An article floating around about our political culture talked about the fracturing of shared reality which makes political compromise or progress nearly impossible. Our political reality seems to be one of subjective perception and a denial of objective truth which informs and forms our ability to find consensus around critical issues. The article focuses particularly on the use and acceptance of scientific findings and the politicization of science as a primary example of the breakdown of our willingness and ability to allow fact or expertise to stand in the way of our opinions or emotional responses.
The phrase “fracturing of shared reality” struck me as a potent one in considering the role of liturgy, theology, and formation in the Church. Sometimes small things strike me as interesting – for example in a Facebook group recently an Episcopalian commented on the use of the term Blessed Sacrament and tabernacles. The comment was “I thought Anglicans did not believe in that.” Whatever parish this individual calls home has not reinforced the shared doctrinal compromises and commitments that define us as Anglicans. The shared reality of the Anglican (and ultimately Christian) experience is fractured at the individual and local level when core doctrinal truths are underplayed, ignored, or dismissed.
This is playing out in ways across our Church and the Anglican Communion. The breakdown of a shared story – or at least a shared way of engaging the story of God in Christ – has had serious ramifications for our life together. An example in the Episcopal Church might be the acceptance of Communion without Baptism in some parishes out of a sense of radical hospitality or welcome. Divorced from the deep theological and traditional understanding of the link between receiving life in baptism and having that life nourished in Communion we find parishes and priests engaging in a practice that breaks the common bonds that have formed us as both Catholic and Reformed in the name of a subjective perception of what constitutes welcome.
That bond, given voice in the ordination vows of priests to uphold the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the Episcopal Church, is one that forms us and defines us. It is a bond that is a gift of the Spirit which has moved over the ages and given us a shared sacramental reality by which we are given life and through which our very reality is formed and framed. Our spiritual and theological dissonance triggers two questions.
Is it Jesus? Are we alone?
If we believe that Christ is coming into the world freshly and powerfully in each celebration of Communion we are then confronted with a host of other questions which are not pedantry but are crucial to our whole selves meeting Jesus in his rise self. Do we sing? Do we kneel? Do we come with joy or with trembling – or with trembling joy? All of this is to say that the question of whether it is or is not Jesus then triggers in us a deep and ongoing dialogue around how we engage the reality of the claim and the truth of the Presence. Only the agnostic can look away untouched by such a reality.
Are we alone? Do we alone approach the throne of grace by ourselves, in sinful or altruistic isolation? Is it me, myself, and my God? Or are we coming as a community of grace – a community in the throes of the Holy Spirit – to find ourselves ever more deeply in Communion with one another in the reality of our lived experience as a community and in the reality of the Present Christ? The lonely and alone find ample reason to doubt and to undo the past burdened by the fear of isolation and an uncertain future.
A community of faith, however, approaches the Altar with faithful assurance that just as Thomas touched the wounds so we are being invited to touch the bare reality of an ever-given salvation. This is not ours by right or by entitlement but by grace alone and it is found only in the Body of the Church. Gathering along with us, as we say at Communion, are angels and archangels – and we are joined too by the long dead and the recently mourned. We are joined by those of ages past who live in the greater presence of the ageless one.
Communion is the shared reality formed by the Fracturing of the Body on the Cross. The nobility of the Incarnation, the inhumanity of the Cross, and the promise of the Resurrection are laid bare on every Altar and given to be the food of every Christian. To this we respond in the only way we can – with adoration and a great thanksgiving.
As parishes and individuals decide for themselves what they believe or what they feel we find ourselves ever more broken – our shared reality ever more fractured – to the point at which we are no longer able to call ourselves one body. The atomization of the Body is a broken response to a broken world. We too often find that Church does not suit us or that the bonds of canon and collegiality simply do not allow us our full range of creative expression. In those moments our need to be special, to make a statement, contributes to the fracturing of our shared reality. The virtue of authority is not that it keeps us all in line but that it keeps us humble – checking our sense that we know best with the wisdom of a wide body that has prayed and wrestled through the ages.
Some things are simply unchangeable – immovable fixed points of faith. Yet in a cultural context in which every person feels the need to get it their way and right away and when a consumer mentality drives nearly our whole range of daily experience, the simple statement that the Church (the deepest reality of which is the very being of Christ) holds and shares Truth is a dangerous statement of spiritual defiance. Yet that Truth – that we are not alone and that we adore Jesus made Present – creates a particular set of burdens on the faithful.
We are formed by the patterns of reception and obedience that a real engagement with truth demands. When confronted by the reality of God our first thought must be of salvation and transformation – this requires obedience and faithful witness as stewards of Good News not the pride of crafters and creators of that news. We receive this Good News as a faithful family of belief and witness that stands across the ages and inherits not cultural artifacts of empire but the living foundations of Kingdom. We stand alongside and in dialogue with the voices of past faith not as interrogators and prosecutors but as heirs and guardians.
There are many who will claim that what makes Episcopalians and Anglicans special is our tolerance and diversity of belief. Yes and no. What we think makes us special is our tolerance and diversity – what truly makes us special is the shared inheritance of grace and a way of being together that allows diversity of perspective to flourish. That shared inheritance is a framework and foundation that still makes bold claims on the faithful – it is not our creativity that makes us unique but our fidelity to our heritage and witness to the Living God – our shared reality. While there are many traits, markers, and practices that make local communities vibrant and attractive there is an ultimate source from which we draw that is deeper than Church or denominational affiliation.
Ultimately we are the Church’s to be shaped. The Church is not ours to shape.
This is a harsh reality for many of us and yet it is not ours because the Incarnation is not ours. The mystery of the Trinity is not ours. The changing of bread and wine is not ours. The Virgin Birth, the Transfiguration, the Ascension, and the Resurrection are not ours. The metaphysical realities that guide and break and reform us are a shared reality which we marvel at and share. The Church is bigger than us because the shared reality of the Living God is bigger.
What then do we do as practices, doctrine, and more are atomized and reduced to the subjective experience? How do we begin to contemplate our fractured shared reality? I suppose we gather together and stand with Jesus as we are asked, “What is truth?” Standing before Pilate was the very answer. Standing before us, on every Altar, is the same answer – the same truth which will defy the ages and forge our common identity if we will let it.
Do we believe it?