THE DECISION of the Appellate Tribunal rejecting lay and diaconal presidency at the eucharist is the latest setback for the diocese of Sydney in its quest to find a means of allowing lay people and deacons to fulfil this function.
Since the 1990s, numerous attempts have failed, but this decision is the most serious, because the diocese’s current ordination policy is based on the premise that deacons can (in Sydney’s preferred terminology) administer the Lord’s Supper.
Under the policy that has been introduced in recent years, ordination as priests (or presbyters, as Sydney calls them) is restricted only to rectors of parishes. At least one newly appointed rector has been ordained priest in the same service in which he was inducted into his first parish.
Under this policy, all curates, senior assistant clergy, and chaplains are expected to remain deacons. Particularly in chaplaincy situations, the celebration of holy communion will, in time, become dependent almost entirely on diaconal presidency.
The diocese attempted to authorise diaconal presidency — and to affirm lay presidency as well — in a motion passed by the Sydney synod in 2008 (News, 24 October 2008). That motion, and the claims it made that a 1985 deacons’ ordination service allowed diaconal presidency, was the subject of the recent reference to the Tribunal.
THE DIOCESE of Sydney has been urging the change since the early 1970s, although it became a significant issue only in the 1990s. The diocese’s principal claim in favour is that it finds no biblical warrant for restricting eucharistic presidency to priests and bishops. The diocese holds strictly to the premise that scriptural warrant alone has authority in the Church.
The diocese holds the view that the principal role of priests is not sacramental, but rather leadership of the Church — hence the rationale for confining priesthood to parish rectors. Further, the diocese believes that scripture upholds its position that the preaching function, rather than the liturgical one, is the primary task of the ordained.
There are no pressing practical reasons why the diocese of Sydney needs alternative means of providing the sacrament of holy communion, as might some far-flung Australian rural dioceses with few ordained priests.
It has almost 700 active priests, and holy communion is not the main service of worship in most of the 270 parishes.
The claim that church-planting activities in the diocese as part of its continuing mission to increase church attendance to ten per cent of the Sydney population would create a demand for diaconal presidency has not come about, either (News, 20 October 2006). Only about 100 new congregations have been launched so far.
In the past, the diocese has attempted to introduce its own legislation to validate lay and diaconal presidency, but, although these moves received synodical endorsement, previous Archbishops of Sydney refused their assent. Nevertheless, these moves created such concern around the Anglican Church of Australia in the 1990s that a reference was made to the Appellate Tribunal to test the possibilities.
Most observers expected that that reference would result in an unequivocal determination that lay and diaconal presidency would contravene the Australian Church’s constitution, and particularly its foundational statements, which tie it to the doctrine and principles of the Church of England, as they were when the constitution was adopted in 1961.
By the barest of majorities, however, and to some dismay among Anglicans outside Sydney, the Tribunal’s decision in 1997 was that lay and diaconal presidency did not contravene the constitution. It could be authorised by a General Synod canon, though not by the legislation of an individual diocese.
Since then, no attempt has been made to introduce a General Synod canon because almost all the other Australian dioceses are opposed to lay and diaconal presidency, General Synod legislation would not receive the high level of support that such canons require under the Australian constitution.
The 2008 resolution of the Sydney diocesan synod was an attempt to find authorisation in an existing General Synod canon — the 1985 canon that authorised a new deacons’ ordination service. A report accompanying the motion argued that because deacons ordained under this canon could administer the sacrament of baptism “in its entirety”, and because “no hierarchy of sacraments is expressed in describing the deacon’s role of assisting the presbyter,” deacons were therefore authorised to “administer the Lord’s Supper in its entirety”.
In its findings, the Tribunal has dismissed that interpretation, saying that “we do not consider that the role of the deacon in the service of Holy Communion has undergone any serious or relevant change by the 1985 Canon.”
The big question now, in the absence of any definitive response from the diocese of Sydney, is what the diocese will do in the light of the Tribunal findings. There is evidence that deacons have been presiding at holy communion as a result of the 2008 resolution. Observers will be interested to see whether that continues, and whether the ordination policy that restricts priestly ordination to rectors is reversed.
Dr Muriel Porter is the Church Times’s Australia Correspondent. She organised the reference to the Appellate Tribunal.