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!
You are so right Jonny. As a convinced Mennonite who has been worshipping in my parish church for three years (because my Mennonite church closed down), I now watch the livestreamed worship from my vicar's study and when it comes to the communion I have my own pottery chalice and plate and I consume bread and wine as he does. How can it be communion if only he is taking it? In the Mennonite church, which was entirely lay-led, we had communion as part of a prayerful meal once a month, and also lay-led communion on Sundays, we passed the bread and wine from person to person and felt no need of anyone specially privileged to lead it. I was baptized as a Baptist, and discovered 20 years later that I was really an Anabaptist, and I believe firmly in the priesthood of all believers. The only reason I landed in my parish church was that I loved its Anglo-Catholic worship and the way it engaged all the senses, and at the time I joined, it had a priest who preached like a Mennonite, about the non-violence of Christ and his radical inclusion. We now have an evangelical priest-in-charge who leads both the parish congregation and an evangelical church plant which uses the building. It is a somewhat uncomfortable situation!
Posted by: Veronica Zundel | April 10, 2020 at 07:16 PM
Will this time, when in isolation, not able to frequent churches, will we see, eventually, the 'church', the body of people, freed from the some of the traditional rites and given the 'power' to express their particular way of worship? The issue may be if we elect to return to 'normality', not looking to learn from this period of 'separation'.
Posted by: Bob Stoner | April 10, 2020 at 08:10 PM
I agree with every single angry word of this. Thank you Jonny. Good to see you remain true.
Posted by: Jenny Taylor | April 10, 2020 at 10:13 PM
As my priest remarked of the idea of him receiving communion and us watching, "there was a Reformation about that"
Posted by: mary beth | April 10, 2020 at 10:48 PM
Jonny -I think you are spot on here. We have been told not to do this and their are vague threats hanging around if we do. The wrongness of this gets wrapped up in orthodox theology and presented back to us as fact. I have said elsewhere that a constituency of the church love church, and they love communion and in many cases love us, their ministers. And in response we say, no, we are denying this to you, but I / we will do it whenever we want and taunt you on line just to prove it.
Posted by: mark inglis | April 11, 2020 at 09:19 AM
I was once asked to lead a communion service at a church where I was not authorised to do so. I pointed this out but the congregation just looked at each other and then responded with something along the lines of "We're just asking you to read a passage from the Bible where Jesus shared bread and wine and asked us to remember him in doing so. What can go wrong in doing that?" We need more enlightened churches like this.
Posted by: Colin Udall | April 11, 2020 at 10:59 AM
The problem is that every sect that has split away to follow a outer way just goes on to form its own set of rules and rituals. We are made to be in communion with others, we need and want to gather together. If you feel intimidated by your leaders whoever they are you have a problem.
Posted by: Philip | April 11, 2020 at 02:25 PM
Well fine but why be a member of the Church of England then? I choose to be a Catholic because I believe the rules were created to protect us from Chaos. If anyone can celebrate then presumably I could use Black magic words or any other weird or wacky theology leading others astray. What starts as liberty ends up as a new kind of slavery.
Posted by: Martin Flatman | April 11, 2020 at 02:27 PM
Reading the CofE guidelines, they seem to come from a wholly Catholic point of view about priesthood and sacraments - as Mary Beth points out, it's as if the Reformation had never happened. Whereas the Book of Common Prayer says, 'there shall be no celebration of the Lord's Supper, except there be a convenient number to communicate with the priest... [and if there are less than 20 people in the parish] there shall be no Communion, unless four (or three at the least) communicate with the priest.' And I dare say, in times of general sickness, that might have meant that there was no Communion. Communion happens in community.
And I love this: 'Any idea of the remote consecration of the bread and wine should be avoided.' Heaven forbid that we should imagine such a thing :D ! This is the kind of issue that would once have greatly exercised theologians, rather than being avoided. Of course, if the role of the priest is to *preside*, there is no problem in it happening remotely. And I can't think of a reason why consecration can't happen remotely either, if it's an act of God by request of the priest rather than an act of the priest. Assuming you believe in that kind of consecration...
Posted by: Steve Collins | April 11, 2020 at 05:13 PM
Posted by: Kenda Dean | April 11, 2020 at 05:28 PM
The problem is this.
At the last supper Jesus instituted a new ritual act of worship and commissioned the apostles to continue this offering that they came to understand as the offering of Christ himself. This offering has never been made without that commissioning - without the ordering that Jesus explicitly established.
It takes shape in Acts, and is explicit by the end of C1st in the writing of the Apostolic Fathers.
Now I have lots of questions about who should be Presbyters (and Deacons) and how the Church of England handles that ministry. But the order goes back to Jesus.
I don't believe that Spiritual Communion is any less than Physical Communion in exceptional circumstances. I have never been in a context where someone in the church didn't need to receive this way.
But my essence as a Priest is to do exactly what Jesus commanded. To make the offering in living memory of Him. That is always for the whole world - not just for myself.
I also suspect that consecration can happen over a live stream, and the model of Communion we should be exploring should be more informal.
Posted by: EdwardBGreen | April 11, 2020 at 07:07 PM
I hadn't actually read the recent guidance on Communion. I'm an Anglican priest and for the last 3 weeks I've been presiding over a live-streamed celebration of Communion from my study (that is remarkably like Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer B, but with minor changes to acknowledge that we are apart).
It's not authorised, but I've invited people to share their own bread and wine and receive it reverently. Is it a "proper sacrament"? I don't know, but I do know that people have received it as a gift from God. As John Donne (or possibly Elizabeth I) put it: "He was the Word that spake it, he took the bread and brake it, and what that Word did make it, I do believe and take it."
Posted by: Michael Bigg | April 11, 2020 at 07:22 PM
Thank you so much for this - i resonate with so much of it and actually wrote my own reflection today which i think aligns with a lot of what you said. Jesus would find the religion that keeps people away from the table remembrance offensive or ludicrous surely...
Thank you and have a good sharing of the remembrance meal
love brett fish
Posted by: Brett "Fish" Anderson | April 11, 2020 at 09:21 PM
Religion is man made
Faith is God given
Posted by: Stephen | April 12, 2020 at 01:33 AM
Absolutely agree with you. The law or the spirit of the law? I can't imagine Jesus excluding anyone from the table. He fed the multitudes. There was no litmus test. A meal with friends includes the sharing of stories, laughter, tears, breaking bread and drinking wine. Now more than ever it is important to remember. Thank you for this thoughtful post.
Posted by: Ed Dickel | April 12, 2020 at 03:40 AM
The church gets in far too much of a lather about communion. It was both a gift to us all and an instruction: “Do this in remembrance....” The laws governing where, when and with and by whom came much later and - like all man-made laws - are riddled with holes and inconsistencies. I don’t think anyone should feel the slightest guilt at going by the spirit rather than the book in this case.
Posted by: Andrew Cave | April 12, 2020 at 10:07 PM
This is such refreshing reading. We are ignoring CE guidelines. My boys (10 & 11) and I have been having communion together at home for the last 3 weeks using liturgy put together from various churches. We give each other the bread and wine and all lead on different parts. I will leave God to judge whether it is real or not. What I do know is that the experience has connected us to each other and God in a new and powerful way at this time. It didn't cross my mind to do anything else. So much more I could add.. This has actually felt like a guilty secret but decided to step out and comment after reading your post!
Posted by: michelle Fotherby | April 12, 2020 at 11:13 PM
Posted by: Debbie | April 13, 2020 at 09:35 AM
thank you so much everyone for your comments - apologies there is a delay in them appearing. i have to approve them because of spam though perhaps i should try turning that feature off and see if that is still a problem. there has been so much response to this on facebook, twitter and so on that i honestly can't keep up everywhere. but at least it seems to have provoked some conversation - i seem to have poked the bear as it were!
steve thanks - i found your piece really interesting - thanks for digging out those quotes.
but broadly speaking the comment i have made the most may be worth repeating here. my blunt point is about religious power. power of course is not bad in itself. it can be used to give and bring life. but it can go badly wrong and become dominating. i have bumped into toxic religious power a lot in my life. in some ways i would say it's my battle. i think it's partly because i advocate for pioneers who inevitable see something different to business as usual so whilst the powers say they need newness, in practice they really don't want change. theology is easily used to justify domination. so there have been lots of 'theoloigcal' responses that i struggle to know what to say in response. it's not that i mind the conversation. but that theology is often a power play in itself. it's also a very anglican thing to be clever with words and theology. so yes by all means have the theological discussion and i genuinely like taking part in those. but in response to what i am saying the question is not 'what is our theology?' but 'is there any truth in what jonny is saying? i.e. have we colluded with controlling religious power? are we in danger of stitching up the curtain?'. i may be wrong but the area i fear there is blindness with those who have power is that there is a strength of feeling here - a lot of people feel this very deeply.
Posted by: jonny | April 13, 2020 at 09:55 AM
This is so helpful. Thank you - been thinking so much about this re: lay ministry.
Posted by: Val Cuffe-Adams | April 13, 2020 at 11:54 AM
I really appreciate this debate. I think we are in the midst of the conversation of Jesus with the woman at the well where we do not need the temples but can worship in spirit and in truth. The temples may still be helpful for some people but are not the beginning and end of worship as they have sometimes perhaps oftrn been more concerned about exclusion than inclusion. We are in a time of disorder which is as God -given as order. But change will only come if we can enter it with hope and discernment. June
Posted by: June Boyce-Tillman | April 13, 2020 at 12:07 PM
thank you, thank you thank you. At last, someone in print and people openly agreeing. The Church of England is retreating into a priestly hierarchy which is completely unhelpful and possibly unsustainable. Their response to this current crisis is the equivalent of putting all non-priests behind a barbed wire fence and forcing them (us) to watch, while a privileged class take part in the Lord's banquet - as the rest of us watching them are starving . Jesus would probably be the first to tear down the fence.
Posted by: Anne Christian | April 13, 2020 at 12:43 PM
Thanks Jonny. Well set out. How we live out the priesthood of all believers is important.
We're each subject to our own tribe's traditions that have built up over time. As someone asked me recently- why do I make a distinction between Jesus' instructions for bread and wine and his instructions for washing feet at the same last supper.
At this time of enforced distancing we need creative thinkers to help us commune with one another and we must take the new lessons learned into the post lockdown period.
Posted by: Steve Page | April 13, 2020 at 07:26 PM
I once met someone from the CofE Liturgical Commission (at Greenbelt Festival!) and discussed my frustration as a priest at the many restrictions that hemmed in our worship and particularly communion. They told me that practice is what leads to change and that it's essential to break the rules to bring about change. I have always followed their advice!
Posted by: Bryony Davis | April 14, 2020 at 07:27 AM
I found this so very helpful and it encourages resistance to 'control'.
I think Communion with companions (people who share bread together) is essential, and we need to be experimental in these strangest of times ......
I also saw an article in the church times which I saw as a hopeful sign (and interestingly from a woman priest who was also a prison chaplain - so great pedigree! right on the edge/margins of the institutions where the creative, interesting stuff happens ).
Posted by: Phil Simpson | April 15, 2020 at 11:46 AM
I would counter-balance this argument with the New Testament church experience. If you look at the Johannine communities - those founded by St John - or who took his writings as their foundational documents - they were very much pneumatically focused and suspicious of all hierarchical leadership structures (the Spirit will guide us into all truth was their motto). Yet the sad experience was that each of them fell by the wayside even before the Johannine texts were accepted into the canon of scripture. Some fell into Gnostic heresy, others were absorbed back into Judaism. So whilst I agree that hierarchies are always human and flawed and that they often tend to be over controlling and limit some freedoms they might be healthy; the experience of the Church is that we need them. They provide a necessary guard against error, false-practice and falling away. If you want to read more of this I recommend Raymond E. Brown's 'The Community of the Beloved Disciple' and more broadly, 'The Churches the Apostles Left Behind'.
Posted by: Stephen MARCH | April 15, 2020 at 12:01 PM
Thank you so much for airing this debate and for seeking a good way through this situation. I completely agree with your resistance to religious control, I too am very suspicious of anyone exerting power in a controlling way, as are the priests I know (and bishops actually) in the Church of England.
I wonder if you have spoken to the priests and bishops you know about what they are doing in regard to this issue? I know some locally who are abstaining from communion in solidarity with their congregations, I know some who are encouraging agape meals, and some who are praying and hoping that in consuming the bread and wine in a streamed service themselves they are communicating the love that Christ has for us all. You are not alone in standing against religious control, nor in wanting to find a life-giving way forward. You have a very loud voice in the church, may it will continue to encourage unity and creativity.
Posted by: Letty Wilson | May 01, 2020 at 10:01 AM
Thanks Jonny. A long, strong Amen to all this. That the church can say its role is 'pastoring and feeding a flock', and then to wilfully and needlessly leave it "starved" (by its own definition) on the outside of the banquet just beggars belief. A dismal chapter in Anglican history. More life-giving imagination, and less neurotic control needed. As lay people we remotely 'fed and nourished' my Dad who was completely isolated while my Mum was in a care home. It was not primarily a political act (although it was that too I suppose), it was an act of community, need and compassion. It was a reverent, holy and real thing. I would do it again in a heartbeat. End of.
Posted by: Melita Gordon | October 04, 2021 at 02:34 PM