Ship-wrecking Disputes

Imagine receiving a letter from a past parish priest/pastor in our community. Imagine it saying the following:
“I’ve heard that the church is full of conflict and cliques these days. Rumours about this trouble have made it all the way back to me, and I’m horrified! I hear that some of you are even associating yourselves with different leaders, both present ones and past. And I was absolutely shocked to hear that some of you are suggesting that I come back because you like my way of doing things best.

“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to happen! And I thank God that I baptized none of you … And it really doesn’t matter who I baptized, or who I prepared for membership, or who I worked with on Vestry or Council, because it’s not about me, or any other particular leaders. It’s about Christ Jesus! I want to say this in no uncertain terms: Do not claim allegiance to me or any leader other than Christ. I just will not allow it!”

In my own words, that’s pretty much the gist of what Paul was telling the Corinthian Christians. Quarrels had been reported to him, with some saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Instead of claiming their unity in Christ and doing their best to work out differences and disagreements, the Corinthians spent way too much time and energy on arguing and dividing; Paul was anything but impressed.

We might think that Christians in the early Church got along so well and were so unified. Acts 4 indeed describes that earliest Christian community as one in which everyone was together in one place and held everything in common. They shared possessions, took care of those in need, and lived, worshiped, and served together in peace and harmony. But that idyllic picture of the church (if it was ever real) didn’t last long. Churches such as Corinth were already experiencing conflict and division, a problem that only increased and intensified over the centuries.

After several little break-ups in the first millenium, around the year 1000, the Church suffered the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Then came the Reformation divides of the 16th century, followed by more and more divisions between varieties of Protestant Churches based on different doctrines, different practices, different cultures and experiences. The comedian Emo Philips told a story over twenty years ago, which bears repeating today:
I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.”

I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “I do, too. … Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “I’m a Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! …Protestant; or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! …What branch?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …Northern Baptist; or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”
I said, “Oh, darn. Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

And it has ever been thus, including now the outrageous online sparring between Christians on social media. Yes, great strides have been made in the past century in shedding old prejudices and biases. Yes, significant ecumenical dialogue and agreements have been written and published, and even endorsed by the highest ecclesial authorities. But much of these ecumenical milestones are still rarely shared, embraced and acted upon by both clergy and the people in the pews.

Instead, we continue to hang on to divisions as cherished identity markers. A new book was published recently on the subject of transubstantiation, a thorny subject between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Catholics claim transubstantiation as a firm identity marker (without really understanding its history and original meaning/ intent), and Protestants have an allergic reaction at the sound of the term. What is really sad/tragic is that this book’s sincere efforts to explore this thorny term in the service of Christian Unity and its startling conclusion that we are in fact agreeing, agreeing (!) about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist will likely never reach the minds and hearts of most baptized Christians — bishops, superintendents and clergy included…

Today, we end the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. What began in 1908 in one person’s heart, Fr. Paul Wattson, has become a global event endorsed by all mainline Christian churches, including the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation, and in Canada the Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Baptist Alliance.

That development definitely deserves to be noted and celebrated. But even this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity still does not include many churches and faith communities, either by their own choice or through sheer ignorance of the occasion. I wonder why this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, addressing directly the disputes and factions in the church, has only ever been the focus for this Week of Prayer …. once… Could it be because Paul’s words are too sharp a rebuke to us all? Could it be that Paul’s challenge to find our unity in Christ alone, and to let that unity guide how we work through divisions and disagreements, is more than we dare to commit ourselves to? Maybe we would rather say, with a certain smugness:
I belong to the one true church of … Martin Luther;
I believe in the Pope and in transubstantiation;
no, the Book of Common Prayer is all that matters to me.
We only baptize adult believers who mean what they promise;
I believe in the gift of tongues as the hallmark of the Holy Spirit.
And I … believe … in angels and … the universe.

Like Peter, Andrew, James and John we follow the One who has made us “fishers of people.” But it can certainly be said that, rather than setting God’s fire of love ablaze in human hearts, we have instead created institutions with membership cards and rules of conduct. Is it any wonder that our fishing nets, tattered and torn from all the bickering and dividing, are not holding together well in this secular, post-Christian world?

At last count, there are over 30,000 different denominations, a number that continues to rise despite all efforts in dialogue. Now, in fairness, some claim that the growth of denominations in fact allows for greater peace and harmony in the Body of Christ. Yet, more often than not, in reality it is perceived as fragmentation that has in fact been breeding contempt, distrust and prejudice towards “those others” in the Body of Christ. While we all claim Jesus as the light in our darkness, as the compass of God to orient our lives towards, we have allowed this Christian light to explode into a million factions, like bright fireworks into a darkened sky, now rapidly losing our shining quality. I often wonder how much our in-house quarrels have contributed to the erosion of credibility in the Gospel of Christ in our contemporary world.

Claiming our unity in Christ does not lead to abandoning our denominational colours. Quite the opposite — claiming our baptismal unity in Christ calls for a deep embracing of all that is good and life-giving in our own tradition without putting down others, and more even. Claiming our unity in Christ enables us to recognize and honour all that is good and holy and life-giving even in other spiritual paths and traditions.

Besides, we cannot share with others what we do not first experience, claim, cherish and love. We claim our particular tradition not as a weapon to hit others, but as the gift we bring to the ecumenical table of the Lord. Secure in who we are in Christ through our denominational belonging, we become free to seek and find unity with sisters and brothers everywhere. I think here of the wise words of Michael Ramsay,
former Archbishop of Canterbury:
Let it be made clear that ecumenism includes every part of the healing of wounds between races and nations… Every breaking down of barriers which divide humanity
—social, racial, economic, cultural—is part of the ecumenical task. The ecclesial aspects of ecumenism
must be seen in this larger context. When they are so seen it is clear that ecumenism is no hobby for church-minded people; it is a task of divine and human reconciliation in which every Christian man, woman and child can have a share. (Also see Nostra Aetate, 1965)

Christian unity for the sake of the world is not easy. The ecumenical quest is not without pain  — there is a lot of hurt and suspicion to overcome, a lot of misunderstandings to clear up still today. It is a good thing that none of this depends on our human efforts alone. It is a good thing, a totally undeserving and merciful thing that, despite ourselves, God hasn’t ditched us yet but remains the ever faithful One. Despite ourselves, despite out tattered fishing nets and online sparring, Jesus keeps calling out to us: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.

It is not too late to be God’s united light in the world. Later this year, the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Ukrainian bishops of Saskatchewan will invite us into a new and bold initiative called the LAURC Covenant. While not limiting this Covenant, the bishops nevertheless want to begin by committing their own traditions while leaving space in the Covenant for other churches to join. This Covenant will urge a deeper concrete partnership among our varying Christian faith families through mutual learning and sharing, through ongoing joint praying and serving those in need. Some of this partnering is already borne from sheer material need and numerical decline. Yet the bishops wish to transform these negative-sounding reasons into positive witnesses of unity for Christ’s own sake.

So, for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, we are compelled to continue mending our fishing nets and tying them together. Jesus himself prayed for our unity, Jesus himself will be our light, Jesus himself will be our glory, and in Jesus lies the hope for all the churches, and indeed, for all of creation.

Homily preached on January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23   

  • Heartfelt thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Amanda Currie, for the initial inspiration for this sermon.        
  • Thanks also to friend and colleague Rev. Scott Sharman for lifting my ecumenical spirit with his reflection.   
  • The blog title is inspired by this year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Acts 27:18 — 28:10 which features St. Paul’s shipwreck experience on the Island of Malta.
  • A poignant reflection on the numerical decline in our churches in western countries, linking this decline to our continued divisions which undermine the message of Christ Jesus. Much food for thought here.

Transformed Lives

In the past few weeks I have been following the discussions between the Vatican and the German Bishops’ Conference on Eucharistic hospitality towards interchurch couples. This question concerns me quite directly as I am Anglican and my husband is Roman Catholic.  Bishops, cardinals and theologians spend endless hours, months and years debating whether or not to open the table of the Lord to Christians not in communion with Rome, but whose baptism is nevertheless recognized by Rome. Jim and I are united in two sacraments: baptism and marriage. But the Church separates us at the table of the Eucharist. This cuts deep, undermining the integrity and ecclesial value of our marital union.

I have profound respect and affection for the Eucharist. Participating in the Eucharist, consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus has been pivotal in my own faith formation. The centrality of the Eucharist has continued in my new Anglican discipleship. But from this Anglican perch, I am becoming more and more puzzled and saddened at the sacramental antics in Rome. It seems that for Rome institutional communion trumps unity in faith and in Christ Jesus. It also seems that the table of the Lord is being treated as the table of the Church. Finally, it seems that a medieval philosophical category (transubstantiation) trumps transformed hearts and minds.

I don’t in any way intend to be disrespectful, but my deep love for the Eucharist and for the church prompt some serious questions. Is Jesus more fully present in a Catholic Mass than in an Anglican Eucharist or Lutheran service of Holy Communion? When I moved into the Anglican tradition, one faithful Catholic lamented that I was leaving the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” This betrays not only a lack of ecumenical knowledge, particularly about the Eucharist, but also a limited understanding of Christ’s Real Presence. I moved so as to grow more fully into Christ’s Real Presence in the world and in the church by living out the priestly vocation God had placed in my heart (despite my objections, I may add).

If the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist is truly superior to anyone else’s celebration of the same, then why does this not show in a multitude of changed lives on fire with Jesus? Does the transubstantiation of hearts not take priority over the philosophical minutiae over how the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus? *

I know the theological and ecclesial arguments well: it has to do with validity of Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession and visible ecclesial unity. But each of these terms suffers from a constraining definition, as Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out so succinctly in his seminal work Models of the Church.

In a 1993 letter to a Lutheran bishop, Joseph Ratzinger wrote: If the actions of Lutheran pastors can be described by Catholics as “sacred actions” that “can truly engender a life of grace,” if communities served by such ministers give “access to that communion in which is salvation,” and if at a Eucharist at which a Lutheran pastor presides is to be found “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord,” then Lutheran churches cannot be said simply to lack the ministry given to the church by Christ and the Spirit.

Holy Communion is meant to change us, Pope Francis said recently. Echoing St. Augustine he stated: Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! In fact, we invoke the Holy Spirit upon us God’s people to effect this transubstantiation in our own lives as part of every Eucharistic Prayer. Instead, a Catholic Mass can be as mediocre as any celebration of the Lord’s Supper in another church. Worse even, studies have been done on why Catholics arrive in church late and leave early.

I have been at many a Eucharistic celebration in Anglican and Lutheran churches, and now preside at the same in both. Never have I seen people leave before the end of the service. Moreover, every hymn gets its full verses sung as an expression of praise rather than only a couple of verses serving as “traveling music” for the priest. There is a gusto and an engagement in these services that I wish more of in a Catholic Eucharist. If the Catholic Eucharistic sacrament is somehow more whole, more authentic, then why does this not find expression in all who receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus in radical lives of service to others, simplicity of lifestyle, outreach to the poor, and advocates of justice for the oppressed?

It would behoove us all to sprinkle our private and institutional judgments of one another with a good dose of humility and self-examination, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. The Gospels are embarrassingly candid about how little the disciples actually understood Jesus during his ministry. None of us, not even a Pope, should place higher demands on one another than Jesus ever did for those who broke bread with him.

Clearly, none of us fully grasp the meaning of Christ`s sacrifice any more than the first disciples did. And none of us can add anything to our worthiness in receiving Christ’s sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist than what Christ has accomplished in his suffering and death for us. In fact, the seventh century mystic St. Isaac of Nineveh is quoted as saying, ‘Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So then — do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.

What would happen if the validity of the Eucharist was determined by “discerning the Body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29) and measured by transformed lives instead of institutional membership?

  • I highly recommend Gabriel Daly’s paper Eucharist: Doing the Truth with Christian Faith
  • Excerpts from a summary of the RC position on Eucharistic sharing:
    The norms published by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1999 stated, “Episcopalians and Lutherans can be presumed to believe in the real presence. For members of other communions there may be need for some further discussion concerning their belief in the Eucharist.”
    At the same time, the 2008 guidelines of the Diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said, “the Church does not require other Christians to have more knowledge of the sacrament or more faith and holiness than the Catholic faithful have. This principle is particularly pertinent in applying terms of the law that speak of the other Christian ‘manifesting Catholic faith’ in the sacrament, having the ‘proper disposition’ and being in ‘spiritual need.’”
  • The final reporting on the meeting between the German bishops and the Vatican can be found here. Interesting to note that Pope Francis did not give the bishops a final answer, but sent them home with — work it out, boys.
  • Update May 12, 2018. Cardinal Willem Eijk from the Netherlands (my country of origin) has unleashed a sharp critique on Pope Francis about the matter. Dutch friends have been sending me responses appearing in Dutch publications, fiercely criticizing the cardinal, summed up in: dear Cardinal, close the book and open your heart.
  • Update May 28, 2018: This interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput is well worth reading and pondering for both Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants alike. Again it raises the question: what is non-negotiable in ecclesial unity and what is acceptable diversity? Rome approved the Eucharistic Prayer of the Armenian Church which does not have an Institution narrative or consecration of elements. What will it take for Rome to accept the Eucharistic prayer of other Christian traditions?
  • Update June 4, 2018: Pope Francis seems to claw back his command to the German Bishops Conference’s to “work it out.”
  • Update June 12, 2018: RC German Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg responds to Pope Francis’ most recent decree.
  • An interesting article sharing the story of a Lutheran-Catholic couple in Germany.

And the beat goes on …

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Mysterium Tremendum

It’s that time again — musing about Eucharist, ordination and church. After all, my own ordination to the diaconate is approaching. It has been a long journey to this time and place; a deep joy and fullness is overtaking my heart. At the same time, I find my heart super-sensitive to critical comments. I was stung by one recently that went something like this:

A friend cited two reasons for not taking communion in an Anglican church. First he highly doubted whether Anglicans really believe in transubstantiation, i.e. that they truly believe to receive the actual body and blood of Christ. Second, he feels that he cannot receive in a church that is not “in communion” with Rome.

I replied by referring to the substantial agreement on the Eucharist that exists between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The following excerpt is taken from one of these agreements: “We believe that it is of utmost importance for the clergy and laity of our two Churches to acknowledge their substantial identity in the area of Eucharistic doctrine, and to build upon it as they go forward in dialogue. Whatever doctrinal disagreements may remain between our Churches, the understanding of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is not among them.”

“I’m not interested in ecumenical documents,” my friend fired back. “I’m interested in the actual beliefs of the people. A lot of Anglicans don’t even think it is a Mass. And the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice is not one of the key elements of Eucharistic theology as far as I am concerned. You either believe in transubstantiation or you don’t. And the Anglican church, as a whole, does not. Individuals within it do. That’s not a position that makes any logical sense as a basis for inter-communion.”

The exchange stung, piercing the bone of my heart. The above comments cut to the heart of my own experience of and faith in the Eucharist as well as my 25-year journey with a priestly calling. In less than eight months, I will be presiding at the Eucharist as a priest in the Anglican Church, pronouncing the sacred words in the community of faith: “This is my body, my blood.” I continue to cherish my Catholic faith, especially in the Eucharist.

First of all the argument about being “in communion” with Rome. While respecting the RC position on this, I also know there is no Scriptural foundation for the ecclesial communion concept the way it is applied to receiving the Eucharist in one another’s churches. I know that Rome consistently holds that unity at the Eucharistic table can only arise as a result of ecclesial unity. But that does beg the question: how do we know that we have achieved enough unity to share the table of the Lord? And who gets to determine this? We now have some substantial and significant ecumenical agreements between Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans that clearly state that the current differences no longer need to be church dividing.

Moreover, the Gospels portray Jesus as sharing himself indiscriminately with all types of people, regardless of criteria for full communion. It is Pope Francis who insists that we trust the unifying and healing power of the Eucharist as a “powerful medicine for the weak.” So continuing to limit access to this unifying and powerful medicine in one another’s churches seems to set up a contradictory logic. The Eucharist is Jesus’ banquet of complete self-giving; he is the host, the church is merely its servant.

The fact that some Anglicans deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not make it official Anglican theology nor is it an exclusively Anglican phenomenon. Roman Catholic theology holds fast to the same understanding of Real Presence in the Eucharist, yet some Catholics are sharing the same doubt and ignorance that my friend is so quick to place at the feet of my Anglican sisters and brothers. Is Jesus really more fully present in a Roman Catholic Eucharist than in an Anglican one? Both traditions cite the literal Words of Institution within Eucharistic Prayers that bear close family resemblance. Rather than argue about which Eucharist has more of |Jesus, should we not be more concerned with “reverse transubstantiation” as Kelly Pigott explores so poignantly in an article with a rather misleading title?

And what role does the faith of the communicant play in grasping this concept of Real Eucharistic Presence? The Anglican reverence for the individual’s capacity of faith allows for the person to appropriate the Eucharistic mystery of Real Presence in whatever way they can. This comes through in lovely language in the prayer that accompanies the distribution of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful. (Order for Holy Communion, Book of Common Prayer)

In her seminal work The Interior Castle St. Teresa of Avila said: Let us look at our own shortcomings and leave other people’s alone; for those who live carefully ordered lives are apt to be shocked at everything and we might well learn very important lessons from the persons who shock us. Our outward comportment and behaviour may be better than theirs, but this, though good, is not the most important thing: there is no reason why we should expect everyone else to travel by our own road, and we should not attempt to point them to the spiritual path when perhaps we do not know what it is. Even with these desires that God gives us to help others, we may make many mistakes, and thus it is better to attempt to … try to live ever in silence and in hope, and the Lord will take care of His own.

Do any of us really and fully grasp Jesus Christ’s self-giving to the point of death? I do not expect to ever fully exhaust the meaning of this profound mystery. Growing into Anglican spirituality is fostering within me a deeper humility along with a greater reticence to pass judgment on how others understand and live their Christian faith. Some will call this wishy-washy and “Anglican fudge.” But maybe one person’s maturing in faith only looks wishy-washy to those who feel overly secure in their own convictions. When all is said and done, I can only stand humbly before a mysterium tremendum.

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