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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A Typical Fudge?

One of the crazy contradictions in the English language is the word fudge. As a noun it refers to rich, delicious chocolate that many of us consider an irresistible taste of heaven. As a verb or in figurative speech, however, it carries such a pejorative meaning that none of us would appreciate our words or actions to be judged as “fudged:”

> to fail to deal with (something) in an open and direct way
> to speak or act in a way that is meant to avoid dealing with a problem directly
> to change (something) in order to trick people

Odd, don’t you think? Try to explain that to someone who’s learning English!

The term fudge was used a while back to describe the outcome of a  certain meeting. But before I explore that, a word about us earthlings.

For all our good qualities, we human beings are masters at deceit. We are so perfect at deceit that it’s second nature; most of the time we don’t even know we’re being deceitful, even to ourselves. We can therefore safely and honestly plead ignorance (psst … here’s one to chew on: is it deceit when we’re not aware?). We process experiences and information constantly through layers of unconscious assumptions and judgments, motivations and interpretations, prejudices and stereotypes, all acquired and formed over a lifetime of conditioning, for both good and ill. All these internal filters create what is called a “mental map” which serves as our operating system. We need mental maps; they help us organize, interpret and make sense of the avalanche of impressions, data and sensations that roll into and over us on a daily basis.

Mutual understanding, generative learning and constructive dialogue are often hindered by dissimilar “mental maps” which can create significant conflict and misunderstanding, even leading to mutual condemnation. Some even claim that the unacknowledged, and therefore unconsciously operating, mental maps in people lie at the root of the world’s problems (David Bohm in the Discipline of Team Learning, Peter Senge)

So it seems not only desirable but urgent and necessary that we let our mental maps rise to the surface of our consciousness instead of letting them control our reactions at an unconscious level. This involves becoming aware of our hidden assumptions and motives, attitudes and judgments, and to free ourselves from their destructive effects both in ourselves and in our relationships – which is in effect the task of every spiritual quest. Such awareness can then provide insight into when our mental map needs to change or expand or be corrected, in the hope of growing greater internal and external harmony and understanding, moving us all to a deeper and richer level of relationships.

Since I have been trying to increase awareness of this dynamic in myself, I also strive to increase my ability to see it operate outside myself. And here’s where I come back to using the term fudge. I’ve written in a previous blog about the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Canterbury last January. Applying the notion of mental maps as unconscious operating systems proves to be almost amusing when reading the various reactions to the outcome of this high-ranking Anglican meeting.

At the end it was a classic Anglican fudge, says an article in The Tablet, Jan. 21/16. I did some research on the term Anglican fudge and sure enough, it tends to get applied by those who disagree with whatever the outcome is of what is being commented on, putting the Anglican tradition down. Now before I go on, please remember that I’m just playing with ideas and concepts here, so don’t hold my feet to the fire just yet. Also keep in mind that I`m still a new Anglican, and musings such as these are my feeble attempts to figure out my place in this new faith family. Part of this task is to explore the Anglican gifts of Gospel-centered discipleship as well as its sinful patterns of … well, truly fudging things.

It is rather interesting to observe how perspectives shift when the vantage point of vision changes and you look at the same thing using a different mental map. Fr. Ron Smith, an Anglican priest from New Zealand, tries to do just that when he unpacks the use of the term Anglican fudge in a Roman Catholic publication as follows:

The author of this article speaks of a typical ‘Anglican fudge’ being arrived at – on the decision not to split on the issues of gender and sexuality that had occasioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to the Primates. However, there were significant activities that took place in the meetings that allowed the Primates – whatever their particular viewpoint on this issue – to step back from further schismatic action taking place.

If the word ‘fudge’ means that the different Provinces of the Communion can actually agree to co-exist – without formal interference in the affairs of individual provinces – then perhaps this sort of fudging response might be thought to be better than outright schism. What may not be clearly understood by the Roman Catholic commentator, is that there is no ‘Magisterium’ in the Anglican Communion that can enforce the sort of disciplines available, for instance, in the Church of Rome  – whose Pope and Vatican authorities can use the power of excommunication against dissident Church members.  (Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand)

The Anglican Communion is held together by mutual bonds of affection, and by a horizontal model of governance and authority that strives for a balance between moral autonomy and moral assent (instead of juridical obedience to law). That model, as every model, comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and often risks being misinterpreted by those who do not taste the inside dynamics of its operations. I wonder if this is what happened when many on the outside  (and those on the inside holding exceptionally strong opposite opinions) perceived the Primates`decision to continue `walking together` as wishy-washy or even an outright betrayal of the Gospel.

It behooves both Anglicans and Catholics to know that the two traditions enjoy the longest-standing ecumenical dialogue since Vatican II. Much theological ground has been covered in rich agreements that have yet to be fully appropriated by the people in the pews in both traditions. In a recent article Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls points out that the Anglican Communion’s internal struggles have resulted in unexpected yet immensely valuable lessons learnt: “One of the things we’ve certainly learned in my own church is, we’ve learned how to have better conversations when we’re in conflict on deeply painful issues,” she said. “We’ve learned how to sit down together and listen in ways we didn’t seem to know how to do before. And that’s not a bad thing.” (April 29, 2016, Catholic Register)

The Primates` conclusions from their January 2016 meeting were borne of costly discipleship ìn response to Christ`s demanding call to love, reconciliation and communion, all of which they experienced viscerally in their week together (see Canada`s Primate Fred Hiltz`account). At the same time those with different, even contrary, `mental maps`quickly criticized those same conclusions as wishy-washy (or harsh, depending on your point of view), and could only perceive … fudge. That begs the question: which type of fudge was it – the deceitful twisting of truth or the heavenly food version?

There is way more to say on all this, but I’ll leave that for another time. It’s more important to stop and distill the larger questions from this example:

1. How often do we perceive another`s choices and decisions in ways that fail to consider and honour the true intent of the individual or the group?

2. How can we help ourselves to grow a greater awareness of our own mental maps and the role these play in how we perceive/experience the world?

3. In what ways are we called to costly discipleship with those who challenge our mental maps?

4. Does right relation trump right belief? Why and how? If not, why not?

5. When is “walking together” a wishy-washy, anything-goes, ignoring-differences type of response, and when is it a call to deeper love, reconciliation and communion that challenges both parties? How can we tell the difference?

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