What Debates in Other Faiths Reveal About Their Theology

I’ll begin this by saying that I mostly try to ignore what is going on in the Anglican world.  I am no longer a member of the Episcopal church(ECUSA), so I have no stake in their internal disagreements.  On the other hand, perhaps mine is not the right attitude.  I still have a number of people that I care about who are still in that group, and so, perhaps I should care about what is going on there more, especially as it pertains to mistaken doctrine, and even simply mistaken attitudes that would be dangerous for those still there.

At the same time, reading things coming out of the ECUSA can also provide an opportunity to reflect on what the Orthodox perspective would be, both on the subject, and on the arguments being made.  Just such an opportunity was afforded me last week when the latest issue of the Diocesan Messenger from the San Diego diocese arrived (for some reason, I seem trapped on their mailing list in perpetuity).  Apparently there is a topic up for debate, at least at the Diocesan level, or perhaps at the national level, and the Diocese felt it appropriate to have several pastors from different parishes in the Diocese write their  arguments regarding the topic.  As they were not responding one to another, you were presented with four different position papers, which seems like a reasonable way to hold a discussion without it devolving into an argument.

The topic being discussed is what they are describing as “Open Communion”.  I’ll start by noting that Open Communion, as commonly understood, refers to permitting Christians who are not members of that particular denomination to receive Communion.  When I was young, that was the debate ongoing in the ECUSA.  However, in 2016, to the ECUSA, the term refers to permitting non-Christians to receive communion.  The four pieces revealed some interesting insights, both into the theology of the four pastors, as well as the position of the ECUSA within the Christian milieu.

Some Background on the Parishes Involved

The four parishes involved, or rather the three parishes and mission, are Holy Cross and St. Michael’s in Carlsbad, All Soul’s in Point Loma, and St. Andrew’s in Pacific Beach.  Given the level of theological diversity allowed within Anglicanism, it is not surprising that these parishes represent very different theological foundations.  For instance, Holy Cross, which was founded as a mission by St. Michael’s was, like St. Michael’s used to be, rather Anglocatholic.  That is, believing in doctrines that would cause little to separate them from Roman Catholics of perhaps two or three centuries ago.  Since I left the Episcopal Church a decade ago, Holy Cross underwent a significant shift when its Vicar and many parishioners left for the continuing Anglican movement in 2006.  Similarly, St. Michaels also shifted.  Although their rector is a graduate of what historically had been an Anglocatholic seminary, the seminary has been under the leadership of a priest who had come from the Charismatic (i.e. Evangelical) movement.  Drawn to the conservatism, I suppose, of Nashotah, he really had never been an adherent to Anglocatholicism.  I’m not sure that he changed the seminary as much as his being hired reflected how much it had changed.  At any rate, the current rector at St. Michael’s never really struck me as particularly Anglocatholic.  Yes, he likes “tradition”, yes he is a bit conservative, but like Munday, his perspective always felt more Evangelical than Catholic.  When the more Catholic elements in the parish either left for Orthodoxy (at least a handful) or the larger exodus to Rome, all that was left was basically Evangelical leaning, or, more traditionally Protestant if not Evangelical.  Holy Cross now appears to be a typical modernist mission, St. Michael’s a traditional leaning Evangelical parish, and the other two I’m not entirely sure of.  Their pastor’s positions then reflect this diversity.

The Mind of the Church

The goal within Orthodoxy is for everyone to obtain and operate with the “Mind of the Church”, or phronema.  This encompasses not only the doctrinal elements but also the more practical life lived within the practices of the Church, and seeking to grow in our likeness to God, and the continued acquisition of the Holy Spirit (Met. Hierotheos Vlachos).  Decisions about what is acceptable reflect, then, this mind.  It is a common misconception that Church councils always just reflected a voted based on opinions of the bishops present.  What happened, instead, especially beginning with the first ecumenical council, was that the bishops were seeking to understand the mind of the Church as reflected by what had been believed and practiced since the time of the Apostles.  Doctrines live and die by the degree to which they reflect the received tradition across the board.  This tradition is most notably transmitted via the liturgies and hymns as those represent the communal life of the faithful.

Thus, a question such as the one posed, would be addressed by priests and bishops in the Orthodox Church by reference to the canons that had been passed at the various councils.  Then, if that was not sufficient, we look to the liturgical traditions and the hymnography for more guidance.  For instance, we know that the historical practice was for all non-baptized individuals to be sent out of the Church before the part in the service when the Holy Spirit is called down onto the bread and wine to turn them into the Body and Blood of Christ.  Although this no longer happens, the liturgy retains a call by the Deacon to attend to the doors (that is close them so that only the faithful remain) prior to the recitation of the Creed.  Given this, there is no question that non-baptized would not be permitted to participate.  Further, we also know that those who had separated themselves over doctrinal matters (heretics, although the word has become unpopular) would also not be permitted in until a suitable period of penance had occurred.  So even the question of baptized Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church is answered.

This answers the question in part, but of course, if one wants to understand at a deeper level, we would reflect on the nature of the Church and the nature of the Sacrament, which I will do a bit further down in response to specific points raised in the article.

I should point out here that this notion of the “Mind of the Church” figures into the question of Apostolic Succession. In order to be in that succession, besides needing to be ordained by an ordained/consecrated bishop, as agreed to universally, the Orthodox Church understands that the bishops and priests under discussion must also still exist within the Mind of the Church. That is, they cannot have left the Church in some fashion and yet still claim to be in succession.

Personal Opinion

Now that we’ve addressed the general issue of the mind of the church, we come to the first piece, which is penned by the Vicar of Holy Cross. After she finishes praising the “roominess” of Anglican theology, she then moves on to the discussion at hand. The purpose of the discussion of the roomy theology is to simply argue that there is no formal Eucharistic theology in play from an Anglican perspective and thus opens the door for her to “share my own Eucharistic theology.” Although she briefly asserts a shared perspective with Augustine (without any support), the entire article is based on her views, her feelings, etc. There is no attempt to engage the mind of the church. This is very much consistent with the modernist thread of Anglicanism, where personal opinions and feelings are as valid as any doctrine or received tradition, if not more so. Besides being inconsistent with any Christian worldview older than the 16th century, it also smacks of the sort of lack of humility that is spiritually dangerous for all of us.

Catholic or Not?

The piece by the rector of St. Michael’s also quickly touches on a personal opinion about the rightness of what he refers to as the “Anglican” view that communion is to be offered to all baptized Christians regardless of denomination. I’m not entirely sure that this is an Anglican view as much as it is strictly an Episcopalian view, but to be sure, it is not a catholic view. Yet, immediately after this comment, he trots out the famed Vincentian Canon (named for St. Vincent of Lerins), using it to state that the “catholic faith which we profess is described… as, “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”. This then becomes the foundation for his argument that to offer communion to non-Christians would be non-catholic. He leans on Fr. Alexander Schmemann representing Orthodoxy, then St. Irenaus, representing the ancient church to defend his position. However, his argument is without merit, as he just finished proclaiming the modern and erroneous practice of communion to all baptized Christians, regardless of denomination. How can he use catholicity to prevent one practice, while ignoring it to support another one? At best, this is some form of special pleading, at worst hypocrisy. He furthers undermines his case by a veiled reference to 1 Corinthians 11, where St. Paul indicates that partaking of communion in an unworthy manner can result in illness in death. Instead of agreeing with his assertion, he creates a straw man argument that God will not strike someone dead for taking communion when not baptized (did St. Paul say that? no), but by dismantling the straw man he effectively denies St. Paul’s teaching. Once again, he seems to be disagreeing with the very catholic faith he asserts should drive this decision.

The Sacrament Itself

Both of the first two writers seem to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is at best unclear about the remaining two author. The rector from All Souls discusses what the Eucharist is at great length before finally indicating that perhaps he thinks it is the body and blood of Christ (what he actually says is the “desire … (of someone else) to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ”, so it is unclear). He discusses a great many things about the Eucharist, that it is mechanism by which we are united, by which people receive God’s grace, etc., all of which is true, but I don’t think he really accepts that God is, in fact, actually present in the Sacrament. The rector of St. Andrew’s doesn’t even come close.

The sense that God is truly present in the Sacrament would, you think, give everyone great pause and concern that people are prepared to receive it. In the Orthodox Church, even though we are baptized members of the Orthodox Church, we are expected to prepare to receive the sacrament each week, by special prayers, fasting, and periodic confession. Such practices are consistent with the view that God is present.  The issue is not so much that God would “strike us dead” as St. Michael’s rector asserts, but that our state would mean that we would not react well to His holiness.  Following is a quote from a lecture given several years ago by a doctor and lay theologian from Greece that expresses the essence of the Orthodox view of judgment:

God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

All four authors support some level of open communion. the Vicar of Holy Cross is the most clearly in support of this. I was pondering why this was the case. Especially since she proclaims a belief in the real presence. Then it occurred to me, after listening to a talk on heresies and their manifestation today, that perhaps she doesn’t actually believe that Christ is God. Then his presence in the Eucharist wouldn’t raise questions about being worthy to approach.

Patristics and Context

As a final note, a couple of different quotes of St. Augustine are trotted out. In both cases, I’m pretty certain that the authors have not actually read the sermons that those quotes are from (the Vicar from Holy Cross wrongly asserts that her quote was a standard part of St. Augustine’s liturgy). Both miss the fact that the reference to becoming what you see is in fact a reference to the Orthodox understanding of theosis. The rector of St. Andrew’s asserts that St. Augustine’s phrase “Behold what you are” indicates that we are “fully accepted” by God, the phrase fully accepted is usually taken to mean, wallowing in our sins without need of repentance. Instead, he misses that the “Behold what you are” is a reference to the body of Christ, which is what we, as baptized, professing members of the Church are.

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