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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Solemn Rite or Happy Meal?

There's an interesting article by Doug LeBlanc in yesterday's Episcopal Life Online.

Doug is an Episcopalian who is also a delightfully conservative religious journalist.

I say 'delightfully' conservative because, while he holds to his conservative beliefs like a new Alpha convert holds to the words of Nicky Gumble, Doug is not obnoxious about what he believes about God and the Church and homosexuality and abortion and . . . well, let's just say he'd pass the litmus test any day of the week on any issue for being truly conservative.

And, and, and, he's tolerant. Indeed, we have worked together in a variety of settings and I have come to count him as a friend and a brother in Christ.

So, when he writes about controversial subjects, I listen. Carefully.

In this article, Doug is taking on eucharistic theology in light of the innovation of lay presidency in Australia and the increasing stance by many in TEC to have 'open communion.'

It's a fairly predictable argument from the conservative side of the aisle. Still, he raises some important points that simply can not be easily dismissed.

I think he's made a stretch here. I hear his argument from the fear-based evangelical 'the slippery slope' perspective of human behavior. You know, you make one concession, you put your big toe over the line, and before you know it, BAM, you've not only been cast into the 'outer darkness', but you've been banished there FOR EVER.

It's all black and white, right and wrong, good and evil - no shades of gray. At least, from my perspective of the evangelical position.

I think the two are very separate issues. But, what do you think? What do you think of 'open communion' and 'lay presidency'and is there a connection between the two?


News Item, October 21: The Diocese of Sydney's General Synod has voted again to allow laity to preside at celebrations of Holy Communion and to allow deacons (both men and women) to preside as well.

My reaction, once news of the synod's decision began circulating in U.S.--based weblogs: Wake me when the argument is over.

I have exaggerated my lack of outrage, but not outrageously. My longtime friend and colleague Terry Mattingly grew up Southern Baptist, spent more than 10 years as an Episcopalian and then became Eastern Orthodox.

He enjoys telling the story of attending Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where robed choir members processed with reverence down the center aisle and some bowed before sitting in their pews.

Terry asked about the significance of the bowing, and the answer he heard was remarkable: That's what you're supposed to do. Despite its stained-glass windows and the liturgical calendar it observed, this church had no concept of a Communion host being the body of Christ, in some form, and therefore worthy of brief reverence by choir members.

From that experience, Terry concluded that if a Southern Baptist congregation had a higher-than-average interest in liturgical symbols, its members likely had little understanding of the doctrine behind the symbols.

I wonder if, for many Episcopalians, this could be an accurate summary of what we understand about Holy Communion.

Consider how many priests now announce, week after week, that because the Holy Table belongs to God and not to anyone else, all people -- regardless of whether they are baptized -- are welcome to partake. I note only in passing the chutzpah of presuming that God's will for the Holy Table was thwarted, rather than honored, as far back as the Didache.

Perhaps it fulfills the saying that misery loves company for me to feel relief that another portion of the Anglican Communion must contend with innovations at the Holy Table. That this innovation comes from Australia's most vigorously Reformed diocese only makes the humor richer.

I am no advocate of lay presidency. I believe that both it and the policy of communing the unbaptized reflect an incomplete theology of what occurs during Holy Communion. Both innovations make us the center of attention: In the United States, we say, "Come one, come all to receive, even if you don't understand or care about what you're receiving." In Sydney, should lay presidency ever gain the approval of Archbishop Peter Jensen, Australians will say, "Come one, come all (Anglicans)" to the role of presider.

One can make the case that neither practice is forbidden by Jesus' example at the Last Supper, though I think that resorting to an argument from silence is often an early indicator of mischief. Both sides also propose more than arguments from silence. Progressives appeal to Jesus' dining with prostitutes and tax collectors. Advocates of lay presidency now have published a book, The Lord's Supper in Human Hands, to make their best case at greater length.

I am confident the Anglican Communion will make it through these conflicts about the Lord's Supper. Meanwhile, I hope my fellow Episcopalians will meditate on two things: the meaning of our priests' prayers that the Holy Spirit will infuse bread and wine with the presence of Christ; and the key moment in our salvation, when Jesus "stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to [God's] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world."

To respond to this column email

-- Douglas LeBlanc is a member of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


Frair John said...

Lay presidency is a non-starter for me. I think it shows a lack of understanding of what the Church is and what ministry is as well, but I don’t think it’s anything but an aberration born less of theology and more of a deeply born anti-intellectualism and resentment towards clergy.
Communicating the unbaptized, on the other hand, drives me nuts. I think that the writer is spot on that it is a misunderstanding of what the Eucharist is, and isn’t. It is the feast of the Church, and membership in the Church is achieved in Baptism. The normative text here is, I think, the story of Peter when he unilaterally baptized gentiles. He didn’t say “Well now the Spirit has come on you, so you’re now Christians.” Rather he baptized them. That would indicate to me a normative practice. We also place such an emphasis upon the Rite of Baptism in the Prayer Book, to then say that it isn’t all that important because you can be a member of the Eucharistic assembly with out it is a tad backwards.
I don’t see a slippery slope argument in here, what I do see is a legitimate criticism of two things that the author sees as connected. We have no real theology of the Church left to us if we now toss out Baptism in favor of some vague “come one come all” argument. There is a difference between saying “this is a bad idea and has implications of though and practice which are unacceptable” and the full on fallacy form of reductio ad absurdum that is the “slippery slope.” If he had gone onto say that this could lead to everybody might as well stay home on Sunday and become atheists I’d be rolling my eyes and trying to separate the issues he presents from one another. I’d say he’s being quite on target as it where for his points, with out going to far afield.

Brother David said...

My dear you will soon raise the ire of the Kiwis. The innovation of Lay Presidency is in Australia, not New Zealand.

Mary Sue said...

Psst! Elizabeth! Sydney's in Australia, not New Zealand!

KJ said...

The topic of lay presidency I shall leave to others; it makes my eyes glaze over. However, I think it is unfair for the author to claim that in the US, we say, "Come one, come all to receive, even if you don't understand or care about what you're receiving."

Part of that is true. All are invited, and I personally know many for whom that was an early step in their search for the Divine. Though I have known some who "don't care," I've not known them to partake nor be encouraged to do so. An author as astute as this should avoid the proverbial "straw man." Does nothing to strengthen his point.

Muthah+ said...

Now that I am posing as a Lutheran who has lay presidency at the Eucharist, I am interested in the fact that no one seems to be throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is no slippery slope in their minds. The important thing that seems to be operational is INTENTION. What are we about in the ministry of the Eucharist? Is it a sacrament of the Church or the sacrament of God--Jesus Christ?

I invite all to the table of the Lord. Who am I to keep people away? I cannot look into their hearts to know what their intention is. I trust God to preserve the sacrament. I try to be clear when I celebrate the sacrament that this is Christ' Body and Blood that we offer as a community of faith. It is the community that consecrates--not the merely the priest. That has certainly been my understanding of the sacrament from the time of my Roman days.

At the same time I am the first one to give communion to the pre-verbal child who reaches out for it. I do not know what is in her heart--but I trust that God does.

I am not crazy about lay presidency not because lay folks don't have "holy hands." I am not crazy about lay presidency because the training programs that I have seen cannot provide the kinds of theological training that the ordained ministry is supposed to have. (In my diocese, this training seems to be going by the wayside so the issue may be moot. I don't want to see the kind of superstition enter into the church at the hands of the untrained as what happened in the early middle ages when the clergy were mere ritualists.

I still think that there is a place for the "holy person or parson" in the community--one who has devoted one's life to God for no other reason than God has called them to it. Should these folks be the ONLY celebrants? I am not sure. Only the intention of community of faith can determin that.

Matthew said...

I don't have really strong views of lay presidency. However, I live in a very rural area, several hours drive from another Episcopal church, and a small church with average sunday attendance of 10. Therefore, Eucharist is itself a rareity. Even though in many parishes its the norm, in mine it is the exception. One response to this problem in my diocese is to permit local training and ordaining of local clergy to help solve this problem. Sort of like correspondece courses for wanne be priests or maybe courses over the Internet. We have ordained several this way. The training they get is not what it should be in my opinion. We have priests in my diocese with no college education at all and very little understanding of the church. So, which is worse? I sometimes think lay presidency would be useful because it would take away the sham ordinations that are so common here.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Damn. That will teach me not to post something before my second cuppa joe.

JCF said...

D LeBlanc: In the United States, we say, "Come one, come all to receive, even if you don't understand or care about what you're receiving." [Emph. added]

Is it necessary to SMEAR the non-baptized-but-give-enough-of-a-damn to both

1) Be in an Episcopal Church at mass, and

2) WANT to commune?

It's the HEIGHT of arrogance and presumption, to claim that ANY of us---no matter how long we've been baptized (confirmed, ordained, consecrated, etc)---fully "understand" the Holy Eucharist.

...and I bet the BEST of us Episcopalians (or any other "Catholic" tradition) have insufficiently "cared" enough about it, from time to time (even AS we were feeding on The Lord)

Don't get me wrong: I'm not of one mind re "Open Communion". But I don't like to see that, simply for want of baptism, people (made in the Image and Likeness of God) are treated as undifferentiated "heathen" or infantilized as "without understanding". Give me a break.

We've always said that the Episcopal faith is one for adults (where one doesn't "check one's brains at the door"). Let's just see those who come to us (adults, or quick-larnin' youth!) as the intelligent people they are? Give THEM some say, in whether to feed on Jesus, or not, as their (faithful) hunger calls them?

Brian R said...

Now that I have had my coffee :-)
To understand the push for lay presidency here in Sydney one needs to understand their very low view of 'Holy Communion' They would not use the term 'Eucharist' I have heard some say that Communion interrupts the important task of preaching. Although it is a city diocese with no shortage of priests, communion services are reduced in number and usually advertised as 'traditional services'. Many see it as a sop to women who are not allowed to be priested in this diocese, not because of a view that a priest, representing Christ, (usually called a presbyter they object to the term priest) should be male but because a male must always be 'head'. Some even say that women should only be allowed to preside at communion for other women and children. Some do not even allow women to read the lessons when men are present. Even full time women workers in parishes are made to feel subordinate. One was recently reported in the Diocesan paper

'She understands the isolation that can be associated with being the only woman on an all-male team.

“It becomes difficult because you don’t have buddies on your staff team. If the guys want to chat through an idea, they can just drop in on each other and it’s no big deal. But as the women’s worker you can’t just drop in on any of their houses.”
reflecting on her years at college.

“We did have separate women’s Bible study groups and talk about what does submission look like? What does it look like for my role on a team?

“But many of the guys just never thought about what does it look like to have a woman on my team? How would I relate to her? How would I lead her? They’ve learnt how to lead their wives but that’s very different to how you lead a woman on your team.”

Having worked as a school teacher with majority women colleagues, I was flabbergasted. Any wonder I cannot wait to move to New Zealand which has led the way with women as bishops.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hmmm . . . thanks for all the very thoughtful remarks here. I started out thinking one way, and now I'm not standing so solidly in that clearly marked area any more.

Friar John, I don't see the two issues connected except that they are about eucharistic theology, but they are two very separate and distinct areas of eucharistic theology. And yet, I hear your argument. Let me stew over this a bit more before I open my mouth again and sound like an idiot. Thanks for your post, dear. I think.

You, too, Muthah+. You're absolutely right about INTENTION. The problem, however, come with the training.

I think I'm more disposed to have decons use presanctified bread. Yes, it's about training and education, but I'm all about community on this one.

Brian, your reporting of what's going on in Sydney (thanks Mary Sue and Dahveed), is very helpful. Puts it all in context.

Hmmm . . .I think I need to have a cup of tea and ponder this one a bit more.

Y'all are awesome.