Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lax Communion Discipline

Occasionally I share snippets from Fr. Stephen's blog "Glory to God for All Things." Formerly an Episcopal priest, Fr. Stephen now serves as an Orthodox priest. I find that he consistently offers thought provoking, spiritually profound, and theologically sound reflections, not just on what it means to be Orthodox, but on what it means to be a Christian.

A couple of weeks back, Fr. Stephen posted thoughts on communion discipline that caught my attention. Here's some of what he wrote:

... the rapid disappearance of communion discipline across much of Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century became as well a rapid re-interpretation of the sacrament and the radical exaltation of the individual over the Church. I have several reflections to offer in this vein.

First – the rapid disappearance of communion discipline meant the disappearance of boundaries. Nothing in the Church any longer said, “No.” With this, the Christian life itself loses definition. “Communion” with Christ becomes a purely subjective event, itself stripped of meaning because of the lack of boundaries. If there is no “No,” neither can there be a “Yes.” The Garden of Eden, paradise of perfection, contained a single “No,” one boundary. And yet that boundary alone defined communion with God. In not eating of that tree, Adam and Eve could live in obedience. Every other meal takes on its meaning of blessed communion because it is eaten in obedience. With the act of disobedience and the destruction of the only boundary given by God, every tree becomes a potential tree of death. Indeed, Holy Communion itself can become a Cup of Death according to St. Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians.

Second – with the abolition of boundaries, communion ceases to be a struggle, and loses the ascesis that is essential to a healthy Christian life. Communion with God is a gift from God – but like the Kingdom of God, the “violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This rather odd verse is a reference to those who pursue God in such a way that it is not inappropriate to use the word “violent” to describe it. St. John the Baptist’s ministry was marked by his fasting and struggles in prayer. It is such efforts that are “violent” in the Christian life. It should be normative in the Christian life that the holy mysteries are approached with ascesis. Rather than approaching God with an attitude of entitlement (“this is my communion”) we approach struggling against sin in our life: repenting, confessing, forgiving, fasting. In a Christian life they are acts of love.

Read it all.

This resonates with me as I reflect on my own relationship with the sacrament and the ways in which I sense an approach in the Episcopal Church to the Eucharist that implicitly views receiving it as a kind of entitlement (even going so far, in some cases, to argue for giving communion to the unbaptized - an issue about which I've written before). I don't hear much preaching or teaching on what is required for us to receive, although it's right there in the Prayer Book catechism:

Q. What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?
A. It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people (BCP, p. 860).

It's put even more starkly in the "Exhortation" at the beginning of Rite I. There we are called upon to "remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament" by carefully preparing ourselves prior to receiving, using "the rule of God's commandments" to examine our lives and conduct for the sake of naming and repenting of our sins, "with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others," and "being ready to forgive those who have offended" us with the intention of reconciliation (BCP, pp. 316, 317). Talk about struggle and ascesis! That's very hard work. Do many of us really do it every week before receiving?

And do we really take seriously the view that, if we fail to do this hard work, the sacrament can be dangerous? Note again the language of the "Exhortation" (which echoes the apostle Paul):

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord's Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord (BCP, p. 316).

The apostle Paul even goes so far as to tell the Corinthians: "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died" (1 Corinthians 11:29-30 NRSV). Killed by the Eucharist! Who would believe it possible?!

A few years back, in an Inquirers' Class on the sacraments, I talked about the need for self-examination and preparation in line with what the catechism teaches. One person objected. She thought the whole point of the Eucharist was that, in spite of our sins, God accepts us just as we are. So why should we have to bring repentance into the picture?

True, God accepts us as we are, even going so far as to send His son to die for us before we had even thought about repentance (cf. Romans 5:6-8). But it's also true that God loves us too much to let us remain as we are. "Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called," the apostle Paul reminds us, and "do not grieve the Holy Spirit" (Ephesians 4:1, 30 NRSV).

Fr. Stephen is right. When it comes to the Eucharist, we need discipline. We need boundaries. We need ascesis. Our Anglican heritage teaches this, as well.

Could it be that, like the church in Corinth, one of the reasons why the Episcopal Church is so mired in conflict is because of our increasing laxity when it comes to discipline, boundaries, and norms? And could it be that our lax communion discipline is a sign or a symptom of a spiritual malady we need to diagnose and proactively treat? If so, what would that look like? What would we need to do differently?


Joe Rawls said...

I think the leaders in most Episcopal parishes make no demands on the congregants because they are deathly afraid of scaring people--and their pledges--off. Which is self-defeating because many folks WANT to be stretched and will in fact eventually leave when they start feeling too bored. Consider a gym where the trainers tell newcomers "we'll never tell you you have to exercise because we're inclusive and we honor your fatness." How long would they stay in business?

BillyD said...

Are you familiar with the work of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament?

Bryan Owen said...

Just looked it up, BillyD. Tell us more about it.

BillyD said...

It's one of the historical "Catholic devotional societies" in Anglicanism. It got started in the C of E in the 19th century, and the American branch soon followed.

Among its aims has been the promotion of Catholic teaching and practice regarding the Blessed Sacrament. Here's a link to the website of the American branch:

bob said...

It's helpful to notice the order of things in the BCP (And every other liturgy I know of) eucharist. First you say the Creed together, *then* you receive communion together. If you don't have the same faith, there's no reason to be in communion. Since the first is trivialized, the second goes down with it. Start preaching that the Creed is true (You have backtrack past Pike in the 60's to re-establish a foundation) and go forward. This will lose some, maybe a lot of parishoners.

Bryan Owen said...

That's a good insight about the order of the Eucharistic liturgy, bob. I agree about the need to re-establish a foundation using the Creed as one of the principal resources. Yes, some may be turned off. But there may be others who are hungry for something more than truth du jour.

I also note that the placement of the Nicene Creed immediately after the sermon can serve as a corrective in case anything weird happens in the pulpit.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, also, BillyD for the link. I'll have to take a closer look.