Recently I tuned into a radio conversation in which a representative of the Catholic church was explaining the new measures the church was having to take in light of the cataclysmic decline in ordinations resulting in a chronic shortage of priests. The dialogue focussed on how the sacrament was being allowed to be distributed even though an ordained priest was not present. You can read about it here.
I confessed I sniggered a little as I heard him try to explain to the lay listenership, and an increasingly bewildered interviewer, how everything would still be legal because the host had been consecrated the previous day. I thought of how beneficial it was that we Prods didn’t have a sacramental theology which demanded such ecclesiastical gymnastics – until I remembered a little problem I encountered a couple of years ago; a problem which should give Irish Presbyterians, at least, cause to reflect and be cautious before seeking to occupy any theological high ground on this issue.
The fact is that, within our polity, the sacrament does have to be administered by a “Minister of word and sacrament, lawfully ordained”. This is a phrase from the Westminster Confession, and if you look at an edition of said Confession “with biblical proofs”, one fact will stand out: namely, that, although every other phrase of the Confession appears to be “well-proofed”, Scriptural texts are, in this instance, conspicuous by their absence.
So, back to my problem. I was due to be on an airport bus about an hour before a communion service was due to take place in Greystones Presbyterian. Ministering in the Irish Republic, we are not flush with “ministers of Word and Sacrament, lawfully ordained” (even though that term would cover a variety of reformed denominations). However, I had organised for a retired minister to take that particular service. Some faithful helpers had, as was their custom, been down on the Saturday to lay out everything, including the bread and wine, in preparation for the next day.
Then late on Saturday evening, I got a call from the retired minister in question telling me he had unfortunately taken ill and wouldn’t be able to conduct the service. Finding someone to preach and lead the service was possible, but what was I to do about communion? In desperation I tried a couple of other retirees, to no avail.
It seemed I had three options
Don’t have it. In which case, bearing in mind everything was set out and ready and people were arriving prepared to celebrate together, massive questions would be rqaiased in the congregation’s minds. Why could we not just do it with the preacher presiding? After all, if the concern is that Word and Sacrament not be divorced from each other, then that is covered. Also, since we allow lay preaching, why not allow lay presidency? These are valid questions; ones I didn’t- and still don’t – feel able to answer adequately. Furthermore I didn’t want “Why we didn’t have it” to be the issue on everyone’s minds as they left worship
I could have gone down to the church with an elder or two, an hour early, on my way to the bus stop, prayed a prayer, and then left them to it an hour later. Ironically, that would have kept me right in terms of church polity, but would have left me deeply uncomfortable, and would have communicated a sacerdotal view of ministry and sacrament that is at variance with everything I believe, and what our church purportedly teaches about all other areas of worship, ministry and church life.
I could ignore church polity and ask my elders to take over and, with my blessing, have a wonderful time of communion in my absence.
In the end, that is exactly what I did and no-one batted an eyelid.
This may seem a small and pedantic issue but the recent Catholic conversation on the issue has reminded me just how at variance our polity is with the rest of our theology.
And what’s more, it got me thinking that, in spite of all our reformed traditions, if we suddenly had our own equivalent of the Catholics’ “crisis of vocation” we would be in exactly the same boat as they, and having to engage in the same theological convolutions as the priest on the radio. Sadly, as in other areas, our current polity hardly smacks of a church with structures set up for biblical mission in a changing world.