One of the more unpleasant things one can observe about liturgy is almost exclusively limited to the modern types of Anglicans, such as those found in the new Anglican Church in North America and its constituent bodies—at least those that still actually practice liturgy. Now, I’ve only seen the problem myself in North America, but I’m reliably informed the problem can be found on other continents as well. For once I’m not writing critically about traditionalists such as those in the “continuing” Anglican groups; this symptom of liturgical dysfunction is nearly impossible to have with traditional liturgy. I write, of course, about the unnecessary multiplication of lay ministers of the Eucharist.
The scourge of lay Eucharistic ministers is commonly found in thousands of parishes. The legislation permitting these assistants had been intended originally as an aid in places where there were not enough clergy to take care of communion in a reasonable amount of time. The connection here is vital; the lay people licensed (sometimes, sometimes they’re not even licensed) to distribute Holy Communion are “extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.” What so many seem to forget is that it is the clergy who are the ordinary ministers of the Eucharist. And it’s highly improper for extraordinary minister to supplant the ordinary ministers.
How many times have we seen supernumerary clergy on staff sitting about the sanctuary instead of administering the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood whilst there are laymen doing it. In many places there is an assumption that “X number of LEMs will be assigned to such-and-such a service” without considering if there are clergy available who could—and should—be so serving.
Historically, there was never a problem with LEMs. In the past, and in traditional liturgies today, there are no LEMs; the Sacraments are administered by those ordained to do so. The practice was common that clergy not attending a Mass would slip in at Communion in surplice and stole, lend a hand, and slip out. Were a priest or deacon present in the service already, perhaps as a non-celebrating preacher, he knew his obligation was to administer communion, and behaved accordingly. When the Roman Church invented the Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, Episcopalians followed the lead with Lay Eucharistic Ministers. Yet the directives regarding these positions have been largely disregarded, ignored, or perhaps simply forgotten. The various liturgical authorities, however, are not not silent. Dennis Michno merely quotes the rubric from the (1979) BCP, which even so is perfectly clear:
When the celebrant is assisted by a deacon or another priest, it is customary for the celebrant to administer the consecrated Bread and the assistant the Chalice. When several deacons or priests are present, some may administer the Bread and others the Wine. In the absence of sufficient deacons and priests, lay persons licensed by the bishop according to the canon may administer the Chalice (BCP, 408).” (Michno, 72)
Note that the rubric is “In the absence of sufficient deacons and priests….” This was not merely a concern of Anglo-Catholics, for Church Army Captain Howard Galley, in his extremely low church manual reiterates both the BCP rubric and the canonical rule underlying it:
…the administration of the sacrament during the service was regarded as one of the duties of the ordained in their ministry to the people of God. In keeping with this tradition, the Prayer Book (p. 408) and the canons (Title III, Canon 3) specify that only in the absence of a sufficient number of priests and deacons are lay persons to fulfill this ministry.” (Galley, 33)
Our Roman brethren have been afflicted with this curse even more than we, and consequently their liturgical experts have had to be more explicit in their condemnation. There is little Anglican fudge or English understatement in their writings on this problem.
Extraordinary ministers are not to distribute Holy Communion while ordinary ministers, such as concelebrants or clergy in choir, remain seated. In 1987, a ruling was given that an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist cannot ‘exercise his or her supplementary function even when ordinary ministers of the Eucharist, who are not in any way impeded, are present in the church, though not taking part in the Eucharistic function.’ “ (Elliott, 291)
Bishop Elliott here is making it perfectly clear that bishops, priests, and deacons are expected to do their duty regardless and not have it handed off to others. (The “impeded” in his statement is a term from canon law, not a statement of inconvenience or preference.)
Just as we find fewer things that less promote worship than the unnecessary multiplication of extra ministers, so we find a concomitant increase in casual treatment of the Blessed Sacrament and similar failure to respect—or in many cases even recognize—the presence of divine Grace in the Sacraments, whether they be the Sacrament of the Eucharist or the Sacrament of Orders.
The solution is simple, though. All that is necessary is to refuse to schedule any more LEMs than one actually needs. It may be that no LEMs are really needed after all.
Howard E. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist: A Guide to Celebration, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 1989).
Peter J. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995).
Dennis G. Michno, A Priest’s Handbook: The Ceremonies of the Church, 3rd ed., (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1998).