Throughout church history, Our People have discussed the Eucharist. It is one of the central, defining rituals of the Christian faith. In a modern seminary education — at least in my tribe — the conversation ranged around the exact relationship of Christ to the elements (trans- or consubstantiation, memorial, something else). In other tribes, the important question is who may validly administer the rite. Usually, which topics come up for discussion is a function of historical situation.
In my previous teaching on this subject, there were some important issues that never came up for consideration. At that time, I was pastoring a small church plant in Hemet, California. The rite would be administered by me, at the church service, which took place at 10:00 Sunday morning in the Abbott family living room — all that was a given.
Our questions had to do with how often we should observe it and (to a lesser extent) on what was going on in the Eucharist. We settled on weekly, and on an understanding that could fairly be described as some species of real presence.
I now find myself revisiting the topic, not to re-examine those conclusions, but to raise another set of questions that did not arise back then.
Who may validly administer the Eucharist?
Historically, the church has seen administering the Table as an exercise of spiritual authority. Historically, it has been an exercise of spiritual authority, because the Church has almost always fenced the Table. If the Church is responsible for deciding who may or may not eat at Christ’s Table, then administering the Eucharist obviously has to be an act of authority, and that means training, selection, some sort of vetting process, and public recognition of passing that process — in other words, some form of ordination. Suddenly we have to rely on the elders or the clergy or someone like that to administer the Table.
But what if that’s not the case? What if it’s not the Church’s job to control access to Christ’s Table, lest some unworthy varlet get away with a wafer? I am not advocating a radically open Table in the Anabaptist sense, but rather a Table at which Christians simply invite fellow believers to partake and warn all comers that because Christ is really present, He will be present for blessing or for cursing according to the faith of the receiver. In other words, what if our basic orientation — obviously scandalous cases aside — is that we don’t decide for people, we call on them to decide for themselves?
In that case, the question is no longer “Who has the authority to permit or deny access to the Table?” The question is, “Who may stand in the place of Christ and issue His invitation to the Table?”
Well, Christian baptism is priestly ordination — a point we have discussed elsewhere — so on the face of it, any baptized believer is an ordained priest. Therefore, any baptized believer may stand in the place of Christ to invite God’s people to His table. That puts a whole different complexion on the subject, doesn’t it?
If any baptized believer can validly administer the Table, then that raises another question. When should we observe the Eucharist? We are no longer limited to times and places where priests/pastors are summoning up their clerical mojo in a formal church meeting. If any believer can do it, we have to address whether someone ought to be breaking out the bread and wine at Friday night Psalm sings, at hospital beds, at baby showers…What are the criteria?
To be honest, I’m still working on that one. By next time, I hope to have something productive to say about it.