Sunday, 1 April 2012

Kneeling on the naughty step

We all know the situation — thanks to TV nannies, a child who misbehaves is now told they will have to go and sit on the ‘naughty step’.
The punishment is twofold. On the one hand, the child is taken away from doing what it wants. On the other, it knows clearly that it has actually been naughty — that’s why it’s called the ‘naughty step’, after all.
But there is another ‘naughty step’ that has a different function and a different message.
Many of us will have been to it this morning, perhaps without realizing. In fact, I wonder whether the Church of England’s liturgy, both ancient and modern, makes it clear enough.
I am referring to that step found in the chancel of most older churches, where you kneel to receive communion.
The trouble is, the Anglican heritage doesn’t quite get us in the right frame of mind. We don’t often use the Prayer Book ‘exhortation to worthy reception’ these days, but its legacy lives on. Think of these words addressed to those about to receive the Sacrament:
Judge therefore yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged of the Lord; repent you truly for your sins past; have a lively and stedfast faith in Christ our Saviour; amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all men; so shall ye be meet partakers of those holy mysteries.
And then comes the invitation to confession (which we do still use):
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort ...
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the reminder that we are sinners, just as there is nothing wrong with confessing our sins. But there is a strong sense in the Anglican tradition that the Holy Communion is for the already-pure, if anything strengthened rather than modified in Common Worship by the inclusion of an entire, and potentially self-contained, ‘Form of preparation’. So there we read,
As we gather at the Lord’s table we must recall the promises and warnings given to us in the Scriptures and so examine ourselves and repent of our sins. We should give thanks to God for his redemption of the world through his Son Jesus Christ and, as we remember Christ’s death for us and receive the pledge of his love, resolve to serve him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.
This, again, is followed by a lengthy form of confession and absolution. But my question is this: if we come to Communion as people who have received forgiveness, what role is there for act of reception in the Communion itself.
This is why I once wrote an experimental liturgy for Holy Communion without an absolution. The point I was making was that we receive the bread and wine not as forgiven sinners, but as sinners seeking forgiveness. Confession should be followed by reception, and in that we find our absolution.
Holy Communion is not a sending to the naughty step but an invitation. We come not as people who have first received forgiveness and made amends so that we are worthy to receive but as people knowing that our amends are never enough and needing to be forgiven. And it is the bread and wine which provide the absolution we need:
... this is my Body which is given for you ... this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins ...
We go to the rail as unworthy sinners, heads down in repentance. We return as those who, having fed on the body and blood of Christ, are now ‘very members incorporate in the mystical body’ of God’s Son, heads held high in forgiveness.
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  1. I have always thought that the idea of preparation for communion was about an awareness of our sinfulness and a readiness to accept absolution and redemption. As a ritual and sacrament, it is an outward sign of an inner and visible grace. We are not forgiven purely BECAUSE we take communion - it isn't some sort of "magic trick" that occurs regardless of our spiritual state? Repentance and forgiveness has to happen within, but the taking of communion powerfully symbolises and "acts out" our awareness of Christ having died for us and of us receiving that grace. It is an outward and visible sign of a inner and invisible grace. It helps "make it real" for us though, as sacraments do.

  2. I would be more in sympathy with Seum. If we are called to 'examine ourselves' before eating so that we do not eat 'unworthily' this implies confession and a clean heart before eating. The disciples who ate the first supper were declared 'clean' at the footwashing before the meal.

    The meal is fellowship and intimacy not forgiveness. It implies communion. The meal I see as not to receive forgiveness but assumes forgiveness and relationship. We eat to remember Christ in his death. We come not as sinners but saints who remember they were once sinners but who rejoice in the death of Jesus which is the basis of all the blessing we now enjoy.

  3. John,

    There is also the second exhortation in the BCP Communion service, which encourages those with a sensitive conscience and are full of guilt to come and receive the elements.

    See also Colin Buchanan's "What did Cranmer think he was doing?" (Grove Booklets).

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth

  4. Perhaps Cranmer (rightly in my view) had 1 Corinthians 11 in mind.
    “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)

    Perhaps Cranmer wanted to ensure that people did not fall into the Corinthian trap of not discerning the body.

    From what the Apostle Paul says, this is a perilous thing.

  5. "We go to the rail as unworthy sinners, heads down in repentance. We return as those who, having fed on the body and blood of Christ, are now ‘very members incorporate in the mystical body’ of God’s Son, heads held high in forgiveness."

    This seems to me to be a very mechanical and somewhat untheological view of the Supper. Is it not a fact that we are always "unworthy sinners" but are made "worthy" by faith in Christ alone as our Righteousness and already "incorporate in the mystical body" - all irrespective of our approach to the Supper.
    The current practice, as I understand it in Anglican as well as non conformist churches tends, in the words of a contemporary writer to fall very wide of the mark of the real intent and purpose of the Supper. He describes, I believe accurately, the mood as being "much more that of a funeral".
    His comment is conditioned by an understanding of the Supper as being alien to many if not most churches in their approach as to why we gather at the Table. For many I think it would throw much by way of fresh light and accompanying joy on the real meaning of the event.
    Perhaps the concept will be entirely new for some, but I quote his reminder of the primary purpose of the Supper by way of encouragement:
    "The purpose of celebrating the Lord's Supper is to sound a plea for the second coming. As often as the death of the Lord is proclaimed at the Supper, and the maranatha rises upwards, God is reminded of the unfulfilled climax of the work of salvation "until" (the goal is reached, that He comes)... at every eucharist the church then is in fact praying that the parousia may take place at that very moment.
    Each time the church comes together for the Supper, Christ is reminded that he is still not "eating" and not "drinking" (Luke 22:16-18) and that the heavenly banquet which the Lord's Supper prefigures has not yet been fulfilled in the kingdom". (this too is a sound reason for not divorcing the Lord's Supper from its original context of a full meal - as in the Passover meal of Luke 22)
    In other words the Supper is primarily eschatologically oriented, and is not in the first instance an occasion to recall past sins and forgiveness, though that may also be a natural element in the occasion. (Eric Svendsen 'The Table of the Lord')

  6. I don't see any reason why a modern service of Holy Communion should not reflect each of the points in Cranmer's original service.

    JR in the article above quotes from Cranmer's "Exhotacion", which is a mandatory part of the service of Holy Communion in every version of the BCP: 1549, 1552, 1662. And with good reason: Cranmer's deep understanding of Christian doctrine and Christian worship is given too little credence today.

    Here is the section just prior to the part that JR quotes. It also is profound in its understanding and, in my view, essential to a good solid and uplifting service of Holy Communion:

    "DEARLY beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord's Body; we kindle God's wrath against us; we provoke him to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kinds of death.

    judge therefore yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged ..." etc

  7. I should point out, my understanding of the sacraments has been heavily influenced by the works of Martin Luther. His "Sermon on the Worthy Reception of the Sacrament" contains the following striking observation:

    "... just see how far those who taught us that if we wanted to receive the sacrament worthily we would have to be perfectly pure have departed from the proper path. They made us shy and timid. They reduced the sweet and blessed sacrament to a frightful and hazardous act. As a result, only a few people come to the sacrament with joy and longing, since they constantly fear that they are not pure and worthy enough. [...] If you do not want to come to the sacrament until you are perfectly clean and whole, it would be better for you to remain away entirely. The sacrament is to purify you and help you. Yet you do not want to come until you no longer need its help and have already helped yourself." (Luther's Works 42:175, Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Emphasis added.)

    Now it seems to me that in the Anglican liturgy the positioning of the confession and absolution can give the impression that one must first be cleansed, then receive, whereas Luther (rightly in my view) says that one must first be aware of sin (and penitent for it), then receive to be cleansed. You can see some of this in what he says about private confession (which he typically left to individual choice as not being something commanded in Scripture, and therefore allows but does not require):

    "Now concerning private confession before communion, I still think as I have held heretofore, namely, that it neither is necessary nor should be demanded. Nevertheless, it is useful and should not be despised; for the Lord did not even require the Supper itself as necessary or establish it by law, but left it free to everyone when he said, “As often as you do this,” etc.. So concerning the preparation for the Supper, we think that preparing oneself by fasting and prayer is a matter of liberty. ... [But] the best preparation is—as I have said—a soul troubled by sins, death, and temptation and hungering and thirsting for healing and strength." (LW 53:34.)

    In the "German Order of the Mass", however, it appears that consecration and reception follow directly on an exhortation by the celebrant, which ends with these words:

    "... I admonish you in Christ that you discern the Testament [ie sacrament] of Christ in true faith and, above all, take to heart the words wherein Christ imparts to us his body and his blood for the remission of our sins. That you remember and give thanks for his boundless love which he proved to us when he redeemed us from God’s wrath, sin, death, and hell by his own blood. And that in this faith? you externally receive the bread and wine, i.e., his body and his blood [sic], as the pledge and guarantee of this. In his name therefore, and according to the command that he gave, let us use and receive the Testament." (LW 53:79)

    This seems to me to place the centre of gravity in the right place liturgically.

    We must not forget, however, that we are dealing here with matters of liturgical practice, and are in the realm of 'signs' rather than 'the thing signified'. So our sign of forgiveness and our sense of being forgiven must be understood in its own context (ie the liturgy), whereas the thing signified (our relationship) with God is to be considered differently.

    Thus as Graham observes, and as Luther would have put it, we are in this life semper iustus et peccator: always justified and a sinner (and the key word is 'always').

    But the liturgy reminds us that there is a real dealing with our sins through eternal realities made manifest in space and time. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, died on the cross, and the forgiveness obtained there is brought home to us 'sacramentally' here.

  8. Andrew White, Sydney10 April 2012 at 03:23


    Looking at both the passover accounts and the references to the Lord's table in the NT, I am struck that we are passive participants in the process. We don't come to seek forgiveness, to repent, or otherwise do more than witness (or remember) God's salvation taking place around us.

    Exodus, original: the Israelites slaughter, paint and eat the passover lamb, but are not "active" participants. They do not repent or petition God. Rather, they wait safe as his salvation and judgement occurs around them.

    Exodus, annual reminder: again, the passover is not a time or meal of repentance or petition, but a meal to remember the salvation God has already acted to achieve.

    Last supper: except perhaps for Judas, the disciples do not actually do anything during this event. Jesus explains what is about to happen, and warns them of the trials to follow, but no transaction is taking place between them and God, except what God is about to achieve despite them.

    Lord's table accounts in Paul: the emphasis here seems to be on a feast or gathering of the Christians. They are warned not to come to the table while cherishing sin, but there is no suggestion that they attend the Lord's supper in order to repent. Once again, it is a witness / reminder / celebration of what God has already done for his people.

    As such, I would take issue with this last paragraph:
    "We go to the rail as unworthy sinners, heads down in repentance. We return as those who, having fed on the body and blood of Christ, are now ‘very members incorporate in the mystical body’ of God’s Son, heads held high in forgiveness."

    I contend we do neither. We partake of / participate in the Lord's supper as the already saved people of God, reminding ourselves of how his mighty work of salvation and judgement inaugurates the covenant people of which we are part. We do not go to seek forgiveness; rather, as those who are already forgiven, we go to marvel at the mighty work of God.