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.