Over the past thirty-five years, there has been an enormous revolution in the worship patterns in Episcopal Church parishes. The Eucharist has become the central act of worship on Sundays. Cranmer’s dream, that every parish should become, at least in worship, a Religious Community, a developed monasticism, in which the Daily Offices and the Eucharist should be offered daily, seems to be well on its way to fulfillment. (Cranmer would not be well pleased by the restoration of many of the outward signs associated with ceremonial and priestly vesture.) However, one of the less salutary aspects of the martyred archbishop’s theology may still stymie what at first looks like a Catholic revival.
There seems to be an almost universal appreciation of the Real Presence, a Presence poorly defined and less obviously accompanied by reverence for the consecrated elements. Rather than this becoming an appreciation for Catholic doctrine, or even Lutheran teaching, what seems to have emerged is a religious adjunct to individualistic devotion. One goes to church to receive something that permits one to get through the week, or heals one in some manner or another. If realized at all, the individual Christian, perched in a habitual pew or lining up in a shopping queue to stand or kneel in splendid isolation, does so to receive something to be evaluated as to its therapeutic effectiveness later in the week. Jesus has become a Pill. Rather than centering a Christian in a counter-cultural sense of the “otherness” of the Eucharistic offering, the revived Sacrament often seems to reinforce the concept that I am at the center of all things, I am who I decide to be, and God sits around waiting to shower me with approval and grace, whatever grace is.
Even the Lutheran ideal that the Real Presence re-enacts the sinner’s justification by faith, by which Jesus clothes one with his righteousness and makes him or her right with God is absent. We are, we think, basically OK. What we need is affirmation and a helping hand, if by chance we can’t manage by our own good sense.
The antidote to such individualized therapy-theology is associating the Real Presence within the wider theology of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and that in the context of the Communion of Saints. By itself, the ideal that somehow Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the Cross, eternally pleaded, saves individually leads to a similarly individualized notion, never taught, but widely believed, in the Middle Ages, that at every Mass, the priest offers Jesus for the individual, as the primary aid to that individual’s eternal hope.
There seems to be no end to the way Christians define the means of grace as things tailor-made to give them something extra, something that self-definition and self-reliance, aided by self-help books and perhaps the love of family and friends, can’t quite provide. The effectiveness of such Me-Devotion may be easily tested. Ask an Episcopalian to act on the Presiding Bishop-elect’s injunction to “Go,” to leave church and witness to friends and acquaintances the love of Jesus, and two things happen. The first is to join a Cause, and pour available enthusiasm in often web-based or committee-based activism. The second option is to decide that such activity is a clergy activity aided by a few activists. There are other symptoms of a me-based religion. All break down to a consideration as to whether prayer, worship, and church-belonging is for me.
If we are to walk with God in the cool of the day without being expelled from the Garden because we seek to be “as gods” (Gen. 3:5), we must embrace the status given us by the mark on our foreheads (Eph. 1:13; 2 Cor. 1:22), and join with the Apostles and Evangelists, saints and martyrs, the known and unknown elect, who gather around the heavenly Table with Jesus our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16), and share together in the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). At every Eucharist, the people of God, gathered to form the local church, participate with the whole Church in heaven and on earth in worship: the self-communal offering whereby we show God what he means to the Church.
The measure of this communal offering and participation judges the validity of personal faith and ecclesial authenticity. It provides the only true antidote to personal, parochial, diocesan, and provincial self-absorption. Losing our lives to save them, we receive the benefits of Christ’s death and passion in the context of the redeemed community, all of whom have been washed in the Blood of the Lamb, clothed with the white robe of baptism, and made a nation of kings and priests unto God. In the fellowship of the saints, Christians form the perennial counter-culture, empowered to herald the coming reign of Christ, strengthened for service by the Real Presence of Christ in his Church.
The featured image is “Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?” (2006) by Flickr user ThomasThomas. It is licensed under Creative Commons.