Thursday, June 03, 2010

A Confused but Inclusive Mess

Judging from some discussions I'm seeing, the next assault on the church's theology is not going to be against the Father. Communion without baptism seems to have jumped to the head of the line. Now the prohibition against communing the unbaptized is so old as to be untraceable, to the point where in the New Testament baptism seems to be assumed. And while we're at it, in 2006 General Convention passed Resolution D084, confirming the restriction and asking the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops to make a presentation concerning the issue at the next GC. The paper so presented can be found here, and not too surprisingly it supports a pretty traditional yet middle-of-the-road understanding of baptism as an essential initiation into the life of the church, with communion being part of that common life together.

Nonetheless, the pressure against it continues, in the name of Inclusion. So, for instance, in the Daily Episcopalian we have a column by Linda L. Grenz, recently interim at Good Shepherd Silver Spring, presenting this line of thinking. So we get strung together the usual line of people we used to exclude: blacks, women, and homosexuals, with (for some reason) a detour to Hispanic workers for Walt Disney. We included them, the implication goes, so we should include everyone else.

This just completely ignores any kind of theology, because whatever exclusions there were varied widely, and the (good or bad) theology behind the exclusions was all over the map in the kinds of arguments made. Of course, women and blacks were always baptized. The exclusion of women from the clergy can be traced right back to specific statements in Paul's letters; whereas whatever theological justification can be wrung out of scripture for the exclusion of blacks from such positions was tortured at best. There was nothing in Paul, for instance, to hang the latter exclusion on, whereas the statement that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek nor a long list of other, highly relevant distinctions plainly bears directly on the matter. This is surely why racial discrimination within the churches has been driven into fringey corners, while ordination of women must still fight for acceptance. Reconciling Paul's denial of distinction on the one hand and his flat prohibitions on the other requires theology, one way or the other.

Homosexuality is a quite different issue. Nobody claims it is sinful to be black or female; by contrast, the center of the homosexuality debate is over whether it is an ontological fact of sexuality which must be respected (and thus affirmed), or a manifestation of sinfulness which must be resisted. On the other hand, the rejection of Donatism implies that the only possibly insurmountable problem with Mary Glasspool's consecration is her sex, not who she chooses to have sex with. It stands as a symbol of the church's endorsement of homosexuality, but it doesn't delegitimize her office, at least if one accepts that a woman may be made a bishop.

All of this is preface to the observation that Grenz's essay doesn't come within miles of this. Indeed, considering the kind of inclusion that she discusses, I can only note Paul Goings's waspish remark at another place that he's "waiting for the movement to introduce ordination without baptism." I don't see the theology in this, only an inchoate urge towards Inclusion as the highest Christian value.

And furthermore, one should give a thought about how people who are not baptized may approach the rail (or should I say, altar, since rails are after all a realization of exclusion). People with strong religious commitments--faithful Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or atheists--are likely either to refrain out of piety or (perhaps in the case of the Hindus) reinterpret the act in the context of their own religion, in which case they may be ritual participants but not faithful participants. We cannot include these people with bread and wine.

From there we turn to that growing faith, the irreligious and the "spiritual but not religious". Here the paradox is made manifest: the problem these people have is their lack of religious commitment, so we "welcome" them by abolishing the requirement for that commitment! Or as I put it several years ago: "Open communion sends the message that you don't have standards." I have to think that these people are the ones most likely to transgress Paul's numerous warnings about approaching communion unworthily, not perceiving Christ in it. They are not being included; they are being indulged. They come to church with no commitment to Christ, and they leave the same way; in the middle they may persuade themselves that they've had some sort of deep spiritual (which, I am sad to say, is likely to mean aesthetic and emotive) experience, but the one person they do not want to meet there is John the Baptist demanding to know what they're doing there and calling them to repentance.

And naturally, as usual the clerics get to congratulate themselves on their radical hospitality. "Radical" means "rebellious", and if there isn't a bishop or the canons to rebel against, there's always the Baptists and the pope. "Hospitality" means catering to spiritual dilettantes. Meanwhile the church itself suffers, if only because of the old principle: "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"

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