable ministry of bishops" (CMM, 14) before full communion can be achieved.

In The Sewanee Theological Review, William O. Gregg says: "Episcopalians need to understand that the way Lutherans speak of the ordained ministry entrusted to the church is as a single ministry of Word and Sacrament...Episcopalians also need to understand that the way we [ECUSA] speak of this reality is as a single sacramental and pastoral ministry of Word and Sacrament which is extended through the bishop to the offices of priest and deacon."[7] [7]

J. Robert Wright says the ELCA "may not have an ordained diaconate in the near future, but by the Concordat both churches would share it and accept it in principle."[8] [8] Here the language is difficult to comprehend. The Concordat requires the ELCA to accept "in principle, the full set of agreements" (CCM, 3); the ELCA "pledges to study the diaconate, including its place within the threefold ministerial office and its relationship with other ministries" (CCM, 9); and finally, when the temporary suspension of the 1662 Ordinal ends, the unified ELCA/ECUSA episcopate will be governed by this Ordinal (CCM, 16) which calls for the full threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.

Lutherans need to understand that for Episcopalians, deacons and priests are extensions of the bishop. The diaconate and the priesthood derive from the episcopacy. For Episcopalians, the Concordat's requirement for "fully interchangeable bishops" at the end of the process may mean that the office of bishop in its fullness, that is, includes the offices of priest and deacon.

J. Robert Wright is a skillful canon lawyer. He knows how to make an argument and divert attention from the issues that trouble Lutherans. That Episcopalian lay people like George Bush can disagree with their bishops about foreign policy is of no relevance to the question of whether Lutheran lay people, in situations without an ordained pastor, may be licensed to preside at the Lord's Supper.[9] [9]

According to the Concordat (CMM, 14) Lutherans and Episcopalians begin the journey toward full communion from different places. They end with the historic episcopate. Silence about lay presidency does not mean it will be allowed when final full communion is achieved. Those writers of the Concordat who assure us it will not change this practice should address this concern by amending the CCM so our theology of ministry is not compromised.


[1] [1] 1993 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, Reports and Records, Exhibit C, Section II.1, pp. 685-686.

[2] [2] "Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope," Book of Concord, 324, n. 4.

[3] [3] As I write, the Australian Anglicans are in a major conflict over this issue. Although the Sidney diocese strongly favors lay presidency, Archbishop Harry Goodhew strongly opposes it, as do most other Anglican provinces.

[4] [4] See Martin Marty's article "Called to Common Mission and the Episcopate," written April 18, 1998 and submitted to the ELCA Church Council at the same time Called to Common Mission was submitted.

[5] [5] "Preface to the Ordination Rites," Book of Common Prayer, 510.

[6] [6] "For both churches, life in full communion entails more than legislative decisions and shared ministries."(CCM, 14).

[7] [7] William O. Gregg, "By Solemn Prayer and the Laying-On of Episcopal Hands"; Ordination and Implementing Full Communion, Sewanee Theological Review 40:2 (1997) 225-236.

[8] [8] J. Robert Wright, "In Support of the Concordat? A Response to its Opponents," Sewanee Theological Review, 40:2 (1997); emphasis added.

[9] [9] I am intrigued by Wright's implication that Thomas Beckett, like George Bush, is an Anglican layman!