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Most believers already enjoy full communion


Many generals fight the last war, and many parents raise their second child exactly the way they raised their first. Religious denominations also solve the last century’s theological quarrels.

These thoughts come to mind in light of news that the Lutherans and Episcopalians have decided to embrace “full communion,” including the capacity to share both worship and clergy in many circumstances.

Denominations don’t understand how resolved matters of communion and governance already are in the people’s theology. Most believers don’t see reasons not to commune with each other and they wonder why they need bishops. They are no longer “cradle” Lutherans or Episcopalians or, for that matter, anything. They are blended and no longer loyal to their origins.

Self-described “recovering” Roman Catholics worship with Zen-leaning Lutherans who are former Methodists. Cradle Congregationalists marry conservative Jews who give birth to children who attend the Baha’i service at college. More people leave their mother church than stay.

They adopt new faiths such as “nature,” where many people feel they can worship better than in church, no matter what the bishop says.

They go to weekend spiritual retreats, for which they will gladly pay a nondenominational conference center the hundreds of dollars they wouldn’t think of tithing to their local church.

Denominational is almost a dirty word: It implies religious parochialism, a mistake that God let people make in carving up religious unity. The people, in their wisdom, have coined a new word for their experience of God: That word is spirituality.

What is spirituality? Just about anything that is not organized religion.

Theology this reactive has to be careful not to mistake itself for genuinely new revelation. Organized religion will have work to do for a long time to help us move from the phony to the real.

Denominations are useful precisely because they attend to the Genuine vigorously, democratically, ponderously and slowly, with their seminaries in tow. Denominations slow us down, make us think. Nevertheless, they also live deeply in an institutional lag, trying to catch up with people who have long left them behind.

I remember being at the installation of the Roman Catholic bishop in the city where I work (well but not excellently) as a “lite” bishop, or a denominational official of the United Church of Christ. We’re a feisty, democratic denomination that draws some of its parentage from Puritans who deeply mistrusted religious authority.

At the installation, when it came time for the people to feast at God’s table in the Mass, ushers were placed at the end of the front pews where we Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists and so on were seated. Although we had been invited, were vested and had been honored by being seated in the front row, we were not allowed to go forward to receive. Rules replaced religion.

I wept at the injury done to God’s table by the rules -- and by a powerful sense of exclusion, historically equaled only by the prejudice of my forbears against Roman Catholics when they came off the boats.

We are all voting for fuller communion now -- and I am glad. But votes will not undo the spiritual harm of being excluded from God’s table, harm done to me and to many others in many different ways.

I know I can take Communion if I sneak in at the Mass. I also know that the real meaning of God’s table is about a fundamental justice, not a fundamental piety. God means for everybody to eat -- and not just to have access to the holy food. God’s table is not just a drop of wine or a little wafer. It is a radical spirituality given as a foretaste of God’s time, when the real exclusions of some having what others don’t have will pass away.

No wonder denominations join human greed in being so careful about the rules of who gets what at the feast. The stakes are very high.

Religious institutions act as though we are giving people more permission to fully commune. The people already experience that freedom so much that some of them are off imbibing of an evening without so much as a priest to bless their bread and wine. They are not just having cocktails: They are enjoying the feast of the table in their own way at retreat centers and in church basements and in actions for justice at their work place, followed by joyous beers.

The feast is ready; the bishops can join any time.

Donna Schaper writes from Amherst, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999