As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Sharing Communion

For those who haven't figured it out yet, I'm kind of the religious black sheep in my family. We moved through most every Protestant denomination save Lutheran and Episcopalian in the years when my father was a choir director. Towards the end, though, we spent most of our time in Baptist churches. Thus, it was quite a shock for them when I started down the Catholic/Orthodox path.

Having struggled with a take on Christianity which was quite foreign from my own, I gained an ability to explain Catholic/Orthodox Christianity to Evangelical Protestants. This has led to endless conversations and debates with my family on various religious (and political) topics. Well, my sisters usually think it terribly boring, but my brother, dad and I enjoy it. You can read some of the discussions between my brother and myself here.

I am now firmly in the Catholic/Orthodox camp (mostly the latter) in matters of faith, worship and theology. The one thing that keeps me from joining up is that, in my estimation, to do so would be to A) say that my family and other non-Orthodox are not in the Body of Christ and B) abandon them. In other words, to join up I'd have to lie, which would kind of defeat the purpose of the thing. So I don't.

Occasionally, I attend worship with one of my siblings or my father. The last time I attended worship at my brother's church, James Island Baptist, I was given an extra-special treat! They follow the Purpose-Driven plan for their church, which spills into worship. One of the things that bothers me about that plan is that it makes the worship directed toward the congregation (especially the "unchurched") rather than towards God. It's a trend which has continued since they turned the altar to face the congregation in Vatican II. The best part of the service, though, was when the worship team led us in a song which had the following lyrics:
We're standing on the rock
and in this house, we will roll.
Yeah. Not quite. Anyway, the thing about this church is that, more than any other individual church I've ever attended, they DO Christianity better, in every respect but worship (and theology). They serve, they evangelize, they reach out ... they are quite amazing, really. So, even though I disagree with them (and them with me) in most everything but the very basic essentials, they are, as a whole, much better Christians than most other Christians I know. Certainly better than myself.

So, what's the problem? Why is ecumenism so difficult? I have been bothered for some time by the Catholic/Orthodox practice which prevents me, for instance, from communing at their churches, not to mention true Evangelical Protestants like my brother and his church. I finally understood it when I assisted my brother at a prayer retreat we put together for his youth group.

The retreat actually went pretty well. The youth were wonderful! I can't remember any of their names, but they were (for the most part) very interested in the weekend and in deepening their prayer lives. I met up with them early Friday morning, and we trudged up a VERY long hill to pray at the top while we watched the sunrise. I had chosen a pretty liturgical prayer office to use and, in various parts, felt like I had gone too far with it. It was just too much. Too unfamiliar.

We split the day up into the traditional breaks of the canonical hours: Prime, Lauds, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline, etc. For each section, we learned something different. In one section, I told them about the Jesus prayer (and we made a small prayer rope) and the Rosary (slightly modified). They were very open to it, especially to the Jesus prayer (which made me most happy). We prayed and sang together. I taught one girl how to play Coldplay's "Clocks" on the guitar. All in all, it was an ecumenical dream.

Until that evening. No one but my brother knew this, but I was having a HUGE problem with the communion portion planned for the evening. We started with the Stations of the Cross and ended with each of them making a commitment to pray some every day, followed by Communion. For those who believe it to just be symbolic, this is no big deal. But for me, the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. There's a certain amount of ceremony and liturgy which I believe should accompany celebrating the Mysteries. But I'm not ordained, so I can't do the liturgy ... I can't bless the elements. My brother is ordained, in the Southern Baptist Church, so he can. But, although he is an uncommon Baptist, he doesn't quite believe as I do, or the ancient church did (does), either. So, what was I supposed to do? I couldn't bless the elements. He could, but should I commune? It was a test of what I believed and of my judgment of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

In the end, I did. Yes, it was with pita bread and sparkling grape juice. Yes, it was in the middle of the woods and we all had dirty hands. Yes, the liturgy was stripped down to a bare minimum (pretty much what my brother could remember off the top of his head). Was it the Body and Blood at that moment, or just a commemoration? I don't know. And I don't think it really mattered. What I do know is that, sacrament or no, it meant something to them, and to me. And I also learned why this is such an important issue for Catholics and Orthodox. There is a reason why they're so guarded about it and protective of it, and I was unjust to expect them to let me come waltzing in, as an outsider, and commune.

In the Celtic Catholic Church, we have a canon (a rule) which says that everyone can receive the Eucharist regardless of their state of grace. We believe that, more than a sign of unity, and more than a remembrance of the Last Supper and Sacrifice of Christ, the Eucharist is medicine for our sick souls. To prevent someone from coming to the Table because they are a sinner, or even have unconfessed sin, is like preventing a man with leprosy from taking penicillin. It is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy. At least, that's what Jesus said. Josiah, when it comes time for communion, says, "Medicine time!" with excitement. He calls it medicine because it reminds him of cough syrup. I don't correct him because he's right. It is medicine.

But I still sometimes wonder if the Catholics and Orthodox aren't right. Jesus is still present in the ECUSA as much as he is in the OCA. Perhaps, in the same way that me becoming Orthodox is a lie, it is also a lie for the Orthodox to concelebrate with Bishops with whom they aren't in communion. How can I expect them to do something I won't? And it is undeniable that, even within their own churches, that Catholics and Orthodox, now and in the past, have denied the Mysteries to certain people doing penance or who have strayed. Who am I to argue with 2,000 years of practice? Of course, they also used to make sinners confess in front of the entire church. I'm glad the Irish cured them of that!

I don't know, I don't know. I do know that, although the Eucharist might be a separate issue, that we can certainly pray and work together for those things on which we can agree. I think that my brother and I were able to achieve that with his youth group, at least. So, in case any of Josh's youth read this blog entry, thanks for teaching me a valuable lesson. And thanks for reminding me that Christians definitely exist outside of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and, in many instances, put the rest of the Church to shame. Even if you are Baptists.

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