For some time now I’ve had reflections on theological and pastoral controversies — some in the Anglican world, some the evangelical, some in both — sitting on my hard drive. I’ve decided to post three of them, not so much because I’m sure they’re all right, but rather in the hope that I can cease to chew these issues over and move on to other things. This is the first of my three bleats.
Anglican practices of Communion have historically been quite variable, with different parishes in different regions at different times choosing to make Holy Communion or Morning Prayer the usual Sunday morning service. But the conditions for admission to Communion have not varied so much. Typically, people baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity who are not “notorious evil livers” and who are at peace with their neighbors are eligible. When there has been a practice of Confirmation — not universal among Anglicans — then that may also have been a condition, though more recently it has been left to the discretion of parents to decide whether to have their children come to the Communion rail.
I might add that when Confirmation has been a prerequisite for Communion, that Confirmation has often been connected to the brief and beautiful catechism of the 1662 BCP, with its elegant invocation of three central texts of Eucharistic and daily worship: the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Communion practices are a useful point of focus to explore a development that concerns me greatly: what looks to me like the abandonment, among all varieties of North American Anglicans, of certain longstanding Anglican practices.
Before I go any further, let me pause to note that I have no stature to debate these matters. I am neither a bishop nor a priest not a biblical scholar nor a liturgist nor a theologian. I am just a layman of some years’ standing — one of the sheep. But, as C.S. Lewis said in his great essay on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” a sheep at least can bleat. Consider what follows as my bleat.
When an Anglican complains about the abandonment of longstanding practices, he or she usually has the Episcopal Church (TEC) in mind. And indeed many TEC parishes and dioceses have been jettisoning their Anglican, and more generally Christian, inheritance as fast they can manage. One of the key abandonments here has been ceasing to make Trinitarian Baptism a prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s table, and I can’t imagine a more thoroughgoing practical rejection of the Christian message than open Communion. For, if the traditional view is that Baptism is the sacrament of reconciliation and Communion the sacrament of the reconciled, open Communion effectively denies that we need to be reconciled to God: God is perfectly happy with all of already, so — in defiance of the parable of the Wedding Feast — we’re all automatically welcome at His table, wedding garment be damned.
But I fear that ACNA, or at least some of the parishes and dioceses of ACNA, in their eagerness to differentiate themselves from TEC, have also set aside Anglican tradition, just in an opposite way. I live in Waco, Texas, which places me in ACNA’s Diocese of Forth Worth, and this diocese will admit to Holy Communion only those baptized Christians who affirm the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Now, the teaching of the Real Presence is a strong element in Anglican theology since Hooker, and something that I affirm with all my heart and soul and mind; but to make it a requirement for admission to the Eucharistic feast strikes me as just as un-Anglican as open Communion. Affirmation of the Real Presence is not even in the Articles of Religion, and those were meant to be binding only on ordained clergy. To ask ordinary laypeople to make affirmation that priests were historically never required to make, or else bar them from the great meal of the Church, seems to me indefensible from any historically Anglican point of view. (And I am setting aside the question of whether apprehension of the Real Presence is actually possible outside the experience of its benefits. That Christ is truly present in the sacrament is indeed a truth-claim, but not one that we apprehend in the same way that we apprehend that 2+2=4. But again, we can set that aside for now.) And, equally, to deny that meal to faithful and validly-baptized Christians from traditions that do not acknowledge the Real Presence strikes me as a massive failure of hospitality in one of its most important senses. St. Paul’s notion of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) seems immensely relevant here.
Presumably the exegetical defense here would be that those faithful Baptists and other are “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). But to make access to Communion contingent on holding a particular interpretation of a single extremely obscure verse is surely un-Anglican at best — especially since so many not qualify under this particular interpretation. Could Richard Hooker — who wrote “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament” — receive Communion in the diocese of Fort Worth? Could Jeremy Taylor? (“CHRIST is present in the Sacrament to our spirits only, i.e. not present to any other sense but that of faith.”) Could John Stott?
It might be objected that this is a diocesan mandate, not a more broadly denominational one. But that is a very large part of the problem. On an essential matter of the basic practice of the church — essential especially in our age, in which Communion is offered at least weekly and perhaps more frequently than that — a bishop can be dictatorial while the denomination as a whole remains agnostic. (By a similar logic though in a different venue, ACNA priests have the option in their parishes to remove the filioque from the creed. The filioque, about which there have been such bitter and tragic disputes over the centuries, reduced to a parish-level decision — as though it is pure adiaphora!)
I have noted that there are historic relations that link admission to Communion with Confirmation and Confirmation with a Catechism. ACNA is equally Janus-faced about this matter as well. In what the chair of the Catechism Committee, J.I. Packer, admits is a deviation from Anglican tradition, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism is longer, more detailed, and more complex than its predecessors. This, Packer says, is because the new document “is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool” to be used in a variety of instructional contexts. In general, the new catechism is well-made, though sometimes it inadvertently gets into disputed or ambiguous territory. For instance, when it says that “when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, the world as we know it will come to an end,” that is only accurate under certain meanings of “as we know it” and “come to an end.” Which makes me wonder whether this is a matter that belongs in a Catechism.
That, however, is not a question I can answer without having a better understanding of how the Catechism is to be used, and that’s hard to tell from the document itself. In his prefatory letter, Archbishop Bob Duncan says that “the degree to which it is used directly for instruction, and the amount of memorization asked of individual catechumens, is left up to the catechist to determine by context and circumstance.” It seems, then, that Archbishop Duncan does see this catechism as an element of preparation for Confirmation — but perhaps only if individual priests choose to use it? It’s hard to tell. And of course nothing is here said about the link between Confirmation and admission to Communion.
So on the one hand ACNA clearly wants to be more rigorous than TEC, not to make the parent denomination’s mistakes again; but, like so many children who rebel, it ends up replicating some of the problematic tendencies of the previous generation. Here’s a detailed and specific Catechism — but only use it when you want to, and in the way you want. Being a faithful baptized believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to get you welcomed to the Eucharistic feast — well, in many dioceses, anyway. Parish priests may add or subtract the filioque at will. There is the appearance of rigor but, on the diocesan and sometimes the parish level, about as much of a choose-your-own-adventure model as there is in TEC.
In the Anglican way at its best, affirmations, expectations, and definitions are kept clear, minimal, and firm. That’s why my favorite Anglican documents are the 1662 Catechism and the Lambeth Quadrilateral. When TEC showed itself unwilling or unable to enforce even the most minimal commitments for belief and practice, ACNA responded with a series of expanded rubrics and statements — most of which are made optional and therefore lack power to compel and unify. Given that ACNA is trying to hold together a diverse constituency, this may be understandable. But that is of little comfort to the poor confused sheep bleating from the pews.
It seems clear to me that the one thing the clergy of ACNA have been able to agree on is that they want to avoid the wishy-washiness that emptied out the doctrine (and the pews!) of TEC. They concluded that in order to avoid such a fate they needed to make their own affirmations more specific and more detailed. But they have not so far been able to agree on what those more detailed statements must be. So increased strictnesses are put on the table — but only as options, at either the diocesan or the parish level.
I am inclined to think that this approach was bound to fail and indeed was misbegotten. The problem with the TEC isn’t that there aren’t enough rules, or sufficiently specific ones, but that the existing rules are so often flouted. Parishes opened Communion and ceased to be bound in their public readings by the lectionaries, or even the Bible. Bishops openly defied the doctrine and discipline of the church they had pledged to defend.
Is it too late for ACNA to rethink all this? I fear it is. But still, I plead: be brief, be blunt, be straightforward. Tell us what the Nicene Creed is, without offering substitutions on the menu. Keep the requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table minimal but clear, and police them firmly. (Remember that this is the “spiritual food and drink” on which the followers of Jesus are meant to feed, and that we do not function as well when we lack access to it.) Beware of extraneous forms of strictness, especially if they’re only optional. Be willing to sacrifice some of your own preferences in order to bring peace and understanding to your sheep. Such rules and disciplines as are formulated, obey. In non-essentials let there be liberty, in essentials unity, in all things charity … and in a great many more things clarity.
Here endeth the bleat. Those of you who can instruct and correct me, please do so.