Bishops Wary of Lay Presidency

By Zachary Guiliano

After electing its 27th presiding bishop, the House of Bishops reconvened Saturday afternoon to deliberate on a handful of resolutions. The bishops referred resolution A051 (Support LGBT African Advocacy) back to committee.

The bishops then swiftly passed three resolutions: B003 (Support the Episcopal Church in Cuba), A112 (Encourage Support for YASC and EVIM) and A302 (Letter of Condolence to Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC).

The rest of the House’s afternoon deliberations focused on Resolution A044 (Affirm the Centrality of the Eucharist), which in its original form allowed lay distribution of Communion at Sunday services in the absence of clergy. In this session the bishops discussed a substitute text (see “Saints and Communion”).

Bishop Michael G. Smith of North Dakota objected to the revised text, as he thought it was too vague, and thought lay ministers “would be a great help” to rural and small congregations.

“I think the 1979 BCP has done its work, and our people like to receive communion on Sundays,” he said.

“With deference to my friend from North Dakota, I have to speak against the motion,” said Bishop Daniel Martins of Springfield. “The restriction to bishops, priests, and deacons is in the prayer book. [The original resolution] raises a constitutional issue that this Convention cannot change. I would like to suggest that this is a pastoral issue for diocesan bishops to see to in their dioceses with means already available.”

Many bishops weighed in on the topic, proposing amendments and secondary amendments that were successively defeated. The conversation ranged across a variety of theological topics and anticipated disciplinary issues. Most of the bishops were firmly opposed to regularizing the practice of lay ministers distributing Communion without clergy.

The Rt. Rev. Peter Lee, retired Bishop of Virginia, rose to oppose the practice of lay distribution and “to offer a prediction: With the increasing anti-clericalism in the House of Deputies, two conventions from now there will be a movement towards lay presidency of the Eucharist. We can move towards that if that’s what this Convention wants, but I don’t think it is.”

After considerable discussion, Bishop Andrew Waldo of Upper South Carolina said, “I’m surprised we have this resolution on the table,” noting that bishops swear “to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant” in their ordination vows (BCP, p. 517).

“We already have our marching orders. This seems like a technical issue, not an issue for General Convention.”

Bishop Mariann Budde of Washington had strongly supported the original text of resolution A044 in the Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music Committee. She attempted Saturday to add an amendment that would return its sense to the original version, improvising new language on the floor of the House and asking help from her fellow bishops in doing so.

She spoke with passion about the topic, saying, “This is an extreme situation on the part of people whose life circumstances are unlike what the vast majority of us know.”

Her amendment failed as well.

After many more minutes of deliberation, Bishop Waldo said the character of the debate reminded him of his recent service on the Task Force on the Study of Marriage.

“This is reminding me of the tension we have between rubrics in the prayer book. I think we’re getting into a territory that we don’t want to define too much,” he said. “This may be a subject for prayer-book revision in a longer way.”

The most dramatic moment of the afternoon came when Bishop Julio Holguin of the Dominican Republic gave testimony, speaking in Spanish while an interpreter provided an English translation.

“I would like to ask if the fourth canon of Title III, Section A, doesn’t already contain a provision for what we’re talking about here,” he said. “Because the canon says in Section 1a […] that a legitimate congregant can be authorized to serve in a pastoral way or as leader of a church meeting, as a preacher, or (and here is the important thing) as a Eucharist visitor or minister, and so forth. Isn’t what we’re talking about included there? And it is the responsibility of the Ecclesiastical Authority to provide this kind of ministry.”

Bishop Wayne Smith said, “Yes. These are the very tools available to us.”

Bishop Martins attempted to resolve the issue, saying, “We’ve gotten into quite a quagmire with tentacles in several areas: theological, pastoral, canonical, and, I would submit, constitutional.”

He recommended having the House of Bishops Theology Committee confer with canonical specialists: “I don’t think we can do this properly right now.”

His suggestion was put to a voice vote, with unclear results. The House paused for a count by hands, which took several minutes.

Eventually Bishop Martins’s proposal was defeated, as were several further attempts at amending the motion.

After more than an hour of deliberation, the House changed only one phrase in substitute resolution A044. It changed the phrase “direct the Ecclesiastical Authority” to “direct the Bishop” in order to prevent sacramental practices from changing in the event of an interregnum between bishops.

Finally, the House considered a resolution to write a pastoral letter commending the recent papal encyclical Laudato Si. Consideration of the resolution was deferred, as several bishops confessed that they had not yet read it.

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