Speaking of worthiness and sacraments

Rod Thomas’ letter to the Bishop Michael and members of the Lichfield College of Bishops makes interesting reading, for it exposes a very particular slant on sacramental theology. In some ways, paradoxically, given Rod’s churchmanship, it all feels a little pre-reformation. It seems to indicate that access to the sacraments of the church is a matter of good works, where man, is the arbiter of what is held to be good, or worthy. I was bemused, but not amused, by his line of theological reasoning. As I read his critique of the Lichfield letter I couldn’t help but here echoes of Luke 18, 11 where we are told that ‘the Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Rod is adamant that there is a difference between what he describes as worthy and unworthy participation in the sacraments of the church. He uses Canon 25 to validate his point:

 ‘As part of the national church, I would fully agree that we want to encourage everyone to participate in the life of the church to the maximum extent possible. However, I wonder whether the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation. One of the practices in many churches is to draw attention to this distinction and to welcome those who have sought to repent and have placed their trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross; it is then up to the individual members of the congregation to decide on their participation. In this respect, the Church of England has always had the practice of ‘charitable assumption.’

Now interestingly in letter Rod doesn’t refer to the Liturgy of the Sacrament. This is somewhat bizarre given the principle of Lex Orandi Lex Credendi. I will return to the liturgy shortly, but in the meantime let’s stay on Rod’s ground by looking at Article 25 which starts as follows:

‘Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s will towards us, by the grace he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.’

Canon 25 makes it clear that participation in the sacraments can never be a badge of honour, letter alone worthiness. For sure the Canon then goes on to say that ‘they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as St. Paul saith.’ 

So, the question then becomes what is meant by unworthiness, and can any of us ever be deemed worthy to receive the body and blood of Christ? My own view is that when we regard ourselves as remotely worthy, due to our good works and the sacrifices that we make, then we are truly unworthy! The eucharistic paradox is that we become remotely worthy only when we acknowledge our unworthiness. We know this because the liturgy tells us so.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the peace, the call to be reconciled one to the other, as we begin the journey of prayer towards receipt of the sacrament. Unworthiness, according to the Scriptures, and captured through the liturgy is in taking the sacrament whilst remaining in a state of enmity. Worthiness and unworthiness can therefore be regarded as communal and relational virtues. The stress on the relational and communal should be expected given that the Eucharist is our shared meal.  So, another problem I have with Rod’s theology of the Eucharist is that it is so highly individualistic! The stress on worthiness, and unworthiness, (and judgment) would seem to lead to a situation where, like the Pharisee in his prayer, we can only ever stand alone when we come to the communal feast, which would seem to undermine the whole point!

When we share in the church’s common meal,  we should do so in a state of true humility (not that any of us can ever truly achieve this, in our own strength) and, in a spirit of expectation; expectation that through God’s grace we will be transformed and equipped to live better, more Godly, lives. In the Eucharist the initiative is all God’s.  Rod’s beloved canon 25 makes this clear! Our responsibility is to come to the table, in spirit of humility and in love and charity with our neighbour. Everything else is up to God!

The fact that we continue to be unworthy recipients can be further evidenced through the liturgy, in particular the Prayers of Humble Access:

‘We do not presume to come to this your table trusting in our own righteousness (worthiness) but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not WORTHY (there it is in black and white) so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But, you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy…..’

Or, in the alternative form:

‘Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs under your table. But, you Lord are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners. So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in Him…..’

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with a call for peace and reconciliation between believers (worthiness to proceed) and ends, through the Prayers of Humble Access, by reminding us that we must continue to hold fast to the notion that we are unworthy to proceed. There in lies the great paradox of the Eucharist: any worthiness to partake is contingent on the total acceptance that we are all, yes each and everyone one of us, entirely unworthy. Our hearts can never be truly prepared, our hands can never be clean enough, our lives can never be sufficiently righteous. It’s not about us and the sacrifices we make. The Eucharist is not about a theology of works. Participation is not a badge or token of honour. The Eucharist is all about grace and the radical, inclusive, hospitality of God. The wonder of the Eucharist is that when we accept this then the effect is that we are ‘made clean by his body’ and ‘our souls are washed through his most precious blood.’ If we come believing in our own worthiness no cleansing and washing can take place for, once again, the liturgy tells us so.

The fact that a Church of England bishop seems to adhere to such a thin Eucharistic theology is worrying. The fact his argument is made, primarily, through a very particular understanding of one article of religion, is troubling.







Speaking of spreadsheets and the cross

I read Bishop Philip North’s article, ‘The spreadsheet or the cross – time to choose’, in the Church Times (1st June) with considerable interest.

This autumn I will, once more, be leading a Mission and Evangelism course in my own archdeaconry (Buckinghamshire).  I also sit on my diocesan parish share review group and, the Glebe Investment Committee (before ordination I worked in the investment management industry) . Mission and money, and in particular the relationship between the two, is close to my heart.

In a spirit of honesty I get very frustrated when the argument is put forward that mission and evangelism can somehow be effective separate from financial support. Mission and evangelism can never be cost-free. This is surely a lesson that should be learnt from those churches who invest, because they are able to do so, directly and financially, in mission strategies and action plans?

The trouble is that many churches are unable to allocate significant sums of cash to mission and evangelism either because there is no money in the first place (poverty), or because the demand of parish share is so onerous that there is little, or nothing, left to invest directly, over a sustained period of time, in mission (the squeezed middle or only just managing). In my own parish, according to the ‘spreadsheets’ 88% of our voluntary income is directed towards parish share. In some of our largest churches, well, I will leave you to guess the figures……………

Like the Vicar of Ribbleton, many of the clergy in my locale work pretty much ‘entirely alone.’ And, it’s getting worse. Team ministries exist, for sure, but they are stretched to breaking point. In fact they are so stretched that they don’t in any meaningful sense operate as a team. Ministers are so busy fulfilling their basic commitments and obligations to pastoral ministry, and satisfying the needs of the rota, that there is little time or energy left to do anything else.

Bishop Philip’s concern, is rightly, focused on areas of deprivation; the outer estates. My concern is the squeezed middle and the countryside. Rural poverty is a real thing, even in Buckinghamshire. I come across the devastating effects of poverty each and every week as do my deanery colleagues. Mind you urban poverty is also a very real thing, even in leafy Buckinghamshire. Towns like Slough, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes all have ‘no go areas.’ If the Church is to devise a new and more just system for the allocation of resources what it mustn’t do is pit urban against rural. This is my only real concern with the overall thrust of Bishop Philip’s argument.

Bishop Philip’s concern, again rightly, is for a fairer distribution of resources across dioceses. His proposal is for a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure’ that would allow ‘historic assets to be held centrally so that we could deploy clergy nationally on the basis of need rather than history.’ It is a good proposal, however I would agree with Bishop Philip that ‘the chances of the General Synod’s passing such a measure are roughly the same as Accrington Stanley’s winning the UEFA Champions League.’ This level of realism depresses me beyond words.

I suppose my more modest hope would be that dioceses would deploy their historic assets, and the mechanics of the parish share scheme, more strategically in order to invest directly in areas of poverty, whilst also relieving the burden on the squeezed middle. If we are serious about the cross this would appear to me to be a no-brainer. It is something that I have been arguing for, with some passion, in our parish share review group. I have no doubt that the spreadsheets work to the advantage of the large and successful. The spreadsheets that I have studied prove this.  The spreadsheets tragically testify to the fact that the Acts Chapter 2 (43 – end) is, indeed, an inconvenient text.

So if the notion of a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure,’ in conjunction with an economically more just share scheme, operationalized either at the national or regional level, or pragmatically some combination of the two, with wealthier dioceses, such as mine, also making a greater contribution to the common good, in the recognition that some dioceses, when they were formed, were set up to fail is a no-brainer why won’t it be enacted?

Well, again, I think Bishop Philip provides the answer: structural injustices are easier to live with. Of course structural injustice can always be explained away or legitimized. I have been repeatedly told that asking large, essentially gathered churches, some of which are the grateful recipients of vast sums of discretionary giving, to contribute more to the common purse, would be to penalize them for growth (or size). To my mind this argument is the ecclesial equivalent of the suggestion that a modest increase in income tax on the super wealthy would lead to a mass exodus to other, more favorable, tax regimes. It is an argument made from a place of fear. The unspoken message is that we would like the wealthy to make a greater direct contribution, but we dare not put in place a system that corrects the structural injustices, and facilitates meaningful redistribution of either historic capital or current income, which so manifestly prevails. Until these issues are courageously addressed the best we can aspire to be is a faded caricature of the the apostolic church, as described in Acts 2, 43 -end.

I have also been told, repeatedly, that largest and wealthiest of  churches invest directly in mission, using their ‘own’ funds. This is true, for the simple and straightforward reason that they can. Part of the reason they can is that they pay far too little into the common purse through the parish share system but even with a relatively substantial increase in contribution to the common purse they would still be able to invest substantial sums directly in their own mission initiatives; the spreadsheets tell us so. I have also been told, again repeatedly, that should any attempt be made to ask the wealthy churches to pay more all that will happen is that they will use the skills at their disposal to engineer their accounts, moving increasingly large amounts of money into restricted funds. To me this is a little bit like wealthy corporations moving assets offshore and off balance sheet. Its legal, but……

I would imagine that churches up and down the land would love to have the opportunity to invest directly in mission and evangelism so that day by day the Lord might add to the number those who are being saved (Acts 2, 47), but the financial and missional reality is that they, or should I say we, can’t. The fact that a large number of cash strapped churches are managing to sustain and, in some cases, grow is nothing short of a miracle and, yet, such churches are seldom celebrated or held up as exemplars of good practice. I wonder why not?

In his article the Bishop of Burnley speaks prophetically as follows: ‘if the Church of England is to play any part in the renewal of Christian life in this nation, it will come from the edges, from the margins, from the forgotten, and from the poor.’ He is surely right and yet the problem is that few head office, central planning, types will want to believe him, and others, who offer such a critique, for such critiques are regarded as being unworldly and insufficiently managerial and, yet history shows that in the church, as well as in the economy, change, transformation and renewal does in fact frequently come from the edges and the margins. Two of the late twentieth centuries best management thinkers (Henry Mintzberg and J.B. Quinn) proved this. The recent revival in ‘forgotten’ or retro products is also interesting. Is there a danger that traditional parish ministry, and worship, is increasingly regarded as past its sell by date? I fully accept that fresh expressions, church plants and the like must play their part, but they can never be the complete answer. Growth, both in number and in holiness, can also result from a real and sustained commitment to traditional patterns of ministry and worship, if they are given the opportunity.

I suspect, like Philip North, that a real financial commitment to invest in areas of poverty and, simultaneously, traditional parish ministry, will reap huge missional dividends.  Investing, or even subsidizing, the big, shiny, glossy and new will take the Church of England so far, but by no means far enough.

Like Philip North my concern is that if the spreadsheet system, and the structural injustice it perpetuates, continues mission and evangelism will become the exclusive preserve of the urban, wealthy, and already successful and that the Church of England will cease to be a truly national church.

Yes, it really is that stark.