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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

open tables...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I've been asked to write something about sacraments for some pioneer ministers in Liverpool to comment on as part of their networked learning, but I’m keen to open the discussion out more widely, so feel to comment whoever and wherever you are! Be warned, this is quite a lengthy post for this blog!

I’ve blogged before about Eucharist 'here', following a conversation I had with my Bishop about what policy I practiced in admitting people to Communion who have not been baptised, let alone confirmed. I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable with the question until he assured me that he wasn't trying to catch me out! He went on to recommend a book by Timothy Gorringe called 'The Sign of Love' and lent me the book, which I reviewed 'here'. The gist of Gorringe's argument is that the Last Supper was, for Jesus, a continuation of the table fellowship that had so characterised his ministry, and through which he had included those often considered outsiders by the religion and culture of his day. Gorringe sets out a clear case for Jesus using table fellowship redemptively, which culminates in the Last Supper. Therefore, he suggests, Communion should be offered widely and becomes, for many, the means of connecting with God's grace and the community of faith. Rather than admission to Communion following on from baptism, Gorringe argues that the Eucharist should be offered unconditionally to all, and may itself become a significant part of a person's story leading them to a fuller identification with the community of faith.

For some time I've been unsatisfied with the Evangelical Anglican fudge concerning invitation to receive the Eucharist! I used to trip off the standard "if you love the Lord and know him as your saviour then you are welcome to receive", thinking I was being radically inclusive by not demanding that participants be confirmed. But I've become dissatisfied with this because it is still surrounding Jesus' unconditional table fellowship with certain requirements, those being ‘loving Jesus’ and ‘knowing him as saviour’, so why not go the whole hog and demand the traditional Anglican line of confirmation?! Nowadays, in my parish ministry as well as in pioneer ministry, the invitation I give is totally open – something like "if you'd like to come and receive you are welcome to do so - this is not my table or the church's table, but Jesus', and he welcomes all." I'm not sure how this would go down at a Bishop's team meeting, but given the fact that Eucharistic ministry seems to be so central to emerging churches because, in its mystery and non-cerebral engagement, it is missionally attractive, it seems that the Spirit is leading us to step down from our hierarchical protectionism regarding gifts of God's grace and get back to the Jesus way of offering hospitality to all.

In a similar way, my position on baptism has changed over the years too! I used to want to put baptismal candidates (or the parents and godparents of children being baptised) through a thorough course to ensure that they properly understood ‘the gospel’ (or, at least, my version of it) before going ahead with baptism. Now, as with Communion, I have a much more open approach. There is a significant difference with baptism, however, and that is that the candidates or their sponsors are making some public statements of belief and intention regarding life direction (turning away from all that is against God and turning to Christ). For this reason, I like to meet up with parents and godparents to go through the words of the service, so that they know in advance what is being asked of them, and try to answer any questions they might have, offering in the process alternative arrangements (such as thanksgiving or dedication services) if they felt unable to make these statements with integrity. But that said, I don’t see it as my role to ‘judge’ whether they are taking the rite seriously or being completely honest with me. If they say they are ok with all this and that they want to go ahead then that’s good enough for me – after all, baptism too is a visible sign of God’s grace, so who am I to ring-fence it or deny access to people? Surely it is between them and God, and the sacraments are God’s initiative and invitation, not ours.

In pioneering mission all of this takes on a sharper significance in that we want members of the new emerging community, who may not yet have owned faith personally, to be fully included in all aspects of community life and worship. What do we do if we are involved in taking a baptism and someone else in the community shouts out, “I’d like to do that too”? Do we insist on a future baptism after some instruction or do we simply baptise them there and then? It seems that the way of John the Baptist, and Jesus following him, would have been to simply get on with it!

And what about the words we use? At Dream we often write our own Eucharistic prayers, rooted contextually in the community and the occasion, but that has gotten us into trouble in the past! Should pioneer communities be restricted to the authorised form of words that the Church of England (or whatever sponsoring body) has decreed acceptable or should there be liberty to reframe sacramental worship in the culture of the host community? And I haven’t even touched on the ‘lay’ or ‘ordained’ question! When it’s a recognised and often stated fact that many ‘fresh expressions’ are lay-led (surely a cause for celebration!), what is gained by shipping in an ordained person from outside the new and fragile community just so that the community can experience the grace of Jesus’ table fellowship? If the Eucharist is a visible demonstration of the physicality of God – God incarnate, flesh and blood, bread and wine – why can’t we allow it to be fully incarnate in a community that has no ordained person present?

This is a splurge of thoughts and I’m looking forward to the comments, but just to finish it’s worth mentioning that I am seeing people beginning to identify with Christian community and own faith for themselves through their experience of the sacraments, be it in emerging church or conventional church communities. Being welcomed into the mystery of the Eucharist, or being trusted to take on the promises of baptism without a faith grilling, has enabled people to feel included and a sense of belonging - that they are a part of what God is doing, that they matter. My fear is that our past (and still current) attempts to ‘uphold the integrity’ of the sacraments, by building walls around them, have only served to undermine their integrity as tangible vehicles of God’s grace and unconditional love.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 12:51 PM


Hi Malcolm
that was a worthy splurge so don't apologise for it. Here are some random thoughts from my experience in return!

Van Morrison "Let go into the Mystery", Indigo Girls "Closer to Fine", both on the integrity of a position of uncertainty and mystery.
U2 "Acrobat" (but you don't need me to tell you that)

John Wesley (a pioneer if ever there was one) referred to the Eucharist as " a converting ordinance", and I have seen this effect.

Vincent Donovan "Christianity Rediscovered" - mision and semiotics based around the mass.

In my (quite traditional) context, at times like Easter Sunday or Midnight Communion at Christmas, when there are lots of fringe peopel and non-churchgoers, I will always give a gospel message, and since the liturgical context is communion, one of the ways I offer people to respond to God is by receiving communion for the first time, regardless of whether they are even baptised.

We need to remember that the betrayer and the denier and the doubter sat with Jesus at the last supper. Sacraments are not defiled by their ministers or their recipients.

I do that open table thing if there are lots of visitors, and especially if they are Roman Catholics, but your context may make that a different kettle of fish.
That's enough for now

commented by Blogger Tim Goodbody, 5:19 PM  

Hi Malcolm,

We've just started allowing children to take communion with us at church. It has revolutionised the way I think about Holy Communion. Far from the table being open just to people "who love the Lord" or those who can subscribe to a particular formula ("I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour" etc) it is now more fully a real and proper sign of God's grace, which is at work long before we know anything about it, and it is effective and real and powerful regardless of any other factor. For so long we have fenced the table round with this and that condition. Now when we receive we all come, as a whole family, and our smallest members are not excluded, many of whom who's faith is more dynamic and real than many adult believers!

I love the idea of opening the table to all who will come, what a wonderful picture of the welcoming, running, dancing, embracing love of God. Anyone would think that's the kind of thing that Jesus got up to.. oh, hang on a minute!

commented by Anonymous Adam Grey, 1:33 PM  

This is well thought-provoking and really digs into my own struggle with how I see God and how I'd like to believe God really is. I think you are very brave but then, you hopefully know how God really is much more than I do and so bravery probably doesn't come into it!
I definitely would love to believe that God flings wide the welcome at His table. I have experienced feelings ranging from quite hurt to bemused when having receipt of Communion conditions imposed and would love to think that God is delighted with even a whisper of faith compelling us to share at His table. The observations regarding how keeping the invitation to Communion very open draws more 'non-Christian types' in is rather revelatory and certainly pleasing. I also feel inclined to agree with your declaration about John the Baptist and Jesus doing baptisms, I have to admit.
Hmmm...all rather scary...but thank you :)

commented by Blogger Clare, 3:55 PM  

Thank you Malcolm, this provides a helpful starting point for discussion, or maybe starting points would be better.

As I read it through, my initial thoughts have been about how we so often offer communion to those who are already part of the church. Our invitation to those who love and know the Lord Jesus assumes, I think, Church membership as a Christian. So we not only ring fence it with knowledge and love of Jesus but also indirectly with participation in and membership of God's human community. Which in turn denies those who would come with an unknowledgable and unpractised sense of mystery, curiosity and desire to discover Jesus. We may not mean that but to someone who hasn't thought deeply about Jesus or God or Church it could be heard that way... accept church and Jesus before you can come and know him.

I am wholly uncomfortable with the idea of priest being judge and so often that seems to be what liturgy and sacramental practice turns us into. Who am I to judge anyone's faith or knowledge? And Jesus knows all people so if he chooses to put into someone's heart a desire to come and receive irrespective of thought through faith that's his call, and not mine. I can't be God's gatekeeper as in someone who selectively manages the gateway to the throne room, as a priest surely it's my job to keep the gate open and just show people the way as they allow/need me to? The label 'priest' has a sacramental element to it in a way that minister and leader don't seem to and yet to be sacramental and to administer the sacraments, I feel, needs to be the widest opening of the door to God not the narrowing of it to those I judge & declare worthy. After all if a sacrament is the physical expression of a spiritual reality then who are we to deny the physical expression of God to his people, even if his people haven't yet seen him?

I'm sure that a priest has responsibility to teach about the sacraments to those who as the church should know something about these sacraments. Which I guess leads me to want to rewrite the eucharistic prayers too. I'm sure I'd get in trouble for it, but for those who aren't of church culture, who don't get the jargon, the prayers are in places incomprehensible expressions of a valuable treasure. Maybe once they were written to be teaching aids so that those who came to receive would understand what they were coming to receive, but as language changes we need to update and review these expressions and aids so that they can be understood and learnt from, and so facilitate deeper communion, don't we? Especially for the sub-cultures that emerging churches are aiming to reach.

We're very good as the church at keeping the gospel all wrapped up so no-one but those elite few, the church, can see it, aren't we?! We seem to be very good at proclaiming mission to be our aim as a church but still not allowing God to be seen by those we reach out to until they understand and buy into traditional church, hierarchically and linguistically. I'd like the Archbishops to blog on this one too!!

Need some lunch now, but will keep this rolling in my mind. Cheers, Amanda

commented by Anonymous Amanda Bruce, 2:19 PM  

Great blog, Malcolm, and I both wholeheartedly agree and disagree!! The agreement...I really like your open-table eucharist, not simply because it reflects Jesus' inclusivity, but also the early, organic, earthy origins of the sacrament. The gap between eucharist and community maybe says more about the church, though, than about the rite itself. The disagreement...I am unsettled by the entire (well, the majority...) of baptismal activity in the CofE. In general, it appears that the wider community sees it (at best) as a rite of passage and (at worst) an opportuntiy for a party. We perform acts that are simply part of the cultural back-drop and if the gospel is anything, it surely is not that. We certainly shouldn't be making decisions on the suitability of candidates, but we have backed ourselves into a corner by diluting the sacrament in the first place. Counter arguments welcome!

commented by Blogger Frank, 3:26 PM  

Thanks everyone for your comments so far - it's encouraging to know that there's a groundswell of opinion not too dissimilar to where I'm coming from!

Frank... thank you for being prepared to disagree (as well as agree), as this is always good for discussion! I guess my quick response to your concern is to ask how much of our baptismal practice (and sense of 'diluting' the sacrament) originates with Scripture and how much of it is the 'hangover' (for want of a better word) of Christendom and, in particular, our guilt concerning Christendom's baptismal practice? On the one hand, the 'evangelical' in me agrees with your concern (but then wonders why baptism should be any more protected than communion), but on the other hand I'm struck by how seemingly generous John the Baptist, Jesus and Peter were with their baptismal policies. It seems that whoever asked for baptism was welcomed and received with very little insisted upon in terms of catechism (or Alpha Course!).

I kind of acknowledged my corresponding concern when I mentioned the fact that, in baptism, people are asked to make some pretty profound statements of faith, which they aren't expected to make in the Eucharist (though some would question that!) So, I think you're right on wanting to protect the integrity (my words, not yours) of the sacrament of baptism, which I'm keen to point out when I visit candidates (or their parents) to discuss the faith statements they will be making. However, all that said, I do suspect that a more rigid and, dare I say, judgemental approach to admission to baptism actually serves to undermine, rather than uphold, the sacrament as a gift of God's grace (remember, grace is, by definition, undeserved or unearned). I've become much more comfortable with an approach to baptismal instruction which is about informing the candidates about what they are doing and what is expected of them, so that they can make a decision (hopefully) with integrity as to whether to go ahead or not, than an approach that seems to want to determine who is 'worthy' of receiving baptism or who has a 'real saving faith'. I've come to the conclusion that it's not my place to withhold baptism from anyone who, after having understood what it is about and what they are doing, wants to be baptised. Sometimes, this means going ahead when, personally, I'm not sure that they're entering into it for the right reasons; but again, who am I to make that judgement - surely that's between them, as receiver, and God, as giver, of the gift. If God's approach is "ask and it will be given to you", should this not be ours too?

I'm sure this doesn't alleviate your concerns (which are valid ones), but wonder what you or others think in response...

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 4:50 PM  

Malcolm, Rob Milton here, thanks for being honest and open (it's a shame it will lead to you being defrocked). Well here I go to join you. As always i'm thrown back to the bible to respond to you. Jesus said 'do this in remembrance of me'. That seems to me the only criteria, not age, denomination, profession or baptism. the corinthians were condemned for not doing this. So would I offer an open table, yes if people do it to remember him. Who can administer, well I would say only a priest... but since I believe in the priesthood of all believers, wheyhey.
When it comes to Baptism though it seems our views may differ, once again, my understanding from scripture is "saved & baptised" all the time saved and baptised. I really dislike infant baptism as I feel the infant misses out on a public declaration of their faith. I accept that in the act of baptism a person may also be deciding on there faith at the same time but that is still saved and baptised (just together). I do think rather unfortunately, the anglican and probably ever other long established institution gets itselfs wrapped up in traditions which sometimes need to be reanalysed. i think your thoughts are a great attempt to provoke debate. We are all (myself especially) to quick to judge and too slow to love. Hey even if we are all wrong with our thoughts, if it is driven by love do you think God is gutted. What our communities need to see is the power and gifts and fruit of the spirit pouring out of us into those around. Gods kingdom values displayed in us, his name glorified through our lives, his will lived through us, sorry i'm getting carried away here, I will stop. God Bless you, keep believing, keep relying, keep yearning after God

commented by Anonymous Rob Milton, 12:20 AM  

I have just reread my/others comments when I am a bit more awake. I also tend to agree with Frank re his baptism point. also I do think what we believe is important, just not important enough to cause disunity and also not important enough to prevent someone from searching after Christ. Who was it that decided these sacraments?,(Jesus!?!) why is this act of communion so different from any other commandment Jesus asked us to follow?, lets not put up barriers

commented by Anonymous Rob Milton, 11:45 AM  

Amazing how communion has led us onto baptism.
Having been brought up a baptist and baptised at 13 with my "profession of faith", it was the realisation that "saved and baptised" always go together in scripture that led me to later embrace infant baptism!... rather inconveninetly betwen the birth of our two children.
I was brought up in a Christian family and as part of the church family. When I was four (after a life of sin and debauchery) I prayed like I had been taught "Jesus, please come into my heart". For years I said that was when I "became a Christian". But now I'm convinced I was always part of the Christian family (or "saved") although there has been times when I've started to head out of the door.
Either way, if baptism should be alongside salvation then I should have been baptised either as an infant, or immediately after praying that prayer aged four... not nine years later when I was old enough to undertand the preparation classes and give my "profession of faith" from the front on the church.
"saved and baptised" - I'm all for it... it's very anglican!

commented by Anonymous Richard, 5:47 PM  

Probably belatedly, but in case anyone comes back to this, I remember my godson aged 5 praying at bedtime one day "Thankyou Jesus for saving us from.......something" confident start, long pause and then slightly confused thoughtful tone of voice for the 'something'. it was cute, got all the 'ahh' factor you could want but it also profoundly spoke to me of baptism policy! He didn't know much about sin, certainly couldn't put it into words and was hazy about his understanding of baptismal theology! Does that mean he wasn't saved, didn't believe, wasn't part of God's family because he couldn't understand? How much of our interpretation of policy depends on our understanding of grace? How much of the sacraments are an expression of grace? And if they are an expression of grace, should they be limited to an exclusive-members only club? Is that out job, to be the chairmen and women of the exclusive Gods-family club? If admittance to communion or baptism means full understanding and integrity then I should be disbarred - my understanding is not complete and I lack integrity, I need God's grace and parts of me still need evangelising, for all that I'm ordained and even priested!

commented by Anonymous Amanda Bruce, 2:19 PM  

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