“We have failed to be an obedient church…”
I agree. In as much as we have accepted the ecumenical rites and have promulgated them among our congregations, we have failed to be an obedient Church.
Let us reflect a moment on the purpose of these short essays and what help we hope to come of them. First, it is to dispel the false teaching that the ecumenical Rites we have adopted are in accordance with the earliest practice of the Church when in substance they are contrary to that practice. Second, having established what they are not to demonstrate what they are—not by substituting my imagination for their clear intent, but by showing their purpose in the plain words of the ecumenical revisionists. Third, to encourage the faithful who are earnestly working to present the genuine Christ and offer the benefit of the authentic Sacrament—for God does not work on behalf of an impostor and does not promise to honor a counterfeit sacrament. Finally, it is the hope that we may help so many who walk away from the table perceiving no benefit and increasingly consider the Sacrament an intrusive optional addendum to worship.
To that end we have already established in essay two of this series that the Ecumenical Rites abandoned the Apostolic Tradition by abandoning that part which developed into the Exhortation and Summary of the Law. While those terms were created in the Middle Ages, and it doesn’t matter what we call them, they refer to a body of Scriptural truth that has accompanied the Sacrament from the Upper Room into the Apostolic Tradition and then into the formal liturgies. The teaching includes Christ’s purpose in instituting the Sacrament as a means of grace for the forgiveness of sin, the great benefit available for the faithful, its help for an amended life, and an admonition to those who will not benefit through participation.
If one is to develop a rite that is consistent with early church practice but for use in a church where people at the table might have literally just walked in off the street, it stands to reason that it will need more catechetical material not less. The ecumenical revisionists not only failed to adopt that teaching from the Apostolic Tradition, but they also scrapped that part which was still extant in the ritual through the Summary of the Law and the call to Confession. It cannot be said that the Ecumenical Rites are representative of the practice of the early Church.
Further, it invented an element of the Eucharist that the Ancients never knew and no others in the Christian faith have adopted—The Invitation to Holy Communion. Whether it was intended to replace the Exhortation, the Summary of the Law, the Call to Confession, or all three is unclear and irrelevant. The idea of Jesus inviting us to the Eucharist runs contrary to the Biblical narrative of a God who calls and commands but does not invite. As Jesus calls the disciples to make ready for the Passover he instructs, directs, and ultimately commands them. He does not say anything like, “I’m having dinner tonight at the Upper Room. Would you like to join me?” Before the meal is over, he commands to guard this Sacrament as a perpetual remembrance.
The concept of an invitation to Holy Communion presents a God and a Sacrament which we may accept or decline without affecting (for better or worse) our relationship with the host. Many of us have been taught this invitation and lived with it for so long that it is a hard thing to think we might have accepted a counterfeit. Why do you think the ecumenical reformers insisted on the use of a word that has never been used in this context before? I suggest it is because it is not the word “call”, and it is not the word “command”. Those words say something of the character of God that they want to move away from. One might speak of a God who “invites” in casual conversation or in a limited context as a sermon illustration, but not as the character of God. Now we are not only disconnected from the Apostolic Tradition and historic practice, but we are completely outside the Biblical narrative. (Another post will examine who is called to the table. Is open communion necessarily indiscriminate communion?)
In essay one of this series, we heard in their own words that it was the intent of the liturgical revisionists to rescue the rite from the Biblical narrative of the Upper Room, the cross, and all things relating to personal piety and penitence. In this essay, we will see how it is in the Confession and Pardon that they have their greatest success. “We have failed to be an obedient church…” That takes the responsibility off the individual and places it on the community. In making the confession I recognize that the church has problems, therefore things would be fine if it wasn’t for these other people around here. The focus of the confession is on the earthbound community and its concerns. The great virtues of the prayer are accepting others and sharing. Just as any fault is placed primarily with community, our obligation is owed primarily to the community. These things are important, and the concept ought not be removed; but they are fruits of a Christian life—not the cause of it. We can see how the liturgy reinforces a teaching in our pulpits and denominational literature that a person who accepts others, shares, and tries to make things better is reconciled with God apart from any atoning act.
It is not a “bad” prayer. It is merely inadequate to the task. The purpose of a common prayer of confession is to guide the community and the individual members thereof into contemplative silence where we recognize that each of us has some things we simply must get right with God. In this new prayer there is nothing of God’s desire for personal piety or holiness, nothing about sins of thought, word, and deed, and nothing of what we personally have done or left undone. It is the community that has failed, and if we are guilty, it is only by association. Since the prayer is limited to two sentences (plus one to ask forgiveness) then there is not much you can fit in there. The Ecumenical Rite wants to get through confession in a hurry.
Likewise, the words of pardon are not bad words. Some of the most beautiful words I will ever hear are, In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. The problem is it is just so rushed. Five sentences carry the weight of the entire Confession and Pardon. I have made an anecdotal study of the matter from an admittedly small randomly selected sample. In common practice, from the first words of the Invitation until we hear the proclamation of forgiveness is typically one minute (Give or take a few seconds. The forever to be unnamed record holder accomplished this in 35 seconds). That is one minute to consider the purpose for which we are called to this table, contemplate the solemnity of the occasion, reflect that we have some things we simply must get right with God, silently meditate on these matters while opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and comfort, hear of God’s desire to forgive us, and receive the proclamation of forgiveness accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ. If you want to minimize atonement, penitence, and piety then you must move through this part fast.
It is not that the things being said are bad. They are inadequate for the purpose. We could reduce it all to four simple three-word sentences.
Celebrant: Christ calls us.
People: We have sinned. God forgive us.
Celebrant: Christ forgives you.
Doesn’t carry the weight, does it? It’s all true. Seems like there are some blanks that need filling in. Nothing bad is said, but it is not faithful to the solemnity of the occasion, nor historic practice, nor the Biblical narrative. If my four-sentence version seems an absurd reduction of what we currently use, I suggest what we currently use is an absurd reduction of historic faith and practice.
The ancients spent three years as a catechumen before coming to the table. Three years under the mentorship of a small cell within the Church. Three years being observed as to how they conduct themselves in their employment, with the public, and among the faithful. They would not recognize this rite as a faithful representation of how they know God, but they could probably come to the table and receive the benefit because they would know how to fill in the blanks. Some of the devoted faithful in your Church are likely doing just that—filling in the blanks on their own. But if the people at the table include those who never heard of a catechism, if there are some who are confused and earnestly struggling to come to know the things of God, if some are only there because they promised Aunt Sally they would drive her to church, or if there are people at the table who just walked in off the street having never darkened the door of a church; then this rite is wholly inadequate. It is no wonder that so many leave the table without encountering the Christ truly present, with no change wrought, and no benefit perceived.
I am encouraged by the countless clergy who working independently in their own churches to retore authentic Eucharistic practice for the people. Some make adaptations and insertions for the rite while others abandon it completely for another rite. Some toss everything out and start from scratch with the Biblical accounts. Since the United Methodist Church lacks any source of teaching authority, it will have to be that way for a while (see A brief Defense of Authentic Bishops). The last essay in this series will offer some positive concrete solutions that churches are implementing and helpful methods for introducing them to the congregation.
This has been a long post and I thank you for bearing with me. I have said what needs to be said, but if you abide just a little longer, I have one personal reflection on the current Prayer of Confession. We confess that the church has not been obedient because, we have not heard the cry of the needy. I want to know where is this church! I speak plain words in the calling the church to integrity. I can understand why some would call me a faultfinder. I have never seen such a church—even among the nominal Christians—that I could justly accuse of not being attentive of the needy. Not only do they hear the cries they go out of their way to listen for them. If anyone knows of such a church, then identify them so we may go to them and snatch them from the fire!
Just as it is a deadly hypocrisy to refuse to confess that of which we know we are guilty; it is a deadly hypocrisy to make a show of confessing that of which we know we are not. Since we have been discussing Apostolic Constitutions, here is a quote.
Concerning Deportment, And the Eucharist, And Initiation into Christ: Concerning hypocrisy, and obedience to the laws, and confession of sin thou shalt confess thy sins to the Lord thy God; and thou shalt not add to them anymore, that it may be well with thee from the Lord thy God, who willeth not the death of a sinner, but his repentance.
If this is so pervasive a fault of the church that it need be included in a general confession rather than in the occasional prayers for the church, then there should be no trouble identifying a thousand churches who do not hear the cry of the needy. I—who may be called a faultfinder—have never seen one.