In April 2007, the Dialogue returned once again to the question of sacramental theology, particularly as it related to ministry and who could preside at the eucharist. Bill Harrison (ACC) and Rob Fennell (AST, UCC) facilitated the discussion regarding the role of the eucharist in our respective traditions. It was agreed that we share a common history up to the Reformation, and that there has been an evolution of meaning and practice over the centuries including in very recent times. At the time of the Reformation it was unlikely that the laity received communion more than a few times a year, if that, since reception was largely for the clergy while the people participated by their presence at the liturgy. While reformers in England, both Anglican and Protestant, and in Europe called for weekly celebration of the eucharist and reception of the elements on the part of the laity, this did not necessarily happen. When, for example, in Zurich, communion was received four times a year, it was likely more often than the laity had received before. Again, in the Presbyterian tradition, for example, until recently, such a high and holy ritual could only be approached with due reverence and preparation three or four times a year.
The placing of eucharist at the centre of Anglican life is also a more recent development. (Some of us grew up with the tradition that one received at 8:00 a.m. once a month and if attending another communion service on a Sunday did not receive.) A heavy emphasis is now placed on the sacraments and a sacramental approach to life. Mission is to be sacrament, living in relation to the divine, being a revelation of God’s transformational activity and transformative grace in the world. The eucharistic meal forms Christians as the Body of Christ and is the meal of the reign of God. Only the ordained are permitted to preside at the eucharist; in this context, ordination is understood as empowering priests for this function and to be sacramental witnesses helping others to recognize their own sacramental role through their baptism. Although this place of the eucharist at the heart of parish life, and the practice of individuals, is common in Canada and some other regions, it is not necessarily universal practice in the Anglican Communion. Nor is it always regular practice in The Anglican Church of Canada. For example, some parishes continue a pattern of alternating Morning Prayer and Eucharist at the primary Sunday service.
In The United Church of Canada there is a continuum of perception of the meaning of the eucharist (not surprisingly when one considers the three roots of the UCC: Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodist with its roots in the Church of England). At one end there is a Lutheran view of the physical presence of Christ, others view eucharist as a memorial of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and at the other end of the continuum a family or community meal. However, the vast majority of people in the United Church would ground their understanding of the eucharist in remembrance. In recent years, the frequency of the celebration of the eucharist has increased in the UCC with once a month not being uncommon and in some places even a weekly celebration and participation in communion. In the past, the emphasis of the Sunday liturgy had been on the Word; the balance of Word and Sacrament has perhaps been evened out as eucharist (most likely called “communion”) has become a more prominent and valued focus of the nurture and growth of the worshipping community. There may still be lingering resistance to more frequent communion, as some view the greater frequency of communion as making too common a sacred and special experience.
The Dialogue agreed that our churches hold much in common concerning the eucharist, including: an eschatological sign of the reign of God in anticipation of the banquet at the “end time”; it is Christ’s table with Christ as the host who calls us to it while offering himself as food for our nurture and transformation; communion not merely for the individual’s benefit but also as a call and means to become signs of love, and agents of justice, healing, and peace; a recalling of the Last Supper; a remembering of Jesus’ self-offering in his life, death, and resurrection until his coming again; the inclusion of children as recipients of communion has helped to open the table to others; an open and inclusive table is common to both but not universal in application; communion with and in community not just as an individual, “me and God;” communion with the whole Church, all who have come before and are no longer with us on earth; while Anglicans speak of the real presence of Christ in the elements, this is not in a literal sense. All these varied expressions of meaning, though not necessarily all at the same time, are found in the liturgy and eucharistic prayers in some form or other in both traditions even though liturgical practices vary considerably in the UCC. The session of the congregation, or its equivalent, has oversight of the administration of the sacraments and the order of public worship, provided the worship remains in continuity with the Basis of Union. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the liturgical renewal movement, a rediscovery of the important role of visible and tangible symbols and the value of ritual, together with ecumenical theological education have all contributed to what is common in our understanding and practice of eucharist.
We reflected upon how meaning and efficacy is given to the eucharist through, for example, the role and person of the presider, the actions and words of liturgy, the work of the people, and the gathering of the whole community. We reminded ourselves that it is God who is the source of grace active in eucharist.
Within The United Church of Canada the ordained are always eligible to preside at the eucharist. Ordination is irrevocable as in the Anglican Church; in the ACC, the bishop can take away a priest’s license. Likewise, in the UCC under the equivalent episcopal oversight of presbytery and Conference, a minister can be placed on the discontinued service list and be deprived of the privilege of presiding. Diaconal ministers and lay pastoral ministers may be licensed to preside within a particular pastoral charge in which they are serving, usually when they are the only paid accountable ministry personnel. In times of necessity, other lay persons may also be permitted to preside. There is a recent development of sacramental elders who would preside normally only in the absence of an ordained minister or in special circumstances and particular contexts of fellowship. Lay persons functioning as chairs of presbytery, president of Conference or moderator are also permitted ex officio to preside at the eucharist in these courts of the church. Various denominational documents support these positions and decisions. The authorizing of people for ministry and for presiding at the eucharist is conditioned by context and praxis more than by theology. There has also been a tendency to make all ministries egalitarian, moving away from what some see as a hierarchy, with the ordained minister at the top of the heap in a position of privilege and power. Lay presidency at the eucharist was also discussed in greater depth on earlier occasions (Winnipeg and Edmonton) using a paper by Rob Fennell as a guide, exploring the theological and historical justification of such a practice. There is one exception in the Anglican Communion, the Diocese of Sydney in Australia, which has authorized deacons to preside at the eucharist, without the blessing of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
It was agreed that there is a common practice of the ordained presiding at the eucharist. In the Anglican Church, ordination is a requirement for a valid celebration of the sacrament, only priests and bishops being permitted to preside. In the UCC ordination is not an absolute requirement for a valid celebration; other persons, ordered (diaconal ministers) or lay, may be authorized under certain circumstances to do so.
“The places of worship are not our places so much as a place where God gathers us, and the focus is not so much on buildings or on language, but on the community of God’s body being shaped and moulded together.”
— GORDON JENSEN