In Communion?

Our current Prayer Book is the first to define the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass…) as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s day.” That was a huge shift for us and it’s hard to remember that only forty years ago, many Episcopal Church’s would have offered the Eucharist only once a month at the main service. Morning Prayer (a service of Scripture, song, and prayer) three Sundays a month; Holy Communion once.

There are still some of our churches which follow that pattern, but they are in the distinct minority today. Ecumenically, there is a real re-discovery of the centrality of the Eucharist and more Protestant churches (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian) find themselves increasing the frequency of their celebrations of the Eucharist. This has been one of the real fruits of the ecumenical movement.

Of course, this development also presents challenges. What about small Episcopal churches (and there are many!), churches which cannot afford a fulltime (or maybe even a part-time) priest? How about those Episcopalians who have become accustomed to, and deeply value, at least weekly celebrations of the Eucharist when their church does not have access to priestly ministry?

Well, that has often driven new experiements in “ministry development!” Ministry teams, made up of lay persons, presbyters, and deacons who may be trained locally, ordained and commissioned by their congregation and diocese, and who function in non-stipendiary ways in service to the church. The Diocese of Nevada (from which our Presiding Bishop recently hails) and the Diocese of Northern Michigan (which our late friend, Jim Kelsey, served as bishop) have pioneered some of these efforts.

Being “in communion” is defined and celebrated these days by being able and willing to receive Holy Communion together. Officially, we can receive this sacrament together with all those who are baptized with water, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; who repent of their sins; and who discern the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some churches (like the Roman Catholic) hold to a liturgical discipline which refrains from offering or receiving Communion from other Christians until all issues of faith and order have been resolved and a relationship of full communion has been officially reached.

All this is why it is so distressing when some members of our own Anglican family refuse to receive Holy Communion with, say, our former or current Presiding Bishop because they disagree with our positions on some theological or ethical issue. They are, in a sense, “excommunicating” themselves since one refrains from receiving the sacrament, historically, when one perceives sin — not within someone else — but within oneself and wishes to avoid “eating and drinking judgment upon themselves” (I Corinthians 11)

And when bishops refuse to receive Communion together, it is hard to see how we are — truly — an Anglican Communion today. We may be a “wannabe” Communion, but sadly, we are currently more like a federation of churches.

That’s why, with all its present imperfections, we may need something like an Anglican Covenant to give shape to this global fellowship of churches, at least for those of us who desire to be “in communion!”

6 Responses to “In Communion?”

  1. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    i’m afraid that i can’t see at all the connection between the first seven paragraphs and the last one. how will a covenant “give shape” in a way which avoids the problems outlined at first? those of us who do desire to be in communion seem to be capable of getting by without one.

    most of the proposed covenants out there are actually mechanisms for breaking off communion (you know, rules about what things will sever communion). how is this supposed to help? i fear that the way it helps is this: X promises Y that Z will be cut off from X, and in exchange, X and Y have communion with each other. this is what Akinola wants: the episcopal church shuns gay people, and in exchange, Akinola will have communion with the PB.

    i don’t think whether bishops have communion with each other is important enough to start doing things like that, however.

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Re your last paragraph: bishops having communion with one another is pretty much the way the church catholic has defined itself for about 2,000 years.

  3. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    hehe, yes indeed, i think that’s not quite what i meant, but i was really sloppy.

    i think my point is that nobody is placing the importance on bishops having communion with each other and breaking it. in the Roman Catholic Church, refusal of communion with the Pope is not just tantamount to self-excommunication, it is self-excommunication, and comes with such accoutrements as deprival of office and such.

    the episcopal church, in actual practice, does not really much mind. when bishops absent themselves from the common celebration as a deliberate refusal, they have not been deprived of office for that very act. i think this is a shame, but it’s our actual practice.

    given that practice, a practice in which no ecclesial consequences follow from the refusal of communion, i am extremely reluctant to see there as being much value in who receives communion with who, over against things that do count. that is, i don’t want to see us give up our commitment to truth, justice, or equity, in order to get Akinola or Iker to play nice and receive communion with the rest of us.

  4. ecubishop Says:

    As of yesterday’s Executive Council resolutions, it looks like we not gonna “give up our commitment to truth, justice, or equity, in order to get Akinola or Iker to play nice and receive communion with the rest of us.” Nor should we. That does not diminish the tragedy of impaired communion.

  5. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    the impaired communion is of an odd sort, though, isn’t it? i think you miss my point. the impairment does not prevent, for example, a communicant in the diocese of New Hampshire from sharing the Eucharist with a communicant in the diocese of Jerusalem. in the old view, in which the relations of bishops meant a whole lot more, it ceartinly would. bishops refusing communion meant severing the ties between their churches as a whole.

    this is not what happens today, whether for good or ill, which means that whether bishop X receives communion with bishop Y is no longer determinative of communion. perhaps it should be (this might cause bishops to be a lot less cavalier than they seem to be about the matter).

  6. ecubishop Says:

    Well, I suppose it depends upon whether we are talking about ‘local churches’ (by this I mean “dioceses”) are in communion with each other — which indeed is one way the church catholic has been defined.

    It is not all about what indiviudals do. For example, some Episcopalians regularly violate the Roman Catholic Church’s discipline by receiving communion in their churches (as do some Roman Catholics in ours). That does not mean that our two churches are “in communion.”

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