Watching developments from South Carolina today has led me to lament the unfortunate way some words are tossed around in the Episcopal Church. The word I am most concerned with right now is Communion.
The bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence, is accused of abandoning the Communion of this Church. This seems a strained understanding of both his actions and the nature of Communion. I suppose my first thought is to how we use the term Communion most commonly in Church – the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the Mass.
If anything, Communion binds together that which is broken and reveals new and abundant life. It is, by its nature, that which reveals to us the fullness of Christ’s gift of himself for the feeding of his people. The self-offering models for us the way in which we give of our selves, our souls, and bodies to be a living sacrifice. This necessarily requires the laying aside of self in the service of God.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to offer, especially in times of strain and stress, is the self. It is tempting to assert our own rightness and importance when we feel most under threat. Pair this with an increasingly zero-sum mindset that has crept into the partisan language of so-called conservatives and so-called progressives and you will find a recipe for a near blasphemous inversion of Communion.
The truly conservative approach would be to find that which is good and holy in our life together and hold fast to that despite the trials of the day knowing that the passions of the day are not heated enough to overtake our shared life in Christ. The truly progressive approach would be to embrace the multitude of opinions and allow the work of the Spirit to continue among those with whom we disagree.
Yet we find ourselves at an impasse of sad proportions. I suppose what is most depressing is the utter pettiness of the entire matter. A growing diocese (the only one in the Episcopal Church) that is a founding diocese of this Church is no longer going to be part of the Episcopal Church – part of this Communion. In the name of being right both the Diocese of South Carolina and the Presiding Bishop’s office have squared off in a manner that is frighteningly banal.
I say banal because it is the same small-minded, ungracious, and undignified malaise that has taken hold of our politics, economics, and culture more broadly. It is the fruit of 50 years of zero-sum thinking that has crippled our ability to be in true Communion. We talk of the Church being counter-cultural, speaking truth to power, blah, blah, blah.
Never has the Church so looked like the dominant culture around us than in this new fight. Like those souls who found themselves on the losing side on election day, we have the ecclesiastical equivalent of people filing secession papers. Like the utter simple-mindedness of the election campaign, everything is now dismissed as either unabashedly revisionist and unholy or shamelessly retrograde and homophobic. I have heard fellow priests mocking the departing dioceses, priests, and bishops and saying, “good riddance.”
The dialogue is poisoned because our hearts have been. Faith, Hope, and Charity have all taken a back seat to being right.
Never have we been such a sad and wan facsimile of the broader culture.
True Communion offers a shattering of this status quo and a sharp challenge to the norms and values of this culture. In the act of consuming the Body and Blood, we share in the body of Christ with our neighbors and with the worldwide communion across the breadth of space and through the depths of the ages. It is the conscientious rebinding of ourselves to the whole of Christian history, to one another, and to Christ. At the Eucharistic feast, we come together to eat and the Lord confronts each individual believer.
We participate in a communal feast as individuals just as in the last days; we will come as individuals before God in the raising up of the community of believers. We will be called to account for how we have built up or torn down fellow members of the Body.
No one individual has abandoned Communion. We are all abandoning Communion.
Greta Getlein+ said:
Amen, my brother.
Fr. Robert, This is well said and there is a lot of truth here. But, the question remains: what should have been done about the Bishop of South Carolina and the “leadership” he was providing his flock in favor of braking its sworn allegiance to ECUSA? How was the Bishop not seriously breaking his vows from his Consecration? Years of warnings and pleas to stop the course they were on had already come from the national church….how were these pleas insufficient? The diocese of South Carolina may be the only growing one in the Church right now, but the preaching and writing of many in the pulpits of that diocese are painfully homophobic on their face…..is it a diocese echoing the surrounding popular culture in the conservative South of a life-threatening homophobia (read: LGBT teenage suicide rates) that is,in fact, growing….and is that “of God”?
Chris H. said:
Barry, please go back and reread the part about being right over being Christians in communion. Both sides are wrong about some things. My sisters,parents, and I all have sins to overcome. They aren’t the same sins all the time, we each have our own weaknesses and strengths, but we have to work together to remain family. And I can’t say that my sin is less than theirs. I can’t say, “At least I’m not like_____(or those bigots, homophobes, heretics), those ____”. But that is what people are doing here.
Thank you Fr. for the reminder.
(I admit, I’ve never quite understood the fuss about church buildings that aren’t mine. Let the locals hash it out, but then, ELCA is the dominant denomination here. Many Lutheran parishes own their buildings and have changed synods, in both directions. The churches that had the most bitter fights were the ones owned by the diocese that didn’t have the choice. That’s when the winner-take-all attitude and vitriol became the worst. Now that most parishes have made their choice, the fighting in ELCA is quieter than in TEC and churches are rebuilding. Seeing another way, I can’t help but think Schori’s scorched earth policy regarding negotiating with those leaving has made things worse than they might have been.)
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“True communion…is the conscientious rebinding of ourselves to the whole of Christian history, to one another, and to Christ”! Would that all Christians could embrace this reality.
John Scott said:
Forgive my intrusion as a non-Episcopalian, but the beauty and peace I experienced as a choir member at my college in England served as my wake-up call to enter a world of Christianity very different from my Southern Baptist upbringing. I feel a particular fondness and gratitude for the Anglican communion in opening my heart and mind to liturgy and the Apostolic Faith.
Father, you write, “I have heard fellow priests mocking the departing dioceses, priests, and bishops and saying, “good riddance.”
This says it all, really. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Where there is no love, there is nothing. Indeed, there is death. And where the clergy do not model love – and with it humility and forgiveness – it is clear that the dysfunction runs deep. Mockery, and the hubris and disdain that engenders it, is quite clearly the work of the evil one.
Perhaps if interpretations of the Holy Scriptures have been twisted out of all recognition in the service of clever partisans of one side or another in this dispute, one might re-examine some of the simple, authentic stories preserved for us from the lives of the early “desert fathers”. At their best, they can still shock and inspire us with their examples of deep humility and love.
In the Eastern Christian tradition, we begin Lent with the service of Forgiveness Vespers, where all attendees including the clergy ask for and receive one another’s forgiveness, accompanied by kisses and often prostrations. Many would call this an “empty ritual”, yet if so empty, why are so many faces bathed in tears? And why are so many hearts made humble? There is great wisdom in some of the physical rituals of the ancient Church.
With the challenges all Christendom faces, the time is long past due for us to throw out our pride and contentiousness, both within and between all families of believers, to empty ourselves of anger and fear and pride, and to tap into the radical bloodstream of Christ’s unimaginable love for all His children.
I pray that the ECUSA will shake up the Christian world – that your Presiding Bishop will drop all lawsuits, threats and legal action, and that she and Bishop Lawrence will ask and grant mutual forgiveness, give mutual kisses of peace, and prostrate themselves before the other in recognition of Christ’s love for each. Then get back to work in a spirit of love and reconciliation rather than litigation.
Silly, perhaps… but powerful in its simple symbolism. And what an example for the entire world.