A brief commentary on the regulations about elders leading communion.
- where the regulations or this resource read Presbytery and Session, read also Union District Council and Parish Council.
- the terms Communion, Lord's Supper, and Eucharist are used interchangeably throughout this handbook. Each term has its own special significance, which will be discussed in later chapters.
(A) Regulation 85
The Session or Parish Council fixes the times of public worship, authorises and regulates the observance of the sacraments, and appoints special times for humiliation or thanksgiving or prayer.
Normally the sacraments shall be administered by an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament. The Session or Parish Council may nominate an elder or elders to administer the sacrament of Holy Communion. Elders so nominated shall be presented to the Presbytery for approval and training and following such training may be authorised by the Presbytery to administer the sacrament of Holy Communion. Elders so authorised may administer the sacrament of Holy Communion only with the authority of the Session or Parish Council and minister or interim moderator.
Here are the essential aspects of the Church's provision for administration of communion by elders: it remains the norm that the minister administers communion
- but any Session or Parish Council may nominate elders to do so,
- the Presbytery may then accept such elders for training,
- after the training event (or course) Presbytery may then authorise the elders to administer communion,
- such elders may only administer communion at the specific invitation of the minister or interim moderator, and always under his/her authority and that of the Session or Parish Council.
(B) The Act of Modification (Clause l)
[ The full Text of the Act of Modification is in Appendix B-4 of the Book of Order. Clauses 2-4 are included below.]
1. The Session or Parish Council fixes the times of public worship, authorises and regulates the observance of the sacraments and appoints special times for humiliation or thanksgiving or prayer.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper is normally administered by ordained ministers except where, at the discretion of the Presbytery or Union District Council, certain elders may be authorised so to do but always under the authority of the minister or interim moderator and of Session or Parish Council...
- 'The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper is normally administered by ordained ministers...'
Our church continues to believe that the appropriate persons to administer the sacrament of communion, in most circumstances, are those who-after theological training-have been set apart (ordained) by the whole church to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament and then called and inducted to pastoral leadership in a local setting. It is they who are responsible to the Presbytery for oversight of both the preaching of the Word and the conduct of the sacraments. As the recognised leaders of the worshipping community, it is natural that they should most often lead the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
Nevertheless, the church has agreed that such an understanding does not preclude elders from being authorised to administer communion, should that be either necessary or desirable...
- 'except where...certain elders may be authorised so to do'
A partial analogy to elder administration of communion is our church's long-established pattern of lay preaching. The preaching of the Word remains the responsibility of the ordained minister, who would normally do most of it. On occasion that function may be delegated to some suitably gifted lay person. In a similar way, the ordained minister who has the responsibility for the oversight of a parish (together with Session) must continue to oversee the provision of the Lord's Supper, and would normally be the one that administers it. On occasion that function may be delegated to a suitably gifted (and duly trained and authorised) elder.
- 'at the discretion of the Presbytery or Union District Council'
Presbytery retains the authority to decide whether or not to permit elder administration of communion in a particular parish.
- 'but always under the authority of the minister or interim moderator and of Session or parish council'
The minister of word and sacrament, together with the Session, is responsible to Presbytery for the administration of communion within the parish. When an authorised elder conducts communion, it is only at the invitation of the minister, and under the authority of both minister and Session.
(C) Interpretative Statement
The 1993 General Assembly adopted the following interpretative statement for inclusion in the Book of Order (1993, pp.149-150) 'as a guide to understanding the scope and intent of the Act of Modification, which remains the primary and definitive legislation':
- Assembly affirms that provision for elders to lead communion is in part analogous to the Church's acceptance of lay preaching, in the sense that both are service on occasion by selected lay persons in roles normally the function of those ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament, but always at their request and under their oversight.
- Assembly affirms that its provision for elders to lead communion is not just for rare, remote and altogether unusual parishes, or limited to cases of extreme necessity.
- Assembly confirms however that elder administration of communion is not as of right but - for the sake of order, and for the sake of the harmony of the Church - is at the discretion of Presbytery.
- Assembly urges Sessions to make requests for provision for elder administration of communion responsibly and with reasons given.
- In considering a request from a Session for permission to nominate, Presbytery shall have full discretion in the matter but must consider the good order of the Church (meaning where Presbytery has informed grounds for fearing that in a particular parish elder administration of Communion would lead to disorder or disunity, it may decline permission to nominate) and may have regard to the following considerations: provision for elder administration where a Session believes it would help ensure regular or more frequent celebration of Communion. Such parishes may include those with ministerial vacancies or with multiple preaching places or without ready access to retired or non-parish ordained ministers with some living pastoral link with the congregation.circumstances or priorities within the life and mission of the congregation and its ordained ministry where a Session believes the parish's effectiveness in mission would be enhanced by provision for elder administration on occasion -such considerations may for example include the desire to relieve pressure on the ordained ministry in a parish where numerous bedside communions are required or in some cases the authorisation of a lay parish assistant if an elder.any other relevant factors at the discretion of Presbytery.
- The Act of Modification and Regulation 85 remain the primary and definitive legislation.
- Presbyteries and Sessions should also note the supporting regulations 'The Selection, Training, and Authorisation of Elders to Administer the Sacrament of Holy Communion and the roles of Presbytery and Session'.
The key words, in both the Act and the interpretative statement, are 'at the discretion of Presbytery'.
The statement is intended to preclude misunderstandings (in either direction) of the Act's scope and intent-to discourage both an unduly restrictive model and an unduly permissive model.
A parish must make a reasoned and responsible request. A Presbytery should take seriously the good judgement and local sensitivity of the Session, but in all cases retains full discretion.
Presbyteries need to be sure that nominated elders really do have the personal qualities and attitudes listed in 4(a)-(e) (Appendix E5 of the 1993 Book of Order, p.164), training and authorising such elders with care, and monitoring their service thereafter. Presbyteries must insist that the regulations (1-12) are followed, and must be prepared to respond to any abuses that might develop. For example, a Presbytery may withdraw authorisation from any elder who initiates communion services independently of either the minister or Session.
(D) The Act of Modification (Clauses 2-4)
2. Assembly affirms the reformed understanding of the essential relationship between Word and Sacrament, and the need for Communion to be administered with understanding in the context of the preached Word.
The Lord's Supper is not a magical rite, with its own inherent power that makes it effective simply by being performed. The Lord's Supper may not be administered in isolation from the reading and preaching of the Word of God in the scriptures. It can only achieve its purpose of nurturing our faith in Christ when it is received in association with the proclamation of Christ. It is not essential, of course, that the same person both preaches the word and administers communion in any one communion service.
3. Assembly affirms the biblical principle of the Lord's Supper being administered decently and in order.
In 1 Corinthians 11:17-23, the apostle describes the disorder that had developed in the church at Corinth, then outlines a few essential principles (the phrase 'decently and in order' is borrowed from the last verse of chapter 14).
4. Assembly affirms that the true significance of the Lord's Supper depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit and the command and promise of Christ.
The basic point of this affirmation is that the effectiveness of a communion service is not dependent upon whoever it is that administers it. If there is to be spiritual benefit, then the work of the Spirit in giving us understanding and faith in Christ is essential.
(E) The selection, training and authorisation of elders to administer the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and the roles of Presbytery/Union District Council and Session/Parish Council.
- No Session shall be required to nominate any elder under this procedure, and any Session may resolve that all Communion services within the parish shall be administered only by an ordained minister. While there is provision for elder administration, for individual sessions the matter is entirely optional. Any resolution does not of course bind the Session permanently.
- A Session may request permission to nominate to Presbytery up to two elders to administer Communion under the authority of Session and minister or interim moderator and the oversight of Presbytery. Presbytery should give full consideration to any reasoned and responsible request. Other appropriate stages for Presbytery to exercise its oversight are set out below (especially 4, 5, 6a, 6c, 6e, 12).
- A Presbytery may give permission for more than two elders in any parish to be nominated only after obtaining the concurrence of Council of Assembly. At no time may there be more than three elders authorised in any one parish.
- When the Presbytery has approved the request, Session shall nominate the elder to Presbytery for training and authorisation. Elders so nominated must:
- show evidence of active spiritual life,
- be in good standing with the local congregation,
- have a proven gift of leading worship,
- be able to preach competently,
- be willing to accept this responsibility, and in humility see it as a servant role within the worshipping community.
- The Presbytery shall provide training using training material approved by Assembly.
That is, Celebrating Communion - reprinted and revised edition, 2001.
- After training, the Presbytery may approve the elder as qualified to administer communion
and shall inform the Session.
- That authorisation may be recognised by Session in the local church with prayer.
- Authorisation shall expire on a date each year set by Presbytery. Session may submit nominations for authorisation for the ensuing year. Elders previously authorised may be approved by the Presbytery without further training but Presbyteries may on occasion require further training.
- Presbytery shall keep an annually updated list of elders so authorised.
- Presbytery has the authority to withdraw an elder's authorisation
- Where the Parish Council of a union or co-operating parish nominates an elder or elders the Presbytery shall inform the regional courts of the Churches involved in that parish and proceed only with their concurrence to training and authorisation. At the same time the Presbytery should invite comment from the Joint Regional Committee. Authorisation is by the Presbytery only and not by any partner Church.
- The celebration of Holy Communion shall be consistent with the guidelines on the content of the communion services as approved by Assembly in paragraphs 158 and 159 of the Plan for Union 1971:
158: In every celebration of the Lord's Supper bread and wine shall be set apart, with the unfailing use of Christ's words and acts of institution with thanksgiving, and there shall be communion using both bread and wine by presbyter and people. Any consecrated bread and wine remaining after the Communion of the people shall be disposed of in a reverent manner.
159: The service of Holy Communion shall normally include:
- Prayer of humble approach to God with self-examination and confession and the declaration of God's mercy to penitent sinners.
- The ministry of the Word including readings from the Scriptures with preaching.
- Affirmation of faith.
- Intercession for the world and the Church.
- The offering to God of his gifts to his people including the bread and the wine, of their praise and thanksgiving and of themselves.
- Invocation of the Holy Spirit.
- Praise for God's glory and goodness in creation; thankful commemoration and showing forth of the redemptive work of Christ in his birth, death, resurrection, ascension and in his institution of this sacrament; thanksgiving for the hope of his coming again in glory.
- The breaking of the consecrated bread.
- Expression of communion with God, with one another, with the whole people of God on earth, and with all the company of heaven.
- The Lord's Prayer.
- It remains the prerogative of Session to set the time and place of all communion services in the parish.
This is a well established aspect of Presbyterian order (Reg 85).
- It shall be the prerogative of the minister or interim moderator, with the concurrence of the Session, to invite an authorised elder to administer communion. No authorised elder may administer any communion within the parish without the invitation of the minister or interim moderator and the concurrence of the Session.
Both sentences state in different words the same all-important rule. It is the minister, whether local parish minister or interim moderator, who on behalf of Presbytery and together with the Session oversees the sacraments in the parish.
- Elders so authorised will normally administer communion in their own parish but may do so in another parish at the invitation of that parish minister or interim moderator and with the concurrence of its Session.
Interim moderators in particular need to be sensitive to the attitude of a vacant parish to elder administration, and should check with the local Session. It remains helpful for the interim moderator to lead worship in the vacant parish at least on occasion, to strengthen links with that parish.
Elders leading communion outside their own parish should be the exception rather than the norm: one of the attractive features of elder administration is that the elder would normally have strong pastoral links with the local worshipping community.
- It remains the responsibility of the Presbytery to oversee the administration of communion within the parish and its effectiveness shall be reviewed at the time of the visitation.
The Presbytery should exercise its ongoing oversight essentially through the minister, whether local parish minister or interim moderator, and through the Session.
(F) Lay Moderators and Communion (regulations 132, 346)
In cases where the Moderator is an elder, the Presbytery or higher court may, if it so desires, authorise such an elder to administer communion during the tenure of office, and shall ensure that such a moderator receives assistance and training as required.
(Note: The 1993 Assembly resolution also made provision for a 'higher court' to make the same authorisation.)
This regulation makes provision for authorisation of lay moderators to lead communion, but does not make it mandatory. The words 'may if it so desires' indicate that the discretionary power remains with the Presbytery or higher court.
Some lay moderators may prefer not to administer communion, and may wish to ask an ordained colleague to lead communion on their behalf. That remains their choice. In the same way, an ordained moderator has always been free to ask another minister to preach the Word or to lead communion.
The narrow context provided for in this regulation is only that of the worship life of a Presbytery, Synod, or Assembly, or-conceivably-a formal moderatorial service in some parish setting. It is not authorisation generally, but only in the context of moderatorial duties. It is authorisation only for 'during the tenure of office'. If such a lay moderator is later to lead communion in the normal context of a parish, all the due processes of nomination, training, and authorisation must be observed, as with any other authorised elder.
The provision for lay moderators to lead Presbytery or Assembly communion services has nothing to do with necessity. It is rather a different application of the basic principle, affirmed by successive Assemblies, that there is no valid theological or biblical basis for prohibiting lay administration of communion. In 1988, it was reported to Assembly that the basic biblical pattern of celebrating communion was that the natural leader of the community or gathering would normally preside. In a Presbytery or Assembly the natural leader of the community is the moderator.
The Act of Modification states that the essential Reformed principles are that communion should always be celebrated in the context of the preached Word, and with all due reverence and order. Neither of these Reformed principles are compromised by a lay moderator leading communion. The Word would always be preached, and there would always be due reverence.
It must be emphasised that in no case should the leadership of communion ever be seen as a mark of special status or privilege. It is, to quote another section of the regulations (E4(d), above), always but a 'servant role', to be exercised 'in humility'. In giving permission for a lay moderator to administer communion, a higher court is not conferring an honour, but rather expressing trust, and freeing their chosen leader to make a contribution in all aspects of their corporate life of worship, fellowship, and business.