Saturday, 17 October 2009

Sacrament and Inclusion and Eucharist, oh my!

I have been trying to think of a name for Nearest Church, now that I've decided they're as good a group of people as any with whom to throw in my lot.

I've been thinking a lot in recent months and weeks about the Eucharist.

My understanding of sacrament is that God's blessing is everywhere, and what humans call sacrament is just something that we do to become more aware of it. There isn't anything amazing about bread and wine...or rather, there is, but it isn't more amazing than a beetle or water or every single unthinking breath taken by every human on this planet. The entire world is sacramental.

But I recognise that though I believe God is in everything, I don't always manage to see God in all things. To this end, I practise. I pray because I want to praise God, thank God for the plenty of the world, and indeed to ask that God's blessing be upon those I care for. But I also pray because structured prayer makes my unstructured prayers come more easily. Regular engagement with God through, for example, sung psalmody makes my other work more prayerful. We get better at things if we repeat them. We get better at things if we practise.

And so it is with sacrament. Again, this is just my understanding, just my view through a scratched and cracked lens: the world is holy, but we don't see it as such. We are all entirely dependent on God, but we somehow forget that.

That's nothing new and people forgot it 2000 years ago, too. I struggle mightily with ideas around Incarnation, I am not always certain of Jesus' divinity. In fact, most of the time I'm not convinced.

Despite all my doubts, the message of the Last Supper seems pretty loud and clear to me. In context, bread and wine were the usual fare, but still of religious significance. Baruch atah HaShem, Elohenu Melech ha-Olam, b'rei p'ri hagafen: Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Baruch atah HaShem, Elohenu Melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz: Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

That's about God creating everything that is: ha-Olam is usually translated as the Universe, but it's more literally something like "the all" or "the whole" or "the everything". That's about manna from heaven even as we wander in the wilderness.

At the Last Supper, Christ said "do this in remembrance of me". If I suspend my disbelief and accept, for the sake of argument, that Christ really is God... then why would He say that? Maybe if people had forgotten, despite the words being right there in their mouths, that God made everything and provides all that we have.

That wasn't the really shocking part. The shocking part was the bit about the blood. Drinking blood is a Big Major No-No in Judaism... Leviticus is quite explicit. My understanding is that it was associated with idolatry, and idolatry is Right Out. Drinking and eating humans was perhaps the most shocking thing you could ask a group of faithful Jews to do. "Take, eat: this is my body, broken for you."... bread brought forth from the earth. "This is my blood, shed for you."... the fruit of the vine, created by God.

Can you see where I am going with this? That Last Supper was a very powerful way of saying, "Hey, listen up! God created and God provides!" And the surrounding events, the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection, show that God loves so much that God provides Godself. If you're a semi-pantheist like me, you might see that already, in apples falling from a tree or in dazzling sunlight or in Bach. And you might cling to that in times of despair, you might try to cultivate that hope in yourself and use it to comfort others.

Far be it from me to second-guess what God is trying to do. I don't have that authority. But I also have to make decisions every moment about what to do next, and I do have to guess what is right, I do have to try to gather information and weigh up the options and then do the next thing in the hope that I either got it right or will be forgiven. And so do you. And in so doing, you interpret... but I digress, as usual.

So I see Communion as this sacrament, this thing people do, to remind themselves that God is God and God is With Us. And I'm not sure whether this is a sacrament ordained by God... but the part of me that sings thinks so. The part of me that reasons thinks that if it is, that doesn't exclude my views of the entire world as sacramental, because God doesn't exclude.

Therein lies one of my difficulties. For, you see, the official position of the Church of England seems to be that this sacrament is only open to those who make a commitment. I know some of you reading this go against that, and welcome everyone to the table, baptised or not, confirmed or not, and I applaud you. But in the large majority of churches and in what I can find of official documentation, the stance is this:

Baptized persons who are communicant members of other Churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and are in good standing in their own Church shall be admitted to Communion in accordance with Canon B 15A. (from General Notes on Communion, Common Worship)

I'm not going to go dig out Canon B 15A because the above is already legalistic enough. I've blogged about this before. The message sent is "You can have God's grace but only if you believe certain things." Technically by those rules I could go and receive Communion, as I did when I was a child. But the fact that I am included if I fudge things a bit does not make it a less exclusionary message.

I don't believe those things, or I don't think I believe them the way the larger church community would have me believe them, and so I go up for a blessing. I can appreciate that it is also important for people to have some way of identifying that they belong, some rite of passage, some way of making their commitment clear: but I don't think that should be a higher priority than hospitality, welcome, and the reflection in liturgical action of free access to grace! When did our identity as "believers" get more important than our mission to love the world on God's behalf? Lord, have mercy...

I go up for a blessing. I don't hold the belief that such a blessing is any less sacramental than taking Communion would be. There isn't some sort of hierarchy of sacrament here, not from God's point of view, and if the Church would like to imply otherwise I say the Church is wrong. I get... nervous, for lack of a better word. I don't feel dread, as such, but certainly an element of awe. My heart pounds. I often shake a little afterward. I don't identify that reaction as an indication of innate holiness or sacredness, but rather a result of my very human senses being susceptible to the focus on that part of the liturgy. The entire service is built around that moment, and that affects me even if I don't eat the bread and drink the wine. The ground is no more sacred than any other, but the fact that everyone is there to notice it makes all of us notice more easily.

I go up for a blessing. But I'd like to take Communion. I think that experience might, if nothing else, help me to understand Christian belief better than I currently do, on a level which no amount of rational thought will make clear.

I think I'd like to take Communion every week. When I was growing up, it wasn't part of our tradition to have it every week, and my experiences of church at that time were very much tangled together with experiences of upheaval. The treatment I had from my stepdad would be considered mild by many social workers but nonetheless, I was terrified of him. Because of that terror, that fear, I couldn't accept the messages of hope and forgiveness he preached on Sunday mornings. I certainly couldn't be anything other than numb to most of the liturgy. Only some of the music got through. I think if Communion is going to help me, if Communion is going to make me more able to proclaim the Gospel (summary: God Loves All) in deed and in word (more on that in another post!), it has a better chance of doing so if it's regular. I don't know -- for God, anything is possible -- but I suspect that I need the continuity, the consistency. There's a lot of damage to undo, still.

But I can't have that, locally and officially, unless I make a commitment.

I have no problem with making a commitment to love and serve God to the best of my ability. There doesn't seem to be any other sensible way to live! I was acting, at least in part, on that commitment when I left church, when I spent my years exploring Judaism, when I visited with the Unitarians, and indeed in my more recent involvement with Christianity.

I do have a problem with taking communion where it isn't offered freely to all who wish to receive. I recognise that the Church is doing what it thinks best, but I am deeply uneasy that if I were to partake, it would be seen as an endorsement of a policy which I find exclusive and misguided. I don't know if doing that is serving God, no matter how great my need might seem. I also don't know that my need is so very great, if I'm already capable of seeing sacrament elsewhere.

Gentle Vicar, the priest in charge at Nearest Church, is.... well, very kindly. We've spoken in passing a few times, and one of those conversations was indeed about welcome and generosity and grace, among other things. He'll be going on sabbatical in a few weeks and returning just before Lent. Today I made an appointment to go and talk to him before he goes away.

I hope I don't cry. I pray I don't chicken out and talk about something else instead.

I wish he weren't going, because I could really do with some guidance over the next few months, and as warm and welcoming as the community at Nearest Church is, I'm not sure any of them would read this and have any idea what I'm talking about. I'm sure they'd be supportive, but it's kindof vicar territory, really. But I hope he'll be able to tell me more about confirmation/reception/whatever in this diocese. I think that is eventually something I will want to explore further. Certainly some sort of prayerful study with other people is something I'd like to get involved in.

A long time ago, long before I started attending church or praying the Office or blogging here, Ambassador for Compassion suggested that perhaps spiritual direction might be appropriate for me. Advice from AfC is always something I take seriously, since so much of her previous advice for me has been so very, very good, even if I've been unable to recognise it at the time.

I've not mentioned it here previously, but I did get in touch with someone from my diocese about it; that wasn't the right route as most of the diocese is not really in London, so I got in touch with the good folks at SPIDIR who have recommended someone to me. I haven't met her yet. I have no idea what to expect. I have no idea what I want. But I have an appointment to meet her in the not-too-distant future... and I know that she sings. That gives me some hope.

In the meantime, I bought some strawberry plants at a table-top sale at Nearest Church today, and I'll be going along for the sacrament of the Fundraising Quiz Night this evening.

7 comments:

Ernest said...

Song,

I came from an RC background, where the doctrine connected with communion states that when the Sacrament of Communion means that something called Substantiation takes place, ie, the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ.

The CofE stance varies between those who follow that doctrine to those like myself, who go to Communion as a Sacrament, which is done in Commemoration of Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer 'In Remembrance of him'.

The Promises made in Baptism, and in reality taken again, each time we recite the Creed (whichever version is used) is us renewing our Baptism promises.

I believe each and every part of the Creed, but it takes time to go over each part, line by line, to word by word, praying it slowly and reflectively, to actually really allow the word to be fully comprehended and accepted and believed in at every level.

This can be hard - I have looked for and found precedents in scripture for the Creed and my beliefs and hence authority to support them.

I made my first communion with the RC Church at the age of 7 and was confirmed the same year. At that age, I could not hope to fully understand what I was doing or promising - and later my faith failed and I left the RC Church.

When I came back to faith last year, it was due to what I know to be the intervention of God in my life. He sent the Holy Spirit into my life at a time when I was emotionally and spiritually bankrupt, and he said, "I am here, please ask me in".

It took me some time to accept that this was genuine and I sought advice from a CofE Priest, who just listened and at my request, explained about the CofE and its foundations, its mix of Scripture, Reason and Tradition, which made so much sense to me, that I immediately knew that this was where I needed to be. I believe that this can be described as a 'Conviction Moment'.

All has flowed from that moment. I was permitted to receive Communion, having been welcomed into my Parish, and eventually to the Church, by our Bishop at a Confirmation Service. My original baptism and confirmation stood, as churches do not baptize or confirm twice, I formally renewed my Baptism and Confirmation promises at those services.

Of course, there remains doubts, and trials of faith, we would not be fully human if we did not have doubts, or even get Angry on occasion, but I now have sufficient faith to pray and to work through these times and to know that whatever else is happening, The Holy Spirit is here alongside us helping and guiding, if we can acknowledge and believe and accept his grace.

I find myself thinking very hard about your situation, and wondering at how mysteriously God works in people. Such love and so much to give, tempered with doubt and a lack of confidence in your ability to believe and accept all.

I feel that sometimes our reason, can get in the way of our feelings and our core - the small silent place where perhaps the echo of a voice saying you know I am here - come to me. The noise of our thoughts, worries, failures block it and him out.

I will be praying for you to find a way forward.

Song in my Heart said...

Ernest,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for your thoughts and prayers.

I do struggle with the Creeds, and yes, it is the rational bit of me that gets in the way. I believe or half-hope more of them than I used to. But my understanding of what Sacrament is doesn't lend itself well to a sort of "if you make these promises then you get this reward" model. For that matter, neither does my belief about Salvation. I don't think God does bargaining, having already paid the ultimate price. So while my struggle with the Creeds is one reason I don't take Communion, the main reason is that other people expect one to believe the Creeds in order to take Communion -- not because I accept that such a transaction is part of the sacrament itself. I refrain, partly out of respect for the traditions and beliefs of others, and partly because I do not wish to be identified with such traditions and beliefs where I feel they send a message of exclusion rather than welcome.

The Holy Spirit is here alongside us helping and guiding, if we can acknowledge and believe and accept his grace.


No, I really believe the Holy Spirit is here alongside us whether or not we acknowledge, believe or accept God's grace. There is no "if" on God's side of this. God is with us even in those moments when it is hardest to believe it. God is with us even when we try to turn away. God might not restrain us from turning away but God does not leave us.

I'm also not great with scriptural authority. I think scripture can be inspirational, but it isn't infallible and if we give it too much authority we run the risk of ignoring the small silent place you speak of. I think the best way I've explained it is that I concede that God made what we call scripture and was even present in the canonization process, but also that God made the moon. The moon is a thing of great beauty and inspiration, but I would be deeply concerned if I thought it were telling me to do anything! Similarly I do not do what the Bible says just because it is scripture. So looking to scripture to provide rational support for creeds which I don't understand in rational terms is going to be a bit of a wild goose chase.

Arkady said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Song in my Heart said...

Arkady,

Thanks for letting me know about the open table policy at your church in Neighbouring Neighbourhood, and the various mid-week services. It isn't really local enough for my needs but I will bear it in mind.

Unfortunately I'm trying to keep the area of London I live in anonymous on this blog, along with various other details, so I'm going to have to delete your comment. I still have it in my e-mail inbox.

Arkady said...

Quite alright; in hindsight I should have simply emailed you directly. :-)

it's margaret said...

Song, you are beautiful.

I think you have a more majestic and mysterious understanding of communion than many who call themselves theologians.

Strawberries are sacraments too.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you, Margaret.

Off to speak to Gentle Vicar in a few hours. I hope there is communication, if not communion.

Strawberries are absolutely sacramental! No question of that. I still need to plant out the ones I bought at the weekend. That's a task for this afternoon, when I'll be needing to do some practical, earthy stuff, I think.