Friday, June 18, 2010

Prefer Nothing to Christ or Keep Death Always Before You: CWOB and Patterns of the Cross

I am allergic to the word “inclusion.” The term does not fit well my concern for a rule of life, a discipline, or ascetical theology as needful expression of our christology in the day-to-day living of our own lives.

Something exists within the tension between grace and sin we find ourselves within as we live in the hope of the Consummation, of which Jesus Christ is first fruits, namely pattern. What ways does Christ’s Society discern over time that are most likely to deepen us to receive and renew us by grace (as expressed in our character by words and deeds) and root out and redeem deforming effects of sin? How is it that we shall be shaped over the long-haul to go out of ourselves for others, formed in the pattern of the cross? Sometimes these patterns vary in expression from place and time and culture. But one pattern is fasting, for example. Expression of this pattern as receiving simple meals on Wednesdays and Fridays is a time-tested example.

Within the poles of grace and sin, our monastic or ascetical inheritance asks Anglicans about patterns of life, patterns of life-for-others. We can disagree about practiced expressions of a pattern and still desire a shared pattern.

While other Christian traditions, I think of our Lutheran kin, who ideally live out their Christian freedom in direct response to neighbor in any given situation forgoing pattern (or so is claimed in much discourse but not so clear in actual practice), Christian freedom for Anglicans on the whole has been about taking up a pattern of life, especially and namely Common Prayer. We, of course, have our exceptions. For example, William Stringfellow, while insisting upon Common Prayer, tended to talk of the Christian life in more Lutheran terms.

I realize that some of you may be thinking, I’m sounding awfully evangelical or conservative. Well, in a sense, yes. Neither Benedictine, nor Anglican tradition lets us off the hook of discipleship. The difference, from say the bulk of our Reformed kin, is that we do not begin with the ethical patterns of our daily life (morality, moral theology, ethics), we begin with the pattern of praise—our dependency on God—namely, our being at prayer together. Our theology of patterns of the cross is thus filtered through our primary discipline of response to God's grace, namely, prayer. This sets the pattern for all else in our life together and in our social worlds. Christ’s faithfulness to us as we encounter him in prayer in turn leads us to ask ourselves together what patterns of life will reflect Christ in our daily living over the long-haul. While we hold these patterns contingent and Christ ultimate, being creatures, contingent is a very solid thing. On the whole, for example, treating our fellow creatures as particular, loved of God in their own right, worthy of our care, and where eaten, to be received by thanks to God at meals is more likely to form us as thanksgivers and Christlike shepherds/gardeners.

Inclusion, to my mind, implies not so much that we can revoke one another’s membership--we can't, but that we need not hold ourselves or one another accountable for patterns of life that do not display characteristics of Christlikeness: faithfulness, promise-keeping, courage, generosity, and so forth. Or that we need not hold ourselves accountable to disruptions of those patterns by our sinning. Discipline at all becomes anathema where inclusion becomes a singular hermeneutic. I have been told I am not inclusive enough because I do not think sleeping around on one’s partner is a positive expression of faithfulness, for example. This raises the question if Christ's sociality is any different at all from those of the social worlds within which we also live? Or does Christ's sociality (admittedly only imperfectly lived out among us as we live in hope of the Consummation) reform, challenge, correct the socialities of the social worlds within which we live and by which we too have been and are shaped?

Related to this is the same invitation of which yesterday I wrote some positive comments: “All who seek Christ are welcome to receive.”

We do not first seek Christ. Christ pursues us, challenges us, corrects us, builds us up to serve the worlds needs. Were I a proponent of CWOB, I would have to rather say, “All whom Christ has called to take up their cross and follow him are welcome to receive.” That, of course, would mean that as a priest, my sermon would have preached Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Questions on Communion Without Baptism (CWOB): Real Presence

Episcopalians are talking Communion Without Baptism again.

Communion Without Baptism (CWOB) is the making of an explicit and ordinary practice of inviting the non-baptized to the altar-table.

The practice has both proponents and opponents, who on theological and practicable grounds argue for and against its being explicit and ordinary practice.

By way of being up front, at the moment, I remain unconvinced and uncertain of this practice as explicit and ordinary norm of our Church and at the same time I have witnessed this practice bring people to Jesus Christ as some most amazing of his disciples. This latter is not mere emotional proof or even personal experience. I have seen fruits.

The questions this practice raises for me relate to affirming governing or norming patterns of the Society while not discounting God's ability to work through God's means.

The practice seems to be rooted in a sense of hospitality. Inclusion is the watchword.

If I were to make a distinction in the parlance of our day, I would prefer "incorporation" rather than "inclusion." And sociality rather than hospitality. As will be seen.

It would be easy on my part to simply quote canons, which maintain a long-standing pattern and strong affirmation of our Reformation commitment to Baptism as ground sacrament and an ecclesiology that does not unChurch our divisions. Our baptismal ecclesiology in the 1979 BCP is a strong outgrowth of refinement of catholic and reformed engagement over several centuries. quoting canons does not address this development.

I have to admit that institutional self-protectionism, though I have little direct stake in that protection beyond great care for our BCP, could very well blind me to a movement of God to reach all peoples in our time and place. More careful assessment of our time and place and how we can present Christ given our theological/practicable commitments is required.

After all, in this time and place, we can neither presume the persecution of the first few centuries, nor the Christendom of many thereafter. Early, Medieval, and even Modern practices of Holy Communion, however, presume either or both in development of sacramental practice.

Further, as contexts changed and new questions were asked, the practice and theology of Baptism, and by turns Church and Christ, were modified. St. Cyprian's practice and the ecclesiology implied were revised by St. Augustine. St. Augustine's by the Reformation. And in our case, the Reformation refined particularly by Maurice who is very near Rahner and Vatican II positions.

We find ourselves in a different context from Early and Medieval and Reformation and even Modern, especially on the West Coast. This does lead to new questions, especially of mission. Is CWOB the beginning of another modification of Baptism, and by extension of our theology of Church and Christ?

After all, in our time The Episcopal Church in our American context is largely irrelevant to the powers of our day. We do little that leads to our persecution and we are no longer at the center of power. Neither the first few centuries nor the long centuries thereafter prepare us for living in a mostly indifferent secularity. So, I do ask myself questions, Is this reordering a means to bring people to the Gospel in our time and place? What does it mean to reorder Baptism and Communion? What are the implications? Responsibilities? What does it say about the relationship between our social worlds and Christ's Society? A post-persecution, post-Christendom existence?

Before I go into criticisms of this practice (CWOB), I think it helpful to highlight positive aspects even as I offer concerns. Here is one: A Higher Altar-Table Christology Than Expected.

Again to be up front, I have a bleeding high christology of Holy Communion. Rather than delve into the distinctions of Real Presence doctrines, I prefer the poets: Jesus Christ gives himself to us as bread and wine. This is a meeting of Person and persons. The bread and wine are Jesus' Body and Blood. I need say no more. This christology of Holy Communion is not unrelated to a high christology in the Incarnation.

The explicit invitation often given by proponents of CWOB is something to the effect that “all who seek Jesus Christ are welcome to receive.”

Surprisingly, in this statement is a positive development. Such statements tend toward recognition a strong notion of Jesus Christ’s self-giving to us as bread and wine, that is, Holy Communion. At the very least, such statements recognize that Holy Communion is a real encounter with our Lord in some way. An explicit encounter with Jesus Christ will not leave us unchanged. Testimony to this fact by CWOB proponents should warm our hearts. Many have sought to be catechized and then baptized by first receiving Holy Communion.

My bleeding high christology of Holy Communion, however, is coupled with an equally strong sense of the Christ's Society, the Church.

My question of this practice as it relates to the doctrine of Christ's Communion Presence centers on Christ’s Body. The realness of this Encounter is not separable from the realness of the Society into which we are bonded irrevocably. Yet, CWOB troubles me because to my mind as a means of bondedness irrevocably it fails precisely because it is the nature of the sacrament of Holy Communion that it be regular and ongoing. More anon.

Traditionally, to receive Holy Communion flows out of a prior reception of, incorporation into, and commitment to the Society of Jesus Christ in Baptism. This Society is called to live out of Christ's sociality, where sociality are those ways of being together (Society) that reflect the life of the Trinity on the level of creatures (recognizing that our persons are created unlike the Persons Three) where Jesus himself is the incarnation of God's sociality in creation and center, ground, firstborn, heart, lifeblood of that Society. Anglicans, like the Reformed, have placed a strong emphasis on our being incorporated in Jesus Christ by Baptism. In Communion, we are nourished: Our failings in this regard are forgiven and we receive strengthening for keeping on the Way. But the being given over into a Society is in Baptism.

A quick perusal of our Prayer Book finds us running up against an understanding of Jesus Christ that is not only personal but corporate, communal, social. This makes sense in light of the fact that personal and communal are inextricably bound up to one another in our relational, that is, Trinitarian theology. The same is true for Christ’s Body. As the New Humanity, the Person of Jesus Christ is necessarily personal and social. A Society lives in, flows out of this One. This Society is not separate from the bulk of humanity, but is none other than humanity in relationship to our Creator, that is, acknowledges the Creator and ourselves creatures meant to be at thanks and praise, to serve the needs of others. I think of St. Augustine’s famed Sermon 272: “Receive what you are, be what you receive.” We are inextricably related to one another in Christ who has once-for-all identified himself with his creation. That is the adoption, the relationship, the sociality we receive in Baptism.

This being at thanks and praise, serving the needs of others is a sociality. This sociality of Jesus Christ, a sociality meant for the whole of creation and every social world I would argue, however, comes with a cost to our sense of self when we receive it, respond to it, and abide in it. Our humanity finds itself wrestling with and taken out of joint by the Risen Lord's. To be Church is precisely to be those who receive, respond, and abide—who take up the cost of Love for Love’s world. Not because we're better. Not because we're not sinners. Not because we're saints. But because God needs witnesses, proclaimers, presenters, friends, workers in every social world. God needs praisers of God's Trusting Humanity, Jesus Christ, in the midst of social worlds comfortable with anything but singing God's praise. The Church are we who explicitly abide in, take up, and proclaim God's faithfulness at any cost for the life of every social world of which we are a part and for the whole of creation. To receive Christ is to recognize that we are not our own (and never have been)—we exist and are sustained by God’s will alone.

This sociality recognizes that while Christ’s work of salvation is once-for-all, that work in us here and now personally and corporately is often a cross to us, where cross is to go out of ourselves for others, is to die to selfishness, ego, alienation. While being in the world, we are meant to live out Christ’s sociality in our (and every) social world, being marked by characteristics or virtues, those ways of being on our part out of response out of Jesus’ way of being with us and for us: faithfulness, embrace of vulnerability, courage, thankfulness, etc. We may disagree about how these are practically and particularly expressed and still affirm that discipleship is part of what it means to receive.

The explicitness baptismal preparation through catechesis and baptismal rite make of this cost in our receiving God’s embrace should give us pause. Being up front about what it means to receive our adoption as children of God by Christ's once-for-all saving work is only truth in advertising. Discipleship will not be always fun, easy, or happy. To live out of trust in God’s promises, to give thanks, to serve others in the midst of personal sufferings and social horrors is no picnic and impossible without God’s grace and our reception of our Risen Lord's own faithful Humanity.

Again, a sociality of Jesus Christ is affected and activated in us. We may and likely will not live it out fully here and now. Indeed, we find ourselves always wrestling with accepting that we are God’s, being shaped a bit here by alienation and redeemed the same by grace, trusting that God will out--of which Baptism is God's mark upon us.

What stands out for me is to think about if and how in CWOB, Communion can or cannot serve as the sacrament of receiving God's adoption in Christ and of celebrating our irrevocable incorporation into Christ's Society in the same way as Baptism.

Can CWOB at its best be practice of assurance in the same way as Baptism done? What does it mean to nibble at the edges and never take the plunge? Or to eat frequently and be drawn into a leap of trust? Can I fall back on Communion in the same way I can always fall back on Baptism when the Tempter whispers lies that I am other than God's in Christ? To my mind, CWOB precisely because of the nature of Holy Communion to be ongoing may imply rather the very thing the likes of Maurice and Ramsey after found troubling in certain positions on Baptism, that somehow we can fall out of God's irrevocable adoption. The singular nature of Baptism, on the other hand. In darkest night, I do not cry out, "I am communed." I rebuke, "I am baptized."

God’s give-away of grace, I trust will not be spurned by those who receive Communion and never come back. I need not protect God’s grace, but I do need to take care that others understand that grace and its power and implications for their lives. God's works through God's means. While CWOB implies a high Presence of Christ in Communion, does it properly warn of God's wrestling grace?

The long days of Christendom have past in our American context, especially so for the so-called Main Line. I wonder if this and because The Episcopal Church is not dangerous to our society, CWOB may indeed have become necessary as a means to share the Gospel. Perhaps the problem is not as much with CWOB as with our discipleship? Or is it that in a our consumer social world, CWOB offers an out?

On the other hand, at its best CWOB has drawn some into radical questioning of our social world in light of Christ's Society. Being fed on Christ has led to the feeding of others good things. And this is direct assault on a social world built on expending the most vulnerable, using up every resource, and declaring ourselves self-reliant rather than God-dependent and one-another-with-all-of-creation-interdependent.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Writing Histories Is Not a Plain Task

Historical literalism or positivism still seemingly abounds. Robert Taft, SJ that great liturgical scholar of history reminds us that histories are not mere expositions of the past without interpretation (not possible) but interpretations of the past that help us understand and create our present. In that sense, histories are related to tradition where tradition is not a mere handing on (replicative), but a handing over (developmental).

Histories both explain who we are and create how we are. More than one telling is possible. Tellings may be more or less careful with the past. Tellings may also require repudiation of our past, often by digging up some other portion of our inheritance or digging more deeply theologically.

That the Scottish Episcopal Church has a different telling of itself and its roots in Celtic Catholic history than the Church of England should not surprise us. Dig enough into the Welsh Church and you'll find as well a different telling from glorious England. The Cornish cry against Cranmer's insistence on English, for example, is not without recognition of a colonial imposition. After all, sermons and sometimes Scripture texts were read in Cornish in 1549. These tellings need not be understood as simple romanticizations or New Age-ery as others accuse, but tellings meant to distinguish and conserve, sometimes naively, other portions of our inheritance easily swallowed up by conformity--and hand over a spirit or ethos.

I would suggest that it is not merely a bishop that The Scottish Episcopal Church bequeathed to us. Our kin bequeathed to us a spirit or ethos born of non-establishment (and persecution) that places us in a different relationship to the social worlds we inhabit from that of the established Church of England of the time. A tension is created in relationship between Church and the social worlds we inhabit, and through time and events (slavery, for example) we learn that we cannot pretend that the Church can extract itself from our social worlds completely or naively. Through time and history, our own Episcopal Church has learned that the Spirit may not only correct our social worlds by means of the Church (and sometimes despite us), the Spirit may correct the Church by means of ourselves and the social worlds within which we find ourselves. Given need for correction, such complexity does not allow anything more than the contingent cry of the prophet--but a cry it must be.

The sermon by Bp Skinner preached at the consecration of Bp Seabury.