by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
In some churches, members have to be judged worthy by others in order to receive the sacrament of communion, going beyond the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s concerns about ‘open and notorious evil livers’.
The General Synod in February heard about ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together’. The Fourth Principle refers to the sacraments as God’s gift; none of us are worthy save by God’s mercy. But it also asks ‘what it means to be in right relationship with God before receiving these sacraments’.
And it goes on to say ‘The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), for example, helpfully exhorts everyone to examine their “worthiness” before receiving communion’ and asks us to wrestle with ‘how to become a church that exhorts everyone to examine their “worthiness” in a meaningful and habitual way’. And this is in the context of ‘the tensions that may arise between discipleship as a personal and individual response to Christ driven by conviction and conscience, and discipleship as membership of a community – the church – seeking to live in the light of its historically received and understood traditions’.
To link ‘worthiness’ with individual conscience is a modern cultural take on what Scripture actually says: yes, it’s in the BCP, but it’s a partial reading (in both senses of the word ‘partial’) of the words of St Paul on which it’s based. And the Pastoral Principles use ‘worthiness’ in a context where it’s assumed by some that LGBT people are likely to be living in a way which is unholy and disqualifies them from receiving God’s grace in the sacrament.
That’s made more explicit in the January 2019 Letter from Concerned Anglicans in the Oxford Diocese, which tells the Oxford Bishops that ‘in supporting the formulation first produced by the Bishops of Lichfield, [your Ad Clerum] Letter makes specific reference to nobody being excluded or discouraged from receiving the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Such indiscriminate participation seems to be inconsistent with the witness of Scripture: for the early Christians, these sacraments were only for those of the household of faith (eg, Acts 2: 41-42); and the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11: 27-29 clearly discourages participation in the Lord’s Supper for those who have not examined themselves.’
The Lichfield and Oxford bishops were not in their letters advocating ‘indiscriminate participation’ by anyone, but upholding the Church of England’s policy on admitting people to the sacraments (see Canon B16 ‘Of notorious offenders not to be admitted to Holy Communion’). But the ‘Concerned Anglicans’ assume that LGBTI+ people are outside the household of faith, and that they have not examined themselves, because they haven’t come to the same view as that of the Concerned Anglicans.
It’s a relief to go back to the words of St Paul, more searching and radical than words such as ‘worthiness’ or ‘worthy reception’ suggest. In 1 Corinthians 11.17-34, Paul addresses an abuse in the Corinthian church: there are factions which don’t acknowledge each other’s equal worth before God, and at communion the rich keep their bread and wine for themselves and eat their fill, while the poor next to them go hungry. Paul scolds them, and points them back to Jesus, whose loving death they should proclaim in sharing the bread and wine together, as his body.
What Paul points to here isn’t the Corinthians’ individual spiritual lives before God (‘am I worthy?’), but the manner in which, when together, they deny by their actions the body of Christ in the sacrament, and his body in the church (‘are we acting together in a way that demonstrates the embodied love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ?’). And the Corinthians have been judged because they don’t value the body of Christ.
It’s not individual ‘worthy reception’ that Paul talks about: it’s the action of eating and drinking unworthily together, not recognising the body of Christ in those with whom we disagree. The BCP acknowledges that as we come to the sacrament, we should repent of our sins (not the sins of which others assume we’re guilty), and also obey the command to live in love and charity with our neighbours.
So who is Paul addressing for today, and how? LGBT Christians who seek to follow Jesus Christ and feel called to faithful relationships? Those who welcome others in Christ’s name to the table of Jesus Christ? Or those who judge the worthiness of other Christians with whom they disagree, and refuse to pray with them or share communion with them?
It’s ironic, and worse, that Paul’s confronting of corporate division and contempt is used by one part of Christ’s body as a stick with which to beat and exclude another part of Christ’s body – when Paul is telling his hearers to take a good look at themselves, not others.