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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Lay Assitance in Communing the People and Something About Deacons

Father Beane's post on children's sermons and the CTS calendar spawned a conversation (world without end, Amen.) that went in several different directions - one of which dealt with lay assistance at distribution and what this had to do with AC XIV, modern Roman practice, modern Lutheran practice, and so forth.

I don't think there can be any argument over the fact that in the minds of those who wrote and originally subscribed to AC XIV it meant that only ordained ministers (whether priest or deacons - the Lutheran understanding of the latter seems rather fluid: see below) would be consecrating and distributing the Lord's Supper to the laity. Never had it been otherwise in the long history of the Church. Indeed, some of the first canons we have from early meetings of bishops deal with who communes whom: and never, ever, is it laity who is distributing the Lord's Supper.

So, anyone reading AC XIV in 1530 would know exactly what it meant: only clergy consecrate and distribute the Lord's Body and Blood. That is the original intent of the article - and I really don't think that this is a point that can be controverted. To try to find wiggle room in there for another practice ("it says administer - not distribute") is to be anachronistic. It's a bit like lawyers trying to argue for new Constitutional "rights" that are beyond the obvious original intent of the US Constitution.

If one does wish to controvert the point: we'll need historical evidence that laity ever distributed the Sacrament before the 16th century or in subsequent Lutheranism in the 16th century. That bit in the Confessions that Fr. Weedon is always so found of pointing out really is a good key to Confessional Hermeneutics: in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part contrary to Scripture or the Church Catholic (Epilogue to AC XXVIII). It is simply a historical fact that at the very least, lay distribution of the Supper is a ceremony contrary to the usage of the Church Catholic up to 1530.

Therefore, I find it hard to view this practice as anything other than an abuse - and a widespread one, at that.

Why Lay Assistance at Distribution?

Why does the practice exist? In my experience, for two reasons. First, in most every place that the practice exists, it exists for the sake of time: a distribution by just the pastor would take too long. A big part of the problem here is the innovation of the individual cups which requires three passes by the pastor for each table.

Second, it exists to make the point that "there is nothing special about the pastor" or that the pastor is "only doing things in public that every Christian could do." I do not think that that is what everybody means by this practice - certainly not everybody does. But I have heard this sentiment more than once - so it is out there. Also - what else could be behind lay distribution existing in so many places with two, three, or more pastors?

What have the fruits of this practice been? For one thing, women distributing the supper. Because, after all, if this lay man can do it, why not this lay woman? I can recite the synodical reasoning about only men doing "specific functions" of the ministry - but that's kind of an odd reasoning, right? I mean, if it is distinctive to the function of the Office, why is any layman of either sex doing it? For another thing - didn't lay distribution pave the way "Word and Sacrament ministry" from a "lay minister"? If you stick him in an alb and he carries around a chalice and he's a layman and the Altar Book calls him an "Assisting Minister" - well, then, he's a lay minister!

The point about the length of time it takes to distribute is a fair one, as far as it goes. Yes, the people should be more pious - so should we clergy. Yes, we should be willing to walk 100 miles for confession - but you are better off making it a bit more convenient for the people.

Moving Away from Lay Distribution: One Congregation's Experience

In the parishes I serve, we moved away from the practice rather quickly in the following manner. First, I sat down with the "elders" - it's Dr. Al Collver, by the way, who did the leg work on digging up the roots of the misuse of that term among us in the January 2006 issue of Concordia Journal - and just showed them the rubrics from The Lutheran Liturgy about distribution. Your mileage may vary, of course, but my elders got it right away: ministers distribute the Lord's Supper. And it turns out that they had never been comfortable with the practice anyway. Didn't seem to them like it was their job, they said.

After that meeting, we went with the following practice by way of transition: the pastor took the Host, and then came back round to take the Chalice, and the lay elder would follow the pastor with the individual cups, simply carrying them for the pastor. But it was the pastor who would speak to each communicant, "Take, drink, the very Blood of Christ, shed for you."

The lay elders have since stopped doing even that - the catalyst for that was an elder not being able to be there one Sunday and behold: things went smoothly enough with just the pastor communing the people. But this practice is, I think, much less objectionable than what usually happens - namely, the layman bringing the Chalice and saying, "Take, drink,..." etc. - perhaps it will be of benefit to some of our readers.

What was the reaction of the parish to phasing out lay distribution? The elders were universally pleased and exactly one other grumpy old man told me that he was glad we were done with that because he always thought it inappropriate. Again, your mileage will no doubt vary.

But is there a better way still?

Deacons: What Are They? Where Can I Get Some?

Looking at our current practice of lay distribution from a slightly different angle, I think that what we have done is essentially turn certain members of our parish into "lay deacons." There has always been a need in the Church for assistance to parish pastors in their sacred duties - the sort of assistance that, in general, is unpaid or lowly paid, part-time, and yet clerical. This is the historical role of the deacons.

Deacons have a share in the Office of the Ministry - they are trained, called, examined, and ordained - but they are not the same thing, exactly, as presbyters. Where the NT uses the terms presbyter and episcopos interchangeably for the same office, there is an obvious distinction when it comes to deacons (Act 6; 1 Tim 3).

The first Lutheran ordination was of a deacon - Georg Rörer in 1525. It seems that the term in that time and place meant rather what we mean by "assistant pastor." But again, I'm frankly a little foggy on that point of history and would appreciate help. It's clear that the Lutheran confessions reject any essential, ius divinum distinction between priest and bishop - and that this fact is foundational to our self-understanding as Church instead of sect (again, see the seminal essay by Piepkorn). But what about deacons? What is their calling by divine right and what limits are put upon their service only by ius humanum? Are they in the one, unified Office of the Holy Ministry, but simply, and by human law, not called upon to perform all the duties thereof? Or do deacons exhibit a divinely instituted second office related to but distinct from the Office of the Ministry? Or do Lutherans believe in a two-fold office of the ministry (presyber/episcopos and deacon) like unto Rome's view of a three-fold office (episcopos, presbyter, deacon)?

The Biblical evidence, it seems to me, favors the last understanding. However, I have yet to see a good treatment of these questions from a Confessional Lutheran viewpoint - which does not mean it isn't out there, so if it is, please inform me.

All that is just to say this: distributing the Cup is the historical duty of the Deacon in those parishes large enough to need that sort of assistance for their Presbyter/Episcopos. The Deacon is a clergyman, he is ordained, he is not a layman, he receives communion from the Celebrant after the presbyters are communed, and then he distributes the Cup to the laity. He also does a lot more - very useful, godly work in the parish. I think we would do well to recapture their service.

But we need to understand more, I think. What exactly are deacons? If we understood that, we could provide guidelines for calling and ordaining men in local congregations as deacons where that sort of service is needed. And then the distribution would not only be timely and efficient, but also in accord with the historical meaning of our Confessions.

Pr. H. R.50 Comments