Friday, December 23, 2011

Communion and Impairment, Covenant and Contract

I am delighted to hear that Archdeacon Thompson's tract on what constitutes a proper church is to be published in the official ACC resources. I'll post a link to it when finally it appears.

The ACC comes under some unjust fire in the U.K. It seems that there are many who not only misunderstand our position, but also misrepresent it. When we offer, on quite friendly terms, just to sit and talk about it, we are told that we are dangerous heretics and not to be talked to. I'm afraid that this attitude comes to us from some quarters of the CofE. We might be firm in our beliefs, but we do try to be as open and as accommodating as we can. If we are perceived as "nasty" and "bitter", then perhaps we need to know in what way we have been so "nasty" and "bitter" and correct it. Likewise, if you believe we are "dangerous" and "heretical", please tell us why you think that.

However, we are a proper church as our Venerable Archdeacon states. How so? What do we mean by "proper"?

Archdeacon Thompson states that it is because we hold fast to what the Church has always done. We have bishops, priests and deacons, say the traditional Masses, use the Books of Common Prayer as the CofE used to use. If they point to Eternal Truth, how can they go out-of-date? What I also see in his writing is that we can actually go a bit further and point to the whole notion of covenant which runs throughout all human relationship with God.

One of the reasons that we modern Christians find the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) so difficult to engage with is because our "Christian" society has lost what it means to be bene berit "people of the covenant". The Hebrew term for covenant - berit - has the basic notion of promise or pledge, and for us Catholics, this is entirely bound up with the word Sacrament, which from the military Latin term sacramentum reinforces the idea of oath involved in our Christian worship.

There is a great distinction between law and covenant, and St Paul really does hammer this home in his epistle to the Romans. A law is enforced by the prevailing political system and is there to regulate the actions of the people. One does not choose whether or not to obey the law, it forms an obligation with the threat of sanction and punishment. If we live by law, then we are judged by the law.

If, however, we choose to enter into a relationship then we agree terms by which that relationship is defined and agree by all parties concerned. By allying ourselves to God, we enjoy His alliance with us. God is covenantal, He chooses to bind Himself within the terms of the covenant He has drawn up with us. We are free to reject that covenant, but in so doing we reject the benefits that we might receive from keeping it. If we live apart from the law, then we will be judged apart from the law.

Of course, we do individually fail to abide by the Contract which we have made with God. However, there is a clause in this "contract" which enables us to remain people of the covenant. This clause is that of the Cross. The Covenant was written on the altar of the Body of Christ and signed in His Blood. It is through this advocacy of Christ that our sins and trespass - our transgressions of the Covenant - do not void the terms, as long as we recognise and keep the terms of the Body and Blood of Christ.

This brings us to the very idea of what it means to be in "impaired" Communion.

I do speak personally here because I have used this idea of impairment to remain past my time in the CofE, though I believe was kept in the CofE long enough to say my final goodbyes to a dear old friend.

My argument went something like:

1) I am a Catholic and therefore a member of the Catholic Church;
2) My parish has a female deacon;
3) The Mass in the next parish conforms to Catholic principles and the priest is validly ordained;
4) I receive Communion with the next parish, but not my own;
5) I can still serve as Reader in my own parish because I am still in Communion with the Church even though I do not receive Communion in my own parish;
6) This is precisely impaired Communion.

Is this any different from the Forward in Faith idea of impairment, that there is a "cherry-picking" of from whom we receive the sacraments and from whom we can't?

One might accuse Archdeacon Thompson of false dichotomy when it comes to being in communion and cite the idea of being in bed or not being in bed as the exemplar of that. That would be unfair. While there are many issues in Christianity which cannot be described in terms of black and white, there are many issues that are. If I hate someone and wilfully stab them with a knife and they die, then I am guilty of murder. Not only am I culpable in the law and therefore deserving of punishment in the secular courts, but I am also in severe mortal sin and my soul is in danger of Hell.

The issue of Communion is also a black and white issue, though we can't pretend for one moment that we have the ability to resolve every case in a black and white way. We mere humans are woefully incapable of grasping absolutes, but we can ensure that we keep ourselves sufficiently in the terms of the Covenant so that we can receive assurance from God that we are still in the relationship with Him. This is the whole point of the Church, because it is through our membership and activity within the Church that we receive that very assurance of God's love for us expressed sacramentally.

If we violate the covenant as a body, then the assurance is lost. What may look like a well-done Mass will not have the assurance of the Body and Blood of Christ if the terms of the Covenant written on that very Body in that very Blood are not adhered to. Everyone who is in Communion with Christ is in Communion with each other, this is true. Thus we cannot fail to be in Communion with anyone, no matter who they are or what they do or believe, who is in Communion with Christ. However Communion with Christ requires that the terms of the Covenant be met. These terms are written in the Catholic Faith of the Undivided Church and prefigured in the faith of our beloved Jewish brethren whose faith is perfected in the person of Christ. Alteration to those terms violates the Covenant. Thus my erstwhile argument falls in (3): Catholic principles are more than aesthetic but underlie all that the Church does, otherwise they cease to be Catholic! (Well, Duh!)

So what of those who do violate the Covenant? I don't know. I'm not the judge and I don't want to be. God is both just and merciful with all His Children, and faithful too. I'll still happily sit down and eat with them, discuss social issues with them and think about how we can work together, despite not being in Communion with them. They must understand that we can only go so far, and we must respect their choice.

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