The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) has voted to authorize temporary lay ministers, under very restricted circumstances, to “proclaim the Word and preside at Holy Communion” in underserved areas.
The ELCIC National Convention, held in Edmonton July 9-12, gave 95% approval to a motion that allows lay persons with “an aptitude for preaching and presiding” to be appointed, after synod-based consultation and due theological formation, in very specific ministry contexts for one-year renewable terms. [Under this new provision, presiding at Holy Communion means leading the assembly in the eucharistic prayer.]
ELCIC national bishop Susan Johnson allayed concerns about whether this new departure would have implications for the full-communion relationship between the ELCIC and the Anglican Church of Canada, in effect since 2001.
“A lot of checks and balances have been written into the policy, and I want to assure our sister church that we will live into this responsibly and continue in communication,” said Johnson, who was elected for a third term at the July convention.
The new lay ministers will work under the close supervision of a mentoring pastor and will be non-stipendiary. They cannot preside at weddings, funerals or baptisms and may not wear clerical garb or vestments, although they are permitted to don albs when preaching or presiding at communion. The lay ministers will not be addressed as pastor or any other clerical title reserved for ordained clergy. Nor can they offer pastoral care but must refer individuals in need of counselling to the ordained pastors who mentor the lay ministers themselves.
Specific congregations will be eligible to engage lay ministers only after exhausting standard options such as multi-point parishes, itinerant ministers and clergy-sharing with an ecumenical partner, Anglican, Presbyterian or United church.
Johnson described the new policy as a via media, a compromise to fill the need for sacramental ministry in small congregations that lack regular access to it. “Some in the ELIC might have been opposed to as not being the norm but understanding the real need, they supported it,” she said. Some convention delegates were even favour of expanding the lay ministry policy but were voted down, she added.
Highlighting the dearth of clergy in remote areas, Johnson noted that although Saskatchewan has 120 ELCIC congregations, only 35 of them employ clergy at the 25% FTE (full time equivalent) required for registration in the church’s pension fund. “That gives you an idea of what we’re dealing with,” she said.
The ELCIC’s Faith, Order and Doctrine Committee (FOD) began examining the lay ministry issue in 2012, with an Anglican representative taking part in all discussions. In 2014 FOD published its Study Guide on Word and Sacrament Ministry, a resource for exploring the current demographic realities and ways the Lutheran understanding of word, sacrament and ministry might shape future options for providing ministry.
Having passed at National Convention, the new policy will be reviewed and amended as necessary by the ELCIC’s National Church Council, its counterpart to Council of General Synod, the Anglican church’s governing body between General Synods.
In the meantime, two members of the Anglican Church of Canada are preparing a statement on what the new policy will mean for Anglicans. At its meeting this past May, the Joint Anglican-Lutheran Commission asked Archdeacon Bruce Myers, the Anglican church’s co-ordinator for ecumenical and interfaith relations, to prepare a brief providing background and reflections on the proposal and, if adopted, what it would mean for the ELCIC’s sister church.
Also collaborating on the brief is the Rev. Canon Paul Jennings, priest-in-charge of the parish of Wilmot in the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and former director of pastoral studies at Montreal Diocesan Theological College. He served as the FOD’s Anglican representative from 2012 to 2015. “The brief will likely be ready for distribution in September,” said Myers.
Currently, the Anglican church makes allowance for the distribution of communion by deacons and lay persons. “As with many things, practices vary from diocese to diocese,” Myers said. “Some make extensive use of lay people and deacons for distributing the reserved sacrament in congregations because a priest is not regularly available to preside at a celebration of the eucharist. Others use this option sparingly.”
He referred to the Anglican church’s document Public Distribution of Holy Communion by Deacons and Lay People, which back in1987 already acknowledged the growing gap between Anglicans’ need for regular receipt of holy communion and the availability of ordained priests to conduct full eucharistic celebrations. “Though it was issued in1987, the on-the-ground realities to which it responds have changed little,” Myers said.
Public Distribution concedes that “Our practice of ministry and our theology of church and sacrament will not fit together.” And it points out that the reception of holy communion outside the eucharist has a long tradition going back to the early days of the church when Christians would take home reserved eucharistic bread in order to receive communion during the week or to bring holy communion to the sick and imprisoned.
The document also addresses to the need for long- and short-tem solutions, including, in the latter, the public distribution of holy communion by deacons and laypersons when no priest is available to preside at the eucharist. It emphasizes, however, that such distribution of reserved communion is not a substitute for the complex communal meal and many-faceted celebration that is the eucharist.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to explain what presiding at Holy Communion means under the approved ELCIC motion.