THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 49
Receiving at the same table
On a radio programme today I heard the Bishop of Pittsburgh say that he ‘could not ever receive at the same table as Bishop Gene Robinson’. I understand him to mean – for those unfamiliar with the term - that he could not receive communion alongside Gene Robinson.
I was shocked to hear this stated so baldly by the Bishop and I checked the website to make sure I had heard correctly. It came home to me with frightening clarity just how great is the fissure that has opened up and how much un-love has been engendered.
Now you may say to me, because I have never met – nor, I confess, even heard of - the Bishop of Pittsburgh, that I am exaggerating what he said. You may infer that I am perhaps being a little too emotional or even sensational. Not at all! I heard the man say it and, as the meaning of what he had said sank in, I saw with dreadful clarity the awfulness of the situation developing in our church.
What we are talking about here is the Holy Communion, or Lords Supper, or whatever your branch of the church calls it. Some would say that it is the practice of a memorial meal, others would refer to it as the Eucharist. Others would refer to it as a commemorative rite or the Lord’s Supper. Or you may wish to call it something else – but it is the act done in obedience to Christ’s words. It is because he said ‘do this in remembrance of me’. And it is clear that the early Christians assembled one day of the week to praise God for Jesus, and to have some sort of meal or token meal together because their Lord had told them specifically to do it.
Who came to those gatherings? Well - obviously all sorts. Some would be practising Christian Jews, some would be Christian Jews who had quietly slipped out of their Jewish practices, some would be ordinary people of the locality, some might be slaves, able to come out for an hour or two. Some might be sailors in port, some might be temple employees of various kinds. A total hotch potch of people – totally different in every way – though probably most were poor, rather than well off.
What sort of beliefs did they have? They had all sorts. Some came clinging to their old Jewish ways and beliefs. Some thought circumcision very important, others thought it totally irrelevant to a Christian. Some probably still had various old religious ways about them – just as today there are Christians who still read the horoscopes in the daily paper. Some apparently had wildly charismatic worship, others less so.
All sorts of people. Mostly they were poorly educated, or not educated at all. Most of them had few of this worlds goods. All sorts of ethnic background. All sorts of outlook. All sorts of depth of understanding of what Christianity was, or what our Lord had actually said when he taught in Galilee. And they all came to a room, probably in a quiet street off the beaten track, so that they could sing a few songs praising God together and could take bread and wine together - thus doing what Jesus had laid down that they should do.
I don’t think any of them said – ‘Well, I won’t go tonight because I know that that Roman Soldier will be there and, although he follows our Lord, I don’t think he has fully given up his Roman Gods yet.’ No one said – ‘Well, I don’t think that most of the Christians going tonight think like me, so I'll stay away until I can find a group that is more to my liking.’
The very fact that all the churches call the act of sharing bread and wine by so many different names, and have very different understanding about its significance, illustrates the diversity across the Body of Christ, and shows how necessary it is for all Christians to be tolerant of the differing ideas of other Christians.
So what is it with the Bishop of Pittsburgh? What exactly does he fear if he were to kneel before the communion table (or altar, or high altar, or whatever you call it) with Gene Robinson? Does he think he would be contaminating himself? Is he afraid of becoming tainted with homosexuality? Or is he afraid of what people would say? Afraid, perhaps, that they would snigger behind his back and say- ‘Well, you know, he really is a bit that way, isn’t he?’ Or is he afraid that Christ would look at him and say ‘What are you doing here with Gene? You should be outside witnessing against him so that your brand of Christianity can be upheld for all to see’?
What is he afraid of? Perhaps he feels that other Christians who think like him would not have confidence in him anymore if he joined Gene for the bread and wine. Is that it? Or is it that he himself is so incensed that this man should dare to bring a different interpretation of permitted sexual love into his church? Is he so angry that really he would find it impossible to kneel quietly beside Gene Robinson – afraid, perhaps, that he might find himself getting up and pushing him away?
Christ’s instruction about the Lord’s Supper was made to his disciples. Does the Bishop of Pittsburgh not accept that Gene Robinson is a disciple of Christ? Does he think that because he is gay he is false in his claim to be a Christian? Would he prefer to draw a line excluding Gene Robinson from the vast company of men and women from all over the world – with a thousand different theologies, values, worldviews and outlooks – who follow Christ? So does the Bishop of Pittsburgh really believe that all gay Christians are not really Christians? Or does he just think they are terribly confused? Or perhaps sick and needing a mind doctor?
And if a Christian is ‘sick’, does that mean that one should not take communion with them? Does it mean that they are to be shunned or kept outside? Perhaps all our churches should have a ‘Leper’s Squint’ - the window through the wall of the church enabling the leper outside to see the priest and other Christians inside, celebrating communion, but not be able to taint them with his physical presence? Or does he think gay Christians should be excluded because they are ‘confused’? Kept out – for what reason? In case they confuse the gathered Christians? Is the Bishop of Pittsburgh afraid that he too might become confused if he once allowed such Christians to kneel beside him, taking communion?
So what does the Bishop of Pittsburgh make of Christ’s instruction that all should come unto him? All who are sick or weary. Does he feel perhaps that one should reach a certain level of holiness before one takes communion? Should we perhaps all have examinations to ensure that no one comes to the altar who is deficient in knowledge or erroneous in practice? Perhaps we need a strict examination of our lives by our priests or elders to ensure that we are ‘pure’ enough?
Yes, perhaps that’s it – erroneous in practice of the Christian life! The Bishop of Pittsburgh is possibly saying that because he believes that being gay (or does he mean acting gay?) is erroneous – defined as contrary to what the Bishop of Pittsburgh thinks the bible teaches – then the man should stay away. If he insists in coming to church and taking communion then the only action the Bishop can take is to refuse to kneel beside him.
But what does that achieve? What is the Bishop hoping will happen, once he stands obstinately to one side and refuses to take communion? Is he hoping that his stand will make Gene Robinson break down and confess that he has been wrong all along? But Gene Robinson has clearly been deeply reflective before the Lord and come up with the answer that it is right to accept the call to become a Bishop. And not only has he done this soul-searching – several thousand (probably more - I don’t have the correct figure) other Christians have endorsed the appointment. So it is not as if he has just wandered into all of this off his own bat, and upset every rule in the book. Those who actually made the Rule Book for that Church have blessed his going forward to be a bishop.
It is all rather sad, is it not? A bishop refusing to kneel beside another Christian. It is desperately sad when you see Christian men and women going down a wrong road. But you don’t throw them out because of it! You talk with them, you laugh and cry with them, walk with them along life’s way. You kneel with them and take communion together. You don’t cut them off with what, in effect, is a condemnation.
There are those – and I would be one of them – who say that the communion service – Christians breaking bread together and drinking wine together, in obedience to Christ’s command - is at the very heart of our Christianity. Preachers come and go, even Churches come and go – but this simple act, celebrated together in the Body of Christ is of the very essence of what being a Christian is about. Indeed, I tend to think that the man who would refuse to join Gene Robinson at the Communion table (or altar, etc etc) is betraying his allegiance to Christ. He is withholding love, which is the very essence of what we understand and believe about God and how God wishes us to act.
For a Christian to withhold love from anyone is terrible – and in direct contravention to the teaching of Christ. But for a Christian to withhold love from another Christian – a person who has laid down his life and accepted Christ as Lord and Saviour – that is surely a reversal of the very essence of Christianity.
So would I refuse to kneel beside the Bishop of Pittsburgh at the Communion Table? Would I stand aside and say that the Bishop of Pittsburgh has gone too far – put himself outside the love of Christ? Never! Because the only way ever to help anyone else to rethink their beliefs in the light of Christ and the bible is to love them. Have fellowship with them, persist in friendship and amity. Only then can the Spirit work through you to change the other guy. And, who knows, the Spirit might even change you in the process too!