Saturday, June 20, 2015

Self-Control: Neglected Fruit of the Spirit

Human beings are made to receive and give love, joy, and peace. We were created to bear these and the other fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) in communion with God and with one another. But the ground of that communion is often stony and choked with weeds. Like a good farmer, we must rely on God’s grace — the sun and rain — if we are going to be spiritually fruitful. But, also like farmers, we are not passive partners. God pours out his Spirit freely, but we must cultivate the soil of our hearts and our communities. This means we need to pay more attention to that least popular fruit of the Spirit: self-control.

When Paul was called before Felix, the governor of Judea, and his wife, Drusilla, he spoke to them “about faith in Christ Jesus” and “justice and self-control and future judgment” (Acts 24:24-25). It is interesting that Paul mentions those three things as what follows from faith in Christ Jesus. Most will recognize justice and future judgment as basic Christian concepts, but do we consider self-control one of the fundamental marks of being a Christian?

Are we any less self-indulgent than our non-Christian neighbors? Are we notably more moderate in our consumption of food and drink? In our accumulation of wealth? Our gratification of sexual titillation? And what about indulging our more deadly spiritual passions? We live in an affluent and self-indulgent society. Our imaginations have been effectively catechized by consumerism and its insistence that we should avoid every discomfort and satisfy every appetite. This leaves us forever discontent and miserable. St. Neilos described well in the 5th century the effect of these insatiable appetites: “being self-indulgent, [we] do not realize how [our] soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.” Jesus likewise warned: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25).

Self-control is a recurrent theme in the New Testament and the early Church. It is rooted in Jesus’ declaration that self-denial is a basic requirement for being among his followers (Matt. 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). It is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23) and as one of the three things — besides power and love — that God has given us instead of a spirit of timidity (2 Tim. 1:7). It is listed as one of the criteria for being a bishop (Titus 1:8). The early Church continued recognizing the centrality of self-control to the Christian way. John Cassian (ca. 360-435) wrote that “no virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, ‘citizens of heaven’” (see Phil. 3:20). St. Thalassios the Libyan (7th century) wrote: “Stillness, prayer, love, and self-control are a four-horsed chariot bearing the intellect to heaven.”

Self-control is central to Christian faithfulness because it gets at the root sin of self-centeredness. Out of that root grow “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19), making us “slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). Such warnings against “passions” show up frequently in the New Testament (see Rom. 1:26, 6:12, and 7:5; 1 Cor. 7:36; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 2:3; 2 Tim. 2:22; Titus 2:12 and 3:3; James 4:1 and 4:3; 1 Pet. 1:14, 2:11, and 4:2-3; 2 Pet. 2:18 and 3:3; and Jude 1:16-18).

Here it gets tricky. Ask anyone what “various passions and pleasures” might refer to and the answer will almost certainly be that it refers to sex. While self-control in sexual behavior is a concern and passion in the New Testament sometimes refers to sexual passion, works of the flesh and passions are about much more than that. According to Titus 3:3, being “slaves to various passions and pleasures” means “passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another.” And when Paul lists the works of the flesh that are opposed to the Spirit, along with “fornication, impurity, and licentiousness,” he also lists “idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21).

Reference to passions was technical language used broadly in pagan philosophical morality, as well as in the New Testament and the early Church, to refer to interior spiritual agitations that lead to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to our nature and lead us away from God’s good pleasure. As such, passions refer to all sinful desires and emotions that draw us away from love of God and love of neighbor. Passions are the weeds that are forever sprouting up in our hearts to choke out the fruit of the Spirit.

Self-control is a neglected fruit of the spirit that needs cultivating in the contemporary Church. Its lack is at the heart of much of the Church’s spiritual shallowness. It is counter-cultural. It calls for self-sacrifice, which is a virtue more commonly admired in theory than put into practice. But there is no real love, certainly none as Jesus calls us to love, without it. Cultivating love and the other fruit of the Spirit and “weeding out the fruit of the flesh” is what self-control is about. The logic of the New Testament and the early Church suggests that this starts with control of our physical appetites. There are many reasons why control of those appetites is good for us. Uncontrolled indulgence of those appetites or passions is detrimental to our physical health and to the health of our communities. Many in the early Church also considered such indulgence unnatural.

Our sexual attitudes and behavior. Chastity and modesty are classic Christian virtues of sexual self-control that we would do well to reclaim. That means rethinking some of our entertainment as well as our behavior. Even if we are persuaded that the blessings and disciplines of marriage can be extended to same-sex unions, we should resist capitulating to our society’s abandoning of self-control.

Our consumption of food and drink. The classic virtue of moderation suggests that we can exercise self-control and learn to eat no more than we need to maintain our health. Fasting is a discipline that we would do well to incorporate into our lives beyond Lent.

Our accumulation of stuff. The classic virtue of simplicity is about exercising the self-control to be content with enough rather than constantly accumulating more and perpetually pursuing the newest and latest toys.

Our passion for busyness and distraction. Observing Sabbath requires the self-control to stop striving and to rest in the assurance that God is indeed in control.

These classic disciplines of self-control of our physical passions are just the foundation of the more significant — and more difficult — self-control demonstrated in the self-denying, self-offering love to which Jesus calls us. The wisdom of the early Church is that if we can exercise self-control at the most basic physical realm of the stomach and other bodily desires, we can begin to exercise more self-control in the spiritual realm of the heart, where the more insidious sins lurk: anger, malice, enmity, envy, impatience, vainglory, and so on. As Jesus said, “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). Indulging in these passions is also contrary to our nature as bearers of the divine image.

We live in an affluent, indulgent society, but Christians ought not indulge our every passion and desire, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. We have been given a spirit of self-control. Disciplining our bodily appetites rather than indulging our desires and pampering ourselves frees us to pursue self-control when it comes to those more difficult passions of the heart. Rather than allowing the weeds of impatience, anger, malice, envy, enmity, resentment, jealousy, judgmentalism, pride, factionalism, and quarrels to run rampant we can prepare the soil of our hearts and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. That is the shape of Christian holiness. Such fruitful holiness does not come easily. It requires self-control.

Monday, June 15, 2015

God is the interesting thing about religion

 Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) is one of my favorite Anglicans. She was a fine scholar and a wise spiritual counselor. Here is a letter she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. Much that is in the letter is just as relevant now as it was when she wrote it. I've added some highlighting.

A letter from Evelyn Underhill
to Archbishop Lang of Canterbury

MAY it please your Grace:

I desire very humbly to suggest with bishops assembled at Lambeth that the greatest and most necessary work they could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer. This was the original aim of the founders of the Jerusalem Chamber Fellowship, of whom I am one. We were convinced that the real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice, and that her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life. The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. But under modern conditions this is so difficult that unless our fathers [and mothers] in God solemnly require it of us, the necessary efforts and readjustments will not be made. With the development of that which is now called "The Way of Renewal" more and more emphasis has been placed on the nurture and improvement of the intellect, less and less, on that of the soul. I do not underrate the importance of the intellectual side of religion. But all who do personal religious work know that the real hunger among the laity is not for halting attempts to reconcile theology and physical science, but for the deep things of the Spirit.

We look to the Church to give us an experience of God, mystery, holiness and prayer which, though it may not solve the antinomies of the natural world, shall lift us to contact with the supernatural world and minister eternal life. We look to the clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. We are seldom satisfied because with a few noble exceptions they are so lacking in spiritual realism, so ignorant of the laws and experiences of the life of prayer. Their Christianity as a whole is humanitarian rather than theocentric. So their dealings with souls are often vague and amateurish. Those needing spiritual help may find much kindliness, but seldom that firm touch of firsthand knowledge of interior ways which comes only from a disciplined personal life of prayer. In public worship they often fail to evoke the spirit of adoration because they do not possess it themselves. Hence the dreary character of many church services and the result in the increasing alienation of the laity from institutional forms.

God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman's theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest. Divine renewal can only come through those whose roots are in the world of prayer.

THE TWO things that the laity want from the priesthood are spiritual realism and genuine love of souls. It is by these that all Christian successes have been won in the past and it is to these that men always respond. We instantly recognize those services and sermons that are the outward expression of the priest's interior adherence to God and the selfless love of souls. These always give us a religious experience. On the other hand, every perfunctory service, every cold and slovenly celebration (for these are more frequent than the bishops realize because when they are present, everything is at its best), is a lost opportunity which discredits corporate worship and again reflects back to the poor and shallow quality of the Priest's inner life... It is perhaps worthwhile to recall the humbling fact that recent notable secessions to the Roman Catholic communion have been caused by declaration by a felt need of the supernatural which the Church of England failed to satisfy, while the astonishing success of the Oxford Group Movement among young people of the educated class witnesses to the widespread desire for an experience of God unmet by the ordinary ministrations of the Church. History shows that these quasi-mystical movements among the laity do not flourish where the invisible side of institutional religion is vigorously maintained.

I know that recovering the ordered interior life of prayer and meditation will be very difficult for clergy immersed increasingly in routine work. It will mean for many a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities. They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance. This will not be achieved through "schools of prayer" which stimulate the mind rather than the spirit. But the solemn voice of the united episcopate, recalling the Church to that personal, realistic contact with the Supernatural which has been since Pentecost the one source of her power, will give authoritative support to those who already feel the need of a deeper spirituality and will remind the others that the renewal of a spiritual society must depend on giving absolute priority to the spiritual life.

I venture to put before the conference the following practical recommendations: (1) Education of Ordinands--- That the bishops shall emphasize the need and importance of a far more thorough, varied, interesting and expert devotional training in our theological colleges which, with a few striking exceptions, seem to me to give insufficient attention to this vital part of their work. (2) The Clergy--- That they should call upon every ordained clergyman, as an essential part of his pastoral duty and not merely for his own sake: (a) To adopt a rule of life which shall include a fixed daily period of prayer and reading of a type that feeds, pacifies and expands his soul, and deepens his communion with God; b) To make an annual retreat; (c) To use every endeavour to make his church into a real home of prayer and teach his people, both by exhortation and example so to use it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Baptized into Eucharist - The Problem With "Open" Communion. Some Anecdotes

First, here is a quote from Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:

It must be said, of course, that this complete sharing of baptismal and Eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretive story of Jesus. To share Eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd-not because the sacrament is 'profaned', or because grace cannot he be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus' death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope for their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done.
–  Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 61

I agree with Williams and am convinced that the church is right to maintain the connection between baptism and Eucharist. For one thing, it respects the integrity of the other in her/his disbelief or belief in something other than “the paradigm of Jesus' death and resurrection” and being "committed to another story or system." From my own experience I know that we can do that while also extending deep hospitality to one another when we worship and to our guests. Here are some examples:

1. At the church I served before becoming bishop, we had a blurb in our bulletin that invited all who wanted to to come forward  to receive Communion if baptized or a blessing if not. It also allowed for the possibility that someone might prefer to refrain from either and stay seated. And there was an invitation to discuss baptism and membership. I did not generally call attention to it verbally. I did always make a point during announcements of inviting everyone to join us in sharing food and drinks at our fellowship/hospitality time immediately following the liturgy. I never interrogated visitors who came forward to receive Communion. Contrary to common misrepresentation, this is not about trying to protect Jesus from the unworthy or ignorant.

2. We did not pass the plate. Rather, members knew that belonging – communing – includes financial commitments and know where and how to give. 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.

3. We had a new member of our congregation who received communion every Sunday for several months before mentioning that he was not baptized. He had been raised, and had been an officer in, the Salvation Army which does not do sacraments. Upon learning this, we had a conversation in which I explained the rationale for requiring baptism. We then met for several weeks of baptismal preparation. During which time he came forward during Communion for a blessing. Once baptized, he received communion again. It was no big deal.

4. There are ways to make noncommunicants welcome while still respecting distinctions. Another member of the congregation I served is married to a man who years ago became a Buddhist while he was in college. In many ways he is more active than many of the baptized members, attending congregational events beyond his regular Sunday attendance. He and his wife linger long at the fellowship/hospitality time after the liturgy. He is even the chair of the IT committee. By his own admission, he feels most welcome. When I asked him what he thought of our limiting Eucharist to the baptized and if it bothered him, his response was, “Why would I take Communion, I am not a Christian.” I suggest that we respected him more and he us by acknowledging that distinction than if we had pretended it was irrelevant.

5. Several years ago, I was a guest speaker at an event at a mosque around the corner from our church. Since the main event took place in their place of worship, they requested/made us take our shoes off before entering. I could have taken offense, I suppose, at this expectation. I believe it is sufficient to remove the sandals of our hearts (though as one who takes bodily action seriously, I do wonder if they are onto something). Would I not be guilty of presumption if I had ignored the request? Would they not have been disrespectful of their own tradition’s understanding of God/Allah had they not insisted? Would they not have been less than respectful of me and my convictions if they had just said that our differences don’t matter and I could go ahead and wear my shoes if I wanted to since we are all just generic people seeking an experience of a generic 'Holy'?

I remain convinced that inviting anyone, regardless of baptism to participate in Eucharist is a theological error that is neither respectful nor hospitable. Striving for both hospitality and honesty is harder, but better.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Baptized into Eucharist - The Problem With "Open" Communion. Part 2


In the sacraments the body of Christ “happens.” In baptism a new member of the body is “made” by incorporation. In the Eucharist the body happens in several ways. It is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the feast in which the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is the feast by which the body of Christ, the Church, is re-membered and its members fed. “[I]n these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another” (American BCP, p. 316). Thus, in the well-known Augustinian exhortation: “Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God” (Homily 57, On the Holy Eucharist). And Augustine adds that when we consume the body of Christ in the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies as we are transformed by it into his body.

Participation in the Eucharist is therefore not simply about experiencing God’s consolation. It is that, but it is much more. It is about transformation. It is part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Christian tradition calls theosis: our being made capable of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 2:4), capable of bearing the absolute love, goodness, beauty, and joy of God. We expect to be transfigured, or as Dante put it, transhumanized into glory.

We cannot, and dare not, however, expect that transformation to be easy or painless. Indeed, Scripture suggests otherwise. Through Jeremiah, God, “the LORD of hosts,” promises to “refine” and “test” us; “for what else can I do, because of my people?” (Jer. 9:7; cf. Zech. 13:9 and Mal. 3:3). As wonderful as beautiful, shining silver is, the ore does not welcome, we might say, the heat of the crucible. To be sure there is hope, in the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But, before that, in verse 2, he promises: “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, God takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit God prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” In this light, we do people a disservice if we invite them to the eucharistic table without the warning, and promise, that potentially painful refining and pruning is part of the deal.

Whose Table?

It is sometimes suggested that since the eucharistic table is God’s table, it is not for us to decide who can participate. But given the logic of the liturgy, one might just as reasonably suggest that because it is God’s table we should not be glib in our own participation or in inviting others to join us. Indeed, one might wonder if an open invitation is not more presumptuous in its certainty of our own knowledge and goodness, reflecting a form of cheap grace. It evokes an altogether domesticated and sentimental “God.”

I think here of Annie Dillard’s famous dissuasive to supposing God is tame, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sun- day morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some- day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming to the Lord’s Table. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically, as we move through the eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The one into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God.

Though it is not often read these days, an exhortation before the rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer reads, in part:

if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves care- fully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

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, there- fore, lest you be judged by the Lord (BCP, p. 316).

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar, drawing closer to the eucharistic mystery. At intervals in the dance we stop to acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness, and ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts that we may perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy Name … and we dance a little closer. We sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion, each of which asks again for mercy: closer still. Then, after hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, receive the promise of forgiveness, and exchange the peace, before dancing yet closer to the altar of the Prince of Peace. And on it goes — acknowledging God’s presence as holy (the Sanctus) and asking for forgiveness (the Lord’s Prayer). In every case, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of forgiveness. And yet, by God’s amazing grace, we are invited and encouraged to draw near with confidence “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16) — a confidence that avoids presumption because it is born in baptism.


Even so, the practice of inviting all to the eucharistic table without regard to baptism is often expressed in terms of “radical hospitality.” What shall we make of this?

Hospitality is certainly a gospel virtue. The God revealed in the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus is indeed hospitable. And we are encouraged to “welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). While that particular exhortation is about members of the body of Christ welcoming one another, the Letter to the Hebrews encourages a broader hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Heb. 13:2).

Hospitality is an essential mark of any church. It is not clear, however, that opening eucharistic fellowship to the unbaptized is a good means of practicing such hospitality, nor that it is in fact hospitable or radical to do so.

Thinking of the Eucharist in terms of hospitality calls for some reflection on who is the host and who is the guest when we gather at the altar. Of course, the ultimate host is God, revealed in the self-giving love of the Trinity, manifested on the cross in the sacrifice of Jesus. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of one who wills to reconfigure us in his own cruciform image.

Second, there is a penultimate eucharistic host, namely, the body of Christ itself, re-membered in the practice of communion. To host anyone we must have a sense of identity and place. A welcoming place is rich with stories, rituals, and history. It is never simply a physical space, but a place alive with commitments and relationships. Accordingly, as Christine Pohl observes:

Boundaries help define what a household, family, church or community holds precious. However, the modern world is deeply ambivalent about boundaries and community. Although we yearn for home and a place to belong, often we find our- selves more comfortable with empty space where we can “sing our own song” and pursue our own plans. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place — a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings. Part of the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity 

If we are not clear about our own identity and the identity-forming nature of the Eucharist, we have nothing to offer but what Henri Nouwen called “a bland neutrality that serves nobody” (Reaching Out, p. 99). It mistakes mere pleasantness for deep hospitality. And since it avoids the scandal and offense of particular, bounded identity, it is neither very costly nor very radical.

If the penultimate host of the Eucharist is therefore the Church, who then is the guest? Paradoxically, it is again God. In the Eucharist, the baptized are both guest and host, and the divine Host is also the Guest. We invite the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts that they may be “the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.” Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God.” 

It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is most often the guest at the table of others. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered, hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the expectations of Jesus. Likewise, as ones who have been incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our guest is, and the expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to accommodate him.


Elizabeth Newman identifies “a pervasive feature of late modernity":

a gnawing homelessness, a lack of a sense of place. If we are truly to envision and embody a faithful hospitality, we must see how deeply our current understanding and experience of ‘home’ and ‘place’ have up to now prevented us from living a profound hospitality” (Untamed Hospitality, p. 34).

This is particularly true in contemporary America where our hyper mobility means few of us live in the communities in which we were raised, surrounded by and connected to family and neighbors with whom we have long history and a sense of place characterized by particular customs and traditions. Absent that sense of place, we are reduced to detached individuals roaming context-less space as tourists and consumers. The public space of the shopping mall is the clearest manifestation of this condition, but it is pervasive.

If we are not careful, our worship will reflect and reinforce that formation and that training. And then we

will be unable to offer Christian hospitality, a practice that relies on a sense of place, a shared tradition, one in which we are not strangers in the universe (or to each other) but part of God’s good creation, created so that God might love us and so that we might in return love God, each other, the stranger, and even the enemy (Nouwen, p. 44).

In such an environment, what does our practice of Eucharist signify? Inviting anyone to participate wherever they are on their spiritual journey reinforces the ideology of the individual as consumer. It signifies that a church is like other public spaces where individual consumers go to satisfy a felt need. The church is then like a sort of religious restaurant with spiritual food on the menu catering to individual customers who come and go through its public space. Is this costly, or “radical”?

Far better to communicate to newcomers that here is a place where people belong to one another and to God, who gives them an identity as members of a diverse body with many members, “made” in baptism and Eucharist. Accordingly, the Church promises, after Jesus’ own pledge, that he will be present as Redeemer and Judge in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

To reserve the Eucharist for those who are baptized does not limit God. As Luther insisted, Jesus — risen and ascended — is present everywhere and can surprise us in our cabbage soup, if he so desires. Indeed, I agree with Sara Miles, in her book Take This Bread, that God has so surprised even the occasional unbaptized eucharistic communicant. We need not try to protect the purity of the Eucharist. And that is not what this is about.

The discipline of reserving the Eucharist for those already baptized is, however, about maintaining the very boundaries of identity that make a place in which to be formed as a community that can properly practice hospitality. And it is about being honest about who we are called to be as members of Christ’s body, and respectful of the real otherness of those who are not yet committed to the loyalties of such a communion.

The body of Christ is a eucharistic community with all that that entails; and we are baptized into Eucharist.

Next: Baptized into Eucharist - Some Anecdotes

Previous: Baptized into Eucharist - The Problem With "Open Communion." Part 1

Monday, June 8, 2015

Baptized into Eucharist - The Problem With "Open" Communion. Part 1

“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

When we are baptized into Christ, we are made members of his body, the Church. As the body of Christ, the Church is called to witness to and be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. The central sign and practice of this body is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Church is nourished by Christ himself. We remember what God has done in Christ and anticipate God’s restoration of all things in him as we participate in Christ, nourished by his body and blood. In this way, the Church is a eucharistic community living in remembrance and anticipation, nourished by her participation in Christ, even as a note of accountability — judgment — enters in, as the community is called to live eucharistically.

It is the ancient understanding of the Church that the Eucharist as remembrance, anticipation, and participation only makes sense for those who have been baptized. And that has been the discipline of the Episcopal Church, as also of most other churches. Increasingly, however, this traditional understanding and discipline is being questioned, and in many places the Eucharist is now “opened” to the unbaptized. While this is well meant, I will suggest that such a practice undermines what the Church and Eucharist are about. Accordingly, what follows is a sketch in several parts of a defense of the logic of the traditional discipline of expecting those who partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist to be baptized members of the Church, living into its discipline.

Baptism and Jesus’ Disciples at the Last Supper

Sometimes people wonder whether the disciples gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were themselves baptized. In all likelihood, they were. Andrew was certainly a follower of John the Baptist (John 1:40) and thus presumably baptized. More significantly, Jesus is recorded as baptizing (John 3:26), or at least having his disciples baptize (John 4:1). And, of course, Jesus himself was baptized. John’s baptism is arguably irrelevant to subsequent Christian practice and we see the early Church understanding it as inadequate (Acts 19:1–7). But the evidence that Jesus — or at least his disciples on his behalf — baptized those who wished to respond to his call suggests that Jesus was not bashful about making distinctions between those who responded to his summons and those who did not, and marking that distinction in public ritual.

While the Church’s sacrament of baptism has its roots in John’s and Jesus’ practice, it is somewhat other. Since we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our baptism is not the same as that of John or even Jesus and his (pre-Easter) disciples. It is an Easter event. And it is the risen Jesus who commands his followers to make disciples and baptize — as the mark of our incorporation into the resurrection; or, at the very least, into the body of witness to the resurrection, which must logically precede the typical meal by which we are nourished in the resurrection life.

Renewal and Incorporation

Jesus famously welcomed sinners and outcasts into his movement. But it is easy for us to ignore the particularity of Jesus and his ministry in ways that are misleading. Simplistic appeals to his inclusiveness miss some of the contours of what Jesus was about. He was not a generic spiritual person teaching universal truths about God to generic people. Nor was his summons simply inclusive without context or expectation.

There is no reason to suppose that Jesus did not accept the particularly Jewish belief that God had chosen and called Israel to bless the nations, even as he recalled Israel to its mission and ultimately fulfilled it himself. Nor was his summons to enter the kingdom a generic welcome of any and all, regardless of repentance and the embrace of particular commitments (see Luke 15:1–10).

Jesus’ movement was a Jewish renewal movement; his mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6, 15:24). His words and actions thus need to be understood in that context. Whatever symbolic fellowship meals he shared were limited to those who were already members of the covenant people. They make sense, as several parables indicate, as prophetic enactments of the wedding banquet of Yahweh and Israel, following on their courtship. Jesus therefore welcomed the outcasts of Israel and called all Jews to repent of their neglect of their particular call to be holy and the light of the world. In this context, he gathered around himself a renewed Israel, represented by the call of 12 disciples paralleling the 12 tribes.

Though Jesus showed interest in and compassion toward Gentiles and hinted at their eventual incorporation, he did not gather them into his movement. As one would expect of an observant Jew of his time, there is no indication that he ever ate with Gentiles, outcast or otherwise. There is no reason to suppose that the multitude that was fed miraculously was any- thing other than a Jewish multitude. It was the fragments of Israel that Jesus gathered into the baskets of his movement.

Only after Easter and Pentecost does the Church emerge as a New Israel, in which the old divisions have been overcome by the breaking in of the kingdom of God through Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Now Gentiles, as the “wild olive branches,” are to be grafted onto the “cultivated olive tree” of Israel (Rom. 11:17–24). In this way, the Church is not a generic faith community but an extension of a particular people. Gentiles are welcomed, but only by means of repentance and baptism through which they are identified with Christ and incorporated into his body.

Accordingly, baptism is seen early on as analogous to circumcision, by which new members are incorporated into the covenant community (Col. 2:12–13). And it is the natural expectation for those who wish to come near and keep the feast of the new covenant, the Lord’s Supper (with its own parallels to the Passover meal: see Ex. 12:48). It is about the formation of a people with normal boundaries and normative practices. To miss this is to make Christianity less Jewish than it is.

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.

Do we believe that the divine-human drama centers primarily on the individual, or rather on a community? 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 had to do with the latter’s appeal to esoteric knowledge, focused on individual enlightenment apart from communal traditions and 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 someone to the Eucharist irrespective of “where they are on their spiritual journey” puts the emphasis on the individual rather than on our being members of one another with responsibility for, and accountability to, the whole. The Church cannot counter the ideology of individualism by reinforcing that ideology in its central communal practice.

Fellow Citizens

We belong to one another, and to “another country.” We are citizens of heaven and of the kingdom of God (Phil. 3:20, Eph. 2:9). In this perspective, we will do well to look more carefully at what it may mean to live in a post-Christian/post-Christendom context. Under Christendom, the Church acted as the chaplain of a (presumed) Christian society which included every- one. 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. Thus, we may be tempted to minimize the particulars of Christian discipleship, while emphasizing the generic spiritual journey of all citizens of the society.

Where our true citizenship lies is a question both the religious right and the religious left of the United States tend to get wrong. Baptism is, in fact, our naturalization into a nation other than the one into which we are first born (1 Pet. 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 in the world. As William Cavanaugh writes:

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 out- side 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 (Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics,and the Body of Christ, p. 224).

The Church is therefore a body of people who are citizens of another country and the Eucharist is one of our constitutive practices, marking our loyalties as different from, and often at odds with, those of others. That Christians all too often subsume Christianity into local prejudices does not negate our responsibility to get our heads on straight. And part of this should include an honesty with others that participating in the Church’s citizenship carries with it particular responsibilities and accountabilities.

Under Judgment

Are we living in communion with one another as the body of Christ such that partaking of his body and blood makes sense? Are we living together into the deep reconciliation God is working in Christ? Are we bearing one another’s burdens? Is our common life reflective of scriptural mandates like those in Matthew 5–7, Luke 6, Romans 12, Philippians 2, and Ephesians 4? Is our life together “a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair”? To participate in the Eucharist is to enter into such expectations. And with such expectation comes judgment.

1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes the serious expectations that come along with partaking of the Lord’s Supper. That text is about how those who take part in the feast of Christ treat each other as members of the body of Christ. That is what discerning the body means. Unless we take seriously our belonging to and caring for one another, we have not discerned the body, and our communion is false — with one another and with Christ. Thus the Eucharist is as much an act of commitment and accountability as is baptism. Again, William Cavanaugh puts his finger on the point:

The parousia is to be a time not only of redemption but of judgment, when the “world” — meaning that part of creation which refuses the sovereignty of Christ — will be overthrown. As the sacrament which anticipates the parousia now, the Eucharist is also placed in the context of judgment. Those who do not “discern the body” and become a member of Christ risk condemnation along with the forces that oppose Christ. The failure to “discern the body” refers not only to the body on the table but the ecclesial body as well (Torture and Eucharist, p. 235).

Beyond the responsibility for, and accountability to, one another as members of the body of Christ into which we are absorbed in the Eucharist, there is a call to mission. To partake in the Eucharist is not a matter of simple passive receiving but of participating in the passion of Christ. Feeding on the body broken for us and drinking from the cup shed for us implicates us in the mission to be ourselves broken and poured out for the sake of a hungry and thirsty world. As our Lord told James and John, baptism and Eucharist go together, in his life and passion (Mark 10:35–45).

The fact that many who are baptized members of the Church do not understand the responsibilities that go with discerning the body is a shortcoming of the Church’s catechesis. That all too often the Church does not face up to those responsibilities is a scandal that places it under judgment. At the same time, inviting people to partake of the Lord’s Supper without being clear about the expectations laid on those who participate places them under a particular judgment unawares, and is neither responsible nor particularly hospitable.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 5. Why I Am Disinclined to Vote for Revising the Marriage Canon

In this blog series I have been attempting an explanation of how I have come to a more affirming position on same-sex unions. For various reasons, I am going to interrupt that explanation and jump to a conclusion. I ask those who are wanting more of a defense of how I arrived at the conclusion to be patient. I intend to return to that.

As a deputy to our last General Convention I voted in support of The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships. I consider them equal in dignity and potential sanctity to heterosexual marriage. I support legal marriage equality.

Given all that, one might expect that I would support the proposed resolutions being presented to the Episcopal Church’s General Convention later this month that would revise our marriage canons to make marriage a one-size-fits-all rite regardless of the genders of those making the vows.

But, I do not. Why? 

There are several reasons. While I truly appreciate the work they have done and find much of it helpful, I have issues with the Marriage Task Force, their conclusions, and how they came to them. They might have done as well as they could with the time and resources that they had. But, I do not think the result has the heft it needs to do what is being proposed. And they were not able to take into account all they were charged to take into account, i.e., "consult with other churches in the Anglican Communion and with our ecumenical partners." The mandated groundwork is not done. I'll mention other concerns in the comment section at the end of this post. 

It is also the case that the proposed revisions to the marriage canons will not change anything on the ground. I understand that there is some canonical messiness in the current situation given the language of the canons when it comes to solemnizing marriages in states where it is legal and the bishop permits. But, as an Anglican, I am OK with some messiness in this era of transition and sorting things out rather than trying to make things too tidy too quickly.

But, more importantly, I have some theological concerns and want to sketch an alternative. That is that we recognize same-sex unions as a sacramental rite equal to sacramental rite of marriage.

Difficulty with Difference

For all our talk of diversity, we don’t do otherness well. There are two common tendencies that get us into trouble when we encounter otherness.  One tendency is to recognize otherness but reject, diminish, marginalize, or even destroy the other as a threat. This is the root of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, etc. It also shows up when we assume that all reasonable people will reason like us and then dismiss those who do not as unreasonable. The other tendency is to deny any real otherness and presume a sameness where it does not exist or assume a normal into which the other must be assimilated. One example of this is the assertion that all faiths are essentially the same based on the asserter's presumed ability to see beyond differences to a sameness that denies the significance of those differences

Certainly, those who have found themselves on the short end of "othering" have reason to be wary of appeals to difference used to keep them subordinate or marginalized (the various “isms” above). And yet, our difficulty with difference also messes with us. It has certainly messed with us in both ways in our engagement with sexual otherness. Should we reject that otherness as a threat? Should we deny its reality and seek assimilation?

Or might we recognize the difference and seek to honor it?

One reason I oppose the revisions to the marriage canons proposed for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention later this month is that they seem to be a rush to sameness that may deny us of the gifts and witness of real difference.


I appreciate that the Marriage Task Force included some reflection on vocation. This is important. The vocation of all Christians is to adopt those practices and disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed and build up the community. That is, our vocation is sanctification.

It is to that end that God calls us to life together in the Church. Each congregation is a laboratory for that sanctification. Historically, within the larger community of the Church, there have been two main ways of entering into even more intentional communities of discipleship – monasticism and monogamy. Both of these ways are schools of love, involving vows of commitment and self-denial as means of working out our salvation.

At different times one or the other was held in higher esteem, but at our best we have recognized them both as equal and legitimate paths to holiness in communion. They are equally legitimate, but they are not the same. They are different, not just in their respective vows. They are different in the witness they offer to the rest of the Church and to the world. Marriage participates in the order of creation bearing witness to the continuity of creation before and after Christ. Married Christians continue to participate in the social structures of this world where they

build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for their sons, and give their daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

They continue to marry and be given in marriage (cf. Mark 12:18-27).

Monastics bear witness to the new creation in Christ and how it disrupts the usual order of the world. Detaching from the usual social order of the world, monastics seek to live in communities that more nearly anticipate the kingdom of God – giving up private possessions (Luke 14:33) and living in the simplicity of Jesus, neither marrying nor being given in marriage (Mark 12:18-27 again). They witness to a hope beyond the heritage of children. As such, they are a radical contrast and challenge to the usual way of things.

This is an over simplified description, but I believe it still has merit. There are similarities between these two paths and there are differences within them. But all marriages have things in common that are different from monastic life and vice versa. They are not the same, but they are equally valid ways to enter into vowed commitments leading to sanctification.

Sacraments and Sacramental Rites

Catholic Anglican though I am, I appreciate that the Articles of Religion (Article XXV, BCP p. 872) and the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP p. 857-861) maintain that there are fundamentally only two sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist. These are the sacraments of the body of Christ. Indeed they are where the body of Christ and new members of that body are made. These are the two that are required of Christians.

According to the Catechism, the other five of what are commonly call sacraments (and officially so by the Church of Rome), are “Sacramental Rites.” While they are “means of grace”, they are not “given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace,” as are Baptism and Eucharist.

In fact, over a thousand years of Church history went by before the Roman Church recognized seven sacraments – the Councils of Lyons (1274), Florence (1438-1445), and Trent (1547).  While the Eastern Church sometimes refers to the “seven” sacraments, it is not as much a part of the dogmatic teaching. In fact Orthodox theologians have suggested other sacraments along with the usual seven, e.g., monastic profession, the consecration of a church, the crowning of a ruler, icons, relics, the giving of alms. (Anthony M. Coniaris, Introducing the Orthodox Church). According to Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World, the whole of creation is meant to be a sacrament or at least sacramental.

Another Way

If we accept this and we recognize that the covenanted sexual unions of gays and lesbians can be means of grace, wouldn’t it make more sense to bless them as a distinctive sacramental rite alongside the sacramental rite of marriage? Or, perhaps they are, along with heterosexual marriage, subsets of Holy Matrimony along the lines of the distinct orders of the Sacramental Rite of Ordination?

I suggest this a more fruitful approach than simply folding same-sex unions into the existing reality of heterosexual marriage. For one thing, if we recognize that sex can be a faithful aspect of sanctified and sanctifying relationship beyond heterosexual marriage, we don’t have to work to make everything fit the same mold. And we are free to experience – and benefit from – the distinctive witness of each.

I wonder if, as with traditional monasticism and heterosexual marriage, there might be significant distinctives as well as similarities between heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Rushing to the conclusion that vowed and covenanted gay and lesbian relationships are the same as heterosexual marriage might lead us to deny, overlook, and miss the particular witness of same-sex relationships. There are obvious similarities. But, it is also evident that there are differences (see Gay Marriage: Same, But Different). Might the differences bear significant gifts and witnesses to the Church that might get lost if same-sex covenant partnerships are simply folded into marriage as the same thing? Some gay people I have spoken with or read (along with some straight authors) have made that case. For example, as the article referenced earlier suggests, might there be particular things committed sexual covenants between two men or two women witness to that are significantly different from heterosexual marriage? They have characteristics of both non-sexual same-sex friendships and conventional marriage. And given that pregnancy is not an inherent possibility in same-sex sex, such relationships share characteristics with monasticism that most heterosexual marriages do not. What does it mean for their relationships that they are less likely to be bound together by children and then only by deliberate choosing?

Identified as sacramental rites of their own integrity might there be biblical and theological themes to which they bear distinctive witness? Here are a couple of suggestions:

If heterosexual matrimony is the imitation of the unity of Christ and the Church, might Same-sex unions be the imitation of the unity among the believers through Christ? Might they be a witness to the Holy Spirit's work in building up and uniting the Body until we shall be one as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one? If heterosexual unions witness to the unity between Christ and the Church, perhaps same-sex unions show the unity of the Church through the Holy Spirit.

The rush to sameness also ignores or denies the peculiar history and contours of heterosexual marriage. For all its various forms and meanings in different times and contexts, marriage has always been about the joining of male and female. I do not think we can ignore as easily as the Task Force suggests the basic givenness of sexual differentiation and complimentarity. To do so is a sort of modern Gnosticisman overspiritualizationthat denies our embodiment in particular kinds of bodies. No doubt gender is more complicated than many of us are used to thinking, but it does not follow that it is insignificant.

With that is the reality that for most heterosexual sexual encounters pregnancy is a possibility. Marriages that do not include biological procreation are not less for that. And same-sex partners also become parents. But pregnancy and procreation are an inherent aspect of heterosexual sex and thus of heterosexual marriage. It is not the only or primary good of marriage, but it is one we should not ignore. Not least because it is generally only relatively affluent and educated people who can afford to ignore it.

And, given that heterosexual marriage has its own history of theological witness, I wonder if it fits or does justice to the particular shape and witness of same-sex unions. Or vice versa.

There are similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex couplings. And there are as many varieties within each as there are couples. But the two are not exactly the same. And we do not need to try to make them so.

No doubt, this proposal has its own problems. But, revising the marriage canon would leave us with a bland sameness that does not honor significant distinctiveness along with real similarity. It seems to me to have at least as much theological integrity as the proposed revisions to our marriage canons.

Next: Part 6. Back to the Bible