Tagsacraments

The Sacraments and the Honey of Love: A Second Bleat

In one of his posts on the possibility of a Benedict Option for Christians, Rod Dreher made a really, really important point:

This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.

I have two points to make about these sentences, one brief and one long and complicated.

The brief one: in response to Rod’s statement that “these are not normal times,” a number of people have said that these are too normal times, or that these are pretty good times for Christians, or that the times are never normal for Christians. Any or all of these may be true, and there could still be the need for a Benedict Option — because whatever it is we’re doing clearly isn’t working very well. Even the Christians who do the best job of making their communities attractive for both longtimers and newcomers aren’t succeeding by any reasonable standard of communal health. So “normal times” or not, it’s time to rethink our standard practices in the hope of genuinely thriving.

And now to the long one. I want to describe a case study in pastoral care, in the Episcopal Church. It involves a gay married couple in Orlando who want to have their child baptized but have met resistance from those who believe that the couple is disobedient to classic Christian teaching about sexuality and therefore cannot really affirm the whole Baptismal Covenant. For instance — so the argument goes, as I have heard from people closer to the situation than I am — those who are openly living in sexual sin cannot honestly answer “Yes” to the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

I think that child in Orlando should have be baptized (and indeed, eventually he was). I’d like now to spell out my reasons, in a way that would also suggest a Eucharistic theology.

My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are then raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

Therefore to deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

So on what grounds might one deny Holy Baptism to that child in Orlando?

I presume the argument is a prudential one based on church discipline: People who openly disobey the Church’s moral teachings cannot be given the sacraments until they repent and promise to alter their ways. To do otherwise is to empty out the authority of those teachings. I don’t think that’s a strong argument for several reasons:

  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
  • Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
  • I cannot see the justice or lovingness of denying a child the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s body because of any shortcomings of his or her parents, especially if those parents have not themselves been well-catechized. Not only is the child being denied initiation, but the congregation is being denied the sacramental task of praying that child into full Christian faith. (Some may say, “Well, they can pray anyway” — which they can: but if that’s the whole response, then what good is Baptism? In my understanding, it is the wedding garment that allows entry to the Great Feast; the person who lacks it is in a dangerous place, and even the prayers of the faithful cannot wholly compensate for that lack.)
  • Moreover, even in cases where church discipline is called for, the denial of the sacraments is the “nuclear option” of discipline — the most severe penalty a church can administer. This seems to be wholly out of proportion to the sins involved.
  • The model of Jesus is here, as everywhere, vital: the man who scandalized the Pharisees because of his willingness to have fellowship, indeed table fellowship, with sinners. We should remember that Jesus did not say to Zaccheus, “Repent and I will come to your house tonight.” Rather, his determination to sit at table with Zaccheus was what prompted Zaccheus’s repentance.

My concern here is that Anglican leaders whose theological instincts are sound and good, who feel the enormous pressure by our society (including many in the Church) to alter ancient Christian teaching to suit contemporary preferences, are allowing their pastoral theology and pastoral practice to be warped by these controversies. We are surrounded by sexual revolutionaries who insist that sexuality is fundamental to identity, is the most important thing imaginable — and in order to resist them we end up agreeing with them, and elevating disputes on sexuality to a level of importance which properly speaking only should belong to credal questions.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that sexuality is something that Christians can “agree to disagree” about — it is too important for that, affects too many lives too profoundly — but rather that our disagreements on these issues should not lead to the “nuclear option” of denying people the sacraments. (I would note that questions surrounding what Christians do with their money are just as important, and in historical terms even more contested, and yet never lead to the denial of sacramental participation.)

To put the matter briefly and bluntly: I fear that in rightly attempting to “hold the line” on sexuality we are in serious danger of allowing something very close to a Donatist spirit to creep into our pastoral theology and practice. And I think this is very dangerous indeed — dangerous to us and to the people whom we would deny sacramental participation. We cannot stress too strongly, it seems to me, that none of us is worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table. And we should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love.”

Anglicanism and Eucharistic Discipline: A Bleat

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.

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