In The Episcopal Church, we talk about “the ministry of all baptized persons” which rests on our conviction that all baptized persons are ministers. We see many ways to serve one another and the world as ministers of Christ. Those known as ministers in The Episcopal Church are all the baptized. In other denominations, the term may apply exclusively to members of the clergy. We are a denomination of ministers, caring for the people God loves.
As Episcopal ministers, we may be called to many types of service which reflect our gifts and abilities. Some churches have members who are known as music ministers, youth ministers, liturgical ministers, or communications ministers. We are all ministers as we carry out our baptismal vows to share the Gospel.
Some parishioners in our parishes are called to serve as Eucharistic Ministers and Eucharistic Visitors. The foundation for this ministry has stayed the same since it began. This practice, of inviting members of the congregation to help the parish priest with the distribution of Eucharist, formally began with a resolution of General Convention in 1931. Over time, the roles, responsibilities, and even the titles of those who administer communion changed many times.
Today, our Eucharistic Ministers are selected and prepared for the ministry by the parish priest before being recommended to the bishop to receive a license. The reverence for the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine has not diminished and we continue to hold high expectations of those who serve the congregation this way. The evolution of the Eucharistic Ministers parallels other changes in the church.
In 1931, the General Convention formally established the position of lay reader. Men could lead Morning Prayer and read the scripture in worship. Today the person responsible for leading Morning Prayer is called a worship leader. In the 1930s, Morning Prayer was the normal service on Sunday and could be led by a lay reader licensed by the bishop. This was very helpful to smaller congregations which did not have the luxury of a full-time priest. Even though the General Convention established the office of lay reader in 1931, some congregations had parishioners lead Morning Prayer in the absence of a priest for decades. Holy Communion only took place when a priest was available; this is still our practice today.
Thirty years later, in 1967, General Convention changed the Canon to allow the lay readers to assist with the distribution of the chalice for the first time. These men were called chalice bearers, although it was part of their role as lay reader. It was several more years before women became equal partners in ministry at the altar, although churches were finally starting to allow women to read the lessons in the late 1960s when our current 1979 Book of Common Prayer was in draft.
The Episcopal Church uses a democratic process through General Convention, fueled by the Holy Spirit, to evolve in ways in which members of our chuch are involved in leading and participating in worship.
In 1976, General Convention took a step toward our current Eucharistic ministry in Title III, Canon 25.5 stating “under special circumstances” a lay person other than a licensed lay reader could carry the cup at communion but the permission of the bishop was required. Worship leaders today do not automatically receive a license to assist with communion as a Eucharistic Minister and need to obtain a license as a Eucharistic Minister to serve as one.
Over the past 30 years, the ministers of the church have taken on greater responsibility during worship. We established the distinct ministry known as Lay Eucharistic Minister in 1985 (fondly called LEMs in most places). Initially, the LEMs were dual hatted since the license from the bishop allowed them to carry the chalice during communion and to take communion to the homebound directly after the service if clergy were not available. Three years later, the expectation the LEMs could only serve if there was not clergy present was removed. Retired clergy who had been pulled out of the pews to offer the chalice when a LEM was available appreciated this change.
As the LEMs carried out their responsibilities, churches came to realize they were being licensed for two different responsibilities. The preparation for each responsibility was very unique to each one. The roles were divided by General Convention in 1997 making two distinct ministries of Eucharistic Minister and Eucharistic Visitor. Today, a Eucharistic Visitor is a lay person authorized to take the consecrated elements in a timely manner following a Celebration of Holy Eucharist to members of the congregation who, by reason of illness or infirmity, were unable to be present at the Celebration.
The theology behind what it means to be a minister of the church has evolved over time. We acknowledge we all become ministers at baptism. We began to question the need for the word “lay” in front of “Eucharistic Minister”. Was the term “lay” necessary?
In 2003, General convention removed the term “lay” from all licensed ministries including the Eucharistic Ministers and Eucharistic Visitors leaving us with the unpronounceable “EM and “EV” as abbreviations for these ministries. Some parishes kept the terms LEM and LEV in their vocabulary, others held on to the ancient terms of chalice bearer and lay reader even though they were long gone. This occasionally leads to confusion when a lector tells others they are a lay reader since they remember grandpa said he was a lay reader. Our Eucharistic Ministers are licensed by the bishop so if we use it, LEM could mean licensed Eucharist Minister. We hope it never means late Eucharistic Minister since we encourage them to be early to worship services.
The most recent change to the ministry of the LEMs is the 2000 convention allowing any person who is confirmed, even if they are under 16, to administer bread or wine.
Eucharistic Ministers today are:
- Confirmed or received by the bishop
- Active in the parish they serve
- Selected and trained by the clergy, led by a deacon if there is one
- Licensed by the bishop. In the Diocese of Ohio, they are granted for a three year period
All ministries are important to the body of Christ.