Monday, 3 November 2014

Deanna Hove on Non-Denominationalism, Grace, and Sacrament

The church that I grew up in was the same that I was dedicated in as a baby and worshipped at for the following twenty-three years. There are many aspects of this experience that I am still unpacking, which can be difficult to do so in earnest when it has been the primary informant for many of my early theological ideas. The church is affiliated with the Associated Gospel Church (AGC) denomination, and has close relationships with other Baptist churches around the city. Additionally, the local university’s seminary is Baptist as well, increasing my insulation to different theological streams. There was a strange tension between having the idea that we were very theologically informed, and yet having no formal catechesis process, which resulted in a kind of culture that the way things were done, and the way things were thought about, were simply what Christianity itself were. I only later understood why those who tended to call themselves “non-denominational” were primarily from Baptist, Evangelical upbringings.

Coming out of this context, I was struck with the depth and significance given of the Eucharist that was in other traditions. It is on this background that I will address the practice of taking the Eucharist at this church. How this was approached at church largely informed how I think of grace and how God relates to us both despite, and due to, the fact that Communion seemed to be a marginal practice. What follows is my evaluation of what the practices meant, or rather, how they manifested themselves to me. Without delving too far into my pre-teen psyche, I will say that my experience with preparing to take Communion was fraught with anxiety. It was generally frowned upon for children to take part in Communion, although some families did allow their children to do so. My parents were particularly insistent on not taking Communion before you could fully understand what was going on. This was part of an emphasis on internal preparation, and ‘readiness’ to come to the table. Turning thirteen allowed me to understand what was really going on through Christ’s death on the cross, however I had been barred from partaking for so long, I did not know how to proceed now that I was allowed to truly remember. It was remembrance that was emphasized, rather than any present grace or future eschaton with the recitation of Luke 22:19 as the closest manifestation of a liturgy. We took of the ‘bread and wine,’ manifested as crackers and grape juice (in individual cups), as what was important was what they represented, rather than the elements themselves. Lacking an overt explanation of why things were done as such implied that there was no objective importance to what was done – it was not tied into our larger experience as the church body or historical narrative, rather our personal reflection on what Christ did for us. Further, by focusing on remembrance there was overwhelming emphasis on Christ’s death. We remember, and are thankful for his sacrifice. 

There was a strange degree of solemnity for a purely symbolic observance. I am inclined to believe that the fact that it was symbolic made it that much less accessible. This emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice was reinforced through the most important and most serious Communion service on Good Friday. Throughout the year, Communion services were held once a month – although not explicitly stated, I was impressed with the importance of the service, with it only being once a month. It should not be taken for granted, or become routine by having it more frequently. The focus on Christ’s sacrifice, and thus his death for our sins reinforced that we needed to acknowledge what this meant for us, personally. The preamble before the monthly service was generally the same, in talking about the importance of remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and we ought to be sure to pay credence to the event of the crucifixion, and remember the price paid for our forgiveness. This seemed to undercut the grace given, as we were sure to feel the appropriate amount of regret as payment for this gift of grace. The operating paradigm was very much that of personal salvation. Salvation primarily means that we are to be thankful to God for forgiving our sins, because Jesus Christ sacrificed so much. We are able to come to the table because we have asked for forgiveness. There was a shift partway through my attendance of this church, from being served in our seats through passing trays of crackers and the juice (although they were still referred to as the bread and wine) to having the elements stationed at the front of the sanctuary. This move was made to represent our active choice to reach out to God and His gift of salvation, as we had to move up to the front, rather than passively receiving the elements in our seats.

The presentation of Communion as something that someone must individually prepared for, and individually partake in showed an incomplete picture of God’s grace. Communion was both incidental to our faith, while at the same time having almost unspeakable importance, in putting it off until one could intellectually grasp what they were entering into. This importance though was not explicitly named, and I would suggest the gravity with which it was presented (in terms of truly understanding Jesus’ sacrifice) tells only part of the story, and is frankly a shadow of what the sacrament of the Eucharist is supposed to be. I am largely in the reaction phase having stepped out of this context, yet I do not want to paint this experience in a wholly negative brush. There are certainly elements of this practice that are important, however the practices enacted that they are trying to avoid (ritualism, transubstantiation, etc.) are not such that they must be so obviously side-stepped as to make Communion hardly a sacrament.

The main elements that were distinctive of this Communion service, or spoke directly to how this congregation conceptualized God were that it was explicitly a symbolic gesture, it was an act of remembrance, particularly remembering Christ’s sacrifice, it was highly individualized and internalized. By not framing a Communion service as sacramental, that is, not a means in which God interacts with us in the physical world, it creates a dualistic framework between spiritual reality and corporeal reality, individual, inner salvation and the ongoing redemption of creation through Christ. This individualized approach not only creates the false dichotomy, but then relegates our salvation to the ‘spiritual side.’ This lends itself to become a personalized experience, and general conception of salvation. Communion is about your response to God, rather than God’s active work in the world – or, simply both. Our encounter of God’s grace does not precipitate at the table itself, but rather in what occurs prior to the table. There is no conceptual overlap through the consumption of the elements and the reception of grace. We are closer to God because we have once again come before him, and have acknowledged his sacrifice, not due to any grace or effectual change that is a result of participating in the Eucharist. There was dialogue of grace, and our reception of God’s grace through Christ’s death and resurrection, but Communion was not a culmination of this. Emphasizing personal preparation to come to the table through reflection, repentance, and prayer makes the elements an accessory – the work has been done. Although approaching the table was explained to be a response to God’s grace, there was still room left for coming improperly (unconfessed sin, or ‘inadequate’ repentance). This is not to dismiss the gravity of abusing the Eucharist, however this is generally warned against due to the real substance that is present in the elements.

Having Communion as a symbolic, internal exercise reduces the scope of what the Eucharist is meant to capture. Focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection very much historically dates the touch point of God’s grace. The Eucharist is indeed grounded in real events in human history. However, when primarily manifested as an exercise of reflection, this becomes limited to an event in the historical past, rather than an event that has far-reaching (all-reaching, rather) effects. Even more than ‘ripple effects,’ there is no ongoing work that is equally grounded in human historical narrative. The message of hope that is presented in this model of Communion is that we have hope because we have been redeemed, but this is limited to our present and past condition. It proclaims that Christ has died for our sins, yet the scope of that message is stunted.

A foundational principle in rhetoric of the sacraments, why they are what they are, and their importance to the Church is that God implemented them due to our creaturely nature and the difficulty that comes with this. He gave us something physical to orient ourselves, as we could not otherwise grasp spiritual principles. This may at first seem to be a simplification of the human condition, or denying the idea that we are both physical and spiritual; having physical reminders is helpful, but without them we cannot begin to encounter God? However, in a real way, we do indeed need physical reminders, as is evidenced by what becomes of our sacraments when this reality is ignored. Even more, we do not simply need physical reminders of spiritual things, but an incarnational model of how God manifests himself in the world.

Regarding the solemnity that surrounded a Communion service at this church (due to the focus on personal sins, and Jesus’ death), there are important theological impulses behind this, and though the practice should not be limited to this focus, it does well to highlights the difficulty of our sinful nature and how it is a real barrier to us before God. It does not fully align with the symbolic nature of that particular service of Communion, yet it is an aspect of salvation that should not be glossed over; our brokenness is complete before God. That said, this is grossly limited in terms of the story it tells and stops short of the nuances of how this gap is bridged. Focus on mental preparation places an undue burden on the receivers of God’s grace. In this context the elements are not an intermediary to God’s grace, but an expression of having already been cleansed. In an ideal context this may not be as problematic as it is often manifested: we remember, we are thankful for God’s grace and come to the table. What makes this difficult to achieve in many similar contexts is that Communion is primarily framed as remembrance, and thus an exercise in re-living the death of Christ and the gravity of sin that brought it about. In this light, we do indeed respond to God’s grace, but this is secondary. The largest misappropriation of the elements in this context is that it inadvertently paints a picture in which God receives us at his table only once we have mentally and emotionally realized the beauty of his grace.

Indeed, God’s grace is sufficient, and grace itself is not transmitted through the ingestion of the elements. Where this story stops short is that we cannot actually be ready to come to the table in a fundamental sense. That is, we do not make ourselves ready. The message and function of the Eucharist is God’s coming to meet us, rather than us preparing to meet God. 

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