Monday, November 16, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART III & PART IV

"No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." Canon I.17.7 of the Constitution & Canons of The Episcopal Church

This canon affirms that the communal expectation and practice of the Episcopal Church regarding Holy Communion is in communion with the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." Here are parts 3 & 4 of my ongoing sketch of a defense of the expectation and practice of this canon.

PART III – Community vs. Association

The Eucharist is a communal meal, hence its other name, Holy Communion. That communion is not simply a matter of our communing with God. It is also an expression of and means toward the communion of the gathered body of Christ.

It is consequential whether we believe the divine-human drama centers on the individual or on community and relationship. While not strictly a matter of either/or it does matter where we put the emphasis. Are we essentially individuals who associate with other individuals for one reason or another or are we persons shaped in community in which case belonging is essential?

Historically, Christianity has emphasized community and belonging. Part of the Church's rejection of Gnosticism has to do with the latter’s appeal to esoteric knowledge focused on individual enlightenment separate from the communal traditions and communal disciplines.

In an American, post-Enlightenment context shaped by the ideology of individualism, the difference between real community and an association of individuals can be hard to appreciate. Inviting anyone to partake of the Eucharist, “wherever they are on their spiritual journey” puts the emphasis on the individual and her or his personal spiritual journey rather than on our being members of one another with responsibility for, and accountability to, one another. The Church cannot counter the ideology of individualism by reinforcing that ideology in its central communal practice.

The God we come to know in the history of Israel and the mission of Jesus always works through a people. Christianity is about belonging to a people shaped by particular ways of being and believing. Our communion is not just an individual spiritual encounter, but communion with, and commitment to, a very physical body gathered in space and through time.

PART IV – Fellow Citizens

That belonging is belonging to one another. It is also belonging to “another country”. We are citizens of heaven and of the kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20, Ephesians 2:9). One of the things we need to look at more carefully is how we understand ourselves in a post-Christian/post-Christendom context. Another reason inviting the unbaptized to Communion is problematic is that it seems to be, ironically, a Christendom move in a post-Christendom situation. Under Christendom, the Church acted as the chaplain of a (presumed) Christian society which included everyone. When, out of long habit, the Church continues that role in a post-Christian context, the distinctive practices, disciplines, and beliefs that are the marks of membership become an embarrassment. To continue to serve as society’s chaplain, it becomes imperative to minimize the particulars of Christian discipleship and emphasize the generic spiritual journey of all citizens of the larger society.

Where our true citizenship lies is a question both the religious right and the religious left in America tend to get wrong. Baptism is our naturalization into a nationality other than that into which we are born (1 Peter 2:9). The creed is our pledge of allegiance. And Eucharist is the characteristic privilege and responsibility of citizenship that shapes us as a people and calls us to live as members of the body of Christ with each other and in the world. As William Cavanaugh writes in Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ:

In the Eucharist one is fellow citizen not of other present “Chileans” [or Americans] but of other members of the body of Christ, past, present and future. The Christian wanders among the earthly nations on the way to her eternal patria, the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist makes clear, however, that this Kingdom does not simply stand outside of history, nor is heaven simply a goal for the individual to achieve at death. Under the sign of the Eucharist the Kingdom becomes present in history through Christ the heavenly High Priest. In the Eucharist the heavens are opened, and the church of all times and places is gathered around the altar. p. 224

The Church is a body of people who are citizens of another country and the Eucharist is one of our constitutive practices. It incorporates us into a body whose loyalties are often at odds with other loyalties. That Christians all too often subsume Christianity under other loyalties does not negate the responsibility to seek to get our loyalty (that to which we are faithful) straight. It is also incumbent upon us to be honest with others that participating in the Church’s characteristic citizenship meal entangles them in particular loyalties, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

Next: Part V - Under Judgement


Jim said...

The canon is clear. I think you have written a clear and well reasoned argument for the canon. What I wonder is where if anywhere you see it as being under attack? I don't see anyone in the diocese of Chicago proposing we violate the canon?

If someone is suggesting that, I agree completely that it is not appropriate. Communion is all about community and not joining the communion is a poor way to begin that relationship.


Matt Gunter said...


I'll not "out" them here. But, there are several parishes in the Diocese of Chicago in which this canon is openly transgressed. With the best of intentions, no doubt, but transgressed all the same. And it is increasingly "under attack" in TEC at large.

Neal Michell said...

Matt, well reasoned and thoughtful. I appreciate your going behind the canon to see why the canon is appropriate within the larger apostolic tradition. Yes, it is a canon that as Episcopal clergy we are duty bound to abide by, you actually go th further step to help explain why this is a good canon.

Ben said...

Matt, I think you have made a concise and well written defense of the historic theological and ecclesiological connections between Baptism and Eucharist. I think there is also a sociological case to be made for maintaining the Church's insistence that Baptism is the rite of full inclusion in the Body of Christ. I think it is safe to say that human beings understand completely the importance and significance of "belonging." We are members of the human race. Moreover, human beings naturally associate themselves with more specific subgroups of the human race. "I am a white male." Which immediately tells others what I am not. I could go on and say, I am part Irish, Welsh and German. I am an American Citizen. I was born in Ohio and have spent most of my life living in the Midwest and so I consider myself a "Midwesterner". I am a member of the Mentor High School graduating class of 1978. I am an alum of Bowling Green State University and also a member of Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity (a Jewish one at that). I have a M.Div. from Virginia Seminary. All human beings live with these nuances of membership and belonging from the moment we enter this world. I could go with other familiar membership associations related to sports, civic organizations, political groups, and on and on. Even a moment's thought about this reveals the idea of open communion built upon an existential theology of inclusion as deeply flawed. It simply isn't the case that people with virtually no exposure to Christianity would somehow fail to understand that they are not yet members of that religion, let alone belonging to a specific expression of it.
Which leads me to two conclusions about what is behind the "open communion" movement: The first is that the clergy of those congregations are lazy. After all, no need for a catechetical process with open communion. One less class to prepare. The second is a creeping Jeffersonian, liberal paternalism. Open communion is necessarily built on an assumption of widespread human ignorance of personal and corporate belonging: better to fling wide the doors and worry about teaching these poor lost souls about belonging to the Body of Christ later.
Ben Jones

Jim said...

I see. I was not aware. ;;sigh;;


The Charismanglican said...

We practice open communion at my parish. I'd be amazed if there were any other practice in Southern CA, despite canon and tradition.