You see it at celebrations of communion all over the PC(USA), at presbytery meetings, in congregations where there are more than one teaching elder, at almost every Presbyterian-related group meeting: somewhere between two and six people presiding at communion together. It has become so common that a couple of years ago when one person presided at communion at a major Presbyterian meeting, those involved in the service were buzzing, “She’s going to preside alone?”
Concelebration is all around us. Its literal meaning, to celebrate together, sounds like such a good idea. And the practice emerged for very good reasons, and has served us well, but it is a practice whose time has passed.
Why did the practice emerge among Presbyterians? I don’t know for sure, but here’s my hunch. Before the ordination of women, male pastors in solo pastorates and in multi-staff congregations presided at the table alone. Also at communion celebrations in presbyteries, synods and general assemblies, one male minister presided. In the early days of the ordination of women, it became clear that if the old practices endured, then men would continue to preside at the table in the vast majority of communion celebrations. As an act of genuine hospitality to new female colleagues, women ministers, now seen as equals in the ministry, were invited to join in communion celebrations. So in larger churches, a female associate was invited to share in leadership at the table with the head of staff. At presbytery meetings one (or more) ministers were invited to celebrate at the table. Our celebrations at the table began to symbolize our conviction that the Spirit “calls women and men to all ministries of the church” [BOC, 10-4].
Concelebrating was an appropriate response to this context. It was a concrete practice that embodied a sea change in understanding of ordination. It symbolized that women were fully called to ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. From a broader, historical/ecumenical perspective, the practice of having multiple leaders at table was intended to convey the unity of the church and collegiality of its ministers.
But the time has come to end this practice. What once symbolized unity, inclusion and collegiality in ministry now symbolizes something quite different. Now it seems that no minister can preside alone in any context where there are other ministers available to serve. For instance, despite the fact that I was part of a congregation with a solo woman pastor for a number of years and have worshipped with Presbyterians all over the PC(USA), I have been in very few settings where a woman has presided at the table alone. It is as if our practice communicates that a woman alone is not sufficient to preside at the table and that there should be at least one other person, usually a man, who must be there with her so that all in the congregation are somehow represented at the table. Even in smaller congregations, it often seems that a woman presides alone only when there are no other teaching elders available to join in leadership. This once-hospitable practice now witnesses against our conviction that women are fully called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
As we strive to become a church community that embraces diversity in the best sense of that phrase, we need to examine how our practices reinforce our convictions about God’s call to ministry. While concelebrating was an important practice for a time, movement away from that practice is the better path for this time. It is important in a presbytery gathering that an African-American woman presides, not needing the presence of a male pastor to validate her ministry. A Korean man can speak Christ’s invitation to the table in a large congregation of mostly white folk without requiring the presence of another who looks more like the congregation. And if the presider is a white male, he, too, is able to pray the Great Thanksgiving for all.
Furthermore, as people standing in the Reformed tradition, we affirm the “priesthood of all believers.” Just as important as the ministry of the one presiding is the ministry of the whole assembly, joining in spoken responses and musical acclamations and — most importantly — prayerfully participating throughout the liturgy. Remember the ordained ministries of deacons and ruling elders as well. They are too often pushed to the margins when we try to make more room for pastors as leaders at the table. Our tradition does not see the unity of the church primarily expressed in its ministers.
I have no illusions that we are in a post-racial or post-sexist PC(USA). This proposal does not rest upon the assumption that all of our issues around race, culture or gender are solved and we need to develop a color- or gender-blind practice. Instead, I am suggesting that a practice that may have communicated parity in ministry decades ago may communicate something quite different in the current context. And that, of course, means that I am not advocating a total ban on concelebrating, as if it would help to lay out another law for us to obey. There may be places where concelebrating would still be an appropriate practice, but only as a provisional, transitional practice.
Hospitality is an important Christian practice. But hospitality must eventually turn into practices of community lest it permanently reinforce the host/guest duality. No matter who presides at the table, Christ is host and all of us are guests. Our continued practice of concelebrating subtly reinforces that some among us are hosts and others permanently guests. Instead, let us practice the conviction that we all are Christ’s guests, and that one of the guests has been set aside to preside. This presider-guest represents all of us as one who is a recipient of the grace offered to us at the table.
Concelebrating — it’s time to end the practice.
CHARLES WILEY is coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office Of Theology And Worship.