Episco-Fact #36
March 5, 2017

 Why do the "sacramental" churches (i.e. the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the churches of the Anglican Communion) not have lay Presidency at the Eucharist, and what are the roles for lay men and women in the service?

All churches are sacramental in some way, either in their view of the person (i.e. the Society of the Friends), or baptism (Baptist's, of all sorts, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.), or the in the activities of the spirit through the person (i.e. Pentecostals), even if they would be unlikely to describe themselves that way. The other churches above, the ones with a high view of the Mass, or Communion, or Eucharist, believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine, separated out certain functions in the church early on.

In fact, as early as Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, composed around the mid to late 50's C.E. he began the conversation about organizing the meal of the community gathering, still probably what is known as an Agape (love) meal, so that abuses might be reined in (1 Corinthians 11: 23-34) for good order and to prevent some members of the community from being left out of the celebration. Subsequently, the Church ordered itself around Bishops (overseers), Presbyters (elders), and deacons (servants/waiters) who were assigned various functions in the liturgy.

For a long time, the trajectory for the Eucharist was to increase hierarchy and limiting roles for the laity. The spiritual specialists, the clergy, all three orders, the religious (Monks and Nuns), and even the choirs increasingly specialized and distanced the laity from the happenings around the bread and wine.

In the early church, somewhere in the late first century C.E. and the early second century C.E., the laity/clergy distinction was not well defined. Early hymnody was what the people could chant, readers were plentiful, acolytes were mostly adults, Over-time the language changed from Latin and Greek to the Vernacular, based on location, the music became more complex with musicians attempting to honor God in their art, and, in architecture parts of the church became obscured from the laity.

The institution of the BCP 1979 was an attempt to reverse this long arc. Rood screens were removed, altars taken out from the wall, hymn books renewed with hymns accessible to untrained voices, and the vernacular being the centerpiece of the encounter with the laity and clergy.

The first and foremost place of the laity is in the Prayers and the responses, either by praying along where indicated, or saying the Amen, with meaning at the end of prayers. Other places where the laity play central roles are in reading the lessons, leading the prayers, affirming their faith, confessing, serving as acolytes in procession and around the table, and singing the hymns and anthems where indicated as a congregation or as Choirs. All of these roles are essential to our weekly offer of worship to God.


The Rev. David Lucey