Closed communion: On maybe not being God’s gift to the world

As the trend in Mennonite Church Canada continues to drift towards ‘open communion’ (which typically refers to an invitation to receive communion regardless of one’s ‘merits’ [baptism, membership, etc.] or even designation as a Christian) I found myself becoming more resistant than I anticipated. There are several reasons for this.

First, by way of orientation. In my experience ‘closed’ communion is typically supported by the notion that communion already reflects a faith commitment. This could be appealed to by way of the biblical precedent of only disciples being present at the founding event and then also of the very early church tradition in which communion was given special weight in relation to a believers commitment. It is assumed that people find value in communion and as a significant site of spiritual formation and worship it is not something to be undertaken lightly.

As many traditions in the last 50 years or so began to question and address the manner in which the church has functioned to exclude people and hold an unhelpful and hypocritical measuring tape up against others there have been attempts to ‘open’ communion, focusing rather on the radical hospitality of Jesus and the rejection of meritocracy, on who is ‘worthy’ to judge and to receive communion. Communion becomes a symbol that anyone should be able to recognize and receive as a sign of grace.

What I find myself wondering about is the arrogance of the church in both of these models. Closed communion can certainly be reflective of a larger ‘closed’ culture in a congregation which is unable to recognize faithfulness and goodness in people who do not fit the moral codes of a congregational theology. This is still most easily identifiable in matters of marriage of equality or sexual orientation but this extends in basic postures of piety that often reflect middle-class values on what being ‘blessed’ looks like and in turn what we expect others to look like. And so ‘closed’ communion can easily function to reinforce who is really a part of God’s chosen people. There can be an equating holiness with perfection and the church as stewards of this protection. This aligns with the deeper theology of Christian supremacy which believes the church to sufficient and superior prior to contact with what is unrecognized.

In this way it makes sense for those addressing these harmful practices to ‘open’ communion and indeed focus on radical hospitality, extending the table as it were. However, I find this posture to be more a reaction in overcoming the narrowness of its more conservative brothers and sisters. What I mean is that I am concerned this approach is more about soothing our own guilt and distancing ourselves from what we find distasteful in other church forms than actually thinking about how communion can and should function in the church. So, a few thoughts.

If communion is meant to be an intimate space in the relation to God and fellow believers church leadership should never consider it a completely open space. One can only wonder how many times victims have been forced to take communion alongside abusers. The time has fully arrived for the church to re-visit the question of church discipline particularly in relation to issues of abuse and harassment. It seems reasonable if not necessary to reflect on how to make communion a safe space (which includes an interrogation of the theology behind communion practices).

And so while communion should hopefully support and protect those within a congregation I also feel like we need to be more attentive to how communion protects those outside the congregation. Unless we wish to make communion literally a meal basically like every other meal (which could well be fine) then we need to acknowledge that communion reflects a practice that bonds one to God and to one another. There is great pious theology that can articulate the abounding love of God which is for everyone. And most of us in the church do hope that if there is something good we can offer, we want to offer it. But deploying this theology at the site of communion may not be the most helpful.

This call to open communion can again communicate that we are literally God’s gift to everyone, that we have what is good for what ails you. And so what I am wondering if we are willing to acknowledge that we may NOT actually be good for some people to be bonded to. I hear this from some black people who are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with our white churches trying to be more ‘diverse’ (making them a project of their aspirations). I hear this from queer individuals hesitant to receive welcome when it is only practiced in a let’s-all-agree-to-disagree-and-focus-on-unity context (ultimately subsuming them under a repressive theology). And it is quite simply arrogant to assume we have what you need (I can’t help but think there is a sneaking supremacy in all this).

Rather, take your time. Get to know the church. Learn about its history, theology and practices. You know, catechism. If the church can only offer communion as a means of support to those outside its congregation it is probably doing something wrong. There are all kinds of tables, all kinds of relationships and opportunities. We don’t have our house in order and should not be quick to begin bonding someone to our family dynamics until that person has a better sense of what they are getting themselves into. Particularly as Mennonites we cannot allow our theology to become increasingly divorced from our ecclesial realities.

When no news is good news and other gospel truths

Acts 16:6-9

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’

At Jesus’s ascension in the beginning of Acts Jesus tells the disciples that they will be witnesses to the ends of the earth. If this is the case then why keep them from going into Asia?

Continue reading “When no news is good news and other gospel truths”

Building a capacity to love: Confessions, authority, and virtues in the Mennonite Church

In the ongoing discussions around authority and the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process in Mennonite Church Canada I recently heard a well-known leader in the Mennonite Church suggest that we suspend the authority of our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective for a period of, say, 1o years. As much as I can be critical of the various institutional mechanisms of authority in the Mennonite church I was not sure of the usefulness (never mind possibility) of such a suggestion.

Continue reading “Building a capacity to love: Confessions, authority, and virtues in the Mennonite Church”

A call to worship

At the Mennonite Church Manitoba gathering on March 5th we watched a video describing the report of the Future Directions Task Force (FDTF). This report details substantive changes in the structure and work of Mennonite Canada, Area churches, and congregations. While I am broadly in support of the structural changes (or at least don’t have some other great idea) I want to focus on one element of the guiding theology in this report (and in the general communication of Mennonite Church Canada).

One line from the video crystallized this element for me. While explaining the various proposals of the report the narrator said, “Mission is the tone for everything we do.” Mission is the tone, the animating stimulus and identifying frequency of everything we express as the Mennonite church. This is a theological misstep.

Until we have done the explicit work of understanding and acknowledging the abuses of historic Christian missions then I simply cannot see how it can be helpful to think of mission as that which animates and identifies everything. While much has been done addressing abuses in missions one crucial component remains almost completely neglected. In nearly every official document of Mennonite Church Canada what is good moves from the church into the world. There is no accounting for how the Christian and how the church can receive good news.

For this reason alone I cannot support mission (that is, sending, the moving from church to world) as that which animates all we do. And even if we had adequately addressed the issues related to Christian missions I still wouldn’t think it is the right way of orienting ourselves as a church.

The beginning, way, and end of faith is worship.

Perhaps this goes without saying but if this is the case then there is all the more need for it to be understood and articulated well. Perhaps there is a concern that such a statement would reflect a culture of narcissism or navel gazing. This would be to misunderstand worship.

Worship is the practice and context in which we direct our attention, determine our values, form attachments, and express devotion.

If this is our understanding of worship then it necessarily forms a dynamic relationship with the rest of the world. For instance our worship will put us in conflict with our current economic system. Advertisers attempt to direct our attention, money is used to determine an equivalent for nearly any value, debt and wage-labour form our attachments and call us to express devotion. Worship, understood in the broad strokes I have outlined, has profound implications in relation to the world around us (in ways that we would have typically called ‘mission’).

Worship nurtures a form of offering and receiving which can help disentangle ourselves from the supremacist elements of missions that work explicitly or implicitly in our theology.

Worship provides a more interactive understanding of formation and witness which have functionally operated as silos in our current structure.

I understand that worship is a term that can quickly become vague and nebulous taking its shape from our various contexts and practices. But this is the case with any term we offer as providing some larger context or understanding. I would still maintain that it is difficult argue against the statement of worship being the beginning, way, and end of our faith and so it should be articulated as such in this time of change. Worship is a practice and context that pulses in our gathering and spreading. The circulation that worship offers is necessary for a healthy church near and far.

Declaring the good news

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.’
Matthew 10:16-19

What are we doing as Christians when we declare the gospel, the good news? Typical of historic Christianity has been the assumption that the gospel, as a message, as a relationship, even as the power of God (to put it in the Apostle Paul’s language), is something which moves from the Christian or church to the non-Christian or the world. It is hardly necessary to point out that the mission of the Church has been to declare the gospel throughout the world with either the implicit or explicit assumption that the world is insufficient (to put it mildly) before such a message is declared.

Continue reading “Declaring the good news”

For the cross to be the cross sometimes it will not be the cross

In a recent comment exchange regarding a post I wrote about the supremacist elements in Christian missions Tom Yoder Neufeld made a familiar Anabaptist move gesturing towards the particularity of Christ when he states,

“I think the mission of the church is about being the body of the one who made peace not with no-name healing and hope, or a generic just peace, but by the specific act of creating in himself a new human, destroying the hostility between us and our enemies and between us and God through the cross. That mystery is supreme over any and all of our efforts to articulate and live it; and it stands in perpetual judgment on our profound betrayals of it.” [emphasis mine]

I want to start by addressing the first half of that statement while hopefully coming to comment on the second half. By and large I agree with the move to particularity when it comes to talking about the content of our faith and thought. What I think Neufeld is critiquing is the notion that we can arrive a neutral or even secular criteria for ‘healing’ or ‘justice’ when it fact such notions come loaded with their own sets of assumptions and values that often go unnoticed. So for instance the liberal western notion of individual freedom often does not take into account indigenous claims to the land on behalf of an entire people group. These two notions of justice are at odds and one must, consciously or not, side with one particular notion or the other. I acknowledge and support such a critique.

Neufeld, however, wants to move this particularity under the category of ‘the cross’. The cross, however, was not a theological abstraction but a particular event from which particular believers were formed in their thinking and acting. I want to suggest, though, that perhaps the Gospel is actually much more generic, actually does arrive as one with no-name. That, and I hope I will understood here, for the cross to be the cross sometimes it will not be the cross. It seems that, according to the Gospels anyway, Jesus was not really concerned about the name under which ‘messianic’ or ‘kingdom’ elements were brought under. When asked by John’s disciples if he was the messiah Jesus asks them to simply tell John what they see. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be serving the king when they attend to the realities of the nameless marginalized. And most specifically Jesus clarifies that naming our lives and actions under the title ‘Lord, Lord’ gives no special place of status.

I know Neufeld is aware of all these things. I expect that his expression is at least somewhat in agreement with them. However, I still wonder if the ‘mystery’ in the second half of his statement should actually offer more judgement over the way we recuperate any possible notions of mission or gospel within our existing theological categories, even if those categories are as broad as ‘the cross’.

There is no question that the image of ‘the cross’ has been appropriated in all sorts of ways. Many expressions of the cross have been easily taken up into dominant cultural modes whether in outright superstition or just gaudy consumerism. So I want to suggest that for ‘the cross’ to have any integrity in theology or missions it will of course remain particular to the Gospel accounts but the Gospel itself should actually be much more generic. The Gospel has no-name other than the ones that emerge from those testifying to their encounter with it. This is its power and its vulnerability. And it is precisely at those intersections of deliverance, testimony, fellowship, and discernment that we all must be open to having our thoughts and actions laid bare for the unmaking and remaking of our lives.