C - C - C!
As has gone around the intertwitterfacesphere, people finding things to do when isolating during times of has been quite common throughout history: from Boccaccio's Decameron to
|C&C Music Factor was only one C short...|
There's a mantra I've been saying to myself as I wake up in the morning. It's what helps get me through the day, then the week, and whatever next steps in this unfolding reality we find ourselves in.
Here it is, goes something like this, though the words may vary. "We will get through this. We will get through this because God has already given us all we need. We will love God, we will love each other. You're the same priest you were (last week) (two weeks ago) (insert upcoming length of pandemic). You just need to take all that made you the priest you were then and find ways to be that priest now."
It's worked so far, helped give me some perspective. I've used it to close out a number of my sermons in the streaming worship service we are doing on Sundays.
And it builds on other things I've talked about in this blog over the years, this notion that we are not entirely destitute or bereft in situations we find ourselvews. In various postings over the years, where I've talked about the challenges the church is facing right now, I've often noted that we have all the tools we need to face this secularized, post-Christian world in which we find ourselves. The real challenge is how we look to our past, our tradition, our theology, our liturgies, figure out how we adapt to this new reality. The church has done it time and again, and we are called to do so now in our own time and place.
Here's something that has sticking in my head, in the midst of figuring out how to be a parish priest while under a stay at home advisory:
The damage that our eucharistic piety can do. Now please here me out: I am NOT anti-Holy Communion. These past few weeks are the longest I have gone without receiving Holy Communion in nearly 30 years. But I do think the past 50 years of the Episcopal Church has moved almost TOO far in the other direction, to the notion that somehow the only way we can be church is the celebration of Holy Communion.
This movement has had two consequences that loom large in our current situation:
i) This has led to a clericalization of ministry and parish life: a bishop of as diocese with a lot of small, rural parishes he was struggling to fill once said to me, "How did they ever do this back in the late 1800s when a lot of these parishes were founded?" I replied, "Because the lay people did everything: they raised the money, they organized the Sunday School, they helped the poor in the parish, a lay reader read Morning Prayer. Women had important roles in all of this, way before women's ordination was on the horizon, along with an occasional deaconness. A priest would come by every 4-6 weeks to baptize and celebrate Communion." The rapid domestic expansion of the Episcopal Church from the 1880-1960 period happened in many places in spite of a chronic shortage of clergy and because of a massive expansion of lay ministries. We now need a great mobilization of lay ministries, and in many ways are hampered because of the clericalization of worship and ministry through the hegemony of eucharistic worship.
ii) It has led to a loss of our other, non-Eucharistic traditions of worship. I was serving in a diocesan school for ministry once and was on the committee planning graduation and commencement. The commencement would be on a Sunday afternoon around 5 PM. I said, "Since everyone will have gone to church in the morning for Sunday services, why don't we do Evensong for commencement?" A student instantly said, "I didn't go to this school for three years and give up so many weekends just to graduate at Evening Prayer." No one else on the committee said a word, and we just plowed ahead with planning another celebration of the Eucharist. The derision with which many view non-eucharistic worship is combined with ignorance that any alternatives exist, at times a truly potent 1-2 combination.
Well, like it or not, we are looking ahead to weeks of an enforced Eucharistic fast for many in the church. My own diocese has suspended worship through May 31, so I am now looking at a possible 11 weeks without celebration of Holy Communion. Let's ask, then: what is there in our past that can help us in the present?
First of all, some perspective. The centrality of eucharistic piety is pretty recent, within the last generation or two. It was not until the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that celebration of the Eucharist was declared the principal act of worship. In the parish I currently serve, it was not until the late 1970s that Morning Prayer stopped being the main 10 AM worship service. So people were able to figure this out as recently as when Steve Martin classic The Jerk premiered in cinemas.
Second of all, we have plenty of tools in our Anglican toolkit.
So here's something from our Anglican toolkit: very infrequent Eucharistic reception was the norm in Anglicanism for hundreds of years. In the 1700s and into the 1800s, quarterly celebration of Holy Communion in parish churches was the standard. Communion would be celebrated only four times a year. And: Confirmation was a pre-requisite for receiving Communion in the Episcopal Church until 1967. For nearly two hundred years, from 1607-1785 or so, during the colonial period of Anglicanism in this country, eucharistic reception was even more infrequent. For one, some parishes did not have regular clergy. For another, the whole quarterly communion thing. Plus the fact that there never was resident bishop and hardly anyone other than the clergy had been confirmed.
There's two aspects to this nearly 200-year period of infrequent communion that I think can be of help to us as we are engaged in a eucharistic fast right now.
a) They developed workarounds. A common workaround in colonial America involved the concept of intention as outlined in sacramental theology, a concept dating back to Augustine in the 4th century. If someone wanted to be confirmed, but couldn't through no fault of their own, shouldn't that mean something? So many Rectors would do Confirmation instruction and keep a list of those "desirous of Confirmation". Those persons would be able to receive communion, even though they hadn't been confirmed contrary to the discipline of the church, because they had received instruction and were "desirous" of Confirmation if it had been possible, building on understandings of intention in sacramental theology. Augustine had not been thinking about 17th century colonists, but lo and behold, his development of the centrality of intention as part of sacramental theology was helpful in developing a workaround in a very different context.
b) They leaned into the infrequency of Holy Communion and explored the spiritual dimensions of that. Since communion at most would have been four times a year, it became a special, important, sacred occasion that needed preparation. There were devotional guides people would read as the next celebration approached to prepare themselves spiritually. This is the reason for the lengthy exhortations to Communion in prior versions of the Book of Common Prayer.
So let's think about what we can mine from these aspects of this previous experience in Anglicanism:
c) What workarounds can we think of? And I am not talking about drive-thru Communion; I see that less as a workaround and more trying to take the models we have and force them into a different situation, like how the first suitcases with wheels were just regular suitcases they attached wheels to and didn't actually redesign the suitcase. I had one of these and it just fell over all the time. I'm not talking about that.
Here's an example in what I'm doing for Palm Sunday: The Bible doesn't say they are actual palms that are spread in front of Jesus, and until clergy supply companies began shipping them to churches, parishes didn't use palms unless they were locally available. Most people would just use whatever was lying around in their particular context.
|You must bring us...A PALM SUNDAY SHRUBBERY|
Intention matters. It's not whether you have a palm or not -- for me some kind of drive up Palms is not only not encouraging social distancing, I think it's fetishizing the palms -- it's your intention to enter into that Holy Week experience.
So I'll be encouraging folks in my parish to get whatever leafy branch they can find as part of the streaming Palm Sunday worship we'll be doing. (I recognize that context is essential: I minister in a largely suburban/rural area where most people have a yard, or, if not, can find a tree of some kind, and this helps with the workaround I'm developing.)
d) How can we lean into this eucharistic fast? What can it tell us about ourselves, about our relationship to Jesus?
I lived in Moscow, Russia, for 6 months in 1990 in the last days of the Soviet Union. I had to cobble together different kind of worship experiences, even though some restrictions on religion had been eased, it's not as if there was a church on every corner. I would sometimes go to the local Orthodox Church down the street from my dormitory, but I could not receive Communion there since I was not Orthodox and it was in archaised Russian Church Slavonic (kind of like Shakespearean English but not an exact analogy; I could only follow about half of it). I would sometimes make it to services at the Church of England chaplaincy, but the chaplain at the time was an evangelical Anglican more interested in altar calls than Holy Communion. I received Holy Communion once, when I went to a Sunday service at the New Zealand Embassy.
I spent 6 months only receiving Holy Communion once. But I didn't wither and die inside. In fact, I learned a lot about who I was as a Christian and what it meant to be a Christian. I talked to Russians whose faith had survived decades of persecution. I remember one old woman telling me she remembered when there were only 5 open, functioning churches in the entire city of Moscow during the height of the Stalinist purges against religion. I experienced forms of worship I never would have otherwise. Ironically I was a STRONGER Christian after 6 months of a forced eucharistic fast.
That's where Crusty is right now, friends. Be safe, take care of yourselves, remember that you don't constantly have to be doing something all the time, and make room for how Jesus might be present in the midst of our sorrows as well as our joys. We'll get through this: by loving God and by loving one another.