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.






7 thoughts on “Speaking of worthiness and sacraments

  1. This narrative reminds me about the title of a Shakespeare play — what is it? Ah ! yes:-

    “Much Ado about Nothing” !

    Sqn Ldr Alan Birt

  2. I’m not sure you’ve understood badges of honour correctly. Surely the article us saying that the sacraments are not mere outward identifiers of a Christian’s profession, as in baptist sacramental theology, but effectual signs. The sacraments do domething. The worthy reception is surely explained somewhat by the prescribed announcements that a priest is to celebrate the Eucharist in the BCP. These admonish the faithful to prepare themselves by confessing their sins and seeking amendment of life. Unfortunately a misreading if the articles if religion skews your understanding of the sacraments.

    • Thank you for your resonse. I think I would want stand by my argument. Joanna Collicutt sent me this yesterday: This is an extract from my 2013 book ‘When you pray’. I think it is pretty much in accord with what you are saying:

      ‘This practice of self-examination before making communion is important, and derives from Paul’s strict injunction not to receive the body of the Lord in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27-28). The point of self examination is for a Christian community to identify whether there are hostile factions and splits within it. This is because the community is the body of Christ, and so for a community riven by factions to receive consecrated bread is to commit an act of hypocrisy that treats Christ’s body with contempt. Members of the community need to be at peace even with those with whom they vehemently disagree, and that is why the sharing of the peace amongst the community during the worship is such an important practice. In order for individuals to be at peace with each other some apologising and forgiving may need to have taken place.

      However, this has become rather distorted over the centuries, and many Christians have inherited the idea that we must make confession to God for our sins and receive absolution IN ORDER TO BE WORTHY to receive communion. It’s easy both to understand this idea and to believe it, because of the deep human instinct that there are no free lunches.’

      I certainly agree that the sacraments do something (otherwise why bother?) I would still want to hold to the view that the examination of heart and conscience is primarily at the communal level.

  3. I think Joanna is probably right about St Paul’s words in 1Cor. Nevertheless, from an exceptionally early date, worthiness of reception was linked to being in a state of grace, that is, having no unconfessed mortal sin. I’m not saying this is good theology, just that this has been a predominant theology of the church for a long time, and probably forms the backdrop to Article 25, and the exhortation in the BCP eucharist, where the priest, in view of the dignity of the sacrament, “Which being so divine and comfortable a thing to them who receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to receive it unworthily” exhorts the congregation to prepare themselves by examining their conscience “…that ye may come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage-garment required by God in holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of that holy Table.”. Again, I’m not judging this one way or the other (though I think it is good theology), neither do I think Rod Thomas’ letter is at all helpful. I merely think his understanding of article 25 is probably correct. Otherwise I really liked your piece.

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