Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Not Taking Offence When I Am Not Invited to Communion

Since I soon won’t get many chances to check out non-Episcopal churches I decided to attend two neighborhood churches a couple of weekends ago. On Saturday evening I attended the Roman Catholic church that is literally around the corner from where I live now. On Sunday I attended a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church a few blocks down the street from the Catholic church. If you don’t know much about the WELS, neither do I, except that they have a reputation for being even more conservative than the Missouri Synod Lutherans (e.g., while, like the Missouri Synod, they do not recognize women’s ordination, unlike the Missouri Synod, women are not able even to vote on church matters in the WELS.)

I knew going in that neither of these churches would be OK with my partaking of the Eucharist/Communion. And that was OK with me. I want to explain why since it seems to irritate or offend a lot of people when they attend churches whose understanding of the Eucharist, communion, and belonging don’t fully include them.


Whether I agree with the limits this or that church puts on who is welcome to receive Communion, it is respectful to abide by their understanding when I am in their place – their house, their rules. Just as I take my shoes of when I visit a mosque and am not offended by their expectation that I do so, I am not offended by the expectation that I not receive communion when visiting the RC or the WELS. Abiding by their rules allows for and respects their otherness.

It also respects the reality that the Church is divided. That we are not one is a scandal, but we ought not to pretend the scandal away by ignoring it. It would be presumptuous and dishonest for me to partake as if those divisions did not matter – even if I did not think they mattered or understand why they mattered. Nor will I presume that the fault for our lack of unity lies alone in those with whom I disagree. So, rather than being put out when I attend churches whose Eucharistic discipline is less open than mine, I am inclined to pray God’s forgiveness for us all for the mutual pride, ignorance, and willfulness that has led to our divisions.


It is important to note that the communion we are about in Communion or the Eucharist is not merely a personal communion with God. It is communion with God in Christ, but it is also communion with the body of Christ, i.e., members of the Church. It is not an exercise in individualistic piety. It is not just about me and my time with God on my terms. I disagree with both the RC and the WELS about the terms of that communion. But, I agree with them that Communion is not just about me and what I think or want. Or what I think God thinks or wants.

I am persuaded that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition have it right that baptism is the sufficient (and essential) threshold for entering the body of Christ and communing with that body. But, the RC expect more in this regard. They expect one to belong to (be in communion with) the Church of Rome. I get that. And since I am not in communion with the Pope, I am OK with not pretending otherwise. I am also not in communion with every doctrine and discipline of the RC. If their understanding of participating in communion is that it suggests that I am or aspire to be, it would be false of me to do so. And it would be an assertion of my own willfulness.

The WELS expects an even more precise doctrinal conformity of those who commune together. I do not think I would meet those expectations. And, in any event, I have reservations of my own about a church that feels free to edit the Nicene Creed as they do (changing “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” to “one, holy, Christian church”) and I profoundly disagree with their teaching on the place of women in church. So, again, it would be false and willful of me to commune with them given their understanding of what that means.

[A bit of an aside – though I was not invited to take communion, I was invited to contribute money to both churches. It seems to me that if one of our concerns is to be more hospitable, a good place to start would be to stop hitting up visitors for cash. I would start there rather than changing church doctrine or discipline, or disregarding church canons. We did not pass the plate at St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn. Rather, members know that belonging – communing – includes financial commitments and know where and how to give.]

I am glad that members of the RC and the WELS would be welcome to commune at an Episcopal church. We recognize their baptisms and that is sufficient. But, humility requires the acknowledgment that THEY MIGHT BE RIGHT. So, I took the opportunity, while others were communing, to contemplate what it means to belong and the cost of discipleship and community.


I do not share our cultural allergy to boundaries. Any body, whether biological or social, needs boundaries to flourish. Boundaries are what enable a sense of identity and integrity. They give definition to expectations and obligations. Denial of this on the biological/personal level wreaks all sorts of havoc – co-dependence, borderline personalty disorder, disregard for otherness, etc. There are similar problems with the denial of boundaries in social bodies. And it blinds us to what bodies (powers and principalities) we might actually belong to or into which we have been subsumed. 

While I disagree with the boundaries the RC and WELS set for Communion, I do not disagree that boundaries are good. So, when they name a boundary and ask me not to cross it, I am not offended. It’s not about me anyway.

I know that there are folk who have experienced painful exclusion. And I have heard of examples of priests, pastors, and lay people in both of these traditions being obnoxious about their boundaries. That does offend and grieve me. But, I do not think that acknowledging boundaries is necessarily obnoxious. It can be done in ways that are not so. 

Actually, in neither of the churches I attended was there in any instruction one way or another, written or verbal, as to who was invited to participate in Communion. As a visitor, I actually found this rather confusing and thus inhospitable. This was especially so in the WELS church. Toward the end of the service, but before the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper as printed in the bulletin, and with no instruction as to what was happening, the ushers dismissed folk pew by pew. But not everyone left and some appeared to come back in or move toward the front for what was a rather perfunctory reciting of the words of institution followed by Communion. Had I been an uninformed visitor I would have had no idea what was going on or what might be expected of me. In any event, I chose to abide by their discipline as I knew it, remained seated where I was, and did not commune.

I will likely attend the neighborhood RC church again. I am less likely to go back to the WELS. But, when I attend the RC, I will refrain from partaking of Communion though I could probably do so without anyone knowing I am not RC. It just seems the respectful thing for a guest to abide by their understanding in their place.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Binding, binding heart to heart!

Today is the twelfth and last day of this Christmas season.  But, that does not mean we must leave Christmas utterly behind. The one who was born on Christmas all those years ago is alive and comes to us every day binding heart to heart. And it remains true every day of the year that “where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
Christmas Meditation
He who by a mother's love
 Made the wandering world his own,
 Every year comes from above,
 Comes the parted to atone,
 Binding Earth to the Father's throne.
 Nay, thou comest every day!
 No, thou never didst depart!
 Never hour hast been away!
 Always with us, Lord, thou art,
 Binding, binding heart to heart!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The good news will triumph!

For the eleventh day of Christmas, here is something from Brother Geoffrey Tristram, superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), an Episcopal religious community in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

We are here to celebrate Good News – wonderful, joyful good news – not make-believe or wishful thinking.  The good news is this: that “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5)

Yes there is darkness – God knows there is darkness – darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful and shameful things in all of us, and in our society, our world.  But the good news is that when God looks closely at you he is not like the tabloid writer looking for scandal, for bad news.  When God looks at you, he looks at you with the eyes of love, just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are – all that is beautiful and good about them.

And when the person we love: our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail and exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid and wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it, like the newspapers.  No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them because we love them.  And when things go wrong, we love them even more.

And when God looks at you and me, and sees how silly we often are, how we mess up, how easily we fall and sin: how we hurt each other, and ourselves, how we damage our beautiful world, our environment; when God looks at his beloved children in Iraq, Afghanistan, shooting and burning and blowing each other up, when he sees his beloved children in this country hurting and damaging and destroying each other, he doesn’t condemn them and say, “You human beings are bad news.  I wash my hands of you.”  No!  God loves us all the more.  God so loves us that he sends his only Son Jesus Christ into the world at Christmas.  But God didn’t send Jesus to us in order to look for the bad news about us.   St. John writes in his Gospel, chapter three:  “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God sent Jesus into the world at Christmas to share what it is to be human: to experience in his body the terrible, hurtful and sinful things that we can do to each other – and yet to carry on loving us, and forgiving us and redeeming us: restoring us to who we are meant to be.

And that is very good news.  However dark life can be, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  However bad the bad news is, the good news is better, is stronger – the good news will triumph!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Recovering our true humanity

For the tenth day of Christmas, more from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers of all mankind.”
― The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 32

“The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man.”
― The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 32

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Here lies the only remedy

Something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the ninth day of Christmas:

“God sends his Son – here lies the only remedy. It is not enough to give man a new philosophy or better religion. A Man comes to men. Every man bears an image. His body and his life become visible. A man is not a bare word, a thought or a will. He is above all and always a man, a form, an image, a brother. And thus he does not create around him just a new way of thought, will and action but he gives us the new image, the new form. Now in Jesus Christ this is just what has happened. The image of God has entered our midst, in the form of our fallen life, in the likeness of sinful flesh. In the teaching and acts of Christ, in his life and death, the image of God is revealed. In him the divine image has been re-created here on earth. The Incarnation, the words and acts of Jesus, his death on the cross, all are indispensable parts of that image. But it is not the same image as Adam bore in the primal glory of paradise. Rather, it is the image of one who enters a world of sin and death, who takes upon himself all the sorrows of humanity, who meekly bears God’s wrath and judgment against sinners, and obeys his will with unswerving devotion in suffering and death, the Man born to poverty, the friend of publicans and sinners, the Man of sorrows, rejected of man and forsaken of God. Here is God made man, here is man in the new image of God.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Honey, Music, and a Shout of Joy

The eighth day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Name. As Bernard of Clairvaux said,

“Jesus is honey in the mouth, music in the ear, and a shout of joy in the heart.”

Here is what the Bible says about the name:

She [Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
(Matthew 1:21)

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
(Luke 2:21)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
   who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
   but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
   so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
   and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:3-11)