Small Parishes and the Eucharist Today

Milton H. Coleman

March 2019

For the last 50 years or so the Holy Eucharist has been Sunday worship in most American Episcopal churches. The Liturgical Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries focused on the Eucharist as the essential action of the Sunday meeting and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer became the standard rite of Eucharistic  worship.

Louis Weil, the liturgical scholar scholar, in the Theology of Worship, puts it this way: “It is in the public worship of the church that Christians have their primary experience of the identity as a faith community, as the people of God. When we gather for worship on Sunday, we become the “visible expression of the church”, not merely a collection of like minded individuals who enjoy each other’s company. Public worship is communal worship, not private or individual adherence to God. “The celebration of the liturgy is the shared activity of all the assembled people; it is not something that the clergy perform for the laity.”

If the Eucharist is the essential and vital means of God worship for the Sunday assembly, we must be concerned with the loss of priestly vocations, with the inability of local parishes to provide for a resident priest and for the rather rapid disappearance of academic institutions that form the educated clergy that the church has demanded in modern times.

The American church in its canons designates the priest as the celebrant (presider) of the Eucharist, the giver of absolution following confession of sins, either corporate or individual, the officiant at baptism and the interpreter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Other liturgical actions can be fulfilled by the laity.

It is understood that these liturgical rites should reflect the theology of the church. This cannot be accomplished without specific theological education which, traditionally, has been the province of seminaries, both Episcopal and those unattached to a particular denomination. The canons require of a priest, proficiency in church history, doctrine, liturgy, practical theology including polity, the use of the voice in reading and speaking (preaching), theology, ethics/moral theology and the practice of ministry. Further, Canon III.5 (b) requires a priest to obtain a baccalaureate degree or have an equivalent learned education.

Episcopal residential seminaries outside the South have severely declined in recent years; faculties have been dismissed and thus, priestly education must be accomplished in other ways. Many dioceses now have local, in-house training programs and seminaries offer on-line courses in the required subjects. Some universities with theological faculty provide basic courses and, in some cases, Anglican studies. But the loss of Anglican faculty, the variations of the means of study and the disappearance of an Anglican ethos gained in a residential environment has resulted in a significant change in the education of our clergy. In the early days of local training the persons ordained from this style of education were referred to as “second class priests” by some seminary trained clergy. And comparison of the GOE results between seminary clergy and locally trained clergy did indeed demonstrate significant differences in knowledge and understanding; many subjects were not taught or covered in any detail and some dioceses had few clergy or professors capable of teaching. Some form of local training is probably in the future of the church so very improved teaching will be important.

This being the case, two basic questions should be asked: (1) Where did the priesthood in Christian practice come from and, (2)How is the Eucharist a singular function of the priesthood?

Gary Wills in Why Priests? points to the days of the Jesus Movement as recorded in the Gospels before there was such a thing as Christianity, before there was an entity called church, when there were just local gatherings within the Jewish community. Such gatherings had many roles (charisms) for its members including exorcists, prophets, speakers, healers, and others, but there were no individuals which today we would call priests. The Jesus Movement met to share memories of Jesus, to consider what direction to move in and to share a common meal. They baptized newcomers and provided for the poor. This was the first century with study of the words and actions of Jesus, together with the meal, long before the formalization of these meetings that we might call church.

Paul in his First Letter to Corinth describes such gatherings as having “diverse charisms (that is, functions) but from the same Spirit, distinct ways of serving but the same Lord.”

Thus, Wills writes, “There were many charisms of service but no priests, no priestly services, no male presider at the agape meal, no re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper, no sacrifice of the Mass – nothing that resembled what priests do now.”

There were, of course, priests in the Jewish cult. Exodus 19:5-6 includes the phrase (Israel was to be) “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel’s priests were to be mediators between God and man. They (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) were heads of their clans. The first formal identification of a priest was Aaron, followed by his sons. They were of the tribe of Levi, thus the start of the Levitical priesthood. Paul Bradshaw in Eucharistic Originsnotes that early Christians saw themselves as a priesthood, one offering sacrifice to God in their community gatherings. The concept of a ministerial priesthood came later and only gradually was it seemed necessary to the developing church.

Most church historians see the Christian priesthood as rising from the Letter to the Hebrews. Written in sophisticated Greek, using an extensive vocabulary, more expansive than anything in the New Testament, it contains considerable references to the Hebrew Bible, indicating that its audience was “Christian Jews” or “God lovers.” Written to an unknown particular community, not, as the title suggests (Hebrews), during the latter part of the first century, probably after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., it was not accepted as scripture in the West until the 4th century.

The author of Hebrews,in the letter’s central metaphor, refers to Jesus as God’s son and calls him the Great High Priest, thus connecting him to the long line of Jewish priests who were the officials of the temple. Indeed that expression of Jesus as “Great High Priest” is found today in Eucharistic Prayer C in the 1979BCP. Only the High Priest could enter the “Holy of Holies” and then only on the Day of Atonement. Marcus Borg in the Evolution of the Word notes that the standing of the High Priest is the context for proclaiming Jesus as the Great High Priest. The Letter to the Hebrews, in its distinct connection to the temple high priest, provides a different emphasis to seeing Jesus than do Paul’s letters and the Gospels regarding priesthood in the first century of the Jesus Movement.

Jeffrey Lee in Opening the Prayer Book believes the pattern of worship moved slowly from informal meals in homes to a general outline of meal of thanksgiving as detailed in the second century Apology of Justin Martyr where some form of presider leads the services.

Some see the earliest change from a community’s meal with prayers to something with repeatable order was that of Justin’s document, written in the second century at Rome. Paul Bradshaw in Eucharistic Origins writes that Justin’s text derived from the narratives of the Last Supper in Paul in and the Gospels, and included “Jesus, having taken bread, having given thanks, said, Do this in my remembrence; this is my body; and similarly having taken the cup and having given thanks, said, This is my blood; and gave to them alone.” Bradshaw understands this text as doctrinal teaching instead of a strict liturgical pattern.

The Didache, written somewhere between the time of the earliest Gospels and the early second century, contains two chapters (9,10) that have suggestions for an order of worship, but not one developed in any clear fashion. Indeed, scholars have studied this text over the last 120 years with little agreement as to its connection with the apostolic narratives of the Last Supper and there is no information regarding any structure or requirement for liturgical leadership.

Andrew McGowan in Ancient Christian Worship notes that by the middle of the third century the Eucharist had become a regular Lord’s Day celebration although the theological development that saw the rite as sacrifice was still in its early stages. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, saw the Bishop as priest to be the normal presider of the Eucharist although elders could still be designated as presiders. The movement of Eucharistic leadership from a community’s charisms to priests was very gradual and not the same from one group to another. The association of the priesthood as necessary to the Eucharist and to the understanding as sacrifice was only agreed to as time moved into the fourth century.

The complexity of the of clerical service books over time required a detailed amount of teaching and diligence that further separated the clerical office from the laity and by the time of the Reformation “the laity had been effectively excluded from virtually any sense of active participation in the church’s worship and the early church’s belief that they were the primary ministers of that worship was long forgotten.” It was the church hierarchy that decided that the Sunday meal required a separate sort of person, an ordained male to preside, not to preach the Gospel, but to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the transubstantiation. The theology of the Eucharist from the community meal to the formal rite of the fourth century and then to the Middle Ages required much debate and only gradually the imprimatur of the hierarchical church.

For a very long time there was no formal training for priests. After the catechumenate essentially disappeared in the Fourth century with the legalization of Christianity, theological teaching fell to monasteries and later to cathedrals. Ryan Bonfiglio in the Christian Centurynotes that the first seminary was founded in 1563, an outgrowth of the Council of Trent. And with it came the end of theological instruction for the laity. It is only in recent years that the church has made an effort to provide theological instruction for persons not slated for the ordained ministry with programs like Education for Ministry and Theology Matters. It is this form of teaching, adapted to the schedule of the working laity that can form the basis of training for liturgical leadership of the church.

Louis Weil in Gathered to Pray writes “The progress of domination of public worship by the clergy is paralleled by the emergence of a private world of lay piety,cut off from the cleansing life of the church corporate prayer.” Thus, clerical control of most portions of the Eucharistic liturgy effectively demonstrates that worship is the sole province of the ordained and causes laity to understand prayer as only private prayer. Eucharist understood as being celebrated by the whole assembly, not simply the priest, and the idea that all should fully participate is rather recent doctrine and, because of long practice, is most difficult to achieve. The priest as sole celebrant and the people as passive audience is a situation that will not be altered easily. The situation is exemplified by having altars at the end of the tunnel, then chancels, rood screens, altar rails and rows of pews all facing the person in charge, the traditional pattern. (There is more in my earlier paper, Recovering the Assembly)

Is there a way in the church today to thoroughly communicate the understanding that the whole assembly is celebrating the memorial meal of Christ?

In Meal as Eucharist I suggested a number of ways to see the Eucharist as the common meal of the assembly, as a way that the members could understand the rite as one in which their participation was fully necessary and demonstrably important. In these examples I showed how the Eucharist was the core of a real calorific meal and thus directly illustrative of the meals of Jesus as well as the Passover meal.

But there are other factors than foods, wine, church architecture and details of the rite in the service books that come into play when the ordained presider for the Eucharist is not present or where the assembly is unable to sustain the cost of a part time or resident priest. For certainly years of history and tradition lie behind the requirement of an ordained presider.

Is there an alternative to the traditional canonical direction that only a priest can preside at Eucharist? Does the history of the early Jesus movement indicate that the remembrance of our Lord in the Sunday meeting can be accomplished by the assembly with a presider from the midst of the people? Given the circumstances previously mentioned of the lack of an ordained person, can a trained lay person lead the assembly?

There are several solutions to the role of presider at Eucharist when formally trained clergy are no longer available. Deacons have a long history in the church, indeed longer than priests. The modern deaconate was enhanced some years ago, liturgically recognized in the 1979 book and practiced in many parishes today. Generally, bishops have been opposed to the “deacon’s mass” where a deacon administers communion using bread and wine previously consecrated by a priest. Yet the Prayer Book certainly provides for this rite (according to the directions on page 408 of the Prayer Book). Often deacons are restricted to the vital role of working in the community and not at Eucharist. But where priests are not present on a long-term basis, deacons with their theological training could lead a deacon’s mass or actually preside at Eucharist.

As the teaching that the Eucharist is celebrated by all the assembly and not by only the ordained, the church has moved to designate lay persons to participate in the Eucharist in specific ways. Canon III.4 details such roles as Preacher, Eucharistic Minister, and Eucharistic visitor, formalizing charisms of which Paul wrote in his New Testament Letters. It is normally the case that a theologically trained priest can best interpret the Gospel but when not present the church has decided to let that role be performed by a trained lay person.

In the same fashion, lay persons can be trained to preside at Eucharist using the same theologically based rite as provided to priests. A lay person who presides at Eucharist would certainly have to receive specific training in the development and purpose of the Eucharist and the Diocese would need to so provide. But where a parish cannot provide for even a part-time priest, a lay person would enable the people of the parish to continue to receive the sacrament.

Years ago in France, the Roman Catholic Church organized part of the priesthood around men who had full-time secular professions that sustained their lives and limbs but who also were assigned to parishes as celebrants of the mass. This system not only allowed poor parts of the church to have regular masses and other sacramental actions but provided people with spiritual leadership from one, by virtue of his daily toil, fully understood the economic situations of his people. Today, by training persons in the presiding at Eucharist and who can provide for their families through a business position, the situation of a lack of priest can be alleviated.

Thus there are practical approaches to retaining the Sunday Eucharist when ordained clergy are not available or where the  substantial cost of supporting a priest is not possible.

Nothing in these ideas of providing the Eucharist to small churches with little or no access to a priest in any way depreciates the priesthood and its multiple values to the present day church. Finding ways to solve the small church ordained problem remain a priority for dioceses and bishops.

Our worship of God is centered around our participation in the Eucharist, in the reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the local assembly of the church, the people of God. As people no longer believe in organized religion, indeed in the concept of God, as parishes decline in numbers and people move about the country to find jobs or go to retire and as seminary-trained clergy disappear, assemblies of those who remain still need the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist in their Sunday worship. Provision for a lay presider will help resolve this growing situation and should be considered before more churches disappear