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As the church was emerging from its persecutions under Diocletian and into legitimacy under Constantine, there arose a schismatic church named the Donatists. Now, as one might imagine in a time of persecution, there were priests who, when given a choice between denying Jesus and being thrown to the lions, did in fact, deny their Lord. A question then arose as to whether or not the Eucharist that these priests celebrated was legitimate - the Donatists said 'No,' but the official orthodox position of the church (especially as articulated by Augustine), was that 'Yes,' in fact the Eucharist was valid because, "the efficacy of sacrements is not affected by the worthiness of celebrant."

That idea - that the Eucharist is not affected by the worthiness of the celebrant - seems to be quite a firecracker if taken to a seemingly natural conclusion. Namely, if the efficacy of the sacrement is strictly ex opere operato (meaning from the work performed) and not *ex opere operantis* (from the worker who performs it), why then is a priest required to bless the elements, in most traditions?

So, some disclaimers:

  • Disclaimer #1: Yes, some Radical Anabaptists like John Smythe had no problem celebrating the Eucharist even without ordination, but it is a fairly fringe case. Even many traditional mainline Baptist churches require that the elements be blessed by the minister, and without that, it is not considered communion. Certainly within the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and even I suspect the Methodist churches, if the Youth Minister decided to bless the elements, he'd get a minor toungue-lashing for the offence.

  • Disclaimer #2: Yes, there are some churches that don't believe Donatism is a heresy. They are fringe cases - the vast majority of the church holding that Donatism is, in fact, heresy.

  • Disclaimer #3: This question touches on why Catholics believe a priest is required. In an otherwise excellent answer, the key part of the question that I am interested in (Why can't laity bless the elements), I read:

    In terms of why the laity cannot yield the effect of transubstantiation, I don't have an extensive enough knowledge to pin that question down precisely.

  • Disclaimer #4: I am fully aware of the emergency situation where any priest - defrocked, heretic, or otherwise, is obliged to administer the sacrement of absolution. A good answer may extend this case, but should reference appropriate sources.

So, with all that said, Why can't the laity bless the elements in most churches? Is there a biblical case to be made, or is it just tradition. If the answer is 'tradition,' is it canon law? (Cites would be fabulous, and various denominational rules are acceptable!) Contratriwise, are there denominations (other than LDS - who I do believe would allow this!) that would say, for example, "Sure, the father can serve communion to his wife and children" ?

In short, why do we need priests (Catholic or Protestant!) to bless the Eucharist, if in fact, Christ is the one who is present in the elements to begin with?

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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Once Apostolic succession is rejected, it seems difficult to justify setting requirements for administration. The Protestant view seems to vary from "it doesn't matter who is doing it"1 to "you must have a Master's of Divinity and be ordained"2 to present communion. Ordination is commonly required, or at least recommended.

From what I can tell, this idea comes from the idea that the "minister" has been chosen by God to edify the church, and the people are to go outside the gathering for their ministries. The ordained minister is set apart by/for God to minister to His people so that they can go out into their communities; serving communion is not the responsibility of laypeople.

Ephesians 4:11-13 (ESV)
And he [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,


In the United States, the IRS may have something to do with it as well:

Treas. Reg. § 1.107-1(a) also provides examples of specific services considered duties of a minister, including:
1. Performance of sacerdotal functions;
2. Conduct of religious worship;
3. Administration and maintenance of religious organizations and their integral agencies;
4. Performance of teaching and administrative duties at theological seminaries.

Note 1:
The teaching of some Baptists (though not all agree):

Because the Bible indicates that all believers in Christ are priests (1 Peter 2:5; Revelation 5:10), there is no need for a priestly class to administer either baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Although normally the pastor of a church baptizes and presides at the Lord’s Supper, any member designated by the church could do so. In the Lord’s Supper, each believer priest, and not just the one presiding is, to partake of the bread and the cup. (BaptistDistinctives.org)

Note 2:
Article IV, paragraphs 22, 23 of the Constitution of the United Church of Christ:

22 Ordination is the rite whereby the United Church of Christ through an Association, in cooperation with the person and a Local Church of the United Church of Christ, recognizes and authorizes that member whom God has called to ordained ministry, and sets that person apart by prayer and the laying on of hands. By this rite ordained ministerial standing and status as an Ordained Ministerial Partner is conferred and authorization given to perform the duties and exercise the prerogatives of ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ.
23 An Ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ is one of its members who has been called by God and ordained to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the Church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership.

UCC requirements for ordination as minister:

All ordained ministers must hold bachelor's and Master of Divinity degrees and must meet other professional and religious standards. (Wheat Ridge Congregational Church)

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This is a really good answer, and I'm mulling two options - one would be to switch my vote, the other to split my question and migrate this to another. Really, I was more interested in the Protestant answer, but then I chickened out at the last minute. Let me talk to the mods and see what they recommend... –  Affable Geek Jun 10 '13 at 14:03
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As far as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are concerned, it certainly is Canon Law.

900 §1. The minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.

907 In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.

[CLC]


B 12 Of the ministry of the Holy Communion

  1. No person shall consecrate and administer the holy sacrament of the Lord's Supper unless he shall have been ordained priest by episcopal ordination in accordance with the provisions of Canon C 1.

[Canons of the Church of England]

That the Eucharist is not affected by the worthiness of the minister is also enshrined in a number of church documents (Article 26 in the Church of England, for example).

However, an unworthy minister is still a minister. The ontological change wrought by the Spirit at ordination is what makes a man able to effect the sacrament. Whether he is worthy or not is of no consequence. A layman has not undergone that ontological change, and so is unable to celebrate the Eucharist. He can say the words and do all the right actions, but it is simply not effective.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this:

1141 The celebrating assembly is the community of the baptized who, "by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, that . . . they may offer spiritual sacrifices."9 This "common priesthood" is that of Christ the sole priest, in which all his members participate:10

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people," have a right and an obligation by reason of their Baptism.11

1142 But "the members do not all have the same function."12 Certain members are called by God, in and through the Church, to a special service of the community. These servants are chosen and consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders, by which the Holy Spirit enables them to act in the person of Christ the head, for the service of all the members of the Church.13 The ordained minister is, as it were, an "icon" of Christ the priest. Since it is in the Eucharist that the sacrament of the Church is made fully visible, it is in his presiding at the Eucharist that the bishop's ministry is most evident, as well as, in communion with him, the ministry of priests and deacons.

9 Lumen Gentium 10; cf. ⇒ 1 Pet 2:4-5.
10 Cf. LG 10; 34; Presbyteriorum ordinis 2.
11 Sacrosanctum Consilium 14; Cf. ⇒ 1 Pet 2:9; ⇒ 2:4-5.
12 ⇒ Rom 12:4.
13 Cf. PO 2; 15.

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As a youth leader I celebrated the Lords Supper with my students with no ordained minister present—and all the ministers of my church knew. Baptists can celebrate communion at home with the family. The early church did the same: after the meal, the bread was taken and broken remembering Jesus' sacrifice.

If a pastor is present, we do respect his position and allow him to preside, much like in the Anglican church where a priest defers to a bishop if one is present. I have never heard of a Baptist church which teaches that communion is invalid if a pastor is not present. My church even allowed me to baptize my son.

Baptists believe strongly in the "priesthood of all believers". The temple worship is done away with; our High Priest is Jesus Christ, and all believers are are priests on earth (according to Baptist belief).

I would also point out, that even under the old covenant, no priest was required in order to celebrate the Passover in the home. The High Priest did offer the paschal lamb in the temple; but since Christ, our High Priest and our paschal lamb, has already been sacrificed, no further sacrifice is needed. So Baptists believe the Lords Supper is a memorial meal, not a sacrifice—it is Holy and real, connecting us to Christ and to each other through the Holy Spirit.

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I read this question a while ago and even though it has a satisfactory answer, I thought that there would be something more accessible in The Lamb's Supper by Dr. Scott Hahn. And I think these tidbits will help.

He says that thoughout the Church (and throughout the ages) there many Eucharistic prays but they all contain the same parts. The Epiclesis (when the priest places his hands over the bread and wine calls down the Holy Spirit) and the The Narrative of Institution (when the bread and wine is transformed into Christ's Body and Blood) are the foremost of these parts.

The priest relates the drama of the Last Supper, when Jesus made provision for the renewal of His covenant sacrifice through all time.

...

When the priest speaks the words of institution-"This is My body ... This is the cup of My blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant'-he is not merely narrating, he is speaking in the person of Christ, Who is the principal celebrant of the Mass. By the sacrament of Holy Orders, a man is changed in his very being; as priest, he becomes "another Christ." Jesus ordained the Apostles and their successors to celebrate the Mass when He said: "Do this ... in remembrance of Me" (1 Cor 11:25). Note that Jesus commanded them to "do this" and not "write this" or "read this".

That last sentence summarizes why regular folks can't do it because we'd just be reading the words and they'd have no effect. The understanding of scripture as handed down by the Sacred Traditions of the Catholic Church in the Sacrament of Holy Orders have apparently chosen to interpret the person Jesus is commanding to "Do this" as not me and my wife at dinner, but the people He was actually talking to and those who were appointed by the people He was talking to take their place.

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