s145e97 Somerton Park 16/11/97 Sunday 33
"Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins ..."
We have for the last six or seven weeks, been taking a brief walk through the epistle to the Hebrews, a walk which finishes today. The thrust of the whole of this letter is the superiority of Christ who completes and fulfils the whole of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament in his death and resurrection. So what we are not doing when we come to celebrate the Holy Communion is to perform some form of superior sacrificial system which has replaced the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant.
I think it is appropriate to talk then about what we do do here. However we perceive it, when we are baptised initially, and when we come to God's table again and again, is somehow to make the death and resurrection of Jesus - which was "for us and for all" - for me too. It is not another sacrifice, either by him or by us. It is a making present and effective in our lives what Jesus has already done.
If what was done by the priests of the Old Temple was not effective in taking away sins, then clearly the whole point of the death and resurrection of Jesus was to do this - to effectively take away sins. So the whole focus of the cross and resurrection is to take away sins, not to retain them. And the task of the Christian priest must surely be likewise - to bring the effectiveness of the Cross and Resurrection in dealing with sins to people - not to withhold it from any.
It is the aspect of withholding the Holy Communion that I particularly wish to deal with today. In particular I wish to specifically talk about the Church's discipline about withholding the sacrament of Holy Communion.
It is important to realise that this is found in a number of separate places. This very fact needs to be noted, for the different positions infer that different aspects of this are being dealt with.
The first direction (and all quotations are from the Book of Common Prayer of 1662) is found at the end of the Order of Confirmation, where it states: "And there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed." This deals with the process of initiation, not with moral or ethical matters. Of course this was written in a completely different era, when it was the Church of England in England. It describes the normal course of events for a person beginning for the first time to receive the Holy Communion. It does not directly address the situation of those who have been receiving the Holy Communion in another Christian denomination prior to coming to an Anglican Church. Such things were not contemplated then. Nowadays other regulations are in place to enable this to occur, as well as allowing receiving the Holy Communion prior to being confirmed. I have long since given up examining certificates of Confirmation - in reality this was never done. But I should add that normally one must be baptised to receive the Holy Communion - though in reality there is no difference in being baptised and receiving the Holy Communion - both do the same job.
When we turn from the ritual aspects of coming to Communion to the faith aspects - how we stand before God - we find words in two places. Firstly in the Catechism of the Church, where it teaches: "What is required of them that come to the Lord's Supper?" The answer is given: "To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men." In short - repentance, faith and charity, and this is continually brought to each confirmation candidate every year in the confirmation classes I run. Of course it is up to people to examine themselves - there is no suggestion that the priest or anyone else is competent to do this for someone else.
What the priest can do is also made plain in the book, and that is to read one of the exhortations within the Holy Communion services, warning against unworthy reception of the Holy Communion, part of which says: "... my duty is ... to exhort you to examine your own consciences ... lives and conversations ... and whereinsoever ye shall perceive yourselves to have offended ... against your neighbours then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them ... and being likewise ready to forgive others ..." Again it is laid upon those who come to examine themselves - there is no question of the priest or anyone else presuming to do this for someone else. In fact the exhortation is not to stop people receiving the Holy Communion, but to come to the priest to get absolution when necessary to enable the person to continue to receive the Holy Communion.
I should say that another of the exhortations bids us not to neglect coming to the Lord's Table - and the fact that a whole exhortation is devoted to this is significant. The church bids us - one and all to come.
So, summarising, when it comes to a person's own relationship with God and the sinfulness or otherwise of that person's life, it is a private matter between that person and God. There is no question of the priest or anyone else intervening in that.
Finally I come to where the prayer book directs the priest to intervene, and these words come as a preface to the service of Holy Communion itself. It says: "If any be an open and notorious evil liver, or have done any wrong to his neighbours by word or deed, so that the congregation be hereby offended ..." Now I haven't met any open and notorious evil liver. However much we might personally disapprove of the policies of individual politicians, they are not thereby "evil". Notorious yes - evil - no. I suppose I could perhaps perceive a convicted serial killer or rapist being a legitimate offence to a congregation, particularly if a victim or relation of a victim was a member of the congregation. Even here, however, I would take steps, if in my pastoral relationship with the person I understood them to have repented of their past, to bring the Holy Communion to them privately.
I see a vast difference between those who live a sinful life, and those who are evil - that is quite a different matter. Sinfulness may cover a whole host of things - perhaps including matters sexual, but evil is a different matter entirely. I don't think, even if a congregation was offended by someone coming who was remarried, married in a registry office, or a single mum or dad, that a priest could act under this provision - sinful indeed they may be - evil - no. Similarly with those who express their affection in an intimate way with a person of the same gender - this may perhaps be sinful - and there is considerable debate about that in every denomination at the moment - but it is certainly not evil.
The regulations go on to say: "The same order the Curate shall use with those betwixt whom he perceiveth malice and hatred to reign ..." It is here and only here that the priest alone can initiate some action. He is bidden "to admit the penitent person ... and not him that is obstinate ..." I draw your attention to the words "malice" and "hatred". Again they are both very strong. There are few congregations where there are not some people at odds with one another, some where there are strong views and contrary views expressed. I know of situations where a member of a congregation has done something to offend another, and a spirit of mutual forgiveness has not been achieved. But I have rarely seen malice and hatred.
But even if they were, this is not done lightly. The words go on to say: Provided that every minister so repelling any, as is specified in this, or in the next precedent Paragraph of this Rubrick, shall be obliged to give an account of the same to the Ordinary (that is the Bishop or Archbishop) within fourteen days after the farthest ..."
Now I have heard stories, like many of you, in times past of priests telling people who have been separated or divorced that they can no longer come to the Holy Communion, and I wonder where these priests found their authority to do this. I met a person only just a week or two ago, who was told she was not able to receive the Holy Communion because she had just been divorced. I wonder if the priest obeyed this rubrick and notified the Bishop that they have excommunicated someone? I suspect not.
It is worthwhile being quite clear, separation and divorce is nowhere, at least to my knowledge, specified as sinful. Adultery - taking up with another partner of course is - and one saying of Jesus equates remarriage with adultery. But we are still talking in the realms of sins about which repentance and forgiveness are readily given, not about evil which is actively opposed to God.
It is in fact most unlikely that any clergyman is ever likely to act under these provisions, for the fact of the matter is that they would lay themselves open to a charge of defamation of character, unless the truth of the charges were quite obvious. I certainly would not be prepared to argue before a bishop, let alone a civil court, that a person was "evil".
And lest there be any doubt about my attitude, I could not see myself ever acting under any of the provision "that the congregation is thereby offended" unless there was a motion passed by a substantial majority by motion of the vestry of a parish. The words are quite specific - the priest is not to act because one or other member is offended by the presence of another. It is the congregation as a whole.
So I believe there is no question of looking to me or any other Anglican priest to inquire into the marital status of people coming to Church, looking at marriage certificates, addresses of people, or the living arrangements within particular homes.
I end where I began. I am on about making the forgiveness and new life of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ effective in the lives of all who come. To me the most effective way of doing this is through making the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion available to all who come. I am more than happy to say that persons do need to examine their own lives and conduct, but my experience of those who come to Church is that they already do this perhaps more often than they should. I need to do that as much as anyone else. As I said in my sermon last week, rules are not for the conscientious but those who blatantly disregard them.
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