We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical... We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. — Not The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council“Communion is the fundamental limit of autonomy.” So proclaimed the Windsor Report (¶82). This observation could be merely the recognition of the harsh reality that people often break up when one does something of which the other disapproves, even when the action is objectively within the competence, authority, or right of that other person. But “limits” here has a stronger, and more intentional meaning. It is not a mere marker of a transition point, but an attempt to bar the transition — not a mere border marker but a sentry point, armed and at the ready to prevent any incursion.
At its most generous reading, this represents an aspirational and idealistic approach to human and ecclesiastical affairs. The sentries do not want to shoot anyone; they do want everyone voluntarily to submit to the discipline. They want no one to do anything to offend anyone else. This must mean, when push comes to shove in the situational and real world, that some are expected to refrain from doing something — something they feel strongly about, something they think is right and that they have the right to do, something which the failure to do would be wrong — on the basis of the possible (or real) offense such action may (or will) give to someone else.
This becomes particularly difficult in our touchy times and even touchier Communion, in which a pervasive neuralgia and hypersensitivity seems to have afflicted portions of our former fellowship — to the extent that fellowship is now actually broken. A recent instance of this is the “Dear John” letter from Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan to the Presiding Bishop of TEC. It is a masterpiece of high dudgeon, closing with, “We will not give TEC advice anymore, because TEC ignored and has refused our advices.” Clearly, either you do as they think right, or that’s the end of it. If you do not take Sudan’s expert advice on the interpretation of Scripture, they will have nothing more to do with you.
All of this leads me to see things rather differently from Windsor, and from the optimistic view of the Communionists and Covenanters, and to place the shoe delicately on the foot of the one taking offense. It is not the exercise of autonomy that ruptures communion, but the abreaction of those who find that exercise intolerable. Thus: tolerance is the limit of communion. As I wrote back in December 2010
It is not possible to “agree never to disagree”; [but it is possible to adopt] a commitment “never to allow any disagreements to lead to a severance of communion or any other consequences to the covenanted relationship.” The short message is in this maxim: “It is never possible not to give offense; but it is always possible not to take offense.” ...It is always possible to forgive, in the manner of Christ, even those who do not think or know they need forgiveness. It is possible not to insist that all do as I do, or think as I think. This is the way of Christ...It is, in the long run, more Christlike and more practically possible to “agree to disagree” while remaining committed to one another, “for better, for worse,” than to walk on ecclesiastical eggshells for fear of doing anything others might not like.
Case in pointOver at Thinking Anglicans, an interesting comment stream developed in response to the post about Jonathan Clatworthy’s worthy essay on the proposed Anglican Covenant. One commenter, in response to the appeals (such as my own) for an essentially laissez-faire model for the Communion, threw down the gauntlet (or the other shoe for the other foot) of lay presidency at the Eucharist as proposed in Sydney, Australia.
A few responded that such a thing would be a move beyond the pale, but a number of others, including myself, reflected that this is precisely what I would see as something to tolerate even while disagreeing with it — that is, I could tolerate, and believe the Communion could tolerate, Sydney approving such a novel experiment. I hasten to repeat that I would not personally support such an innovation and would oppose its introduction in my own province. Frankly, while I don’t see the idea catching on, I have my reasons for not feeling this need be a communion-breaking issue.
My general reason is that lay presidency is, as far as I can see, similar to the question of same-sex marriage or the ordination of bishops engaged in such marriages, to the extent that these questions cannot be answered by a sole appeal to Scripture. In Reasonable and Holy I have laid out at some length how I feel Scripture, Tradition, and Reason can support the broadening of marriage to include same-sex couples, and I won’t belabor that here.
But let me sketch out a few of the reasons I see lay presidency as a tolerable experiment, even though I do not support it, except perhaps in the emergency “desert island” situations in which I think the commandment of the Lord to “do this in remembrance of me” outweighs the church’s tradition requiring a priest or bishop to preside at the remembrance.
First, that “desert island” scenario is a good example of “the exception proves the rule.” There is a rule, no doubt about it, from very early on in the church’s history, that the eucharistic assembly is to be presided over by a bishop. This presidency came eventually to be shared with and committed to presbyters. But that evolution itself reveals that the rule is not hard and fast, and bears exceptions as it evolves. No doubt there were those in that transitional period who felt short-changed or took offense that the bishop was not the chief celebrant in their assembly, as the officiant’s task in a growing and spreading church was committed to mere “country-bishops” (chorepiscopoi) — who are very likely the genetic ancestors of our later “parish priest.”
This reveals a church willing to experiment — as experiment it must if it is to survive in a changing world, and evolves new ministries such as the diaconate and presbyterate as part of that experimentation. Look at Paul’s advice to Titus concerning establishing presbyters in Crete, for example. This is evolution and experiment at work.
As the Scripture gives no clear evidence as to who the celebrant must be, other than by commission of the apostles or someone commissioned by them, the question can turn to the various means by which this commissioning has been performed since their times. Although laying on of hands holds pride of place, insufflation, anointing, and the handing over of the instruments essential to the performance of the rite all have formed part of the elements of the rite by which a person was authorized to take on the office of Eucharistic presidency. The crucial factor is authorization, not the form or sign by which that authorization takes place, since the form or sign is of human origin. Late patristic scholar the Rev Canon Richard Norris was once asked, “What do you call a lay person authorized by a bishop to preside at the Eucharist?” His pert response, “A priest.” Celebrating the Eucharist is a“faculty” that when conferred, is conferred.
Moreover, old models of “confection” of the Eucharist by the celebrant have in more recent years given way to a much broader community-based understanding of the sacrament even in many “catholic” contexts. Sydney is not, as I understand it, talking of a kind of informal “anyone like to officiate?” model for the Eucharistic assembly, but the designation of certain individuals to take up this function. This may press the buttons of those — including myself — who favor the rich and sacramental understanding of ordination. But the buttons marked “Break Communion” or “Schism” need not be among those pressed.
Again, let me state that this is not meant to be an argument in favor of lay presidency. It is, however, an argument for toleration of such an experiment, for mission needs in face of pressing situations. Meanwhile, such a local experiment will either catch on or not, and no other province need participate or copy, and the economy of God will cover any other deficits. Or so I trust.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG