This last week I have been ensconced in comparative Anglican Eucharistic prayers, those prayers said in relation to the sharing of bread and wine that is common to all Christians. Colin Buchanan argues that Thomas Cranmer, the ‘teflon bishop’ (well, until the teflon wore off as it did for so many…) who is responsible for the first Books of Common Prayer used successive revisions (from 1549 to 1552) to implement an intentionally ‘stepped’ plan of change.1 Cranmer was shifting away from a more Catholic/Lutheran understanding2 of a ‘moment’ of consecration (which implies at the very least an understanding of ‘real presence,’) in which the bread and wine are themselves vehicles of Christ’s body and blood. He was shifting towards the belief that it is only in proper reception that one encounters the presence of Christ, or in other words, only the one who receives the bread and wine worthily receives the body and blood of Christ.
Preceding the eucharistic prayers are exhortations (selected at the discretion of the priest) emphasizing two key reforming strategies: First, receive regularly, even frequently! This exhortation is in part directed against a host of practices that had the effect of discouraging non-clergy from receiving communion. Reformers everywhere rejected the notion that the eucharist (and the priest who consecrated it) was so holy, or the people so unholy, that its reception should be reserved for only once or twice a year, only when adequately prepared through confession. Second, be worthy! Since reformers theology of reception requires that recipients are worthy, proper preparation through examination of conscience, occasionally mediated through ministerial counsel, and true repentance is essential.
What all Christians — Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed, and Orthodox — appear to share is this: worthiness precedes reception of Christ. This is true regardless of whether Christ is made present in bread and wine through an act of consecration and received only by the properly penitent, or Christ is made present in the person through properly repentant reception. Regardless of where Christ is, how one ‘receives’ Christ, Christ’s presence is conditional on worthiness.
I admit to finding this viscerally horrific.
Let me give you some context for my reaction: I grew up in a tradition where, as my friend the liturgical theologian Nicholas Denysenko recently reflected, many “believe that authority, fear, force, and the possibility of excommunication is enough to keep people in line.”3 While implicitly questioning this, he went on to say that many others “understand that we cannot have anarchy — there has to be some kind of order in the Church. Many of us converge at ‘love.’ But we need to reflect with great depth on what we mean when we say ‘love.'” For both groups, the receiving of communion is meant to keep the church decent and in order, but hopefully, with love.
My experience of this perpetual striving to keep the church in order is not in the least bit loving. Growing up, I was aware of many individuals denied communion in order to provide a time for repentance, often for divorce in which “abstaining” (a linguistic trick which makes the denial of communion somehow the willing act the person being denied), is (very selectively) required for three years. I saw people denied the Eucharist for the appearance of sin, with no confirmation through confession that sin had actually occurred. Denial was often framed as a way to “restore” and “heal,” though what I saw seemed more about shame, order, and conformity.
Then, I was denied the Eucharist, not because of a confession that I made, but because enough emails had been sent about the fact that I was a woman in a relationship with another woman that the priest could no longer ignore my presence.4 In this meeting, I was told the following: as a priest he understood that he could not ask me not to attend liturgy, but he would prefer I didn’t. Perhaps I could attend another church where I would be less of a disruption. Finally, if I wanted to receive again, I should place myself under the authority of a local monastic known for her ability to help those who wanted to be healed of sexual struggles.
I spent the next year sporadically attending church (because no priest ever has a right to tell someone they cannot attend liturgy), no longer singing in the choir, and standing in what felt like utter shame. Every time I heard “the holy things for the holy” I knew that not only did the priest not think I was holy enough to receive, but neither did those fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who had taken the time to complain — repeatedly according to this priest — about my continued presence and participation in church and Eucharist. Over a year later, I had finally gone to another local parish in the area (for unrelated reasons), and was told a slightly worse version of the same thing: not only could I not receive there, I was not welcome to attend any Orthodox liturgy anywhere in my local city. There are far more details to this story, and perhaps someday I, or my wife and I, will tell it. But that moment, being publicly exorciated in a parking lot on Palm Sunday, was the end of my life as an Orthodox Christian.
One of the most painful moments in this process was when my own confessor, who himself would not have denied me communion, said that “every priest deserves a peaceful parish.” Given the history of turmoil which surrounds, shapes, and is generated by God’s people, this is a ridiculous pipe-dream that may actually undermine the work of the Spirit. But it perfectly expresses what was happening: the Eucharist was being used as a tool to maintain order, enforce conformity, and only tangentially as a supposed means of my healing.
Catholics, Protestant reformers, and Orthodox have in common a longstanding tradition of Christian practice: communion is for the worthy, while non-reception, periods of denial, or full-on excommunication (the latter are technically and canonically different) underscore that worthiness is a prerequisite to participating in Christ.
Yet what if we as Christians have it wrong? What if, for most of our tradition, we have it backwards? What if it is not denial of the Eucharist that is generates repentance and worthiness, but the Eucharist itself? Certainly, the more compassionate deniers of the Eucharist emphasize the healing and restorative intentions behind denial. In this they echo one of the most ancient metaphors for the Eucharist: that it is the “medicine of immortality.” Ignatius of Antioch declares that the Eucharist is it itself the means of our healing.
If it is in the Eucharist — whether because through consecration Christ is present in the bread and wine, or because through reception Christ is present in us — that we are healed, then isn’t worthiness exactly NOT the point? While a part of me wants to say that the question of ‘where’ and ‘how’ Christ is present is beside the point, it actually is the point. Do we think that Christ is present in the unworthy? In those who sin? Those who fall short of the loving, compassionate, gracious, and kind image in which they were made and the likeness to which they are called?
After all, who is worthy?
More importantly how and where do we think healing happens? Does it happen in a community that mutually loves, supports, and challenges one another, or by exclusion from that community?
I know what it is like to stand in a church, viewed as an unrepentant sinner. And it is the overwhelming sense of shame, the acute awareness of being put on the outside, the loss of friends, relationships, and eventually the church that I love(d?) that makes me unable to defend the denial of the Eucharist to the supposedly ‘unworthy’ (here is just how serious I am about rejecting this practice). I experienced no healing at the hands of my community while I stood exiled-in-place for over sixteen months. While my situation was complicated by my refusal to agree that my relationship was sinful (and thus I was unrepentant of the very thing of which I was supposed to repent in order to be restored to communion), it is the visceral remembering of being abandoned by my community that renders me unable to do to others what was done to me.
Why? Because healing happens only in relationships. And when we refuse to relate to others, we refuse to be a part of their healing. We make our communities something other than a hospital for the sick. Using coercive means to “keep people in line” may be effective in the short term, just as laws can be effective in the short term. But such practices may not achieve the real goal of participation in God, which is to become people who love loving, not simply people who rightly exercise their duty to love. And we only love loving when we are surrounded by those who love loving us.
The efficacy of the Eucharist is impossible without the relationships of those gathered around the table itself, a relationship that starts with the presence of a God who is always, persistently, undeniably, stubbornly and eternally for us. God’s presence with God’s people has never been contingent on worthiness. (Thank God!) It does not matter if Christ our God is present because of a prayer of consecration or in the person receiving. Our metaphysics are not the point. God’s presence is not contingent on our understanding. (Also, thank God!) God is always present, first. This is the story of God’s people, of what makes a people God’s own: a God who is present and faithful to us regardless of our response. It is this God who calls us to gather, eat, drink, and then go forth in kindness and compassion to the world. If God is always and ever for us in bread and wine, how can we do anything for others but share bread and wine with them?
A note on the image chosen. I randomly found it on the interwebs and promptly stole it. I did not ask. But seriously, the children’s lesson for which the setting depicted in this image was a prop, is excellent:
That sign says KEEP OUT. But if we add God’s love and put a few more letters on the sign, it now reads KEEP SHOUTING GOD LOVES YOU! I think that makes Jesus’s message loud and clear.
Thank you Frances Woodruff.
- Colin Buchanan, What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?. ↩
- Concerns with transubstantiation were expressed by Catholics in the 16th century, who no more liked the elevation of a single theological method to explain the Eucharist than did the Lutheran reformers. It was simply not as live an issue for them. ↩
- Since Dr. Denysenko’s facebook posts are not public to all, here is his reflection, quoted in full and with his permission: “This morning I’m reflecting on the question of building trust, particularly within the Church. There are still many among us (in the Church) who believe that authority, fear, force, and the possibility of excommunication is enough to keep people in line. There are also many among us who understand that we cannot have anarchy – there has to be some kind of order in the Church. Many of us converge at “love.” But we need to reflect with great depth on what we mean when we say “love.” What is sustained love, patient love (yes, of course I have St. Paul in mind here)? How does one respond to indifference, opposition, and hostility with love? And how can we capture and implement that kind of love communicated to us by a God who descends into Hades to save humanity and grant us new life? It is profound to refer to the descent into Hades as the pattern of love we are to adopt; it is entirely something different to teach and learn how to make that kind of love a habit of daily life. This is the challenge for the Church in the 21st century, and it must be an ecumenical enterprise.” ↩
- “Relationship” was a euphemism for “having sex,” the supposed real problem with such relationships. However, Orthodox have experienced ostracism and shaming even when they declare themselves celibate but gay. ↩