Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Deacon after the Priest

As I was musing on St. Laurence, whose martyrdom we celebrated yesterday (August 10) at mass, I got to thinking about the apocryphal story of the exchange between him and Sixtus, who was himself being led off to martyrdom on August 6 of the fateful year 257.

The story goes that Laurence was grieving over the fact that he could not accompany his bishop to martyrdom: "Father, where are you going without your son? Have I not ever followed you wherever you have served? Have I not been faithful to you in all things? How can you leave without me?" To which Sixtus prophetically replied, "Yet three days and you will follow, the deacon after the priest."

This led me to thinking about a related matter, one we tend to be rather loath to talk about in the Missouri Synod, because our established practice is already so entrenched. I refer to the matter of lay assistants at the distribution of the Sacrament.

I'm fully aware of the parish nightmares that tend to arise when a pastor institutes change too abruptly or without forethought or warning. Gottesdiensters already have a bad reputation in this regard, though I would submit that it is largely undeserved. We do not endorse foolhardy revolutions in the parish; but we do take issue with those who deny the need for certain changes, especially regarding the Sacrament.

So on the matter of lay assistants at the altar, of course we have to deal with the century or so of the use of this practice--and I'm probably being generous in my assessment; it may be far less than that, but I'm not going to go look it up right now--which means that practically speaking there will be a need for much education, catechesis, preparation, etc.

But what I find unsettling is the popular notion that this is a matter we can altogether ignore. Here's the other side of the matter. AC XIV is not the first time the Church has insisted that no one should administer the Sacrament without a regular call. If you think so, you might be able to dismiss its more "rigid" interpretations by saying that when a lay assistant is handed the chalice, then in fact the one distributing is still the pastor (though even this is a stretch; I mean, distribution has to do with, well, distributing). But the Church catholic has, prior to the sixteenth century's Augustana, always insisted that only ordained men should do the actual distributing of the chalice (to say nothing of the Host!).

St. Laurence was a deacon, and one of the most prominent diaconal duties was the distribution of the chalice. This was widely known and indisputable in the third century and well before and beyond. The deacon was ordained to do this. St. Laurence did not need ordination to tend to the needs of the poor and look after the church's treasury, though he did those things too. He was ordained to distribute the chalice and to read the Gospel (there's another matter we can perhaps take up at another time).

To make matters worse for the confessional Lutheran's conscience, consider this: it was among the Protestant churches--specifically those churches with a low view of the Sacrament--that the use of laymen to distribute first became popular. It's a kind of Pietist invention. While it is true that this is one area in which (sadly) even the Roman Catholic churches have at last been influenced, it was not always so. It's only since Vatican II, if I'm not mistaken, that their "extraordinary ministers of the Sacrament" have arisen, among whom today one can even find women.

In St. Laurence's day it was unheard of; as also in Luther's day.

I will grant on the one hand that this is not a matter that must be changed this instant: having lay assistants at the altar does not make one apostate, after all, and no Gottesdienster would say such a thing. On the other hand, I think it needs to be considered; it needs at least to be on the radar screen. With the acknowledgment that we've come a long way in the Missouri Synod comes a rider: We can do better.

+ BF Eckardt


  1. Thank you for the post, Fr Eckardt. But, I'm wondering: Do elders/laymen even WANT to assist? Has anyone actually asked them? Just curious.

    It seems that if we explain and show what the Confessions say, perhaps they will be more relieved than resistant. Or maybe I'm just naive.

  2. Serving as a lay assistant at the altar also affords the assistant the "opportunity" to become complicit in such things as open Communion and the administration of grape juice rather than the Lord's blood.

  3. Fr. Hülsman,

    My elders were positively relieved when we went over the TLH rubrics and the Confessions and learned that they should not be called upon to distribute.


  4. Another "unintended consequence" of our virtual abolition of the diaconal office (at least for men) in the LCMS. In our sister church in Siberia, pastors are ordained as priests, and only typically after a 5-year period of service as ordained deacons.

    Just as the early church did not have the problems that we have regarding the distribution, neither do our Lutheran brethren in Russia today.

  5. I have witnessed pastors in chasubles, assisted at the rail by lay-assistants/elders decked out in business suits. As a finale, a "suit" eventually communes the one clothed in the vestments. Behavior has meaning. The best construction to be made of this, perhaps, is that the shepherd in officiant's clothing wishes to communicate an existing equality with the sheep.

    That message from the exercise in piety may be appropriate and true on the 17th hole, at the golf course; but is not so in the course of the Divine Service, at any time. The purpose of the chasuble is reduced to a mere ostentatious display, in the circumstances described above ... for in the end, the attention inevitably shifts from Christ and the wondrous reality of heaven stooping down to serve the dusty creatures of Adam, to the well-intentioned but garbled humbleness of a specific mortal bound to time and space. "Brooks Brothers" literally gets the call. Or at least, the last call.

    The laudable practice "deacon after the priest" is not only witnessed to by the behavior of martyrs, as Fr. Eckardt observes, but it also speaks to a certain conduct deemed healthy in canon 18 of the Council of Nicea (325 A+D) ... not a bad council, by the way. The canon "advises" (my term) against the practice of presbyters being communed by deacons.

    MLA // +VDMA+

  6. Emergency distributors - an Easter memory.
    Several years ago visiting friends in suburban Houston (is there a non-suburban Houston?) over the Easter weekend, we went out to attend church that morning with no clear plan. I talked up finding the LC-MS church that is built like the 18th century German church you hear so much about, but my friend's husband declared a definite desire to attend the local RC church on the quicky, fulfill the obligation status. We always do whatever he wants. Negotiating a large suburban RC church on Easter morning required strategy, a strategic parking space, and a strategic seating plan, and a precise exit plan.
    This was a modern church built like an amphitheater, spread out like a giant fan. Ushers/bouncers at all the doors who walk down the aisles to push us in to squash out the air between us. Yes, we was packed in like the little fishes. My friend's husband's seating plan was to sit on the very end of the pew and that was spoiled when the usher/pushers squeezed at least 5 more worshipers into the pew with us. Husband was livid and red faced.
    The interior of the church looks as if the second Reformation has hit it pretty hard. My friend smiles at me and says, what's it look like? And I say, well with the several big wooden chairs up front behind that small "remember me" table this looks just like a Presbyterian Church. Her lips silently formed "Presbyterian Church" as I had said it. She is still smiling. She has warned me in the car that the music will be appalling with tamborines and quitars, it was, and why she would not join the choir there.
    Oh, and, if you think there was any chanting, go fish! I haven't heard chanting in an RC church since, uh, never. People who think that chanting is "Catholic" don't go to RC churches. You will hear gobs of chanting from Jewish cantors, Orthodox priests, German pastors, and Muslim museins, but RC priests, not in America and not for some time now.
    I'm constantly and fully aware of the mob scene that this is and how just one priest seems to be leading it. He's young and dressed plainly for a high holy day, I think.
    Anyway, it comes time to go up for the wafer, but I notice as I have for some years now, that there are laity standing around up there with glasses of wine. Some take the wine and many do not. Poor RCs have no idea what they're doing anymore. But, when the ushers motion that it's our row to go, I nod to my friends that I'm not going up and they panic. The strategic plan is to leave directly the wafer slips down the throat and beat the traffic jam out of the parking lot. My friend's husband is such a trip. It's always something.
    I have never taken communion at an RC church, because in my mind, they don't have it, what would be the point. Oh hell's bells. Crisis of conscience, but I only have 3 seconds for it and I'm on my feet going forward toward the priest. Gulp. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition! Is Torquemada in a back room somewhere watching for Protestants on security cameras. Help me Martin Luther, get me outta here.
    The RCs do not want me to take communion with them. I don't want to take communion with them. I eat the wafer, but as I turn and see the mob behind me, I notice a small, young woman offering me a water glass filled with wine. It isn't clean, but I know it's ok to decline the wine as I've seen so many here do it and maybe that will unjinx this whole mess somehow. Look, she didn't complete the whole sacrament, so it doesn't count against her, Lutheran take.
    Well we made a memory and I was in town for the matinee performance at the Houston Grand Opera of Renee Fleming in La Traviata, so by dinner time I was on cloud 9 scarfing down Tres Leches for dessert and my friends were forgiven for almost having the Inquisition down upon my head. So, there's my experience with lay distribution in an RC setting, for what it's worth.

  7. This is one of the positive aspects of LSB and the new Altar Book. The rubrics at the time of the distribution specifically state that the celebrant communes himself before communing any assistants. This is not a "may" rubric. It is a directive for it to be done in that manner.

    I started doing that as soon as I was installed at my congregation. No one complained, but I had several people start asking me if I ever communed. (We don't have a free-standing altar, so all they see is my back while this is happening.) They noticed that something was different, but they couldn't tell what it was. However, they were more concerned about whether or not I was receiving the Sacrament than they were about who was giving it to me. That made me feel very good about this congregation.

  8. Thank you, Fr Cürtis.

    A few questions: Did anyone else in the congregation oppose your change, and, if so, what were their reasons? Do you offer individual cups and, if so, how did you work that?

  9. Do elders/laymen even WANT to assist?

    Speaking only for myself, the answer is NO. I don't want to do it, I don't believe that it is right, and I know that it is uncanonical. But it is the practice in our parish and my pastor has asked me to do it, so I do it out of obedience to my pastor. (I know that if I had made my theological objections known, he would have graciously released me from the obligation. But I don't want to come across as a theological know-it-all telling the pastor how to do his job, so I have kept quiet.)

    Our pastor has recently retired, and I am thinking seriously of taking this opportunity to take my name off the list of "lay assistants." I'm hoping (though not particularly expecting) that the parish will call a pastor who is a little more traditional with respect to this, and all other liturgical matters.


Comments are moderated. Neither spam, vulgarity, comments that are insulting, slanderous or otherwise unbefitting of Christian dignity nor anonymous posts will be published.