Thursday, April 24, 2014

Diluting the faith by exceptionalism. . .

The other day I did a stupid thing.  My coffee was cold and I filled up the cup with hot coffee.  What I ended up with was lukewarm coffee.  I ended up tossing away the whole cup -- and, wouldn't you know it, it was the last cup in the pot.  When you dilute things, you end up with less than you began.

I read with interest the story of communion in the hand.  The story goes like this.  Pope Paul VI rejected the appeal of a very few bishops for permission to give communion in the hand.  This goes way back to the late 1960s.  These bishops kept pressing so that Paul VI ended up allowing a special, shall we say, dispensation from the rules for those dioceses where communion in the hand was already introduced (technically an indult).  What happened later is that for the US dioceses Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wanted to introduce it.  He could not unless the majority (2/3 I believe) of bishops agreed that it was already in practice in their dioceses.  Which it was not.  Eventually with some parliamentary maneuvering and some help with bishops no longer active, Bernardin eventually prevailed.  A practice that was not sanctioned by the Pope but which had been allowed under exceptional circumstance eventually became the norm (for Lutherans as well as Roman Catholics, by the way).

Some might say "what is the big deal?"  Communion in the hand is not my issue here (though mark me as one opposed to it and if you are going to do it, don't stick out two fingers as if you were grasping a fly from the air but hold one hand over another to signify that you are receiving something of value, a treasure).  What I am referring to is how easily it is to dilute something until it becomes the normal.  Okay, you want a Lutheran example?  Martin Luther insisted that unless you receive Holy Communion a minimum of four times a year you were to be considered someone who despised the sacrament and no Christian.  This minimalism was in contract to the practice of the church of Luther's day where communion for the laity was often an annual event.  Luther raised the bar, in other words.  That eventually became the norm so that when I grew up the Sacrament was only offered four times a year (absolutely contrary to the Lutheran Confessions and Lutheran practice the first few centuries after the Reformation).  The dilution of the practice led to a Lutheranism in which the Sacrament of the Altar had little or no part in the ordinary piety of the faithful (except in theory).

I could cite many more examples (private confession, chanting, the liturgy, fasting, etc. . .) but I want to spend my time focusing upon how diluting something leads to the exception becoming the norm.  The exception becomes the norm and so exceptionalism rules the day.  Look at the way we have treated who may exercise the authority of the pastoral office.  Wichita's recension of the Augsburg Confession (Article XIV anyway) effectively took a practice which was exceptional (unusual, against teaching, tolerated under very extreme circumstances) and made that the norm.  In the process we have diluted the whole matter of church and office (some say ministry) and ended up almost funtionalists in our practice (if not our teaching).

Think how the Confessions speak highly of church usages, ceremonies, ritual, and liturgical practices as highly valued, richly symbolic, useful for teaching, and commended to us by the ancient church.  There was one caveat, of course, none of these could bind the conscience of the faithful and become conditions for salvation (which no one but an idiot has ever done in Lutheran history and practice).  The exception (binding of the conscience) became the means to dilute the worship practices of Lutherans to the point where both pastors and congregations flaunt their right to do whatever they please with impunity.  In other words, the practice has become so diluted (lukewarm and worthless) among many that it has become the norm.

This kind of baloney has got to stop.  Baptismal practice is not defined by what happens if a two headed baby is presented at the font.  Private confession cannot be defined by the unfaithful practice of penance which (if not intentional then accidental) paid for the absolution.  The Sacrament of the Altar is not defined by the occasional celiac or one allergic to alcohol who shows up at the altar or by those who do not think they need or do not desire it.  Vestments, chanting, lectionary, bowing, kneeling, frequency of the Eucharist, etc... cannot be voted upon as if these were merely an expression of local desire or history.  Diluted faith is still harmful even it if is not the same as heresy or apostasy.  Exceptional circumstances may define the need to depart from the norm but they cannot be used to establish that norm.

BTW I find it curious that those Lutherans who are the most rabidly anti-Roman Catholic about what happens in worship have flagrantly followed the poor Roman leadership and practice in terms of communion in the hand and now think of it as one of the sacred rights owed to them.  But that is another matter for another blog post. . .

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

So similarly have evangelical churches (who are rabidly anti-Rome) become bastions of Catholic 'big' c theology. Not that they would ever say that, but practically it has become the norm. An example would be the focus on moral peccadillos, rather than the Gospel.

As an adult convert to Lutheranism and the Real Presence (rather than the real absence), it lLOOKS as if there is a lot of either disbelief in, or trivialization of the Sacrament. I am speaking generally here, not specifically.

I'd much rather have someone ask why in the world I take Communion on the tongue/in the mouth, why I drink from the Chalice (icky! germs!). I'd rather answer someone skeptical about my wearing a head covering than have someone think this convert wasn't sure of what was really going on