Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Presider

I was invited to be the “guest presider” at one of the churches in our presbytery a while back. Which means that all they wanted me to do was preside at the Lord’s Supper.

The Presbyterian congregation was joining for the Sunday service with a neighbor Episcopal church. A visiting priest from New York City would preach, and the local Episcopal pastor would lead in other parts of the service.

The Presbyterian session was anxious to have a Presbyterian minister administer Communion, since their pastor would be away. Taking seriously the provisions of the Directory for Worship, they recruited me. “For reasons of order the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered by a minister of the Word and Sacrament….”(W-2.4012c)

Of course there are other possibilities, commissioned lay pastors, for example, and even elders under certain circumstances. But “for reasons of order,” it should be a minister.

The Roman Catholic Church requires that the Eucharist be administered by a priest, especially one ordained in “apostolic succession.” They are very concerned with “order,” in this as in other ways.

The Roman polity, a top-down hierarchy, prescribes a fairly rigid order as a means of control. During the exhilarating years following Vatican II, we took advantage of some laxity and some looking the other way, and even had experiences of “con-celebrating” the Sacrament with our Roman brothers, as well as presiding at tables where Catholics and Protestants came together. But those days are gone. Order has been restored in the Roman Church.

One might say, for discussion’s sake, “What’s the difference between them and us? Presbyterians require order also.” The difference is that our hierarchical polity is bottom-up rather than top-down, and those who preside are elected from and by the people. Our polity assures that Communion is celebrated by the whole church, of which the presider is the representative. It’s a very different kind of orderliness.

A better reason than “order” for ministers to preside at the Lord’s Table is found in the latter part of the line from the Directory for Worship: “…the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered by a minister of Word and Sacrament.” The Sacrament is linked to the Word. The proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon and the sharing of God’s gifts in the Sacrament both present the risen Christ.

Therefore, the presider at the Sacrament should be one who is also authorized to proclaim the Word, namely a “minister of Word and Sacrament.” This is not a new idea. The Scots Confession (3.22) has it this way:
“Two things are necessary for the right administration of the sacraments. The first is that they should be ministered by lawful ministers, and we declare that these are men appointed to preach the Word, unto whom God has given the power to preach the gospel, and who are lawfully called by some Kirk.” (The other necessary thing is that the Sacrament should be “ministered in the elements and manner which God has appointed.”)

In a previous post I wrote about the problem with the Lord’s Supper celebrated detached from the liturgy of the Word. Word and Sacrament are a matched set. It is the Minister of Word and Sacrament who should keep them together. Ordination is the way we assign necessary responsibilities in the church. Ordination helps keep things in order. If we are to do our worship “decently and in order,” the presider at the Table should be one ordained to proclaim the Word.

Now I confess that I wondered how this “guest presider” thing would work for me. After all, I would not be the preacher. So would it be proper for me only to preside at the Lord’s Table? Reflecting on the experience, I had no misgivings whatsoever. I presided, but the other clergy joined me in serving the people, and we served one another. It was truly the Sacrament of the whole church, and an ecumenical blessing besides.

Does it make any difference to you whether or not it is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament presiding at the Lord’s Supper? Have you experienced Communion in other denominations?

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