when christ dies on the cross the curtain in the temple is ripped from top to bottom. that curtain guarded the way into the place that only the priests could go. it is a sign that the religious power controlling access to god is ended. the way is open. in some mysterious way christ’s non violent resistance disarms the powers including the power of religious domination.
while in new zealand i read binding the strong man by ched myers. it is a brilliant commentary on mark’s gospel story of the life of jesus christ. i found it compelling. he sees jesus’ life as one of non violent resistance to the powers that oppress and dominate people. in the foreword to the twentieth anniversary edition hendricks describes it as nothing less than a project to rewild the church. i should have read it years ago.
there are two powers that jesus contends with - the imperial power of rome and the religious power of jerusalem.
myers tees up the narrative by saying that these two powers are highlighted in stories where people are oppressed by an evil spirit. the first is in the synagogue where an unclean spirit says to jesus ‘why are you interfering with us’? this is a pretty perceptive question because within the first few chapters of mark jesus has interfered with the way the religious world is controlled and organised by breaking laws of the sabbath, healing people, suggesting that god has come to those who the religious world deems unclean - touching lepers, eating with ‘scum’ tax collectors, touching a woman who is unclean through bleeding, blind beggars, gentiles and the list goes on. he messes with what is clean and dirty. within three chapters the heavies from jerusalem have been sent up to investigate and accuse jesus of being possessed by the devil. and so it goes on from there. jesus does not mince his words when he confronts the religious authorities about how they burden and oppress people. his stark warning to his followers is ‘beware the yeast of the pharisees’. this all eventually comes to a head in jerusalem where jesus turns the tables in the temple which is the heart of the religious ordering and system which is ripping off the poor, and while the disciples are admiring the building he says that within a generation it will be destroyed. and sure enough that is exactly what happens. as myers puts it “jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled.”
the second story is where jesus crosses a lake and encounters a man who is oppressed by ‘legion’. myers says that can only be heard as a reference to roman military power by readers that somehow dominates this man’s life so that he is in chains. jesus frees him from this domination. jesus is ultimately executed by this state power. it’s hard to say how much they perceive him to be a threat. today is good friday when we remember christ’s death which was at the hands of the imperial state and the religious authorities who colluded together. but my own take is that the real anger and drive for it came from the religious authorities. it was their world that jesus threatened so much.
the opening lines in mark’s gospel are about a way - preparing a way. jesus life shows a radical alternative way. i have always found this way amazing and inspirational - i have often noticed how many people like jesus but are put off by the church. in my own clunky way i want to follow him in that way. and i have been stirred up by this notion that to follow in that way is to live in a way of non-violence, of activism, and of resistance to the powers of domination. it is a way that has at its heart a vision for a different kind of world (kingdom as jesus calls it) of peace, of cancelling debts, of love, healing and non judgement, and fairness for all that welcomes those who the powers exclude precisely because all are god’s children. god is not the preserve of the wealthy, powerful and religious.
i was thinking about these powers in relation to colonialism while i was in new zealand and i will come back to that in another post. but today i am thinking about religious powers of domination and control in the church and in particular the church of england of which i am a life long member and a lay pioneer minister.
in a previous post i suggested we need more imagination and less control especially as people seek to be creative online in how they worship and pray and do community. these are challenging times and as i said in a previous post there is a lot of good work and practice going on. but the lockdown has brought home to me just how far we stray at times from the way of christ in the church. it is the sharing of communion in particular that has vexed me this week.
jesus instituted a meal with friends where bread and wine are shared and people have done that ever since in homes and churches to remember christ. jesus life was one where he was always in trouble over meals - he ate with the wrong people who were always welcome at his table, though he usually was round theirs.
fast forward to coronavirus and the church is holding online eucharist services with guidelines that the only people who can share the bread and wine in their homes are bishops and priests. everyone else can watch apparently! so for easter day for example which is a day when all are encouraged to take communion suggested activities are:
Some bishops and priests may wish to celebrate Holy Communion in their homes.
Practising spiritual communion as this is a day on which all ought otherwise to receive Holy Communion in church.
spiritual communion is explained here - and is for situations where you can't share bread and wine. in many cases i suspect and indeed i hope that those leading the service will not have it but use the absence of sharing bread and wine to reflect on this moment of separation. and some will choose not to have services of communion which is probably a good option if you want to obey the guidelines. the idea that just the priests would have communion i find unbelievable both in itself and that it could be in print in public - i did a double take to check i was reading it right. this makes it both exlusive and a rite of exclusion! surely the obvious thing to do and what everyone will want to do and i hope will do is to share bread and wine in their own homes to remember christ. it saddens me that the church has not got the imagination to say this is healthy practice. there is a regulation in the canons of the church (scroll down to b5) that gives discretion to ministers for unusual circumstances to lead worship that is different. for example they may...
on occasions for which no provision is made... use forms of service considered suitable for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service.
we are in such an occasion surely! so i hope ministers act anyway.
the church has a lot of regulations about communion - what prayers, who can preside, where it can take place and so on. in grace we have found these frustrating and sought permission to use other prayers and write our own which we have done over the years. we have respected having someone preside who is ordained when we meet in st mary's church as we are part of the church of england. one curious regulation is that a place needs to be authorised if it's not a consecrated building like a church. so whenever we meet in homes we regularly share bread and wine in a simple informal way usually as part of a meal and concluded those ordained should not preside because the buildings have not got the permission - i know it's nuts. bishops are likely to have had to give permission for priests to lead communion from their homes online i suspect! i have written about grace's approach in the introduction to making communion if you are interested. the church of england says on the one hand that it values creativity, that the shape and integrity of worship is what is important and not the words in themselves and we need new ways of doing things but in practice it is still extremely controlled and locked down.
the church has various justifications through sacramental theology and other clever sounding ruses. but really it is an issue of control. these are things the church has constructed, made up, nothing more and i can't help thinking they are in direct opposition or at least massively out of kilter to the way of christ. how do you get from what he did to what the church is saying at this time? it's completely baffling. beware the yeast of the pharisees. the curtain in the temple seems to have been stitched back together. the central structures of the church of england have somehow created a scenario in which there is a priestly caste who control access to god because it is only through their magic actions that people can have communion, bread and wine to remember christ. if one of them is not in your home tough. it's absurd! the religious power of domination is alive.
i refuse to collude with it. it’s power was disarmed by christ’s death on the cross. i will be happily remembering the story of christ and sharing bread and wine online with others in grace and in my own home with jenny. this is we note from the guidelines not going to be an official church of england communion. but we will be making communion. i hope there are homes and indeed vicars up and down the country who ignore the church’s guidelines on this. i get to go to various meetings in the church of england where the rhetoric is that the church is committed to mission, to lay ministry (that means people who are not ordained) and the vision of the church is to empower all of its people with a vision called ‘setting god’s people free’. how are we supposed to take that seriously?!
some years back at another time when i was bumping into the religious power of domination in the church of england in another way, i made an art installation called red tape in which i ring fenced the table with barrier tape and bound the bible in red tape and wrapped a dog collar in red tape. i couldn't help thinking about it again today...
from my experience of communion in homes over the years, a simple way to do it is to do so in a meal and share bread and wine either between courses or at the end. give space to tell the story of christ in some way and to remember his life. death and resurrection. invite participation and conversation, use one of the stories from the gospels, maybe one of the meals jesus is at. have a prayer of thanksgiving - the official church ones are online, you can find one you like from elsewhere - such as the iona community or grace, or someone can improvise one. if you improrvise it it helps to have an idea of the shape of those kinds of prayers. in our grace easter vigil we will be using a thanksgiving prayer for easter written by the st hilda community and janet morley which has really lovely words. then give some space to share and pray for one another. it's not hard!