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Theological Publications








by Robert M. Price


The ecumenical movement is no longer new. The predominant mood, therefore, at the recent LARC (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic) Study Day on the Eucharist (October 27-28, 1987) was not the freshness of discovery nor the first glow of interchurch solidarity. These were taken for granted, itself a pleasant enough condition. No, the prevailing feeling seemed to be one of wearied patience. All present agreed on the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist, even on the once-controversial “sacrifice” language. All agreed we are really one Church. The note of frustration sounded by speaker John Westerhoff of Duke Divinity School and by several others was that with all that agreement—still we cannot practice full intercommunion. Thus the weariness. But also patience: all present had some understanding of the remaining theological obstacles, and all had the depth of perception to see that theology does matter. It cannot simply be swept aside when judged inconvenient.

I teach theology; I certainly think theology matters. Yet I must admit that on this particular crucial matter I am tempted to sweep aside what I perceive as a tangle of constructing theological cobwebs. Can it be more obvious that the eucharist is the sign and ritual of Christian unity, whatever theoretical beliefs about it we may hold? Is the meaning of the eucharist to share in Christ, or to share in the doctrine of Real Presence, or of papal authority, or whatever? We theologians set aside the command of God for the sake of our traditions when we bar one another from the Lord's Table because we believe in the eucharistic Christ but not in certain theories about the eucharistic Christ. Which is more important? Perhaps it is time to cut the Gordian Knot, as did colonial Baptist Roger Williams who had become so choosy as to bar all but his own wife from sharing Communion with him, but then came to his senses, and finally welcomed all to partake, trusting in God to uphold his servants (Romans 14:4).

A more theologically patient perspective was that of John Westerhoff who suggested that the eschatological dimension of the eucharist (see Mark 14:25; 1 Corinthians 11:26) might point the way out of the dilemma. New Testament eschatology is cast in a dialectic of "already/not yet.” The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Christ, yet it waits for final, future fulfillment. Even so, the eucharist already celebrates (and creates) a unity between Christians, within each church, but it also anticipates the final unity of Christians in the Church Universal. Westerhoff aptly suggested a few special occasions on which we might practice interchurch communion. Only a few occasions because full intercommunion must await the future realization of full ecumenical unity, but at least a few to serve as signs of that coming unity.

One of these occasions would be "pre-conciliar" ecumenical gatherings like the LARC conference itself. It may be no surprise to learn that we had no such intercommunion, but truly startling was the omission of any eucharistic celebration, even a concurrent celebration by all three church contingents individually. Not even to do this much was to hide and ignore the sad fact of our fragmentation.

Westerhoff was only one of five major speakers. The others were Michael McDaniel, Lutheran Bishop of North Carolina, Joseph Gossman, Roman Catholic Bishop of Raleigh, Robert W. Estill, Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, and B. Sidney Sanders, Episcopal Bishop of East Carolina. Each had been asked to speak on the respective strengths and weaknesses of his Church's understanding/practice of the eucharist. I believe two especially interesting points emerged from this exchange.

First, both Bishops Estill and Sanders bemoaned the inward-turning of our eucharistic devotion. Despite the clear statements of the Book of Common Prayer that the eucharistic encounter is an empowerment for service, many in our churches see it as a cozy withdrawal from the harsh reality of a world that Christ has sent us to serve. Bishop McDaniel raised a storm of controversy by suggesting that such assertions come perilously close to implying, albeit unwittingly, that the eucharist is merely a means to a more important end, namely social reform. Some missed the bishop's subtle distinction and tarred McDaniel with accusations of indifference toward the poor. Of course this was not his point, and the misunderstanding was finally resolved in one of the conference's several: moments of joking and laughter.

Second, Lutherans and Episcopalians alike welcomed the restoration of the eucharist to the central role in weekly worship while regretting the fact that so many of our churches cling stubbornly to Morning Prayer as the principal Sunday service at least twice a month. But Bishop Gossmann noted that Roman Catholics, who have nothing but eucharistic services, are now longing for more variety. Of course, this is exactly the lament of those in our church who do not want the eucharist every week! Though it may seem inconceivable to the rest of us, they warn of eucharistic monotony, and the Roman Catholic experience would seem to prove this to be no idle fear. In our move to the weekly eucharist, we had. better give serious thought to how we may avoid this danger.


Copyright©2008 by Robert M Price
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