“WHATEVER THE REASONS and whatever the motives, the fact is that in the ecumenical movement the Sacrament of Unity has become more obviously than ever before the Sign of Disunity. We may be able to do very little to remedy that tragic and scandalous situation. But we may be able to do something. And to do something is radically different from doing nothing at all.” These words of Dr. Keith R. Bridston appear in the December issue of Many Churches, One Table, One Church published by the Youth Department of the World Council of Churches. They symbolize the growing impatience of the younger (and many older) members of the ecumenical movement. This impatience was not allayed by the New Delhi assembly of the WCC held last year. “The more one reflects on the present ecumenical situation in regard to intercommunion,” says Dr. Bridston, “particularly as it is reflected in the New Delhi Report, the more one has the uneasy feeling of being transported into an ecclesiastical Wonderland.… And if one attempts to inject some sense into the chaotic proceedings—for example, by trying to find a rational and generally acceptable plan for communion services—it seems to end up in something even more ludicrous and grotesque: the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life.’ ”
Spurred on by, as much as anything else, this impatience, which erupted into independent action at the European Ecumenical Youth Assembly held at Lausanne in 1960, the fourth world Faith and Order Conference, convened in Montreal two months ago, drafted a number of recommendations for the holding of communion services at ecumenical gatherings. The intention of these recommendations is “to find that arrangement of communion services which, while respecting the teaching of the churches and individual consciences, gives the fullest possible expression to the oneness of the Church of Christ which we all confess.” This intention will be generally applauded.
Space permits reference here only to the two most significant of these recommendations. In the first place, it is proposed that at ecumenical gatherings provision should be made for the holding of a communion service with an open invitation to all conference members to attend and partake; and that ideally this service should be at the invitation of one of the local churches, or at the joint invitation of a number of such churches. This proposal, surely, is right in itself. Fellow Christians meeting and seeking unity together should not leave undone the expression of their unity at the Lord’s Table in particular.
If, however, this is right in principle, it is fraught with difficulties in practice. The Bishop of Leicester’s invitation to all baptized and communicant members of the British Christian Youth Conference held in Leicester last year to receive the sacrament in his cathedral stirred up quite a hornet’s nest in the Church of England—though he was doing something which was essentially Christian and fully in harmony with the hospitable spirit of classical Anglicanism.
And this is something which must operate in both directions: those who offer hospitality must be willing also to accept hospitality. Nothing does more to bedevil and obstruct the intercommunion situation than the claim (a modern refinement on the part of some Anglicans) that the validity of the sacrament depends on its being given by and received at the hands of episcopally ordained ministers. Even when such a claim is accepted on its own grounds, it rings somewhat hollow when we remember that the validity of Anglican episcopal orders is denied by the much vaster organization of, for example, Roman Catholicism.
The image of historic Anglicanism was more truly reflected in the renowned Open Letter on Intercommunion addressed to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York by thirty-two distinguished theologians of the Church of England nearly two years ago, which contained the following declaration: “The raising up of non-episcopal ministries was the almost inevitable consequence of the Reformation and post-Reformation divisions of the Church following from the necessary duty of maintaining the truth of the Gospel as this was conscientiously understood. We believe that our Lord conveys through these ministries the same grace of the Word and the Sacraments as He bestows through the historic ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, and that He does this, not as an act of unconvenanted mercy, but because they are real and efficacious ministries within the Body of His Church.” At last month’s Anglican Congress in Toronto, too, the Bishop of Llandaff demanded removal of “episcopality” as a bar to union.
Secondly, it has been recommended that provision should be made within the conference program for a communion service “according to the liturgy of a church which cannot conscientiously offer an invitation to members of all other churches to partake of the elements,” and that all conference members, though unable to partake, should be invited and encouraged to attend. This, however, is a very different matter. It is a perversion, indeed a contradiction, of the sacrament as instituted by Christ. It is a non-communion rather than a communion. To speak of the value of non-communicating attendance and the enjoyment of “spiritual intercommunion” is nothing more than a romantic smoke-screen. It makes sense neither to the younger generation nor to the younger churches, by whom it has been described as “human and sentimental rather than truly spiritual.”
It would make as much—if not more—sense to have all the conference members attending an entirely “spiritual intercommunion,” without any outward forms or elements, conducted by the Society of Friends, who have no observance of the sacraments in their worship but who none the less (so the WCC assures us) possess the sacraments in their inward and spiritual reality. It might just possibly be argued that such a device would give expression to the invisible unity which binds together all Christian believers. But to invite a gathering whose members are seeking the outward expression of Christian unity to indulge in a demonstration of visible disunity, and at the Lord’s Table of all places, can be justified neither in Scripture, nor in history, nor in logic. Nothing could be better calculated to defeat the intention (already mentioned) propounded in this same document to give “the fullest possible expression to the oneness of the Church of Christ which we all confess.”
The difficulties of intercommunion which confront the churches today are located not in the New Testament but in the elaborations of denominationalism. The way forward must lie at the congregational level, where the Lord’s Table should be ever open to fellow believers. At least we can start there!
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