I have sometimes thought of writing on the topic of the Church, for I suspect that it is issues around ecclesiology that often form a stumbling block for many people. I have often encountered other Christians who are fascinated by Orthodoxy, want to learn from us and “use” our tradition, but who balk at the full implications of what Orthodox tradition really means. You cannot, to be quite frank about it, have Orthodoxy without the Church – and by this we mean the visible, historically mediated Church which is the Eucharistic community gathered around the bishop. Yet it is this Church that is often the stumbling block.
The Orthodox understanding of the Church is often either completely unknown to other Christians, or else it is seen as scandalously arrogant. There is a common – basically Protestant – assumption that “the Church” is an invisible entity made up of various “denominations” that makes it very difficult for Orthodox (or Roman Catholic) Christians to engage in discussions without appearing arrogant or exclusivist.
Linked to this is a widespread horror at our insistence that the reception of Holy Communion is limited to Orthodox Christians – and those who are suitably prepared for it, at that. Such practices fly in the face of contemporary demands for “inclusivity,” which has come to be seen as far more important than the theological integrity of the Church and its Liturgy.
There are issues around this that I keep wanting to explore more, but Father Stephen Freeman has expressed some of them far better than I could in his recent post The Politics of the Cup. Drawing on Hauerwas, he writes:
Many Christians fail to see the “politics” of their faith. They think one thing and do another (it is another aspect of the “two-storey universe”). Almost nothing is as eloquent an expression of the Church’s life than the “politics of the Cup.” What we do with the Eucharist and how that action displays the inner reality of our life is a deeply “political” expression (in the sense that Hauerwas uses the word).
The one common thread throughout the Protestant Reformation was its opposition to the Church of Rome. Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican Reforms were all embraced by various rising nation states, not so much for the appeal of the particularities of their teaching, but for their willingness to provide cover for the subjugation of the Church to the political demands of secular rulers.
Those demands are far less transparent in the modern period. The legitimacy of the state is today rooted in democratic theories. Those same theories are legitimized by the individualism of popular theology. Eucharistic hospitality is the sacramental expression of individualism. The Open Cup represents the individual’s relationship with Christ without regard for the Church. It is the unwitting sacrament of the anti-Church.
In the last few decades, the same individualism has taken on great immediacy within a consumerist economy. At the same time, we have seen the rise of arguments for a radically individualized reception of communion, one that no longer insists on Baptism. Only the secret intention of the recipient is required. The Eucharist becomes inert – reduced to the status of an object to be chosen or rejected according to the desire of the individual. It is a consumer’s communion with himself.
I have more thoughts on this, including on the violence implicit in inclusivist agendas – if everyone can receive communion, then it will not be long before everyone must do so – and on the underlying monism that influences such thinking, but I don’t know when I’ll get them together. But Father Stephen’s post helps to unmask what many people take for granted, and articulates the true vision of a genuine hospitality that is offered to all. Do go and read the whole post.