Thursday, April 23, 2009
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.