Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts over the next week that relate to visiting and choosing different parishes and churches. 

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

When I was received into the Episcopal Church, Bishop Steven Miller remarked that I was entering a “weird, wild world,” and he’s been proven right time and again. The Diocese of Milwaukee may no longer be a hub of the Biretta Belt, but it is still haunted by the Ghost of Anglo-Catholicism Past. I have since moved to the West Coast, where my ecclesiological convictions and ideals have been sorely tested.

It’s easy enough to worship at your local parish when you love the people, priest, and liturgy of the place. It is easy enough to hold that Communion does not require agreement when your left-of-center parish is still oriented toward the center. That was the case for us in Milwaukee. In California, my family has taken on a nomadic existence, sojourning from parish to parish each week in search of a home. Rather than catalogue church experiences in general (some have been good, others decidedly not so), I want to reflect upon three recent experiences with eucharistic hospitality and their import for the life of the church in general and the Episcopal Church in particular.

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Because I teach at a Roman Catholic university, I may attend daily Mass, an opportunity of which I should probably avail myself more frequently. I did attend, though, the Mass of the Holy Spirit that opens the academic year. My experience of this liturgy was much like every Catholic Mass I attend. I felt a strong sense of being on the outside looking in. This is someone else’s home. It could be my home, perhaps it even should be my home, but it is not. This feeling is accentuated by my inability to receive Communion in Roman Catholic churches. While it breaks my heart not to receive Christ’s body and blood with my sisters and brothers, I am grateful for the pain, because it serves as a reminder that not all is well in the divided Church, and, hence, it is a goad to ecumenism. There is something salutary in remembering that we are not in full communion with each other, and refusing to pretend otherwise.

In fact, while some might consider the Roman Catholic Church’s restriction of eucharistic Communion hopelessly retrograde (I once saw it thus), I have come to appreciate it. Given the church’s understanding of itself as that communion in which the Church of Christ subsists (Lumen Gentium 8), this policy is good and proper. It is appropriate to restrict Communion to those who are in communion with the See of Peter in a way that it would not be appropriate for Anglicans to bar other Christians from their altars, and is not appropriate for other Protestants to do.

The Episcopal Church, like the rest of the Anglican world since the mid-20th century, invites all validly baptized Christians to share in the Eucharist. I am most glad that we do so. It is the Lord’s table, not our own, and just as there is one body of Christ, so we share in the one bread. Our self-understanding differs from the Roman Catholic Church’s self-understanding, and it would not be appropriate for us to withhold Communion from other Christians.

There is a movement afoot in the Episcopal Church to remove our restriction that only the baptized receive Communion. In my new location, it seems to be diocesan policy not only to allow the unbaptized to commune, but to invite them explicitly to do so. Every parish my family has visited in the diocese has made it very clear that absolutely everyone is invited to the altar for Communion. I have found this grating, theologically. It disregards the proper sequence of initiation. It undercuts the long-standing historical practice of Christian churches. It renders incoherent any sort of claim to have a baptismal ecclesiology. Most important, it downgrades the central role of commitment to Jesus Christ and a life of discipleship to something optional. I’d heard of such things from afar, and now my eyes have seen them.

Recently, our family ventured a bit further north, into the Diocese of California, to a parish where the logic of Communion without baptism is being carried to its logical conclusion, which is also a reductio ad absurdum. The parish we visited did much well: the hymnody and chant were excellent; the liturgy, while using expansive language, remained fairly grounded in traditional forms. Then we reached the fraction anthem.

After a verse about Christ giving himself to his beloved in the bread, we turned a corner in which claims about breaking this bread with Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims were articulated. While I am confident that the intention behind these words was to be open and inclusive, to express solidarity among people of faith, its effect was to undo any sort of claims about Christ’s uniqueness or the necessity for salvation, as well as to colonize these other religious traditions, rather than respecting them in their diversity.[1]

The canons of the Episcopal Church are clear: no unbaptized person is eligible to receive Holy Communion at our altars (I.17.7). This creates a rather interesting contrast in the current church.

Having updated our canons (but not our doctrine, as set forth in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) to make marriage gender-neutral, there is a movement afoot to bring Communion Partner bishops into line, so that the trial rites for marriage are celebrated in all jurisdictions. At General Convention, Resolution 2018-B012 provided a means for doing this while also respecting the consciences, teaching office, and liturgical presidency of bishops within their dioceses. William Love, the Bishop of Albany, has caused a furor with his refusal to comply with the provisions of B012, prompting suggestions that Title IV charges be brought against him.[2] Leaving to the side the question of the precise canonical force of a resolution passed by General Convention, and, hence, the applicability of disciplinary charges, we must acknowledge that this outcry is in some tension with other realities in our church. The history leading up to the marriage canon change, and the current reality of disregarding the canon requiring baptism for the reception of communion, indicate that Episcopalians have been and are quite selective regarding their zeal for obedience to the canons or to “the doctrine, discipline, and worship” of this church.

The Episcopal Church is indeed a weird, wild world. At our best our plurality and diversity remains centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is present to us and carries out this work in the sacrament of his body and blood. These recent experiences have led me to fear that this center may not hold much longer. Yet when I am tempted to despair, I remember that Christ the center is not ours to hold. Rather, he holds us, with the same love that holds together the very life of God, the same love that held him to the cross. Lord, have mercy.

Note

[1] I have corresponded with the rector about this, and we are looking for an opportunity to discuss the matter face-to-face.

[2] It is worth noting that even before Bishop Love’s pastoral letter, as the other Communion Partner Bishops issued their pastoral instruction about the implementation of B012, many still cried foul, insisting that more must be done to accommodate same sex couples, despite the fact that these announced plans did indeed meet the provisions of the resolution.

About The Author

Dr. Eugene Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017).

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