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.