September 16, 2004

Ecumenism in the news

Two big-media stories with an ecumenical slant today that call for more than just a passing link. First, check out Customized Communion Throws A Wedge Into Efforts to Unify at The Washington Post (feel free to use username "neotheologue[at]godsfamily[dot]com" and password "neotheologue"). Though it's largely a primer on different Christian Communion practices, and in fact seems to offer more evidence of a convergence among Christians than a widening gulf, one comment in particular pointed out what a "wedge issue" Communion doctrine really is. It came from Monsignor James P. Moroney, executive director of office of liturgy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the context of Senator John Kerry (a Roman Catholic) participating in Communion at an AME church in Boston recently. Here's the quote from the Post:
Moroney . . . said the church generally does not condone the participation of Catholics in non-Catholic Communion, but he said it's a matter of degree of theological difference and a decision to be made by the local bishop.

"If a Catholic goes to an Orthodox Church and receives Holy Communion, are we concerned with that? No," Moroney said. "If he went to a Baptist church, that would be considered inappropriate."
In the wise words of Chancellor Gorkon, "I see we have a long way to go." (Don't forget to check out the handy chart on Christian Communion beliefs and practices in the sidebar, or here.)

The second story, U.N. Envoy Seeks to Enlist the Clergy to Ease Conflicts, comes from the New York Times (again, use username "neotheologue" and password "neotheologue" to access if you like). It's an interview with U.N. Ambassador and former senator John Danforth. Ambassador Danforth is also an Episcopal minister; you may remember him as the officiant at President Reagan's funeral service. Speaking about what he sees as a troubling silence from religious leaders in the face of terrorism, he says, "What is needed is a much stronger voice from the faith community, some kind of place or forum for mediating religious conflict and involving the participation of people of faith." Danforth believes that the U.N. is best equipped to make such an effort happen. What kind of concerns should this forum address? Danforth answers with questions: "What is the relation between government and religion, to what extent is government an arm of religion and, in those countries where it is, to what extent do they provide for the rights of religious minorities?"

Definitely an interesting idea, and one that deserves serious study, because as the Ambassador puts it, "A lot of people think religion is the answer. But right now, religion is the problem." Neotheolog doesn't know if that's true or not, but it seems obvious that the statement seems to capture the opinion of much of the world today regarding religion and, increasingly, people of faith. If such an effort is to be undertaken, it ought to be Christ followers who initiate it. It will be to our eternal shame if we don't.


At 7:19 PM, Blogger Danielle said...

I find it so frustrating that we (Christians in general) are arguing over communion. There is really no right method to taking the Lord's supper, except to take it with a right spirit (Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 10:16-21). If we as a "Church" were to be honest about communion then unless we shared a complete Passover seder every time we celebrate the Lord's supper what we do is symbolic, be it eating wheat wafers, or rice cakes, or bread, or crackers and drinking wine or grape juice. What matters is that we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made. Communion is a reminder, just as Jesus intended when he said " this in remembrance of me."

At 9:13 PM, Blogger DesertPastor said...

I agree that we obviously have a long way to go. I appreciated Danielle's comments... until the end (kinda). I think we Protestants (esp. evangelicals) might help the effort by loosening our grip on communion-as-remembrance-only, and beginning to concede there is more going on in Holy Communion (e.g. mystery, grace, etc).

btw -- I periodically have Roman Catholics receive communion in our services (while crossing themselves). I'm honored that they are affirmed as being part of Christ's universal Body.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

" periodically have Roman Catholics receive communion in our services..."

Hmmm. The RCC is pretty clear about forbidding the partaking of sacraments outside the RCC. So those in your midst obviously have not been properly catechized in their own faith!

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Perhaps... Does "properly catechized" mean "conditioned to adhere to all the elements of their faith" or does it mean "taught all of the expectations of their faith?" If it means the former, I'd agree. If it means the latter, I think you might be throwing stones. Or perhaps just small pebbles.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Danielle -

I don't think we can make a blanket statement that there is no right way to take communion. This is certainly not how the church-general has understood it. Whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protesant, every group has an idea about what is or is not a valid celebration of communion. I think that alone points to the fact that there are wrong ways to do it.

Daniel -

"Does 'properly catechized' mean 'conditioned to adhere to all the elements of their faith' or does it mean 'taught all of the expectations of their faith?' If it means the former, I'd agree. If it means the latter, I think you might be throwing stones. Or perhaps just small pebbles."

I don't think I see the distinction you are making here. Its true that a Catholic could have had an excellent catechism, disagrees with it and sees no problem with participating in your communion service, but I think its probably more common that people just don't know about such things. I'm not sure how Karl is throwing stones (or pebbles), so could you expand on what you mean?

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that communion is not just a remembrance or a symbol. I was glad to see the acknowledgment in the article that United Methodism is moving towards weekly communion. Hooray for us. As for various ways of doing communion, I read about the description of the pastor who has these pre-sealed individual communion kits that he hands out, and thought, that's wrong. It is a wrong way to do communion. It perpetuates the individualism of our culture. So, in some things, I think there can be wrong and right.

-Jennifer (from scandalofparticularity)

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, it's Jennifer again. Here's the paragraph I was referring to:

"John Revell, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said many churches now use Communion kits, which consist of a wafer and a small plastic cup of grape juice. The prepackaged kits, which are passed through the pews on cardboard instead of silver trays, make breaking up crackers and filling hundreds of tiny glasses -- and washing them afterward -- a thing of the past."

Here's my second objection to this: God forbid we actually take the time to carefully and reverently prepare for and clean up after communion, for one of the most holy acts in the Church. Yes, let's just make it as convenient as possible! Never mind what it says about us as the body of Christ.

(I'm not a fan of crackers and individual glasses either - I like one cup and one loaf. Our church practices intinction.)

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"'conditioned to adhere to all the elements of their faith" or does it mean 'taught all of the expectations of their faith?'"

Perhaps I'm dense (or just tired!). Like Nathan, I don't understand the distinction you are trying to make in this case.

Adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church is, in fact, expected of those who wish to remain in good standing in the Catholic Church, correct?

If one is properly catechized there are only two possible ways of being a Catholic: a) one will reject the Church's teachings and thus not identify oneself with the Church (such as calling oneself "Catholic" when one clearly isn't) or b) one will abide by and practice the faith as it is taught (such as not taking communion in a non-Catholic church).

Since neither is happening here, there are only two ways of looking at it: a) these Catholics weren't properly catechized and don't understand the RCC teaching on the Eucharist or b) they do understand and are deliberately disobeying for reasons unknown to us.

That isn't "throwing stones" or being judgmental. That's just the situation.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Karl and Nathan: Let me clarify the distinction I was trying to make when I asked Karl if "properly catechized" means "'conditioned to adhere to all the elements of their faith" or "taught all of the expectations of their faith."

"To teach" means to provide or impart knowledge. "To condition," in the sense I intended it, means to cause someone to respond in a specific manner to a conditioned stimulus. In short, we teach children; we condition dogs. So my point was this: if Karl was saying that the brothers in questioned were not properly conditioned, I'd agree with him. They did not respond to the stimulus in the way they were supposed to. If Karl was saying they weren't properly taught, I don't think I can agree. To be taught something allows the learner the freedom to choose to adhere to it or not. Conditioning by definition deprives the conditioned of freedom.

The reason I suggested this might be "throwing stones," Karl, is that it appeared to me you were objecting either to DesertPastor's offering communion to these Catholic brothers or to their decision to receive it in spite of Roman Catholic teachings. However, if a Protestant brother attended an Orthodox service and venerated an Icon, in spite of the teachings of his Protestant faith, I doubt you'd object. Am I assuming too much?

Jennifer: I think it is shaky ground, both logically and theologically speaking, to say that the "one-loaf-one-cup-intinction-at-the-rail-weekly" method is more correct than the "crackers-individual-cups-in-your-seat-monthly" method of receiving Communion. You can't say it's more Biblical, since Jesus didn't use a "loaf" but rather unleavened bread and certainly didn't dip it in anything, at least during the institution of the Supper. Nor can you say that it's more traditional, as history shows a variety of methods being practiced almost from the beginning. As for whether it "perpetuates the individualism of our culture" to receive an individual cup and piece of cracker, I think you could say the same thing about coming to the rail individually to receive an individual piece of bread that's been individually dipped in a cup for you. Karl may or may not have been tossing pebbles around, but it seems to me you're throwing some big rocks, though perhaps they've been dipped in wine prior to throwing. Can you give me something objective that helps me see it your way?

At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wrote: (I'm not a fan of crackers and individual glasses either - I like one cup and one loaf. Our church practices intinction.)

I put this in parenthesis because it's an aside, it's my opinion on what I like. I did not claim it was the correct way or that it was biblical or traditional.

My objection was to the pre-packaged kits. I had two objections. 1) too individualistic 2) concern over the ease of clean-up and preparation reduces our reverence for this holy act.

As for individualistic, I don't see how you can claim it's equally as individualistic to have my own pre-packaged cup and wafer as it is for my pastor tearing off a piece of bread from the one loaf and my dipping it in the one cup. My claim of individualism is on the elements, not the people. Of course I'm individually going to the rail or individually sitting in my seat, taking a little glass of grape juice/wine and passing the tray along. But if there is one loaf and one cup, and somehow we all humbly share in that one, it's more fitting to the spirit of I Cor 10:16-17.

(The most symbolically communal would be to have everyone drink from the one cup - intinction isn't best or correct either.)

The way we think about how we "do" communion is related to how we think about what communion means, in my opinion. The behavior and the theology shouldn't be divorced. And the official stance of the United Methodist Church is that the one cup best represents Christian unity, but that unity can be symbolized in the case of individual glasses if each person's cup is filled from a pouring chalice.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, the United Methodist Church says that the cup and the loaf that is blessed on the altar should be what's used for communion. Having a big stack of pre-packaged kits on the altar - how do you do that? You'll have to have a cup and a loaf anyway to consecrate, since you hold up the loaf and tear it and hold up the cup and bless it during the consecration. You can't do that with a kit. And if you only use the kits, what do you do with that cup and that loaf you just consecrated?

Again, the kit is my main objection. As I posted above, if you tear off pieces from one loaf and pour wine from one chalice into little glasses, that still symbolizes unity much much better than pre-packaged kits.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...


If we are "conditioned" to live out the faith, then it isn't faith. Everything in the life of the Church has to be freely choosen because the object of our lives in love, not "following rules" but life in Christ.

But let me say this again: one can't reject the Caholic Church's teaching (and thus excommunicate oneself!) and still call oneself a "Catholic." The definition of being "a Catholic" has within it, explicitly, the idea that one will not only freely choose but live out those teachings. One is not "free" to disagree with the teachings *AND* (that's the key!) call oneself by a name that implies one does in fact agree with said teachings.

Does that make sense?

"if a Protestant brother attended an Orthodox service and venerated an Icon, in spite of the teachings of his Protestant faith, I doubt you'd object."

You are right--I wouldn't. And that's because venerating an icon and taking communion are not similiar actions. The former is not a sacramental act. Apples and oranges in this case.

At 12:10 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Jennifer: Gotcha. Forgive me for assuming a personal preference was a theological position. If it matters, I don't think each congregant gets an individually wrapped little tray with a cup and a piece of bread like an airline meal. I think the trays of, say, 100 cups come individually wrapped, and are unwrapped prior to the service and then passed in the manner normal to churches of this ilk. I could be wrong on this; anyone ever seen this done IRL before?

I wonder, though, if you aren't trying to force Communion to carry more symbolic weight than it was meant to? The primary symbolism here is the injured body and spilt blood of Christ; the unity symbolism is secondary to that, I think, don't you?

Karl: I'll agree with you that, in a worldly sense, the Catholics own the right to define what it means to be Catholic, the Orthodox own the right to define Orthodox, and the bevy of Protestants each own the right to define what it means to be whatever it is they call themselves. But as you said, it doesn't make sense to use worldly reasoning here because of the sacramental character of the act. Spiritually speaking, there is one body: "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1Co 10:17). I can't believe I've never asked you this question before, but here it comes: From your perspective (which I assume will equate to the Orthodox perspective), are both the members of DesertPastor's church and the Catholics of which he speaks, parts of the "one body?" I guess what I'm asking is, "Is there salvation outside the Orthodox church?"

At 6:29 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

"'To teach' means to provide or impart knowledge. 'To condition,' in the sense I intended it, means to cause someone to respond in a specific manner to a conditioned stimulus. In short, we teach children; we condition dogs...They did not respond to the stimulus in the way they were supposed to...To be taught something allows the learner the freedom to choose to adhere to it or not. Conditioning by definition deprives the conditioned of freedom."

Thanks for the clarification - I think I understand what you are saying better, but I don't think it paints a complete picture. We, as Christians, are both taught and conditioned on areas of theology and practice. We are taught sin is wrong and (hopefully) conditioned to overcome it through prayer, study, fellowship, fasting, etc, etc. We can be both taught and conditioned at the same time. Yes, a properly taught Catholic may take communion at a Protestant service, but in so doing, he is actually forswearing his Catholic-ness since it is a fairly rigidly defined category. He has the freedom to depart from Catholic instruction and belief, as Karl has pointed out. Now, he may have only been conditioned to reject Protestant communion, and so when those barriers are finally broken down, he does not have the necessary knowledge underneath it to make an informed decision. Ideally, in matters of holiness I think we need both teaching and conditioning. There are some things that we should be conditioned to reject or to do, but we also need the proper teaching to support those conditioned responses because they can and will fail at some point.

As for the kits, I assumed the article was referring to things I've seen in the past, which were individual "servings" of the elements. Basically, the foil seal on top of the little cup had a little piece of rock-hard bread sealed underneath another piece of foil. It was completely self-contained. Like Jennifer, I didn't like it.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"I can't believe I've never asked you this question before..."

You have! Remember that 5 part series I did last year in re: to the issue of unity when I was responding to some of your writings? I'm pretty sure this question came up (since it is, in many ways, the heart of ecclesiology).

The answer to "is there salvation outside the Church" is, simply, no because there is no salvation apart from Christ and the Church is His Body. That's Ecclesiology 101 no matter if one is RC or EO.

Of course we, as human beings are bound to the Church and her physical reality on earth (sacraments etc). But God is not!

The paradox here is that "we know where the Church is, but not where it isn't." IOW, we can safely and confidently know where the fullness of the faith can be experienced, but we don't claim to know for sure where it isn't. The Holy Spirit is at work in all people.

At the end of the day, the only thing I can say is that in Orthdoxy one can live out the fullness of what Christ has given us. Of other communities, churchs, etc I must remain agnostic--only God knows and can judge.

At 12:17 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Nathan: Thanks for adding some RL evidence to the matter. If the wine/juice and bread are individually packaged, then I'd agree with Jennifer--participating in Communion that way would fall outside my personal preference and would fall short in terms of the secondary symbolism of unity. For what it's worth, I've led our church to observe Communion more frequently than once a month (as has been our tradition) and have employed many different methodologies, including a common cup. That being said, I've never practiced intinction; maybe in October. =)

Karl: Thanks for the reminder; I think you're right. Incidentally, googling the statement, "Is there salvation outside the Orthodox Church" leads to several well-written and informative documents on the subject, and your response here is in tune with those I read. I found one particularly helpful: "The Non-Orthodox: Orthodox Teaching on Christians Outside the Church" by Patrick Barnes. He summarizes the Orthodox position like this:

"The status of the heterodox is properly seen in two ways. When speaking of their ecclesial status—i.e., their relation to the Orthodox Church—we would say that the heterodox cannot be seen as Her members, because they have not been grafted into the one true Body of Christ through Holy Baptism. On the other hand, when speaking of their eternal status—i.e., the implications of this ecclesial separation—, we leave them to the mercy of God and do not judge them. To affirm their separation is not to imply their damnation."I'm no logician, but there seems to be a problem there. Logical errors aside, while I appreciate "I don't know" as an answer to any question, I think in this case it leaves you without an objective standard by which to decisively judge issues like what's going on in DesertPastor's church. You have no way to say whether these Catholics being good followers of Christ; at best, all you can say is they're not good Catholics.

At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Nathan's description of a pre-sealed, pre-packaged kit is what I was thinking of. And that I have theological objections to. The intinction or drinking from common cup vs. individual glasses is a preference. It's great, Neo, that you've used different methods. I know it's hard for a congregation for accept change!

"The primary symbolism here is the injured body and spilt blood of Christ; the unity symbolism is secondary to that, I think, don't you?"

Do you mean that the sacrifice, the re-presentation, is more important than unity? I'd say the unity is only possible because of the sacrifice. The UMC's official document on communion says there are six "ideas" about communion that we find in the New Testament: thanksgiving, fellowship, remembrance, sacrifice, action of the Holy Spirit, and eschatology. The document says that communion is much more than a personal event, points out that the language of the liturgy is all plural "we" "us" etc. and then quotes I Cor 10:17. We consume the body of Christ so we may be the body of Christ for the world, redeemed by his blood. So I partially agree with you Neo, but I do not think I am forcing communion to carry more symbolic weight than it's meant to.

See...this is what I meant by theology affecting the way we do communion. Cool, huh? Great discussion, thanks.


At 8:54 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"I think in this case it leaves you without an objective standard by which to decisively judge issues like what's going on in DesertPastor's church."

But remember: I'm not to judge this situation in the first place, at least from an eternal or "salvific" perspective. Whether they are "followers of Christ" or not is up to God. Like Jesus said to those who would judge the hearts of others: "What is that to you? *YOU* follow me!"

I can certainly point out where the situation/doctrine or whatnot isn't ideal, or where an Orthodox context would help, or even where the errors might eventually lead if left unchecked.

But, as Barnes rightly notes, I really can't say anything more than that; especially in regards to the ultimate salvation or status of anyone's "relationship with Christ." The Orthodox, for all their supposed "triumphalism" are actually much less judgmental of other people than other Christian groups I've been a part of.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Is there no right, or at least better, way of doing communion? I think at some point, we have to recognize that some forms may be harmful or in violation of the goal of communion. This goal is multilayered - "remembering" Christ, experiencing the unity of the body, a vehicle for grace (in the sacramental mind), etc - and there are things that will detract from different layers, or from the goal entirely. Individual serving kits clearly (in my mind) detract from the unifying quality of communion, as do individual plastic cups though possibly to a lesser extent. Its entirely possible that the use of grape juice instead of wine detracts in some way from our remembrance, since it is explicitly wine used by Jesus. I think it is important to ask how a departure from the biblical example (wine, common cup, etc) affects our celebration.

And in an interesting related note, Pontificator has a good entry on intinction:

I'll do anything...

At 1:28 PM, Blogger DesertPastor said...

Fascinating discussion, everyone!

RE: individually packaged communion "kits"...Over the past 5 years, I've been part of several eccumenical events in our community where these "peel-off-the-first-foil-to-retrieve-your-wafer-then-peel-off-the-second-foil-to-uncover-the-juice" kits. Although I agree that they are lacking in a number of ways, let me add that my Lutheran, UMC, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc. collegues have never refused to participate because this mode was being used -- their desire to outwardly give expression to the unity they all share has always been a higher principle for them.

Karl -- I appreciate my Orthodox brethren's commitment to not judge we hetrodox followers of Christ (specically soteriologically), yet all this has me wondering: how willing are Orthodox leaders to admit that perhaps not all who attend their parishes (is that the right word, sorry) are disciples of Christ?

Btw -- one of my most powerful Eucharistic experiences took place in the 70's, during the heighth of the charismatic renewal. While serving as a guest musician for a folk mass, the presiding RC priest invited me to receive the Eucharist. I was young, and didn't fully realize the all the implications involved. But I did feel a tremendous sense of humility and unity. I had "heard" how the Holy Spirit had been moving in ways that transcended religious distinctions and barriers, but I was actually "experiencing" that unity-in-Christ in a profoundly meaningful way.

The priest may well have risked rebuke or worse from his diocese, but I have a hard time believing that same rebuke is waiting for him on the other side of this life.

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