Among those who come from a “free church” background, the question of why Holy Communion can only be administered by a priest or bishop in Anglican churches comes up frequently. I will attempt to answer the question from all three “streams” of the Anglican Tradition (the evangelical commitment to Scripture, the charismatic sensitivity to the Spirit and the catholic concern to remain in line with “that which has been believed at all times, everywhere and by all). I will begin first with the Scriptures.
In 1 Corinthians St. Paul tackles a whole host of issues in this rather dysfunctional congregation. In chapter 11 Paul has to say to them, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” He is talking about their gathering together for communion. They are not maintaining any form of “order.” Some have nothing to share while others are getting drunk with excess. This Paul cannot “commend” them for. Rather, he chastises them and he summarizes his instruction on the topic with this injunction, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat [the Body and Blood], wait for one another.” (1 Cor. 11.33). Later on in the letter, Paul has to confront these same believers about the way their exercise of spiritual gifts is also disordered. Here again, there is chaos, and here again Paul gives concrete instruction on how to overcome the chaos, leaving off with these words, “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14.40). Clearly Paul has in mind an orderly church where proper conduct is valued and where everything (both the exercise of spiritual gifts and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper) is done in an orderly and “right” fashion.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul will give similar instructions about the preaching, teaching and proclamation of the gospel. He says, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2.2). Here there is a clear understanding of a personal passing on of apostolic teaching and apostolic authority. Again, this reveals the New Testament concern for order within the Church.
The New Testament talks about 3 distinct offices within the Church which are variously tasked with the duties of eldership, oversight and service. It is no coincidence that within the life of the Church these have become known as “Holy Orders,” the bishops (overseers), presbyters/priests (elders) and deacons (servants) of the New Testament. The Church has always understood the role of the overseer and presbyter both as being charged with these tasks of safeguarding and passing on the apostolic teaching and preaching AND along with it, safeguarding the orderly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. So, presbyters (or bishops when they are available) are the only ones in the Church who are authorized to celebrate Communion, because only by their oversight can they ensure that the Supper is celebrated according to proper order and with the right spirit and understanding of the Apostolic teaching surrounding the sacrament. In the early church, and to this day in Eastern Orthodoxy, every duly ordained priest was/is given an antimins which is embroidered with the signature of the bishop so that the faithful can be assured that the Eucharist that this priest leads is being celebrated reverently, in order and under the authority of the apostolic authority of the bishop. Similarly, in Western churches this is why traditionally the bishop’s chair can be found in every parish church, located somewhere near the altar.
Likewise, seeking understanding from the “charismatic” stream we know that in the life of the Church, the presbyters and bishops are those servants of Christ who have been anointed by the Spirit with the laying on of hands and prayer for these rather specific tasks. We uphold firmly the priesthood of all believers. But we also know that Paul talks at length about the varied nature of the gifts that God gives to the Church. Not all members of the Body are eyes, or ears or hands (cf. 1 Corinthians 12). The Body needs every member’s participation and ministry in order to be whole, but not every member carries the same roles, rights or responsibilities. It is the God ordained (that is why we use that term) and Spirit empowered and anointed task of the clergy to preside over the Table.
Which leads finally to the “catholic” understanding of the matter. In the Creeds the Church has always affirmed that She is not only one, holy and apostolic (as we have understood it above - safeguarding and adhering to the apostolic teaching) but also that She is “catholic.” This term comes from a Greek phrase consisting of two words kata - meaning “according to”, and holon - meaning, “the whole”. So at it’s root, catholicity means “according to the whole.” In the ancient understanding and practice the church was an ecclesia catholikos - a gathering (that is what the word church/ecclesia literally means) according to the whole. In the ancient Church, according to the whole, was understood as a tangible expression of the eschatological (meaning, looking toward Christ’s second coming and the final ushering in of His Kingdom) gathering together of all of Gods people, expressed concretely in the present around the Eucharistic Table.
The Eucharistic prayer of the Didache (c. 100 AD) instructs the Celebrant to pray, “Just as this loaf was scattered all over the mountains, and having been brought together was made one, so let your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth in your Kingdom.” From this Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulos concludes, “It was a clear indication that, although the catholicity of the Church is ultimately an eschatological reality, its nature is revealed and realistically apprehended here and now in the Eucharist.” (emphasis mine).
What this means is that the Lord’s Table is not meant to be something celebrated in a “private” or “intimate” setting in the first place. This was one of the great advances of the Protestant Reformation - recovering the understanding that a lone priest uttering the words of the Mass by himself in a chapel somewhere overthrew the Lord’s intention for His Supper. The Supper is for all of God’s people to come together around God’s Table to remember AND to proclaim and even, as much as is possible in the present, embody and enact the coming Kingdom in and through the public celebration of the Eucharist. In order to embody the greatest possible wholeness of the Body, as many of the Orders of the Church as possible should be involved in the Eucharistic celebration. In other words, just as the Supper’s intention is overthrown by being celebrated only by a lone priest, so too it would be overthrown by being celebrated by only a group of laity together without the presence of a priest (and preferably a deacon, and of course the bishop if he is available).
So we see from the concerns of St. Paul in the Scriptures, from an understanding of the diversity and unity of the Spirit's gifts and from the catholic understanding and practice of the church why only those ordained for the task can be allowed to preside over the Eucharist. It is a matter of New Testament order, Spirit given anointing for the specific task and in keeping with the catholic faith and practice held “at all times, everywhere, by all” as an eschatological proclamation of Christ’s coming Kingdom.