Orthodox lay presidency at the Eucharist?

Reuters has a dispatch from Athens on the difficulties the Greek financial collapse is causing the Orthodox Church. The article entitled “Crisis proves a curse for Greece’s Orthodox Church” will appear in various forms in newspapers and websites this weekend and I encourage you to read it, as it provides a strong account of the hardships facing the Church.

However, a GetReligion reader, Dominic Foo, was struck by one section of the article. He wrote:

I find it incredibly hard to believe that an Eastern Orthodox Church would permit lay celebration of the Eucharist, unless of course, this is merely sloppy journalistic reporting and what is permitted is not “mass” but a prayer service.

He was questioning this section of the story:

To cover the shortage of priests, some bishops are permitting laymen to take services. These volunteers receive no state wages and don’t wear the characteristic vestments.

For instance, a retired army officer recently started holding mass at Avantas, a village close to the eastern border with Turkey, said Father Irinaios. “Priests in small villages retire or pass away and there is nobody to replace them,” he said. “We are going to have a huge problem.”

If Reuters is correct in its reporting, this is highly significant development. In the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions it is inconceivable that a lay person would be permitted by a bishop to celebrate the Eucharist as the administration and celebration of the sacraments is the essence of the priesthood. For Roman Catholics this teaching is set down in a number of formal statements and encyclicals: Lumen Gentium 28; De ordinatione episcopi, presbyterorum et diaconorum 2; 6; 12.

For the Orthodox lay presidency is a non-starter. The doctrinal confessions most accepted in the Orthodox world, The Confession written by Dosietheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (1672) and The Orthodox Confession written by Peter Mogilas, Metropolitan of Kiev (1643) state the Eucharist may be celebrated only by a “lawful” priest.

In my corner of the church world, the issue of lay celebration of the Eucharist has the potential to supplant the fights over homosexuality. The Diocese of Sydney — the most influential evangelical diocese in the Anglican Communion — supports  allowing lay people licensed by the bishop to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The diocese has debated this issue for almost a generation and prepared a number of theological papers in support of its views.

One clue to the debate is the use of the phrase “Lord’s Supper” rather than Mass by Sydney Anglicans. Their understanding of what takes place in Holy Communion is very different than that of High Church Anglicans, not to mention the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, the Archbishop of Sydney Dr. Peter Jensen, has so far declined to implement the diocesan synod’s request as the wider Australian church — and Anglican Communion does not agree with this innovation.

If the Greek Orthodox Church is allowing lay celebration of the Eucharist this would be a break with tradition. For a religion reporter this would be great news — I have visions of a pan-Orthodox council being called (allowing me a trip to Greece on my editor’s dime.)

Perhaps something less dramatic, but still highly significant is taking place. Has some form of Liberation theology arisen in Greece? That would be news! In marginalized or deprived communities where a priest is not present to preside at the Eucharist, such as in Latin American base communities, Leonardo Boff and other radical theologians have proposed holding a eucharist-like fellowship meal as an admittedly less than adequate substitute for the Eucharist.

Or, as is most likely, the Reuters reporter was confused or his article was mistranslated. I’m afraid I won’t be jetting off to Greece this summer as I suspect the liturgy being used at services where no priest is present is the Typica or Reader’s Service.

While the Typica may not be common in areas where there is a settled Orthodox presence, it can be found in places like the American South or Africa where there are new Orthodox congregations but no resident clergy. Here is a link to a Greenville, NC Orthodox Church that explains the value of Lay-led Services.

While this Reuters story focuses on the effects of Greece’s economic implosion on the Orthodox Church, the statement about lay led masses should be addressed. If wrong, I would hope it would be corrected. If right, then there is a major story here that has so far gone unreported.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • Maureen

    I bet it’s just the Orthodox/Eastern version of Vespers, Matins, etc. Anybody can say the Liturgy of the Hours prayers for themselves, and anybody can lead group prayers of such things.

  • http://www.energeticprocession.wordpress.com Perry Robinson

    Another slight correction. The Orthodox do not call it “Mass.” The service is called the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist in particular.

    My personal sources in Greece tell me that what is being permitted is Orthros, that is Matins or Vespers and that is it.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    In the documents I have seen from Sydney about “presidency” at the sacrament, the words “celebrate” and “consecrate” are conspicuously absent.

    Either the people drafting these documents are purposely trying to AVOID clarification, or they think it is acceptable for one diocese to go completely Protestant on its own.

  • Julia

    There is a new official liturgy that can be approved in Catholic parishes by the local Ordinary (bishop or archbishop). It consists of the Liturgy of the Word and the distribution of previously consecrated Hosts. There is no Liturgy of the Eucharist (consecration). There is a simple dismissal, but if a deacon is available he may give a blessing.

    At the USCCB webiste, I found references to Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest and a different Weekday Liturgy in the Absence of a Priest, but couldn’t find a definitive subject page for either one. I’ll post it later if I find an authoritative post on the subject.

    There is a helpful document to assist the press in covering or writing about the Mass, sacraments, various liturgies that should be downloaded by all media who cover Catholic events. Very impressive – it has a glossary and description of the parts of the Mass, various events other than a Mass, the participants, names of objects and lots more. A great resource written for media.


  • Julia

    Here is Weekday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest.


    Turns out there is a separate ritual book for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest.


    There have been times and places in the past where these rituals were all that could be had. For instance, during the French Revolution and during those centuries in England where there was a no-questions-asked death penalty for a priest caught in the country. These events are only to be held out of necessity. Parishioners are encouraged to attend Mass in other parishes, where possible.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    One angle to this story that should be looked into by reporters–Repeatedly and regularly in the Catholic Church the argument is made that having a married priesthood will solve all our priest shortage problems–it certainly doesn’t look like it from the shortage of priests in the Orthodox Churches decribed here.
    As for services by non-priests in the Catholic Church–ordained deacons for decades now have been leading wake and graveside services, celebrating marriages,baptisms and funerals, led Bible vigils, etc. And a bishop can authorize an ordained deacon to lead a communion service with already consecrated hosts. I wonder how much ordained deacons can be authorized to do in the Orthodox Churches. That would be something for intrepid religion reporters to look into. Of course,in the Orthodox-Catholic Tradition deacons are, like priests, ordained clergy, not lay persons.

  • http://www.energeticprocession.wordpress.com Perry Robinson


    In th Catholic church under extreme circumstances Lay Eucharistic ministers may distribute the consecrated elements in the absence of the priest. But of course, LEM’s are in extremis and irregular according to Catholic canon law.

  • Jack

    \ And a bishop can authorize an ordained deacon to lead a communion service with already consecrated hosts. I wonder how much ordained deacons can be authorized to do in the Orthodox Churches.\

    IT happens. In some of the Autocephalous Churches, a Deacon may lead Typica (corresponding to the Western Liturgy of the Word with a few other prayers) and distribute Communion from the already consecrated gifts.

    And there’s nothing wrong with lay people themselves meeting in church to celebrate the Divine Office without a priest. When our Orthodox mission didn’t have a priest for an extended period, we would meet on Saturday night for Vespers and on Sunday morning for the Hours and Typica (without communion, of course).

  • Julia

    The services in question are probably something like this: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Typika

  • John M

    It will be very interesting to see how things develop. The late Roland Allen, the Anglican missiologist whose ideas first developed while he served as a missionary in China and further developed during mission tours in remote Canada in the early 1900′s and in correspondence with missionaries in India and Africa, wrote a book yet to be published, supporting “lay presidency”, The Ministry of Expansion: the Priesthood of the Laity.

    In addition, prior to this he had written a lot on the ministry of the laity, because he found European missionaries unable to do what he saw Paul doing in the New Testament, planting churches and turning the work over to local people quickly – see his famous book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours??

    Allen’s grandson Hubert has a shortish essay on his “Granfer” at the following link. *http://www.ocms.ac.uk/pdf/roland_allen.pdf*See Moreabout an hour ago..

  • John M

    Let’s try the link for Hubert Allen’s report on Granfer one more time.

  • Jerry

    It does seem here that Reuters got some facts wrong. I wish that stories involving religious doctrine were fact checked by those who know that doctrine. Maybe someday.

    But Deacon Bresnahan used this story to defend Catholic celibacy doctrine. Perhaps the good Deacon reached farther than is warranted by the facts to promote his defense of Catholic priestly celibacy especially given the point about government funding:

    Athens will also fund only one new priest to replace every 10 who retire or die

  • Jay

    I agree with Julia, laity celebrating from reserved sacrament is old news — at least for Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. Here’s a 1926 essay that says it was common in the 2nd century:


    It doesn’t get much more traditional than that. And IIRC a 2nd century practice wouldn’t be viewed as Papist by either the Protestants or our Eastern brethren.

  • Julia

    Very interesting, Jay.

    I can’t remember a time when the Blessed Sacrament wasn’t reserved in the tabernacle. It’s presence was indicated by a lit candle in a red glass container hung from chains near the tabernacle. People were encouraged to make “visits” to the church and say private prayers or meditate in the presence of the blessed sacrament. And that is why you aren’t supposed to be loud or boisterous in a Catholic church even when Mass is not going on.

    That being said, liturgical ceremonies outside of Mass where a lay person distributes the reserved sacrament is not the usual thing. Except, of course, special ministers who take the sacrament to the sick or imprisoned – but that doesn’t entail a real ceremony.

    I’m guessing the Orthodox are similar.

  • http://ad-orientem.blogspot.com Ad Orientem

    No need for concern In the Orthodox Church layman cannot take the place of priests in the administration of the Holy Mysteries (except baptism in emergency situations). There are however lay services which do not involve Communion or the other sacraments which can be performed in the absence of a priest or deacon.

    This is probably just a product of the general lack of knowledge about the Orthodox Church. But it is a false alarm.


  • R. N. Wightman

    Friends I have contacted in Greece and Europe tell me that the story is simply a case of sloppy journalism on Reuters’ part. That there is NO lay presidency (much less “celebration”) of the Divine Liturgy anywhere in Greece. The hierarchs (usually bishops or higher) laughed it off as completely untrue. Nevertheless, several points to make here, some addressing the comments.

    1. This is GREEK Orthodoxy we’re talking about here, arguably, the “most traditional of the traditional” jurisdictions of Orthodoxy. As such, any comparisons with Rome or Anglicans are simply “apples and oranges and pears comparisons.” So, let’s stop the celibacy issue comparison now, as it is irrelevant (see below).

    2. Greek parochial clergy are paid by the (now bankrupt) Greek government. This is the source of the problem. Greek parochial clergy are USUALLY married (unless they are hieromonks) and have correspondingly large families to support. The government can no longer pay them, so churches who “lose” their priest to death or retirement do not get a seminary-trained replacement.

    3. As one FB friend in Europe wrote to me (after I had received a confirmed report from one of the higher clergy IN Greece that this was not happening):
    “Sloppy reporting. What is happening is new Orthodox priests are not being waged [salaried], so in some villages a retired school teacher or army sergeant of good reputation may well be ordained and unpaid for this service. This is not that unusual…but it might be more frequent now and this is where the reporter got it wrong. Very remote areas might have reader services and a priest once a month or on feast days.”
    It is highly likely that the layman chosen is ordained reader for a time to prove faithfulness and worthiness, then deacon, and shortly thereafter ordained priest. His duties would be to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, administer baptism and deathbed sacraments, and officiate at funerals and weddings. His “sermons” would most likely be “readings from the Fathers” or sermons appropriate for the day, sent out by the Office of the Archbishop in Athens. He may be required to take some elementary theology courses.
    All “more difficult” cases: catechism, confession & spiritual direction/counselling, etc. would be referred to a rotating hieromonk or neighbouring seminary-trained priest, who would come to assist in those duties.

    4. The IMPORTANT point here is that the priest is NOT paid by the government. This may prove a blessing in disguise for the Greek church, who may be able to free itself from government control, should it desire to do so. And THAT would be news worth the reporting.

    Fr. Reid Nelson Wightman,
    Missionaries of St. John, Anglican

  • Julia

    Mr. Wightman:

    Thank you for that information. The unsalaried priests sound like vir probati.

    It seems the Greek church has an arrangement with the government similar to many European countries – where the govt confiscated the properties of the church, the govt in return pays the clergy salaries [and upkeep of church buildings - in Paris the govt owns Notre Dame].

    In former times the income from the properties owned by the church provided the funds to run the church. Most of these properties were donated. It’s what enabled churches to be independent.

  • joseph.vandenbrink

    Christ is Risen!

    It sounds like it is only a misunderstanding. This blessing said bishop is giving is likely to do Readers services of the Hours, Canons, Akathists, and the Typical without Holy Communion, which is the norm when a priest is not available to offer services. Such things are also to be done by faithful Orthodox Christians when live too far from an Orthodox Church to attend. Besides, such acts would automatically anathematise those involved–default to the Great Tradition of the Church, and any canonical bishop would assure you such thing could never happen.

    The wretched one,


  • JunkerGeorg

    Is it just sloppy journalism or is it ‘intenionally’ sloppy journalism?? I’m not EO, but like my own confessional Lutheran stance, it’s hard to imagine that lay celebration of the sacraments would ever be encouraged by EO, let alone not be forbidden, that is, with the exception of cases of emergency baptism. At best, even if this report true, it would be an aberration within the EO, not an innovation, and would be corrected quickly. Yet what is evident is the increase in negative scrutiny by secular journalism of the religious teachings/practices of more traditional, ‘conservative’ groups within Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism. But such is how things go in these end times.

  • Al

    I’m an Orthodox Christian and resident of a small Greek Island, having immigrated here from the US several years ago.

    WOW! The Church of Greece is cutting back on clergy salaries and other routine operating expenses to fulfill the charge of the Sermon of the Last Judgment (MT 25:31-46 for those who need help) and alarmists read more into the journalists poor choice of words. Not one mention of the clear priority for helping the needy surpassing other expenses. Makes on wonder if anyone here listens on Meatfare Sunday.

    I would venture to say that Mt Papachristou used the term “Mass” as a generic term for worship to keep things simple for a mass audience. He’s not writing a scholarly paper for peer review, nor an article for an ecclastically informed audience, but just giving a sense of what the Church is having to do in this current time of fiscal austerity. Had he said “Compline”, “Typica” or “Reader Services”, 90% of Reuter’s readership would be scratching their heads in wonder. And, in the Orthodox Church, episcopal permission is required for a parish to conduct lay services. We do not make it up as we go along, and there is no Church without the bishop.

    The Christian lesson clearly presented in his article is that the clergy are sacrificing pay for “the least among you”. We have turned down the heat in our churches to increase what goes to “the least among you”. Look at the numbers given. The Church of Greece spent 96 million on charitable works versus receiving 190 million in salary support from the government. In the US, church staff salaries tend to be 10 to 15 times the amount spent on caring for the needy, and the current state stipend of some 1,000 Euro per month is well below the median wage.

    That said, however, for a small village to go without a priest and only be able to conduct canonically legitimate lay services is a rarity here. If one did any critical thought based on the article, one would see that there is one priest for every 1,100 residents of our country – churched or unchurched. We are a nation of village and neighborhood churches. To ease the clergy “salary crunch”, self-supporting priests have been ordained as “late vocations”, and it is not uncommon for serving clergy to enter technical retirement to shift to pension income while still serving their parish, freeing a “paid” position for a younger priest to be ordained. Priest monks are also taking parish assignments to ease the payroll crunch.

    All so that resources can be devoted to those in need. That’s what Mr Papachristou is clearly saying, and it has received no mention here by those who view the Church of Greece from afar and through the lens of cultures and practices that are of significant difference. Or is meeting the charge of the Sermon of the Last Judgment not revelant enough to you all to notice this?

  • Rev Deacon Tim Meadows

    I am a deacon of the Roman Catholic Church, Roman Rite, who also assists my local Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, Byzantine Rite. I have celebrated, with bishop’s permission, a Liturgy of the Word followed by distribution of Holy Communion , according to official forms of service issued by both these Churches. Such a service is always the exception rather than the norm (in the Byzantine Rite only an ordained minister may handle the consecrated species) and celebrated only when the Eucharist is not available.

  • Rev Deacon Tim Meadows

    Sometimes in the Byzantine Rite, the Liturgy of Word followed by distribution of Holy Communion, which can be celebrated by a deacon (or deacons) is referred to as a Mass of the Presanctified, though strictly speaking that’s the service which is usually celebrated during Great Lent by a priest.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Al: So, do you think that if the story had said “leading services”, readers would have been unbearably confused?

    Do news reports commonly refer to a Methodist or Baptist “mass” to avoid this “confusion”?

  • Al


    Considering that the reporter is probably not an American and communicating to an international readership, it’s difficult to determine why he made his choice of words. It’s interesting that no one took issue with the term “Orthodox lay presidency at the Eucharist” with which this tread is titled, when there is not such term, concept or position.

    The fact is that to the best of my knowledge, the Church of Greece has not allowed lay Eucharist services in dealing with the inability to assign ordained clergy to every village. That’s based on living in Greece and being an active member of the Church. Note that others who have contacted friends in Greece, whose veracity they trust, make the same statement.

    I claim to be neither a mind reader nor able to pick fly excrement out of pepper, so I give the reporter benefit of the doubt.

  • Al

    Julia Wrote: “where the govt confiscated the properties of the church, the govt in return pays the clergy salaries [and upkeep of church buildings - in Paris the govt owns Notre Dame]

    In Greece, the Church owns the buildings and real estate, and pays for their upkeep and operations (utilities, etc). The people of our village built our Church (http://tinyurl.com/village-church) over a period of several years, as the funds were available. The type of construction here lends itself to taking 7 – 10 years to complete a structure. Mortgages are a rare creature in Greece, which is somewhat ironic in light of the huge government debt. For example, less than 1/3 of all residential structures are mortgaged.

  • Al

    By the way, if you want to do more about the suffering in Greece than parse a reporter’s choice of words:

    (From http://www.antiochian.org/sites/antiochian.org/files/march_2012_word.pdf page 8)

    You can help the victims of poverty around the world, like those in Greece, by making a financial gift to the IOCC International Emergency Response Fund, which will provide immediate relief and long-term support in the form of emergency aid and recovery assistance.

    Yes, an unabashed solicitation on my part.