James McGrath shared a cartoon today from David Hayward that depicted the cross on a church steeple being replaced with a question mark.
I don’t want to read too much into the cartoon, which may have just been meant to be provocative or get people thinking, but it seems to me that progressive Christians sometimes make a fetish out of “questioning.” The problem wit this is that (1) it implies that other types of Christians don’t ask questions and (2) questioning for its own sake can become a substitute for having a positive message or agenda. When I think of the great icons of liberal/progressive Christianity (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr. or Desmond Tutu), I think of people who, yes, wrestled with doubt, but who also had a strong vision of what was true and right and were willing to fight for it. The life of perpetual questioning, with answers indefinitely deferred, can sometimes become an excuse for not taking responsibility or making a stand.
I realize that many people who now identify as progressive Christians may come from fundamentalist and/or abusive church backgrounds where questioning received beliefs was verboten. Churches should definitely be places where people feel safe asking questions and expressing doubts (and they often fail to be such places). But a church whose highest reason for being is to ask questions sounds more like a debating society than a herald of the gospel.
On paper I’m still an ELCA Lutheran, but I’ve been attending a United Methodist congregation for the last couple of years, so this news from the ELCA’s recent church-wide assembly is of interest to me. A resolution was passed during the assembly to initiate a process looking at the church’s practices of administering communion, particularly with regard to the unbaptized. This seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that while the ELCA’s official position is that only baptized Christians should partake of communion, other churches with which it is in full communion practice “open communion.” That is, anyone who is so moved is invited to partake of the sacrament, whether or not they’re a baptized Christian.
This is, in fact, the practice of the United Methodist Church, with which the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The UMC’s official rationale for practicing open communion (a.k.a. communion without baptism) is this:
The table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation. The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love, as the invitation to the table says.
The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive” (page 29). This statement means that in practice there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.
By Water and the Spirit affirms: “Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”
I’ve worried before that the practice of open communion can sometimes be more “about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence.” But understood along the lines described here, I think it can be a faithful practice.* As a practical matter, apart from a pro forma statement in the bulletin, even churches that don’t officially practice open communion are unlikely to turn anyone away from the table (I find it almost unimaginable that this would occur in an ELCA church). In my view, the main emphasis should be on the sacrament as the sign of Christ’s presence, love, and grace, and the invitation should be for people to respond to it as such.
UPDATE: I should clarify that the UMC certainly doesn’t intend for communion without baptism to be the norm. The statement on baptism referred to above says this immediately after the quoted section:
Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.
And the church’s statement on communion adds this:
Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.
Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.
This seems to me to strike a good balance.
*I’ve also become more comfortable with the idea of open communion after reading Charles Hefling’s recent essay, which draws on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” as well as this paper from Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann, written 30 years ago.
Christianity Today reported that the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected “In Christ Alone”–a popular contemporary hymn–from its new hymnal because it mentions the wrath of God. Here are the offending lines:
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
The committee putting together the hymnal wanted to change the lines to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” But the writers of the hymn denied them permission to make the change, so it was omitted altogether.
CT apparently couldn’t resist the “liberals ditch wrath of God” angle, but it turns out that the reason the PCUSA objected to the lines was their use of “satisfied.” In other words, the committee was rejecting not the notion of God’s wrath, but the satisfaction theory of the Atonement.
Bob Smietana, religion blogger at the Tennessean, got the story right:
Critics say the change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal. Instead, the problem is the word “satisfied,” which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.
The new “Glory to God” hymnal, due out this fall, includes songs such as “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which talk about substitutionary atonement — the idea that Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross. It also includes songs about God’s wrath.
“People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal,” Bringle said. “That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’ ”
That term was used by the medieval theologian Anselm, who argued that sins offended God’s honor, and someone had to die in order to satisfy his honor.
The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.
CT, to its credit, has updated its original story with a correction, though the headline still says “Wrath of God’ Keeps Popular Worship Song Out of 10,000-Plus Churches.”
Ironically (considering that we’re talking about a Presbyterian church), it’s John Calvin, not Anselm, who is usually credited with formulating the view that God’s wrath was directed at Jesus on the cross. A more properly Anselmian line would be “the honor of God was satisfied.”
(H/T to Daniel Silliman (@danielsilliman) for the links to the stories.)
According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.
Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.
Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.
“Open communion”–or what is sometimes referred to more precisely as “communion without (or prior to) baptism”–has become something of a hot-button issue in mainline Protestant circles. In this article at the Christian Century, Boston College theologian Charles Hefling provides the best overview of the issue that I’ve seen.
Drawing on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” Hefling says that there is a case for seeing communion as a means by which some people are drawn to Jesus. “The drawing may go unregarded, but on the other hand a readiness to receive and follow it may also be nurtured by deliberate practices, among which is participation in the Lord’s own supper.” Thus it may be wrong for the church to insist on baptism as a prior condition for receiving. But this isn’t simply a matter of being “inclusive” or welcoming–it’s an invitation to enter more fully into the Christian life, with the commitments and sacrifices that entails. Hefling goes on to suggest that any practice of open communion should be accompanied by a robust program of catechesis and a more explicit linkage of communion and baptism. “Communion never is irrespective of baptism, although possibly it may in certain circumstances precede it.”
The recommendations do not in themselves resolve the question of whether an open table policy is theologically justifiable in general or pastorally appropriate in any particular instance. They are not meant to. They do, or would, give concrete expression to a conviction that if the Eucharist is to be regarded as a means of Christian formation—and that is arguably the surest ground on which to build a case for open table communion—then eucharistic worship needs to belong to a larger pattern and process. A visitor who experiences a communion service as a discrete, one-off event, like a tour of the Grand Canyon, has missed the point, or else the point has not been made clearly enough.
That point, the embeddedness of this liturgical action within an all-inclusive, corporate turning to God, is one which has been made, negatively and somewhat mechanically, by insisting on “no communion without baptism.” There seem to be serious reasons for thinking it would perhaps be better made by saying, in many and various ways, “We are glad to have you join us in our pilgrimage. Please know that you are very welcome. Please know too that to join, you have to be prepared to join, to take the plunge, literally.” In that context, the question is not whether a ritual requirement for receiving communion may at times be waived for individuals who are indeed so prepared. The question is whether opening the communion table to them now is the most appropriate way to prepare them further.
Whether or not open communion is the best policy–and I’m still somewhat on the fence–I think this provides a good framework for thinking about it.
The events at the recent general convention of the Episcopal Church have generated a wave of the usual outrage/concern-trolling/Schadenfreude over the supposed demise of liberal/mainline Christianity. Conservatives have been riding this hobby horse for years, arguing that while churches that espouse more liberal theological or social positions have seen declines in membership, more conservative churches have been growing (or at least declining at a slower rate). The lesson–sometimes explicit but more often implicit–is supposed to be that embracing conservatism is the key to growth (which is in turn understood as virtually synonymous with success).
As is so often the case, the reality is a bit more complicated than this narrative suggests. Certainly all is not well in the mainline, but there are a few things we should keep in mind:
–Most major church bodies in the U.S. are experiencing some degree of decline, including the Roman Catholic Church and the famously conservative Southern Baptists.
–Churches labeled “conservative” aren’t necessarily growing because of their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy; many of them downplay theology in favor of various self-help, personal growth techniques; “prosperity” preaching; or right-wing politics that have little to do with the historic Christian faith.
–Churches that take “liberal” stances on political or social issues aren’t necessarily “liberal” on theology or liturgy. Liberal or progressive social positions can be based on “conservative” theology, and many mainline churches are quite traditional in their liturgy and approach to worship.
–Mainline denominations are actually not as liberal as people think but contain a wide range of theological and political views. For instance, in 2008, Barack Obama got only 44 percent of the white mainline Protestant vote (see, e.g., this study). Similarly, a review of official church statements on issues like marriage and abortion would show that mainline churches have hardly bought into “sexual liberation” hook, line, and sinker.
–Liberals are often accused of “capitulating to the culture,” but many positions espoused by liberal churches (on the economy, war, or immigration, for example) are actually “countercultural” with respect to the dominant American culture.
None of this shows that liberal Christianity has a bright future–or that mainline denominations don’t have major institutional problems that need to be addressed. But I’m not convinced that “liberalism” explains these churches’ problems or that being less liberal is a panacea for what ails them.
I urge everyone who cares about these things to read these two posts from bls at The Topmost Apple on how the church is dealing (or not) with our current “post-Christendom” situation. She makes two main points: first, the church often acts like it has nothing very interesting to communicate, and, second, what it does communicate is too often encased in impenetrable religious jargon that is meaningless to a lot of people. She thinks that the gospel carries the explosive truth about the human situation, but the churches are afraid, unwilling, or unable to offer that to people:
I think the Gospels – and Paul – are making some really convincing claims about the facts of the world and the human condition – and that A.A. has (re-?)discovered some of these things almost by accident. I think Luther was really onto something in his parsing of “Law” and “Gospel”; it has taken me a couple of years to come to understand more about this-but it’s real. It’s true-and it’s actually backed up by quite a lot of real-world evidence. This kind of thinking really does change your point of view – and it’s philosophy as much as religion, really. It’s got legs.
We need to be able to say these things to people who do not know our language already – and we need to offer people who do know the language a way for the faith to remain vital and alive – to continue to offer sustenance and excitement – in and for them, too. We need to make a case. “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe. It’s clear to me from years of discussions about these things that many people are interested in religion – but just can’t get with some of its manifestations (mentioned above). And of course, we have the problem of some of the …. erm ….. more extravagant claims of the Christian faith (sometimes called “believing six impossible things before breakfast”). So I do not believe we can count anymore, my friends, on Christianity being “believed in” as it’s been “believed in” in the past. We are going to have to assume that many (most?) people will not be convinced about these “impossible things” much anymore – and we’re going to have to depend far more on Christianity’s fascinating unveiling of counterintuitive ideas and mystical insights.
In a related vein, Ben Myers at Faith and Theology writes on the limitations of preaching from the lectionary:
There’s a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)
I think most churches–primarily in the U.S. and European context–have still not come to grips with the fact that a large number of people no longer consider religion particularly important or interesting. Not that they necessarily reject it passionately like the new atheists; they just don’t see why they should be much concerned about it at all. Moreover, they don’t necessarily have the background familiarity with the Bible, the church, and Christian claims that might once have been taken for granted. Those of us who take a special interest in theology and religion, either as professionals or amateurs, tend to become embedded in the language, history, and arcana of the church. As a result, we lose sight of what all this must look like to someone on the outside. If we believe that the gospel offers people something decisive and meaningful for their lives that they can’t get (or maybe more modestly aren’t getting) elsewhere, we have to find ways to communicate it. In a way, this is just a recapitulation of the insight of theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we have cordoned off matters of faith to a special “religious” sphere; but if the gospel is true, its truth is for our “secular,” ordinary, quotidian lives.