A religious rant: General Synod & offering the Eucharist to all

With most of the media overtaken by the horror that is the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the General Synod is – understandably – quite low on the news radar.

For the Anglican Church, this is a good week to bury bad news – or, indeed, bad theology. Following the Guardian‘s liveblog yesterday, I was surprised to see the issue of “open table” communion up for date. This is the policy by which (as many churches word it) anyone “in good standing with their own Church”, “baptised Christians” or, simply, “anyone who wishes to” may come forward and receive Communion (the bread and wine) during a normal Eucharist, regardless of whether they’ve been confirmed.

To my horror, I found out that generous, sane practice is actually illegal according to Church law.

The liturgy of the Eucharist emphasises individual preparation and emotional openness before God: the last words we speak before going up to the rail are Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed. Our own willingness to take communion, to unite ourselves with the “one body” that shares one bread and one cup, is what puts meaning into those words, but we are still “unworthy” to receive God; we’re all imperfect, struggling human beings and only God can change that. Whether or not we’ve gone through Confirmation doesn’t change or essential humanity, or “earn” us the right to receive the fruits of Grace and a sacrifice, made through the Crucifixion, which we can never hope to deserve. How can it be that someone can stand in church, say the Eucharistic prayer, mean all the promises it contains, but still be barred from its culmination, Communion? What on earth is a non-confirmed person meant to do, stand there in silence?

Nobody should have to take Communion, of course, and I think it’s great that people can just come up for a blessing (although I think that can seem quite daunting in its own right). But if, in the course of a Sunday service, someone is moved to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or its memorial equivalents, depending on their belief), and to put themselves into that intimacy with God, whether it’s for the first time in their lives or after an extended period away from religion, absolutely nothing should stand in their way.

I can’t imagine anyone taking Eucharist for the “wrong” reasons – I’m not sure what those would be, and I don’t think it could meaningfully devalue or “damage” the ritual in any way.

I have never understood why children old enough to consume the bread and wine in safety, who attend church regularly and are part of church life, are less entitled to Communion than adults who never come to church, but who went through a Confirmation ceremony thirty or forty years ago. Rightly, adults with dementia are allowed Communion, as are those whose learning difficulties would make the prescribed course of  Confirmation preparation (even though such preparation is wildly non-standardised) imposible; accordingly, the issue of intellectual-understanding-as-entitlement is already recognised as irrelevant in some cases.

I was confirmed at thirteen, following all the usual preparation and by a bona fide bishop; I am now twenty-four, and, I hope, have a better and deeper understanding of Christianity both through education and lived experience (n.b. this is totally without any claims to being a better person). I don’t think that makes me more entitled to Communion now than I was previously.

The whole issue of entitlement stinks. Nobody who wants to make the commitment, receive the comfort, or join in the community of the Eucharist should be denied the opportunity. Anglicans are supposed to believe in a God of enormity and power – one who created Heaven and Earth, and then sent his Son to die a miserable, agonising, death. Before bringing him back from the dead. I have never understood how someone so awesome, transcendent, so obviously supernatural in force, could be supposed to even care about the petty, legalistic and so obviously man-made trifles that make up so much of what’s spiteful and divisive in Church debate.

I don’t believe in Biblical infallibility or in the supremacy of reason and compassion over Scriptures that have been edited, manipulated, translated and transposed for two millennia; but since many people who’ll disagree with this post do, I’ll (nearly) end with one of the (relatively few) Bible verses that speaks to me (oh help, I’m quoting the Bible on my blog, this feels like one step away from subscribing to LadiesAgainstFeminism.com NoThat’sNotAHoax). In brief:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[Romans 8:38-39, King James Version]

Additional translation: if you feel you want to take Communion, do it. God won’t care, he’ll be glad, stop worrying, & furthermore the Anglican Synod (with the exception of the cool/sane/honourable Malcolm Halliday &c) are bureaucratic idiots who depress me hugely in their refusal to ratify the open altar and practice what Jesus told them to preach.

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5 thoughts on “A religious rant: General Synod & offering the Eucharist to all

  1. I’m unconfirmed, actually. Oops. I was baptised as an adult, having been brought up in a tradition where infant baptism isn’t practised, and as it was a very evangelical anglican church, confirmation wasn’t seen as necessary (in fact, theologically, I’m not persuaded it is).

    And we had a little boy receive his First Communion at church on Sunday – he hasn’t been confirmed either. It was presented very much as a step between his baptism (where his parents and godparents made promises on his behalf) and his confirmation (when he will confirm those promises and make them for himself), and as a deepening both of his relationship with God (which is a sick-making phrase, but as so often with religion, I can’t think of a better) and as part of the family of the church/Church (another vom on that one, sorry).

    I agree, btw, about it being potentially inhibiting to come up for the blessing. I can’t think of a way to manage it though that’s less awkward – any idea?

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  2. You’ve reminded me of an aspect of the issue I totally failed to cover – the fact that so many traditions under the Anglican Umbrella don’t require infant baptism or confirmation! I did /enjoy/ confirmation, but don’t think it’s particularly necessary, either – I was actually baptised and confirmed in the same service, aged 13, and don’t think I’d have been confirmed had it not been necessary for taking the Eucharist.

    That’s really interesting! …I can’t believe it’s illegal. Was any kind of formal liturgy used, or was it just spontaneous/made up for the occasion? Because I wasn’t aware there was any free-standing First Communion liturgy within the Anglican tradition (*cough*RomanCatholicism*cough*).

    I think quite a lot of what’s inhibiting in receiving a blessing overlaps with receiving Communion somewhere either a) for the first time or b) in an unfamiliar church – you simply don’t know when you’re meant to go up, which way (or to which altar) you’re meant to head, when to fill up, from which end to fill up the rail etc. Obviously, once you get to the rail, the logistics of unfamiliar-communion-taking are more involved than simply receiving a blessing, as the communicant tries to work out whether or not this is a church where you simply tip the bottom of the chalice, or one where you’re expected to wrest it from the cleric’s grasp. For example. The thing is, though, if you’re bothering to take communion in a strange church, you probably have SOME experience of taking communion SOMEWHERE, and thus a sense of confidence/entitlement (such a loaded term but I can’t think of how else to put it) carrying over from that experience. For example, at Mags I can never remember what on earth I’m meant to do about the chalice (and last time I received nearly got DROWNED in communion wine anyway), but I’ve taken communion in enough places and am generally sufficiently thick-skinned that I don’t think it much matters if I slightly contravene what’s expected. The point is that I’m there.

    Just going up for a blessing can feel so much harder. First off, while communion identifies you as (vom) “in good standing” with your God and/or your church in some tradition, somewhere, just receiving a blessing is often a sign that the person doesn’t quite feel they belong – can’t, for whatever reason, take Communion. Agnostics, visitors, lapsed Catholics, people raised as strongly Protestant, unconfirmed people, people who aren’t sure about faith – anyone who feels more of a Them than an Us in a church situation. You can also feel really conspicuous – for that reason, I think it’s not a great idea to make people e.g. take the service booklet up with them. It’s such an obvious external, visual indicator of what might be a whole tangle of private, sensitive reasons for not receiving [and can sometimes be an unfortunate cue for well-meaning churchwardens to identify you as New And A Visitor and thus pounce on you, come coffee time], and I don’t think it’s necessary. Just keeping your hands below the communion rail serves the same purpose, after all.

    Where I think the service book CAN help is by spelling out exactly what happens at communion – not in theological terms, or in “the ministers receive sacrament and then distribute it to the people, the choir may sing a psalm” fashion, but with explicit reference to the geography of the church. There’s usually a fair bit of flicking-through/reading time in Anglican service sheets, and a bit about “people queue up in all three aisles; someone will show you where to go; people kneel down and receive communion in batches, the bread then the wine; the minister will pass the cup to you” would, I think, help people. For a blessing, it might explain that the priest’s action will be to put his or her hand on your head and say “The Lord Jesus bless and keep you” (say Amen if you want), rather than boshing you on the head with the Bible and saying “LORD, this PERSON WHO’S NOT TAKING COMMUNION and whom we ALL KNOW is X’s LAPSED CATHOLIC FLATMATE, may they SEE THE ERROR OF THEIR WAYS and WE PRAY THEY’LL SIGN UP TO OUR CULT AND BE ON THE COFFEE ROTA BY MONDAY!!!”. i.e. it’s all very painless and not frighteningly personal. Most service books & spoken introductions to services usually include a specific welcome to “people visiting us for the first time” and an exhortation to stay for coffee – I think there could also be a sentence about how the service can seem complicated, please don’t worry if you don’t understand some element of it or feel you’re making a mistake.

    I also think that the people who act as (for want of a better word) ushers can really help to set the tone, by providing very, very clear, smiley, but low-key instructions to anyone they don’t recognise as a member of the regular congregation, so there’s no doubt about who has to go where or when.

    This is all just off the top of my head, though – what do you think would help?

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  4. I take Communion regularly in an Anglican Church – I am not confirmed.

    I became a Christian 30 years ago, attend several different Church denominations.

    It’s between me and God – end of!

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  5. Absolutely excellent piece of writing. I always take Communion in Church, whether it is Baptist, Methodist or Anglican. I am not confirmed. Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me” – I obey Him – NOT the Church.

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