Monday, May 28, 2012

The Push for Communion Without Baptism is an Assault on the Church

The topic of Communion Without Baptism (CWOB) continues to make the rounds in the Episcopal/Anglican blogosphere.  Lately that's largely due to the Open Table resolution for this summer's General Convention from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon.

At The Curate's Desk, Fr. Robert Hendrickson has posted a good response to the Diocese of Eastern Oregon's position paper on this matter.  He writes:

The Eucharist has been the central act of worship for large parts of Christianity since Christ said “Take, eat, this is my Body.” Somehow, over 2000 years, this has not been a source of tension. This was the pattern in lean times of persecution and in the bloated years of full-blown Christendom and in every era in between. Wax or wane Christianity has held, at its core, Baptism as entry into the life of Christ. 
The challenge is not that we have a ministry of the baptized and Communion as our central act of worship – the challenge is that we have clergy ill-trained in Sacramental theology administering them. We have laity that we have failed to form in Sacramental living. We now have a wide body of our priests that do not believe anything much actually happens in the Sacraments. 
Do you believe the Holy Spirit descends upon a person and transforms their very being in Baptism so that they are united with Christ? Do you believe that Christ is truly present in the Body and Blood we receive at the Altar? Are the Sacraments God’s action or ours? I have heard far too many talking of Baptism as an entry rite rather than as transformation just as I have heard too many speak of Communion as a “meal” alone rather than the very Presence of Christ among us. 
If you have a clergy addicted to modernism and reformation charged with carrying out the catholic Sacramental life of the Church then you will, indeed, have tension. But the tension should not between upending the Sacraments or administering them faithfully as they have been across the centuries. The tension should be between doing or not doing them. You can choose other ways of ministry that do not involve undoing the historic Sacraments of the Church if you are not comfortable with the faith and order we have been welcomed into as both baptized and ordained leaders. 
In a recent conversation with a clergy person about this issue, they mentioned an older person in their parish who was receiving Communion but had not been Baptized. The priest said, “I just can’t see making him go through some ceremony.”

It's a sad state of affairs when, in the name of inclusiveness, "the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God" (BCP, p. 858) comes to be seen as just "some ceremony," a hurdle that the Church makes people jump through before they can be deemed sufficiently worthy to partake of the Eucharist.  I think Fr. Hendrickson is right that this reveals a lack of belief in the sacrament of Baptism as a means by which God transforms us.  Instead of "a sure and certain means by which we receive" grace (BCP, p. 857), such a negative portrayal of Baptism as a roadblock to inclusion ends up saying that Baptism merely reveals the grace that's already there.  In other words, you don't need Baptism to be adopted as God's children, made members of the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom, because every human being is already a child of God.  Going through the motions of the Baptismal Rite is merely a way of affirming what is already the case.  Which, of course, begs the question: why bother with Baptism at all?

Such a view rejects the theology of the Prayer Book's Baptismal Rite and Catechism.  And for that very reason, it's a perspective in which Communion Without Baptism makes perfect sense.  If Baptism effects no change in a person's status in relation to God, then why shouldn't the unbaptized receive communion?  Indeed, if Baptism doesn't do or change anything, then it would be arbitrary to exclude the unbaptized from the Lord's table since everybody is the same, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized.  But again, this begs the question: why bother with Baptism at all?

Fr. Tony Clavier has also weighed in with a posting entitled "A Theology of Baptism."  In that posting, Fr. Tony puts his finger on one of the core problems of the Communion Without Baptism argument: a downplaying or rejection of the Doctrine of the Fall.  Fr. Tony is worth quoting at length:

As far as I am aware and can conclude, what we term baptism is under two assaults in the contemporary church. The first stems from sentimentalism. It is proposed that the necessity for baptism as an entrance to the other sacraments is exclusionary and thus legalistic and oppressive. It is exclusionary, we are told, because it erects a barrier between the seeker and God’s love. It is oppressive because it creates a class of people, the unbaptized, excluded from receiving holy communion simply because they haven’t undergone a ritual ceremony. This second point is only cogent if indeed there’s nothing much to baptism, it’s a church rite that can be got round to in due course once a person has been included fully into the worshipping community; has been loved and made welcome. 
Sensing that such a practical devaluation of what baptism has been perceived to be, some are now actually seeking to create a theology to justify moving baptism from its role as the act of incorporation into the Body of Christ. It is proposed that as God, in creating women and men in God’s image has already claimed the human race as God’s own, ”behold it is good.” Of course this is no new revelation, or even bad theology. It’s a beginning. Such an acceptance teaches us to honor all human beings. As we are predisposed to prejudice, as we seem to need to create categories of human beings, some to embrace and some to reject, the wonderful ideal that all humans are part of God’s act of love in a good creation is vital. So far, so good. However surely that isn’t the whole story. If it were, all rites which demonstrate God’s goodness, God’s love should be accessible to all people. Yet, as we have just noticed, we are prone to practice segregation. Doesn’t that idea lead us somewhere? Something is obviously wrong. God created us, and that is good. We refuse to share that goodness with others. That is bad. Bad is a theological concept with devastatingly bad implications. This creation, made good by a loving God, is capable of dreadful inhumanity; failure to be human. Failing to be fully human is a failure to mirror the image and likeness of God. 
Christians have explained this failure, this disowning of the nature created in his image, by the Doctrine of the Fall. The dusty old Articles of Religion ... remarks that we are “very far gone from original righteousness.” “Righteousness” doesn’t mean acting in a righteous way, (it is not the same as self-righteousness) it means living, being images of the creator God. In short we are flawed. The Creeds, those tables of contents outlining what a Christian believes, assert that baptism is for the remission of sins. Remission, or forgiveness usually means ‘loosing away’ or ‘sending away’ and thus making whole. In short because we have something which needs to be ‘loosened away’ or ‘sent away’ we are unable to be fully human, or if you will God-like. Of course baptism is about incorporation, adoption, being Spirit-filled, but all these actions of God to usward, require our being restored to wholeness. ... 
Our modern reformers posit the idea of the Goodness of God in creation, as a replacement for a robust theology of Baptism. 

The logic of indiscriminate inclusivity is at work here, for everybody is the same, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized.  And that sameness comes down to the common denominator of being basically good.  Lacking the understanding that everything has been corrupted and perverted by human sin, and thus that everything requires redemption and transformation, Baptism once again becomes a way of simply expressing what is already the case: we human beings are good because we are all created in the image of a good God.  If there is a problem, it comes down to our failure to recognize, affirm, and celebrate what is already the case.

Even bearing in mind the ways in which all of this renders the sacrament of Baptism ineffectual and ultimately unnecessary, one wonders what a Baptismal Rite would look like that reflects the (mis)understandings driving Communion Without Baptism.  Perhaps it would look similar to Kevin Thew Forrester's revision of the liturgy for Baptism which, among other major changes, replaces the renunciations of sin and evil (because there is no Fall) with invitations to let go of self-deceit, fear, and anger.

C. Wingate at Tune: Kings Lynn sums things up rather well:

We're talking here about one of the oldest canons of the church--not our church, THE church-- which they [the proponents of Communion Without Baptism] wish to overturn. It isn't as though there is no great weight of theology behind this, because, of course, there is. Any of us who have rebuked the innovation can explain what is wrong with it in a couple of sentences. But somehow, all of this is utterly irrelevant, and the proponents of the error can make an end run around fifteen hundred years of Christian theology. Or to put it more technically, this is the worst kind of progressivist restorationism, the liberal equivalent to the Jehovah's Witnesses. And there is no way of doing theology that is more in conflict with Anglican principles.

Baptism is not just some arbitrary ceremony that can be set aside or replaced with something else.  On the contrary, as The Book of Common Prayer teaches, Baptism is "full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church" (p. 298).  Baptism is the means by which we receive the inward and spiritual grace of "union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit" (BCP, p. 858).

The current assaults on the orthodox understanding of Baptism take direct aim at what it means to be united with Christ in his death and resurrection, to be reborn into God's family the Church, to receive forgiveness of our sins and new life in the Holy Spirit.  And by extension, an assault on the Church's understanding of the inward and spiritual grace received in Baptism is an assault on the Church itself.  Such assaults entail a revision of the biblical narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption that excises the Fall from the story.  They jettison the understanding of sacraments as sure and certain means by which we receive the grace needed to heal our profound brokenness.  And in the process, the very meaning of the term "Church" gets redefined.  No longer is the Church "the mystical body" of Christ and a "wonderful and sacred mystery" that elicits our awe-filled, humble obedience and transcends our capacity to comprehend and control (BCP, pp. 339, 515).  Instead, the Church becomes just another merely human institution that can be manipulated and tinkered with as we see fit.  Lacking any transcendent dimension, the Church is just about us: our preferences, our agendas, and the wills to power that have the majority votes to satisfy those preferences and enact those agendas.  And that's no Church at all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"To speak at all about Christian holiness"

“Talking about spirituality simply in terms of an undefined intensity or ‘authenticity’ of human life has little to do with talking of holiness, because holiness presupposes a transcendent source and measure for itself. To speak at all about Christian holiness is to seek for the criteria by which a life can be recognized as communicating the holiness of God as made known in Jesus. A doctrine-free spirituality risks descending into sentimentality, to the level of what makes us feel generally better about ourselves or reminds us in a wholly unsystematic way of the mystery around us; it is a weak support for resistance to the political and cultural tyrannies of our day. Without the structures of both discipline and doctrine, ‘spirituality’ can be vacuous and indulgent. Equally, doctrine that loses sight of its own roots in the painful and gradual re-formation of how holiness is experienced and understood becomes idle, even idolatrous. Christian language began its distinctive life as the speech the community developed for new, shared senses of what was possible for God and humanity. So, if some area of doctrinal language has become apparently arid, the question demanding to be asked is not first whether it makes sense before some imaginary tribunal of disengaged intellect or contemporary relevance, but what possibilities for Christian life and discipleship it was meant to ‘encode’ and whether the problem lies in a shrinking of our imagination in respect of this discipleship.” 

~ Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, 

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Line Separating Good and Evil

"Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

General Convention Should Do Nothing

Writing at A Tribe Called Anglican, JD Ballard has written a passionate open letter to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  It's such an impressive piece that I am going to quote from it at length in the hopes that even more people will read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.

Starting off by noting that he is a convert to the Episcopal Church who deeply loves this Church and the Anglican Tradition of which we are a part, JD notes that "the path we are treading seems to be leading suspiciously away from beliefs and practices that have shaped, defined, and refined the Church of Jesus since the time of the Apostles."  (He goes further in a comment by saying "I converted to Anglicanism, not Unitarian Universalist Progressive Secularism in catholic dress up.")  JD continues:

We have been in a steady, and now precipitous, decline for nearly 50 years. Rather than pull back the reins, pause, reflect, and consider, we have dug in the spurs and whipped it up. I have almost no doubt that we can expect more “prophetic actions” forthcoming, though the prophecy they speak to the world may be, “Do not go this way. It leads to death.”  
According to The Barna Group, nearly one in three Episcopalian marriages ends in divorce. We aren’t taking care of the marriages we’ve got, and yet we are preparing (very controversially) to redefine and reconfigure the ancient custom.  
We are barely able to get one in three of our baptized members to communion on any given Sunday (probably lower if you took out Easter and Christmas), and yet we are going to consider making communion available to those who have never been baptized in contravention of nearly two millennia of unbroken, uninterrupted Church teaching. We, apparently, can’t even get our baptized membership to take the Eucharist more seriously than soccer, spring break, fishing, and football!  
In a so-called spirit of hospitality, clergy in almost every diocese flaunt the canons of this Church and their ordination vows by offering communion to the unbaptized. The bishops are either ignorant of the conditions in their own diocese, unwilling to do anything to bring integrity and order to the parishes, or are sympathetic to this disregard for the established and agreed upon regulations by which we order our common life. Any of those three would be a tragedy, and we’ve probably got all three going on in some measure.  
We seem unable to get our own children to go to church and grow into faithful, mature Christians in any meaningful numbers, yet we have the audacity to issue a resolution to the President of the United States regarding the Middle East Peace Process or a resolution calling for statehood of the District of Columbia. The hubris of this would almost be laughable if I weren’t already on the verge of tears.  
We are spending millions of dollars a year to sue other Christians in direct contradiction of the clear teaching of Holy Scripture under the guise of “fiduciary responsibility.” Since when did fiduciary responsibilities take precedence over issues of faithfulness, love, forgiveness, and mercy? I suppose Jesus’ words, “If anyone would take your tunic, give them your cloak as well” were obviously for a different cultural context, and could hardly be expected to have any bearing on our present difficulties.  
In the meantime, very little is spent on missionary work to the unreached peoples of the earth, and we are reducing or cutting programs aimed at poverty, illiteracy, and environmental care. Dozens of parishes are closed every year for lack of monetary resources, yet there seems to be an endless supply of those resources for litigation. And as far the planting of new parishes in this country? Virtually non-existent. ...
What we do seem to have is a bumper crop of bishops and priests who want to be prophets, but do not want to be bishops and priests (except that it helps them to be prophetic). We have clergy and laity who love to tinker with the liturgy, but are woefully or willfully ignorant of Scripture, Patristics, and the Anglican Reformers… the very wellsprings and sources of our Faith and Tradition. We have hundreds of parishes with interfaith services and not a few with the actual prayer services to other deities or from other faith traditions, but precious few that offer the daily offices on a daily basis.

JD is spot on to note that the Episcopal Church finds herself in a period of massive decline.  The sad irony is that, far from being signs of health, vitality, and renewal, things like communion without baptism are symptomatic of anomie and decline.  Such boundary-breaking practices evade the core problems, fail to name the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room, and thus maintain the status quo of our downward spiral.

So, what exactly have all of the prophetic stances and boundary-pushing/breaking practices yielded?

We have succeeded in very little other than bringing great disrepute upon the Gospel of our Lord and we are shrinking at a calamitous rate and spending millions of dollars a year in the effort. We have effectively collapsed our Ecumenical Dialogs and put them on tenuous ground for the rest of the communion. There was a time when the world thought the Anglicans would lead the charge in the reunification of the Church catholic. That time has passed. We are a byword among the nations, and a laughingstock among the peoples. If you we haven’t realized that, it is because we only spend time with other self-congratulating Episcopalians. We are shrinking at a rate of roughly a diocese per year. And rather than saying, “Whoa there! Something is wrong. This road doesn’t lead where we thought it did.” We seem to be saying instead, “ONWARD!” Again, such silliness and poor decision making would be funny if it weren’t so expensive and if it weren’t wreaking such havoc on this Church, the Gospel of Jesus, and the spiritual life of its members. 

In light of this big mess, what then does JD think General Convention should do when the deputies and bishops convene this summer?

STOP! Don’t do anything. We are on the verge of committing spiritual and institutional suicide, and further alienating our brothers and sisters in Christ of every sort… Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Don’t do it. Nothing would please me more than if the 2012 General Convention went down in history as the “Do Nothing Convention.” As a matter of fact, for probably the next three General Conventions we should do nothing but gather together (as cheaply as possible), fast, and pray for mercy and guidance. That’s it. No resolutions. No lobbying. No “prophetic voice.” No covenant. No restructuring. Simply repentance and prayer for the dismal state of our church.

I wrote JD a note to say that I have low hopes that the liberal ideologues who control General Convention will listen to such passionate wisdom.  As one clergy colleague from another province of the Anglican Communion put it, in contrast to those sympathetic with the current trajectory for the Episcopal Church charted by General Convention, JD is "working within the life-giving frameworks of the catholic creeds."  However, I also told JD that God may still accept his offering and use it in the long run for the renewal of this neck of the Anglican woods. 

In the meantime, read all of what JD has written and follow the discussion in the comments.  And note also his wise counsel in response to a priest's question, "What constructive vision might you have for a new rector to create paradigmatic shifts on the parish level?"  It's a faithful prescription for Anglican renewal within the Episcopal Church.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Creed is More than a Proclamation - It's a Prayer

"The Creed is more than a proclamation. It's a prayer that saints made in faith. It's a prayer where sinners find their hope. It's a prayer where God shows His love."

Friday, May 4, 2012

Resisting the Message of the Gospels

In an article posted on Internet Monk, Tim Gombis, professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, addresses the ways that Christians resist the Gospels.  He writes:

I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying. ...

I can recall our Gospels-resistance reading strategies from Bible studies in high school and college.  We would encounter a challenging statement of Jesus, such as that in Luke 14:12-15:
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Realizing that Jesus very clearly says to invite the poor and those of shameful social status, we would fall silent and then ask, “what do you think Jesus means by this?”

Inevitably, someone would say, “I think Jesus is referring to our hearts—that we should have willing hearts in case we’re ever called to serve.”

This is a familiar strategy, one I’ve encountered (and used myself) many times.  We stare at the clear words of Jesus that challenge our well-established social patterns and community dynamics, and we flinch.  We relegate Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices.

So where does this evasion strategy come from?  According to Gombis, it's grounded in the demythologization program of Rudolf Bultmann:

N. T. Wright is dead-on when he says that evangelicals are Bultmannian when it comes to the Gospels (How God Became King, pp. 22-23).  Bultmann sought to strip away the “husk” of the historical details of the Gospels in order to get to the “kernel” of theological truth the Gospels writers were really communicating.
We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives.

This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety.  But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.

It’s too threatening.  If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to.

Perhaps we who contrast ourselves with so-called fundamentalists by invoking the phrase "taking the Bible seriously but not literally" use that phrase to sometimes play an evasion game, too?

There's much more in Gombis' article, so read it all.

 In their book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee seek to address the resistance and evasion of the Gospels.  They write:

Christian churches across the theological and confessional spectrum, and Christian ethics as an academic discipline that serves the churches, are often guilty of evading Jesus, the cornerstone and center of the Christian faith.  Specifically, the teachings and practices of Jesus - especially the largest block of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount - are routinely ignored or misinterpreted in the preaching and teaching ministry of the churches and in Christian scholarship in ethics.  This evasion of the concrete teachings of Jesus has seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs and moral witness. ... And so it is no overstatement to claim that the evasion of the teachings of Jesus constitutes a crisis of Christian identity and raises the question of who exactly is functioning as the Lord of the church.  When Jesus' way of discipleship is thinned down, marginalized or avoided, then churches and Christians lose their antibodies against infection by secular ideologies that manipulate Christians into serving the purposes of some other lord.

All of this reminds me of Søren Kierkegaard's stinging critique of "Christian scholarship" in which (among other things) he writes:

Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read:"If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me." Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

Regardless of where we fall on the theological spectrum, Gombis, Stassen, Gushee, and Kierkegaard invite us to reflect on the ways that each of us who claim to follow Jesus evade and resist his claim on our lives and loyalties.