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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The Gift of Authority?

The harder question is certainly how do these documents and this ongoing conversation filter down to the grassroots level… These documents will only exist in the theological-geek world unless we can find ways to put them into practice in working together.” These words were spoken last April by Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls.

I agree with her; it’s high time that great ecumenical agreements and statements get more attention from the folks in the pews. So for starters, here are some of my musings on an important ecumenical document entitled: The Gift of Authority – Authority in the Church III © 1998 Anglican – Roman Catholic International Dialogue)

While this document was published some 18 years ago, it is sadly still little known by ordinary Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Sad really, for it is a prime example of good ecumenism in practise. The agreement takes a comprehensive look at the exercise of authority in the Christian tradition in a spirit of humility and honesty, openness and courage. Given the current challenges authority structures experience in both the Anglican Communion and in the Roman Catholic Church, it would behoove all of us to receive its content and to apply its insights sooner rather than later. The document confirms what I have been thinking and learning for a quite some time now, i.e. that the Roman Catholic way of exercising authority has been too centralized and hierarchical, and that the Anglican way of exercising authority within a synodal structure can be perceived as too nebulous and overly tentative. The former risks being experienced as increasingly disconnected from the lives of the lay faithful and the latter as too wishy-washy and lacking teeth. It seems to me that what the one tradition has too much of, the other tradition needs more of and vice versa.

The first section of the document is a beautiful sweeping look at the theological and spiritual underpinnings of authority in the Christian tradition throughout history. This is, in a way, the articulation of the Christian vision of how authority is supposed to work – where it originates, how it is refined and informed, and how it needs to be exercised:

In Jesus Christ … the “Yes” of God to humanity and the “Amen” of humanity to God become a concrete human reality. This theme of God’s “Yes” and humanity’s “Amen”     in Jesus Christ is the key to the exposition of authority in this statement. (par. 8)

When a believer says “Amen” to Christ individually, a further dimension is always involved; an “Amen” to the faith of the Christian community. … The believer’s “Amen” is so fundamental that individual Christians through their life are called to say “Amen” to all that the whole company of Christians receives and teaches as the authentic meaning of the Gospel and the way to follow Christ. (par. 12)

The interplay of God’s “Yes” and the believers’ “Amen” continues in the document’s exploration of the roles of Tradition and Scripture in the formulation and exercise of authority before it moves on to the importance of Reception and Re-Reception from one generation to the next in all time and place (par. 24—31). All this sounds as if Anglicans and Catholics are of one mind on the understanding and exercise of authority in the Church until par. 31 clearly acknowledges the challenges:

Anglicans and Roman Catholics can agree in principle on all of the above, but need to make a deliberate effort to retrieve this shared understanding. When Christian communities are in real but imperfect communion they are called to recognise in each other elements of the apostolic Tradition which they may have rejected, forgotten or not yet fully understood. Consequently, they have to receive or re-appropriate these elements, and reconsider the ways in which they have separately interpreted the Scriptures. (par. 31)

From here on the document lays out quite explicitly what the challenges are in each tradition  in order to recover the elements which have previously been “rejected, forgotten or not fully understood.

The Roman Catholic Church is challenged to examine its commitment to lay participation in  decision-making and governance structures of the Church. While the document concedes that “the tradition of synodality has not ceased” in the RC Church, as a lifelong Roman Catholic I know full well that this gracious assessment has not been embraced as fully as it deserves. While the vision of the Church fathers at the Second Vatican Council certainly included a revitalization of the synodal processes in the Church, effective implementation of that vision was seriously halted for nearly half a century, even at the level of Bishops’ Synods.

It is only now with Pope Francis that some concrete efforts are being made, illustrated by Rome’s initiative to send questionnaires to all dioceses prior to the Synod on the Family to invite the thoughts and questions of lay Catholics through their local bishops. The fact that efforts at collecting real-life data from the lives of real people, and the fact that bishops were urged to listen deeply to their people and then to speak from their hearts on these matters, resulted in what some have called chaotic and messy debates at the two Synods on the Family — surprise! The lid has been held on tight for too long on concrete and controversial issues and new questions. The synodal model still has lots of dust to get cleaned off, collected from centuries of neglect in Rome. As Roman Catholics are waking up to the messy character of synodality, Anglicans must be smiling – recognizing something all too familiar in their own synodal deliberations. When it comes to restoring the synodal principle in exercising authority, Rome has much to learn from Canterbury.

However, Anglicans do not have the golden formula either: Anglicans have shown themselves to be willing to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion (par. 56), thereby risking to diminish the very meaning of communion. While the Anglican concern for the quality of relationships of love and respect trump rigid adherence to rules, and while the Anglican concern for historical contextuality, dispersed authority, synodal consultation at all levels and proceeding through careful discernment and reception of new ideas are all laudable attributes of the Anglican approach to authority, they come with subtle yet real traps revealing its fragility. No issue has brought this weakness to the fore more, and no question has tested this model more, than the current debate on same-sex marriage. (A next blog post will address this debate in greater detail — stay tuned) Some Anglicans now look longingly across the Tiber for more centralized authority, while some Roman Catholics look longingly to the Anglican model of relational and moral persuasion and consensus.

The current situation is a telling one, highlighting how much both traditions need one another:

In the Anglican Communion there is a reaching towards universal structures which promote koinonia, and in the Roman Catholic Church a strengthening of local and intermediate structures.
The Commission poses some questions frankly but in the conviction that we need the support of one another in responding to them. We believe that in the dynamic and fluid situation in which they are posed, seeking to answer them must go together with developing further steps towards a shared exercise of authority. (par. 55)

There are other challenges contained in the ARCIC Document on Authority, challenges and critical questions issued to both traditions. Much is expected from bishops in each tradition to help realize the potential for further growing in unity:

For the sake of koinonia and a united Christian witness to the world, Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops should find ways of cooperating and developing relationships of mutual accountability in their exercise of oversight. At this new stage we have not only to do together whatever we can, but also to be together all that our existing koinonia allows. (par. 58)

When I first read this document a number of years ago I read it as a Roman Catholic, and now I have re-read it as a new and developing Anglican. I am still as heartened and inspired by it as before – I’d like to think of this as a testimony to the document’s integrity. Currently the Anglican model of authority is being severely tested, painful as that it, and it is on full display for the world to see. The latest installments of this display are the Primates Meeting in Canterbury last January, the published statement from the ACC House of Bishops this past February, and soon the General Synod in July. But when the second largest denomination in the country is disaffected Catholics and when the process of reception by the faithful fails massively on important matters, Rome’s authority is by no means exempt from being tested, albeit in different ways.

I recently finished reading a book by Jeffrey W. Driver, the Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, entitled A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and Grief of Anglicanism (2014, Wipf & Stock). It contains the following text on its back cover:

The injunction of Jesus, “it is not so among you,” challenged his followers to use power and live in community in a way that contrasted with what occurred “among the Gentiles” (Mark 10:41-45). This is why the sometimes tedious debates about authority and structure in the Anglican Communion could actually matter—because they might have something to say about being human in community, about sharing power and coexisting, about living interdependently on a tiny and increasingly stressed planet. The Anglican experiment in dispersed authority, for all its grief, could be a powerful gift.

It has been 18 years since “The Gift of Authority” was published. Have our churches acted on its recommendations? Have our churches taken its suggestions and questions seriously? Maybe. Eighteen years is nothing in a tradition that thinks and breathes in centuries. The people in the pews still know regrettably little about any ecumenical agreements, a tragic fact. Both the Roman top-down model and the Anglican bottom-up model are going through their respective refiner’s fires at this time. I pray that “The Gift of Authority” can be a tiny guiding light in the current dilemmas. I can hardly wait for the day that both our traditions’ approaches to authority get remarried into a coherent whole, deserving of Jesus’ words as quoted above: It is not so among you. (Mark 10:41-45)

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