I once met an Orthodox woman who was flabbergasted to hear that in some parts of the Episcopal Church, Mary is not venerated. “I know there can be different practices on the Eucharist and other things,” she said, “but I just don’t see how you can be a Christian and not venerate the Virgin Mary!”
I thought of that woman the other night when I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine about communion with the unbaptized. This is the practice of sharing communion with all who come to the rail, regardless of whether they are baptized or not.
My friend, who opposes changing the practice, said, “I can’t see the point of having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this subject. It just seems so obvious what the answer is.”
My friend also supports the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. I pointed out to him that his comment is more or less what has been said by those who oppose changing the church’s teachings on homosexuality.
Everyone draws the line in a different place. Mary. Homosexuality. Communion. We all (and I include myself here) have issues on which we are unyielding and absolutely convinced of our own rightness.
We’ve had a decade or more of trench warfare in the Episcopal Church on sexuality (which continues). It has conditioned us to think of a major liberal / conservative divide in the church. What is interesting about the communion debate is the way in which it complicates this divide, as my friend demonstrates. This actually fills me with hope.
I hope that in this conversation about communion we will learn again how to disagree with one another. I hope we learn that the liberal / conservative understanding of the church is not set in stone and, in fact, doesn’t do a very good job of capturing its full diversity. I hope we can learn that Christian unity is not about ensuring that everyone believes and does the same thing. Rather, Christian unity is about recognizing a pattern of faithful living in another person, a pattern of living that shows that one’s life has been transformed by Christ.
It is very easy in any debate—sexuality, communion, Mary—for the stakes to escalate quickly and for anathemas to start being thrown around with reckless abandon. (It has always been so in church history.) What if, in this conversation about communion, we could start by focusing on our patterns of faithful living and pursue ways of building these ties? What would it be like for people who disagree on communion to come together for prayer, instead of debate? As much as I am filled with hope, I fear that Tom Ferguson is right and the communion question will quickly become one which “will just become another flashpoint as we organize ourselves into our little mini-communities, desperately trying to find the people who are like us, and, hence, the true Episcopalians.”
I’m not saying that conversation on this topic, and many others, is not necessary. But it’s striking how quickly we think debate can be the only thing we need to do in the church when, in fact, it’s a small part of what it means to be a Christian wrestling with a difficult topic.
The way in which the church argues can be a key part of our counter-cultural witness to the world. Maybe on the communion question we can begin to get it right.