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A compilation of essays and comments by concerned pastors, theologians and laypersons, challenging denominations who are denying Christ’s resurrection, ‘demythologizing’ Scripture, blessing same-sex relationships, ordaining non-celibate homosexuals.

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Lay presidency

—Can we license lay men and women to preside at Holy Communion?

by Al Quie (WordAlone board member)

November 6, 2002

Lay presidency is an issue before the ELCA judging by bishops’ conversations at their October Conference of Bishops meeting in Chicago and WordAlone members’ discussions on email lists. The possibility that a layperson may not only preach, but also preside for communion, gives hope to those who attend small congregations or are part of new immigrant communities. Bishops’ lay ministry discussions also raise suspicion of hidden motives. As a layman here is how I look at these two points of view.

The hope is born on need and the suspicion is born on history.

There are hundreds of congregations of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) too small and financially unable to provide an adequate salary for a pastor. There are hosts of immigrants in need of pastors who can speak their lovely languages. The seminaries are unable to graduate enough pastors to serve even in small congregations that do have both a commitment and an ability to adequately fund a pastor.

New immigrants find the whole ordination process is too long, expensive and onerous for those whom God already has lifted up to share the gospel and shepherd the flock in their ethnic community. It is not only a fact—it is a shame.

The heartening point is that there is widespread awareness of our dilemma.

The sad part is that we are taking too long to solve this problem. Then, there is the suspicion that exists, which I will explain later.

One reason for this I believe is different understandings of an essence of the Reformation, which is the priesthood of all believers.

Many people who have been ordained tell me priesthood does not mean priest. Lay people are of this mind, also. It brings to my mind that you are not a barber even if you know how to cut hair and people like to have you cut their hair. You have to be licensed to be a barber. Now, I know barbering is not a sacrament and Holy Communion is.

Many lay people act as though there were an “ontological” or metaphysical change at ordination, similar to the new spiritual existence that comes with baptism. Unfortunately, the idea that only an ordained clergy person can administer, preside at, celebrate the Lord's Supper still exists.

Not true Lutheran doctrine! This “ontological” misconception may change because many bishops are licensing lay men and women to preach and preside at communion.

Now comes the suspicion: There are people in high places who are preparing for the day when the ELCA will follow the Episcopal Church in more than the practice of the historic episcopate which it did in January 2000. The concern is that the practice of bishops licensing "lay presidency" will be the entry point into the Episcopal Church’s three-fold form of ministry. That is: the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops.

The suspicion comes from the fact that the ordination of deacons was encouraged in the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialog III proposed full communion agreement adopted by Lutheran Dialog members 5 to 3 in 1991. Ordination of deacons was a part of the ELCA’s Study of Ministry, which the 1993 Churchwide Assembly turned down. It was certainly the direction the Concordat full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church was going in 1997 and one of the reasons why the Churchwide Assembly turned the Concordat down then.

Also suspicious is the March 1999 Tucson Resolution by ELCA bishops interpreting Called to Common Mission (CCM), the subsequent full communion agreement. They stated in the resolution that there were no requirements in CCM for the ELCA to adopt the three-fold order of ministry, nor to establish the office of deacon, nor that the prescribed forms of ordination of the Episcopal Church would apply to the ELCA. The bishops also restated current practice that laypersons could be licensed by a synod bishop in unusual circumstances to administer the Sacraments. Is licensing laypersons merely a first step to ordaining them as deacons?

Here is the way we can solve both the shortage of ministers and the suspicion.

Let’s go to another essence of the Reformation: mature and responsible congregations. We can encourage congregations to move ahead on their own; to exercise their God-given right to name a lay person to fill their pulpit, shepherd their flock, celebrate the Lord's Supper and equip other lay people to reach out to those who do not know Jesus Christ. It really is devoted followers of Jesus through whom the Holy Spirit draws other people to realize what God has done, is doing and will do through his risen Son.

By encouraging congregations to take responsibility, we will both fulfill the need for shepherds of flocks and laborers in the harvest and remove much of the suspicion of eventual movement back to ordination changes that the ELCA already turned down.