Many people coming into the Anglican tradition from other traditions have questions. Quite often, these questions center on the sacramental nature of the Church.
This pattern makes sense. After all, the Anglican Church emphasizes sacraments more than some other branches of the Christian Church. All churches have preachers of the Word. Not all have a developed sacramental theology nor a formal liturgical structure.
Even among practicing Anglicans, sometimes we take for granted our practices without reflection or thought, so it is good for us to consider these fundamental questions from time to time.
Why are Priests necessary for Holy Communion?
To consider this question, we need to briefly remind ourselves what is happening at the Holy Eucharist.
According to the Book of Common Prayer 2019 [BCP 2019], “The Holy Eucharist is a chief means of grace for sustained and nurtured life in Christ” (p. 7). The key in that sentence is “means of grace.”
Of course, the next question is, “How?” For that, the ACNA Catechism, To Be a Christian, is helpful. Regarding Holy Communion, we say that
“As my body is nourished by the bread and wine, my soul is strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ. I receive God’s forgiveness, and I am renewed in the love and unity of the Body concerning sacraments 59 of Christ, the Church.” (To Be A Christian, Q134).
The point here is that the sacrament is efficacious; it is doing something. It has a very real spiritual effect on us.
So Holy Communion is more than a symbol. It is a means of grace.
But the Church’s reverence toward this sacrament is not only based in its convictions about its effect, but also its convictions about its source. Holy Communion and Baptism are considered Dominical sacraments (from the Latin “Dominus,” meaning “Lord”), because they were both directly commissioned by Jesus himself.
In the case of Communion, Jesus gives the charge on the night of his betrayal in the upper room (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23). But to whom did Jesus give this commandment? He was not speaking to the crowds or even to the 72. He gave the commission specifically to the apostles, who were charged with carrying on this commandment for the benefit of the community of faith that would grow up around them.
It is also interesting that in 1 Corinthians 11, the source of much of our Eucharistic liturgy, St. Paul speaks authoritatively as an apostle. He gives instructions and directions on the practice of Holy Communion. This again speaks of apostolic oversight on the sacraments.
“Why are Priests necessary?”
The short answer is because the charge of conducting the sacraments is an apostolic charge for the care of the Church.
The care of each local church is given to ordained Priests to ensure fidelity both in teaching (Word) and in conduct of the rites (ceremonies/services) of the Church (sacraments) for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ.
If we look at the Ordinal in the BCP 2019, we can see what is asked of our Bishops and Priests.
In the concluding Collect for the Litany of Ordinations, the Archbishop prays,
“Give your grace to all Bishops, the pastors of your Church, that they may diligently preach your Word, duly administer your Sacraments, and wisely provide godly discipline…” (p. 500).
In the Priestly Examination, we read,
“Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ, as the Lord has commanded and as this Church has received them, according to the Commandments of God, so that you may teach the people committed to your charge with all diligence to keep and observe them?” (p. 490).
So, as Anglicans, we understand these sacraments to have their source in the commandments of God, not in the traditions of men. And we understand that God has entrusted them to the Church, to our Bishops, and in turn to our Priests to be faithfully and diligently administered for the care of souls within the Church.
Why is a liturgy/ceremony necessary for Holy Communion?
The question regarding liturgical form is a bit more direct. The short answer is that we have a Book of Common Prayer for a reason. Words matter—not in a magical sense, but in a theological sense. What we pray as Anglicans demonstrates what we believe.
What we pray in the service of Holy Communion, the principal worship service of our Church, is extremely important and not left to chance at the whim of the priest. The liturgical formularies (prescribed forms) in the Book of Common Prayer are designed to help insulate us from cultural fads and, in the extreme, from heresies.
We have the words of institution both from the Gospels and from 1 Corinthians 11. We have the prayers of the early Church, as well as the work of the English Reformers. A common gospel, with common prayer, unites us in a common faith for the common good.
The words of institution in the Eucharistic service are specifically designed around an ancient pattern of remembrance and invocation that, coupled with the priestly vocation, ensure the fulfillment of the Church’s twofold criteria found in Article XIX of the 39 Articles. There, the “visible Church of Christ” is defined as “a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered” (p. 779).
So, priests and a proper liturgical rite are both necessary for a valid celebration of Holy Communion. These requirements are based on the specific biblical and historic responsibilities given to ordained clergy, following the apostolic pattern and the need to rightly administer the sacraments for the benefit and safeguarding of the people of God.