A major controversy in the Anglican Church of Australia is whether lay people and deacons should be allowed to celebrate Holy Communion a.k.a. the Eucharist. That's long been a big no-no in the Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox Churches: Only ordained priests and bishops can be eucharistic celebrants (sometimes called presiding at or administering the Eucharist).
In the Diocese of Sydney, some congregations apparently have been experimenting with letting lay people celebrate the Eucharist, without a priest. The diocesan synod recently dropped a proposed rule that would have explicitly allowed such lay administration, as it's sometimes called. But the diocese's standing committee said it would not discipline any deaons or lay people who did administer Communion. See this news article for more details.
I was curious about what the New Testament has to say on the subject of lay administration (even though I'm definitely not one of those who says Scripture contains definitive answers to all theological questions). Are only priests (which includes bishops) allowed to celebrate the Eucharist? Or can any old Christian do so?
The Gospels' Accounts
I took a look at the story of the Last Supper in the earliest-written of the Gospels, Mark 14:12-24. Mark's telling of the tale seems to suggest that Jesus meant for all Christians to break the bread and bless the wine: He differentiates between the Twelve (apostles) on the one hand, and the larger group of disciples -- and by implication, all Christians -- on the other:
- Jesus sent two of his "disciples" ahead to prepare the Passover (14.13). He arrived later with "the Twelve" (14.17).
- Jesus spoke of how one of the Twelve would betray him (14.20).
- But then "[w]hile they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it."
This would seem to indicate that the disciples and the Twelve were not one and the same -- and that Jesus addressed the words of institution to all of his disciples, not just to the twelve apostles.
Matthew's version of the story (Mt. 26:17-29) is virtually identical in this respect, except that it's not specific about just two disciples going ahead to prepare the Passover.
Luke's later-written version of the Last Supper, in chapter 22, is different. It says that Peter and John went ahead to prepare the Passover. It makes no mention of Jesus arriving with the Twelve, and it indicates that only "the apostles" were present. (One naturally wonders whether the author might have edited his account to portray the gathering as an exclusive one, so as to emphasize the authority of the Twelve.)
And, as is fairly well known, the Fourth Gospel makes no mention of the institution of the Eucharist at all.
Paul mentions the institution of the Eucharist in his first epistle to the Corinthians 1 Corinthians 23-26. In the course of chastising the Corinthians for their apparent cliqueishness and selfishness, he says nothing about needing a special person to "celebrate" or "administer" the Eucharist. Evidently, the breaking of bread and sharing of wine in remembrance of Jesus was something done by all believers when they came together to eat.
So Which Is It?
So: Did Jesus give only his apostles -- and by implication, only their successor bishops and presbyters -- the authority to celebrate the Eucharist?
Or, did he direct all his disciples -- and by implication, all Christians -- to "do this in remembrance of me"?
My money is on the latter. I suspect Jesus had in mind that, whenever his followers gathered to break bread, they should do it in remembrance of him.
Eucharists in Informal Small Groups
And if that is indeed what Jesus had in mind, I would say he was definitely on to something: Some of the most moving Eucharists I've ever experienced have been in informal, small-group settings, as opposed to large-scale church services. Each time we had a priest as the celebrant, to be sure, but I don't think that made much difference.
For example: At my parish, the Associate Vestry (read: usher captains) are in charge of the annual Rally Day. That always takes place on the first Sunday after Labor Day. There are carnival rides, silent auction, picnic lunches, musicians, etc. When I served on the AV several years ago, we had to show up for Rally Day duty at 6:00 a.m. We had a lot of work to do. We knew we wouldn't t have time to attend the regular church service. So at 7:00 a.m., we took a break, grabbed donuts and kolaches, and our priest-liaison did a quick Eucharist. It was a powerful spiritual experience that I'll never forget. I've had similar eucharistic experiences in other small groups.
I would love to see Christian small groups routinely celebrate Eucharists as part of their activities, with or without a priest. I think their ministries would be greatly enhanced by adding that element of worship.
After all, Jesus told us to do this ....