Week 20c: Memorial for Lillian Davis, 21 May 2008

I don’t think I’ve been to an Episcopalian funeral in the dozen years I’ve been an Episcopalian.

I know Michael’s been to at least two, but I don’t seem to have made it to any before today. It’s been kind of a hard week, in that we lost three of the saints from two of the churches we’ve attended. This, we always knew, was bound to happen in a church that’s aging (or “full of Q-tips” as someone my dad ran into a church said, when they told him he couldn’t sit in the pew he’d chosen, because he wasn’t in the category of “Q-tip.” We technically use the term “blue hair,” not “Q-tip”) . . . but it doesn’t make it any easier.

The BCP Burial Service /memorial service is a solemn one, but I think that it reflects what any good memorial service should: it is for the living, acknowledging the loss, and bringing the participants through, back into life. In the case of the Episcopal service, this includes coming together for the Eucharist. (If you’re keeping count, that’s 7 times this year, the last 3 in the past four days). Although ECOR does not fence, and the priest made the invitation to all in attendance, most of the visitors chose not to partake . . . I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps they’re not from Christian traditions; perhaps their tradition forbids cross-communion with other traditions. Whatever the reasoning, it made me feel all the sadder.

Some years ago (about 15), Michael and I were students at a “Christian” college, that had (still has) mandatory chapel attendance. Many of the chapel services were extended advertisements for campus organizations, some lecture series . . . but never, my lovely theologian pointed out, communion. He petitioned the chapel committee to have a service with communion . . . and was turned down cold. (The college did finally relent and have a chapel service with communion . . . stipulating that it had to be done as one of the “optional” attendance chapels. We attended it, and it was well-attended. To the best of my knowledge, it’s also the only time they did it). Communion, he reasoned, is one of the things universal to the Christian faith. Certainly there’s variety in the practice, but at the time, I thought he was right.

I’m not so sure now. I’m not sure there’s a universally Christian understanding of communion. Frederica Mathewes-Green explains Greek Orthodox communion:

Orthodox believe that receiving communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshipping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited to make this commitment to the Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding.

The Roman Catholics, like the Orthodox, believe in transubstantiation.
In the Westminster Confession of Faith, used by reformed protestant traditions, like the PCA, not only specifies that transubstantiation is repugnant and the cause of gross idolatry, but fences the table based on the worthiness of the believer:

Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.

Trevin Wax, a Baptist minister I just ran into doing research for this article, articulates an argument for open communion:

Sadly, instead of Communion being a common factor that unites all true believers in Christ, Christian groups have splintered off and retreated to their own self-centered, seemingly pious tables of exclusion, while giving lip service to issues of Christian love and unity. It is heart-breaking that the meal which should be proclaiming to the world the broken body of the crucified Jesus for our sins has instead been twisted into a proclamation to the world of the splintered Body of Christ on earth today – His church. When we advocate close communion, the act of the Lord’s Supper proclaims the broken body of Christ in His church, rather than His broken body on Calvary.

In attendance today were a handful of Lillian’s family who were separated from the rest, and hurt and angry. They were informed late about the service, and were not seated with the rest of the family. Like many of the others, they did not take communion, though I don’t know why. I do know they were largely from a non-denominational protestant church (and they invited me to attend), so it is my presumption that they do take communion, but I don’t know what they they believe about it. Some traditions, especially those that use the little individual cups, are daunted by the common cup practices of the Episcopal church.

But I couldn’t help but think that, it was under this circumstance, on this day, that this group of people really needed exactly that: communion with friends and family.

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