Lay Presidency by Presbyteral Delegation

By McPherson, James M. | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Lay Presidency by Presbyteral Delegation


McPherson, James M., Anglican Theological Review


The worldwide debate about lay presidency took a new turn recently when the Appellate Tribunal (the highest legal/constitutional interpretive authority in the Anglican Church of Australia) published its 4-3 Opinion that the Australian Church was legislatively competent to authorise lay or diaconal eucharistic presidency. It is the purpose of this paper to examine and evaluate the new argument set forth in that Opinion by Bishop Bruce Wilson (Bishop of Bathurst): that the delegation of eucharistic presidency to a deacon or lay person may be justified as an exercise of presbyteral oversight.l

To date, the two main arguments for lay/diaconal presidency had either sought a theologically responsible way to provide isolated faith communities with sacramental ministry, or claimed an allegedly compelling theological parity between word and sacrament. Bishop Wilson's argument builds on the latter, and is to that extent vulnerable to criticisms of the parity argument.2

Three special features of the Constitution binding the Anglican Church of Australia have profoundly influenced the Tribunal's Report. The Constitution declares the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, together with its Ordinal and the Thirty-nine Articles, to be `the authorised standard of worship and doctrine' for Australian Anglicanism-hence Tribunal members were obliged to examine the Ordinal rigorously, and argue from the historic formularies. Second, no General Synod canon `affecting the ritual, ceremonial or discipline of this Church' has effect in a diocese unless and until that diocese adopts the canon through its own legislative processes.3 Third, and related to the second, the powers of a diocese to initiate its own legislation `affecting . . . ritual, ceremonial or discipline' remain constitutionally uncertain, so a diocese could initiate such legislation and put its constitutionality to the test.4

Before I turn to `the delegation argument', it is necessary to indicate briefly the meaning I shall ascribe to the term 'catholicity'.

'Catholicity' is one of the four credal marks of the Church, and receives useful explication in Eucharistic Presidency 2.24ff, 3.26ff, 4.15. It refers to universality, conformity and continuity with the larger Church, kath' holon.5 Scripture, creeds, dominical sacraments, and the threefold order of ordained ministries have been taken by many Anglicans as norms for catholicity, as per the 1888 (Chicago-) Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Jeopardising any of those norms puts catholicity at risk. If an action may compromise (e.g.) the effective operation of the threefold ordained ministry, the claim that it erodes catholicity may be justifiable.

The delegation argument

In its generic form, the delegation argument depends on two key statements:

1. that the core element of presbyteral ministry is the ministry of oversight of word and sacrament; and

2. that the ministry of eucharistic presidency may be delegated to either a deacon or a suitable lay person without violating the boundaries of the presbyterate, as a responsible exercise of presbyteral oversight.6

The argument set forth by Bishop Wilson represents a special development of the delegation argument. I shall refer sometimes to the generic argument, and sometimes specifically to Bishop Wilson's exposition.

I intend to show

1. that such delegation has the potential effect of undermining ordination and catholicity; and

2. that the claim: `Delegation of [eucharistic] presidency per se does not undermine the distinctiveness of the order of priest/presbyter' (p. 87) requires careful qualification and cannot stand absolutely.

With regard to Bishop Wilson's version, I also intend to show

1. that such delegation may violate the boundaries of the 1662 diaconal order;7 and

2. that his argument is associated with (but does not depend on) an ecclesiology of dangerous potential. …

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