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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Power of A Wafer: 'Open Communion' to 'Authority' to 'The End of the Church'

Over at HOB/D (House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv, we're still yammering on and on about 'Open Communion". I know. Can you believe it?

Interesting, though. Our Lutheran Sisters and Brothers, with whom we're in communion now, practice what they call "Open Communion" to all the baptized. Perhaps this is the reason behind the switch to the less elegant but more specific term of "Communion of the un-Baptized."

One leading conservative, evangelical theologian wrote: "Although this is significant in and of itself, it is also more significant of a symptom of something else, namely a loss of an agreed sense of authority. Communities that lose this are in danger of disintegrating."

Surprised by this, I responded: "I would argue that arguing about "an agreed sense of authority" is part of what it is to be Christian. We see it in scripture whenever Jesus speaks to Pharisees and Sadducees. Whether the issue is circumcision or dietary laws, we see it when Peter and Paul argue about membership in the early church. There is great documentation for this debate in the tradition of the church - sometimes causing new manifestations of the Body of Christ to be called into being (like our own). Anglicans in general and Episcopalians in particular have been arguing about 'an agreed sense of authority' since the beginning. Some might argue that is the core issue of our faith."

Well! The wrath of the Lord was upon me! Several evangelical conservative (male) priests wrote me, offline and on, to tell me that I was wrong, wrong, wrong. One wrote: "It is in the postmodern critique of modernity that we have the whole questioning of authority, lack of metanarrative, deconstruction of language, and so on, that seems so well to fit (the) concern of lack of an agreed sense of authority. I would also point to serpent in the Garden of Eden who first questioned authority when it asked, "Did God really say?"

One even gave evidence of this "loss sense of agreed authority" in the fact that "I hear clergy change the language of the prayer book rite because they disagree with the language, Part of the catholic tradition is that we are under authority. I am under the authority of my bishop. I am under the authority of the prayer book. I am under the authority of the canons. That's what I signed onto when I was ordained. I don't have the right to change the language of the prayer book based upon my own theological preferences"

So, here's my current natter on the subject. I'd love to hear yours.

First question: “How is this ‘what it means to be post-modern’?”

To my knowledge, limited as it admittedly is, the weight of evidence in scripture and tradition clearly outweigh the claim that this is a post-modern phenomenon. I’ve already made brief mention of how I read scripture and tradition. How do you read? Are you not standing on only one leg of the ‘three legged stool’ of Anglicanism. I get your ‘reason’. Where, then, is scripture and tradition?

Which leads me to ask, “So who is now insisting on his own way?”

No one has changed the language of the BCP. Neither has anyone changed the language of the ordination vows, which I took right after I signed the Oath of Conformity without crossing my fingers behind my back. If asked and administered today, I am confident that I would pass a lie detector test.

How is “the agreed sense of authority” diminished or challenged for clergy - or anyone, for that matter – by offering prayer in the context of public worship in the manner in which they believe and in the language that makes sense to them? Is this not the modern application of Cranmer’s philosophy of a ‘common language’ – not the mass in Latin but in the common language of the people? In a diverse culture such as ours, is this not why we take pains to translate our public worship into Spanish, Creole, Native American, Asian, etc.?

What of the feminist theologians in those cultures? Are we to sit as women of stone?

I understand completely that the image of God you hold and the one I pray to are probably vastly different. It would, of course, follow that the language we use would be different. And yet, through the mystery that is the God we both worship and adore, we are praying to the one and the same God who hears both of our prayers and takes them to heart.

Is this not a manifestation of the redemption of the Tower of Babel at Pentecost? Why the insistance that I and everyone else pray the way you do in order for our prayers to somehow be ‘authentic’ and in conformity with ‘authority’?

That’s not an accusation. I’m just trying to understand.

Which leads me to another, perhaps predictable, question: “Whatever became of Anglican tolerance (AKA ‘comprehensiveness’ or ‘Pragmatism’)?

Help me understand this need for ‘every knee to bend” in exactly the same way and “every tongue” to speak in conformity. As I’ve said before, “Anglican Covenant” is an oxymoron to my understanding of the great history and tradition of being a member of the Anglican Communion.

We have taken great pride in not being a ‘confessional’ church; neither do we constellate our spirituality around the personality or piety of one religious leader. We are not strictly an ‘experiential’ faith, like, say, the Pentecostals or Assemblies of God who have a particular experience of God and the Holy Spirit which directs or frames our worship, piety, doctrine or polity.

Ours is what has been described as a ‘pragmatic’ faith. True, at worst we can become what someone once called “flabby theologians” – not exactly ‘anything goes” but not exactly the kind of clarity of theological thought which has been a hallmark of Anglicanism.

But we have always been protestant AND catholic AND evangelical AND orthodox. We remain so to this very day. Just look at Eucharistic Prayers A, B, C and D in the 1979 BCP for evidence of that. What has changed? Why?

Here’s my curiosity behind the term “agreed sense of authority”. I don’t think there’s any accident or coincidence that this term is being used at this particular point in our history as Episcopalians.

We presently have a woman who is Presiding Bishop and a woman who is President of the House of Deputies. We presently have more and more women who are priests who hold positions of rectors in significant parishes, deans of and canons in cathedrals, and bishops.

We have one diocese which has already left TEC which does not ordain women, one diocese which is considering leaving TEC which does not ordain women, and one diocese which is considering leaving TEC which does ordain women, but whose bishop has said, in a remarkable call to tolerance, that the disagreement over the ordination of women in their ranks is something that would have to be worked out among them over time.

You know where this is going. One ought not be surprised by the curiosity behind my perspective. I’m a woman. I’m an ordained woman who is a rector of a fairly significant parish. The challenge to my authority as a woman in a role, which has been traditionally male, comes with surprising frequency even in a diocese like Newark.

Are we really surprised, then, that suddenly the buzzword du jour is about “the agreed sense of authority”? In that sense, I’ll concede your point that this particular aspect of the present discussion regarding authority is a post-modern phenomenon.

All things carefully considered, I would have to re-affirm my original conclusion: This is not the deal-breaker for me. Indeed, I see it as a sign of health.

The minute we stop arguing over ‘an agreed sense of authority” I’ll know we’re really in trouble.


susankay said...

(the rev) Elizabeth -- My partner and I just had this discussion over dinner. It may not be purely "gay cooties" as Jake would say but some wierd version of "girl cooties". And I use "girl" on purpose because I suspect that the "boys" involved got stuck somewhere on putting "no grrls allowed" signs on their tree houses. And I also want to say that my tree houses were probaly far superior to theirs!!

Bill said...

The only constant in the universe is change. There is nothing written which stands the test of time. Everything ever uttered or put to stone or papyrus or paper has been translated, changed, translated again and again and changed again and again. The only sure thought you can take to the bank is that every bible will be re-written and changed as well as every version of every BCP. Anyone of us who tries to “stand firm” in the path of change will be swept away by time. This is the nature of the universe as well as the nature of human kind.

Here is a list of some of the books of common prayer. There were also proposed versions that didn’t quite make it.
1549 first Book of Common Prayer, 1552 the second Prayer Book of Edward VI, 1559 the Elizabethan Book, 1662, 1789, 1892, 1928 and 1979. Would anyone care to bet that 1979 was the last version and will not change.

I hate to burst bubbles, but the bible will change, the BCP will change and oh yes, the world will change.

PseudoPiskie said...

IMO when people are desperately seeking leadership in stressful times, they find the strongest person around - like male clergy who preach a plan to get them out of their earthly mess and presidents who think they can bully their way to peace and prosperity. Like most normal humans, these males (so far) are led to believe they are special and deserve special status and should be regarded as the ultimate authority. What they usually breed after a period of time is resentment and distrust which erode, rightfully, any authority they try to claim, at least with a significant portion of the relevant population.

As dumb and naive as many Americans seem, we are willing to change when conditions don't improve and promises fail to be fulfilled. I think this is behind Barack Obama's success - another Jack Kennedy who provides what the current leadership hasn't - hope. I pray that the similarity ends there as I fear there are more than enough nut cases, often with Biblical incentive, to cause physical harm.

When men see their authority waning, most desperately cling to what they perceive got them there in the first place. They fear that any change will indicate they might be wrong. For the clergy who are fomenting division and exclusion, the bugaboo is their opinion of what is in the Bible. Just like the current administration, the rejectionists turn their fear of losing authority to using fear as their major tool for maintaining their positions. The fear of LGBT cooties is their current weapon of choice. They don't care if a little prevarication is involved as they assume the sheeple won't stop to analyze their assertions. As long as people are afraid, they will follow.

So what happens when situations change? Perhaps people just grow complacent and lack commitment. Perhaps they see that the fear is irrational once they learn more. Perhaps they just get tired of the bullying which is what the rejectionists and the administration rely on.

I suspect most Episcopalians could care less about the clerical machinations. They don't care much about authority. All they want is a priest who doesn't make them feel too uncomfortable to provide the eucharist every Sunday or once a month, whatever their custom is. They prefer to keep the church out of the news and the news out of the church. When they are displeased, they simply drop out until conditions change then they return. At least that seems to be how Christ Church people are.

I doubt that any amount of science or history or reason or compassion or anything else can convince certain people on the HoB/D list and elsewhere that the authority they want to continue is doomed to failure. They themselves are too desperately afraid of whatever to even consider that possibility. And they are probably totally unaware that terror of judgement is their primary motivator. Sad. They need to find the loving God the rest of us worship.

Suzer said...

For what it's worth...

A priest I know once said that Jesus Himself practiced open communion in the feeding of the 5000. The similarity of "he blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to them" sounds an awful lot like communion to me. And He didn't ask "are you baptized" or even "do you believe in Me?" prior to handing out the food. In John's version of the story, Jesus (one day later) even uses almost the same words as in our current prayer book to describe the event that had taken place after he is sought out by the people.

All that said, I don't think God cares one whit whether we are baptized or not in order to receive Communion. It is God's table, not ours, and it is not right for humans to put conditions on that which God freely gives.

Just my humble opinion. I'm no theological scholar, and I'm sure there are many who will disagree and call me a heretic. Wouldn't be the first time, not will it be the last. Better, I think, that we come off our high horses and celebrate God's love with EVERYONE, than cast out anyone who doesn't fulfill a particular definition of belief.

Jim said...

I was waiting to post on this because I wondered what others might say. The silence is deafening alas.

Emmanuel, where we pray, has just called its second ordained woman and first female rector. She is about to start her ministry with us (March first) and I am sure that some of what she will face will be a series of challenges because she is a woman. We will have achieved something when we stop noticing the gender of the rector.

But, that may take a century or two, men learn slowly if at all.


Suzer said...

Sorry that I didn't really respond to what you had written -- it's the subject that prompted your post that intrigued me first off. :)

Since I don't read that listserv (don't know if regular pew-sitters are even allowed to subscribe and not sure I'd want to), I missed out on the open communion discussion. I can imagine what was said, though, from seeing the same type of discussion elsewhere.

Jim said...

I think the search for a jurisdiction where the 'orthodox'{they aren't really} can "win" is what you are seeing when you ask the questions you did in the post.

It is the perception that they have "lost" in TEC which leads to the issues of authority. They also have a perception that they are God's own warriors. Those two do not conflate well, so they add a third: the need to find a jurisdiction where they and implicitly (or explicitly in some particullarly arrogant cases) God can "win."

The issue of authority is driven by the failure to carry the day. If we all agreed that straight white male dominance clearly is God's intent there would be no interest in seeking a new level of authority.