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Communion and Clarifying Dialogue 

By Clint Wilson

I am thankful for Anna Howard’s response to my earlier essay, “Communion and Consent,” as I deeply believe the rough bits of our thoughts are hewn off through the tumbler of dialogue. I appreciate her employment of the Scriptural vision of Shalom, that great work of God to reknit the entire cosmos. Her essay orbits around two concerns I want to address: the “Theology & Praxis” of my argument, and my “misappropriation of the trauma of others”.

Regarding the first concern, she writes, We want to be careful not to diminish or deny these experiences [of unbaptized communicants], or make the people who have had them feel guilt or shame. By selecting such a serious metaphor, sexual consent, the author risks doing just that.”

This is indeed a razor’s edge to walk, and I may have fallen off one side (certainly some think so, and others do not). What I was not sufficiently clear about is that I would not hold any visiting communicant responsible for, or even complicit in, the improper reception of the body of Christ. She is right to insist that baptized communicants should especially prepare their hearts; I agree wholeheartedly. And there are exceptions to “the rule” where the unbaptized share mysteriously to great avail in the glorious and saving passion of Jesus, such as the thief on the cross.

Instead, I believe the clergy are primarily to blame for improper reception by the unbaptized, especially those who intentionally push CWOB (communion without baptism), especially in their invitations to communion.

To be clear, I’m not saying those unbaptized who commune are somehow assaulting our Lord. I’m actually saying something far worse — we all nailed his arms to the cross, and we can only begin to understand the depth of his healing love, precisely in and for our wounds, if we embrace him with the same open arms.

The road to his arms is the way of the cross, beginning with the renunciations made in baptism (where we turn in consent to him). This is not a message of guilt, but of freedom. Yet the precise problem with CWOB is that it downplays the penitential call placed on every disciple. At the end of the day, I am not so much worried about Jesus, he can deal with our mishandling of his body (he has already in the cross). I am worried about the state of our souls, and whether we are inviting people to commune with the Lord of the Gospel, which involves, yes, a resurrection, but one on the far side of the cross.

Regarding the second point, about misappropriating others’ suffering, as respectfully as possible, I want to push back in some regards.

First, we must remember that women are not the only people affected by trauma; it sends out unseen shockwaves within the families and relational networks of those impacted. It is also important to note the #Metoo movement is not internally consistent and it is not a monolith. It includes people from many tribes, tongues and nations … and genders, who have been abused. This has been affirmed by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, who also said the movement is not a “spectator sport,” as she called for all to be engaged.

I am not at all suggesting I am a #MeToo expert, but simply that nobody owns this conversation, except perhaps the survivors (and, to some extent, their families). How we steward the conversation is of utmost importance. But to suggest that I don’t have a seat at the Table seems to me a bridge too far.

In reality, people very close to me have encountered unspeakable acts of abuse (about which I cannot say more). Am I to remain silent just because I am a white male? Am I to remain silent when I see the way our culture treats bodies as widgets of pleasure for their own use? Is my only call to listen? One has to presuppose a lot about me to reach that conclusion.

Am I likewise to remain silent when Episcopal Church leaders and clergy disregard scriptural injunctions, and church tradition, and misuse the body of Christ? On all these fronts, the Incarnation demands otherwise. Put simply: I am speaking out on this precisely because people close to me have been treated as objects instead of subjects, and now I see this happening with my Lord.

Have I engaged this topic in a way that leads to the flourishing that you very beautifully call forth from male leaders? One day God will make this clear. But isn’t the point of dialogue to enter into the fray and to refine each other through enhanced mutual understanding? Thus, when some understand me to be saying, “If you’re unbaptized and you receive, you’re assaulting Christ,” then I need to say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear enough; lets talk.”

I am not trying to play the victim here, but rather to suggest this very conversation is illustrative of a deeper root problem. We are consistently thinning out relational commitments to one another across our culture at nearly every level and this accompanies a trend to do the same thing for communicants at the table of Christ. The connection here seems obvious to me.

And I believe there is a connection between our tendency to immediately interpret people in the worst light (especially on social media, and precisely because we have thin social relations), at exactly the same time when we are calling for thinner expectations of communicants. I am not suggesting this is true of Anna Howard’s response, but it is certainly so for some of my interlocutors.

We need to thicken our expectations, to learn how to talk to each other, and walk with one another as the baptized. This will enable us to more meaningfully call the unbaptized to say yes to Jesus (to give consent to his love that stands as an open invitation ). But this will not come by thinning out what we’re asking of communicants; we are instead only thinning  down the hard wood of the cross and sanding down its  grittiness that cuts even across the grain of our ideologies.

Fr. Clint Wilson is associate rector for Christian faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, and serves as the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.


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