The curious case of the bishop who didn’t celebrate the Eucharist

Here’s a picture of the Rt. Rev. Stephen Conway, the bishop of Ely in the Church of England.

By chance, I’ve been to two services in the past week at which he’s presided: one, a re-dedication of a refurbished church, the other, the installation of a new rector.

What was interesting to me is that at neither service did Bishop Stephen celebrate the Eucharist. I can’t remember the last time I saw an American bishop conduct a service at which he or she did not celebrate the Eucharist.

I was reminded of a comment my (English) liturgy professor once made in class: the American church, he said, had a case of “Eucharistic inflation.” That is, we celebrated the Eucharist at every possible juncture. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes it the “principal” service on Sundays and that thinking has spread to lots of other services such as, for instance, re-dedications and installations.

There are very good theological reasons for doing so and I do not for a minute want to minimize the significance of the Eucharist. Nor do I want to suggest that the Eucharist is not an important part of my (daily) devotional life. However, it occurred to me that if Episcopalians celebrated the Eucharist less, we might not be in such a knot about communion and baptism. We might also be able to lift up the many other significant services that form our life of prayer together. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the installation not to celebrate the Eucharist. There were many members of the community there—including the mayor and several other secular representatives—who were not necessarily religious types.

Perhaps the conversation about communion and baptism is, inter alia, a chance to think about opportunities not to celebrate communion and who we include—and who we exclude—when we do and when we don’t. What would Eucharistic deflation look like?

After all, if a bishop can happily conduct services without celebrating the Eucharist at every turn, can’t we learn something from that?

The Gospel of Inclusivity and The Gospel of Transformation

If you had to use one word to sum up the Gospel message, what would it be? For a fair number of people in the Episcopal Church these days, the answer seems to be “inclusive.” God’s love is an “inclusive love” we are told. God invites all people to the table. There are “no outcasts,” as a previous presiding bishop once said.

There’s a song from John Bell and the Iona Community that goes:

God welcomes all

Strangers and friends

God welcomes all

And it never ends

In my experience, this pretty much sums up a major strand of thought in the Episcopal Church today: “You’re included!”

The trouble is, this stand of thought—while highlighting something deeply true about the life and death of Christ—is not all there is to the teachings of Jesus. At some point we have to wrestle with the non-inclusive parts of Jesus’ ministry, like the story he tells about the king who sent out messengers to invite all kinds of people to a wedding. (The king is being inclusive!) When the guests arrive, the king tosses out those who are not dressed properly. “For many are called, but few are chosen,” says Jesus (Matt. 22:14). This is the same Jesus who tells us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt. 7:21)

If I had to use one word to sum up the Gospel, it might be “transformation.” This is what Jesus is getting at when he tells Nicodemus he needs to be “born again” (John 3). It is what Paul tells the Romans they need to do—“be transformed” (12:2). Arguably, it’s what the wedding guests in the Matthew 22 parable did not do. They were invited but they did not allow themselves to be transformed. Inclusion is only the first part of the Gospel message. Transformation into the new life in Christ is what’s important.

There’s something particularly ironic about the way in which this gospel of inclusivity has come to the fore in the Episcopal Church at a time when our attendance figures are only getting smaller. It’s like we’re standing there saying, “You’re included!” and people are saying, “No thanks. I’d rather not be.” After all, there are already plenty of clubs to be involved in. Why be part of the church as well?

But what if we stood out there and told people in the world, “God is going to change your life!” There are lots of people in this world who are looking for different/new/changed lives. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things are, both in people’s personal lives and with the world around us. One central strand of the Christian Gospel is to recognize that things aren’t right and then say “But we have a way to change that. Come share in the death and resurrection of Christ with us and be made a new person.”

I’m not convinced that the Gospel of Inclusivity is getting us anywhere. But I think a Gospel of Transformation might.