“I Hear That There Are Divisions Among You”: Discerning the Broken Body at General Conference 2012

ImageCourtesy UMNS

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

The matter of unworthiness has a sticky history in Protestantism.  Most astute readers of Scripture now agree that Paul’s concern for “eating unto damnation” was not an issue of individual sin, but rather of communal brokenness that made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper.  At issue in Corinth was not a bunch of sinners eating something that they had no business eating (for we are always sinners asking for scraps and sips of grace), but that the community was unmaking the Body of Christ by scandalous practices: ignoring the hungry, getting drunk before the holy meal, etc.  I have been reflecting on these passages as I wonder about one particular act at General Conference: the use of Communion as an act of protest.

A couple of quick notes: I am not a liturgical scholar, just a pastor who is interested in improving the celebration (both qualitative and quantitative) of the Eucharist my church. My chief issue is with the context of the Communion and not the particular motivations of those who went to the table that day (read: I would find it just as problematic if another caucus, say Good News or either side of the Israel/Palestine debate had taken similar action).  Lastly, in the interest of fairness, I have invited Rev. Becca Clark, the elder who presided at this action, to share her perspective and respond if she so desires.  I am a big believer – and General Conference illustrated this too well – that a major drawback of social media is the ability to snipe one another at a distance.  I have given Becca a head’s up so that this might be a more civil dialogue, and she kindly granted me permission to share some of her thoughts as part of this initial post.  A video of the events in question can be found here. (The video comes from the YouTube channel of the IRD, but rest assured that this is not an endorsement.)

Eucharist As An Act of Protest

From her own blog, here is Rev. Clark’s recollection.  After the Conference rejected several petitions, including an “agree to disagree” statement led by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter and enduring some inflammatory rhetoric

… we did the only thing we could do.

We set the communion table in the center of the room. We welcomed the visitors and supporters from outside the voting bar and delegates from the floor. We blessed bread and cup. I was the elder closest to the bread, and I lifted it in the air, breaking it as we are broken. I looked across the table and through my tears I saw my new friend and fellow laborer for justice, Gregory Gross, holding the cup.

We sent servers with (gluten free) wafers and cups of juice to serve those around the room. Some bystanders received communion with from those with whom they disagree, and some refused. I served those around me, offering them the Body of Christ as we all wept.

We stayed at the table when the session attempted to reconvene. Unable to get the delegates back to their seats and the visitors off the floor– indeed unable to even to get people to stop singing, the Bishop had no choice but to call for an early lunch.

In our correspondence, Rev. Clark indicated that the group had discussed the possibility of this being viewed as an unseemly act:

We discussed the use of the sacrament and the dangers of being perceived as politicizing a sacred gift. We also talked about maybe an affirmation of baptism instead. But what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.

A fundamental question seems to be, was this an act of unity or disunity?  Was this a kind of prophetic sign-act, calling the assembly to a unity that was not yet a reality, or did it drive that wedge deeper? According to Rev. Clark, their thinking was that the Eucharist

was one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?

To be sure, the Eucharist is a prophetic act, a sacrament that looks forward to God’s full reign of peace, justice, and love.  We learn much about how to live the truly human life, the grace-enabled life of holiness, at God’s Table.  Thus, the Eucharistic celebration is always an act of protest against brokenness, evil, and injustice in whatever forms.

But what about “Make us one?”

Paul seems clear that the brokenness of the community makes a mockery of the Lord’s Table.  It is one thing for a Chinese house-church to break bread and share the cup in the midst of their persecution, as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and anticipation of the New Creation against all the facts of their present situation.  That is a truly sacramental, Christ-centered protest.  Likewise, Oscar Romero lifting up the chalice in the midst of his enemies, knowing the danger he faced to bring God’s justice to his beloved El Salvador, was an act of protest.  He died protesting, a martyr at the Table.

It is an altogether different kind of act if it is undertaken in such a way as to highlight a division in Christ’s Body, to drive the wedge deeper, to coerce and manipulate.  This is precisely where this action became problematic.  Communion is always to be an act of and with the whole assembly.  In our recently approved study of the sacrament, This Holy Mystery, we find this guiding principle:

The whole assembly actively celebrates Holy Communion. All who are baptized into the body of Christ Jesus become servants and ministers within that body, which is the church…The one Body, drawn together by the one Spirit, is fully realized when all its many parts eat together in love and offer their lives in service at the Table of the Lord. (19)

Communion is the sacred meal that is at the heart of the life of the church.  Because it is Christ’s Table, it unites us as few other practices can.  As we share a loaf and cup, we are reminded that though we are many, we are indeed one through Christ Jesus.  I think, for instance, that it would have been entirely appropriate for the presiding Bishop to call for bread and cup and offer the Eucharist as a means to call us back to our center.  Something like this would have accomplished what I believe this group intended.  What actually occurred, though, was the interruption of perhaps the most important gathering of the world-wide church so that a particular caucus could make a statement in the form of a sacrament.  It seems to me that, however good the intention, the use of Communion at the height of a very heated debate made a Christ-centered act something much less.  The whole assembly may have been welcome, but those at the table had taken it by force, making Christ’s Table effectively their table.  In this, the witness of the Eucharistic table was sullied.  Again, from This Holy Mystery:

Communing with others in our congregations is a sign of community and mutual love between Christians throughout the church universal. The church must offer to the world a model of genuine community grounded in God’s deep love for every person. (35)

Celebrated well, the Eucharist accomplishes this.  At the Table, we see the world as it should be: all are welcome, all are invited to acknowledge the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and to feast of his holy body and thus be made into his likeness.  At General Conference on May 3, what should have been a liminal space, a “thin place” in the language of Celtic Christianity, became little more than another booth for another cause in the exhibition hall.  Genuine community, already stretched, became less possible by this act.  Mutual love was not encouraged.

The Missing Peace

I asked Rev. Clark for details of the liturgy that was used as they occupied the center table:

I was a delegate, so what I knew was get to the communion table. Someone will bring bread and juice. The ordained elder closest to the bread– which ended up being me– was to take the bread, silently pray words of blessing and institution, and break it. The rest just happened. By the time I was holding the bread, people were singing “let us break bread together.” the man who lifted the cup is a deacon and we had served on committee together, so it was a blessing to see him across the table. I prayed as best I could what I remembered of the communion liturgy, which I have memorized, but that day felt like– pour out your Spirit on us. We’re broken too and we want to be one body, like the bread makes us one. One with you and Christ. One with each other some day. Broken as we are, let us be your body for the world.

Many people served out of napkins of wafers and cups of juice. When I offered bread to those near me, I said, “the Body of Christ, broken as we are broken.”

Perhaps the greatest problem was all of this is that it was not a reconciled community that celebrated.  Because this was an act of a few and not the whole, there was no opportunity for the whole assembly to go to the table forgiven and reconciled.  In the UM Book of Worship, the following suggestions are given under “An Order of Sunday Worship”:

The people may offer one another signs of reconciliation and love, particularly when Holy Communion is celebrated.  The Peace is an act of reconciliation and blessing, based on New Testament Christian practice…it is not simply our peace but the peace of Christ that we offer. (p. 26)

Again, this particular debate would have been a perfect occasion to ask the assembly to pass the peace.  But because this was forced on the assembly by a few, no reconciliation was possible.  In fact, the ability to join hands, listen to each other, or even “agree to disagree” was damaged, not helped, by this act.

Rev. Clark acknowledges that not all will approve:

I recognize it was not an action everyone can stand behind. However, my intent was to be pastoral in a moment of brokenness and call us to the reminder of the “reason for the hope that we have” that God can and will make us whole.

The fact that I cannot stand behind this matters little, to be honest.  Our leaders seem much more concerned with institutional survival than sacramental faithfulness.  And yet, I felt this warranted comment.  In all the Twitter chat and Facebook rants, the voluminous articles and conversations about General Conference, I found it astounding that no one raised this particular question.  For a church that claims John Wesley as its founding father, an Anglican priest who loved the Lord’s Table and went to great pains to encourage his people to celebrate it regularly and properly, this is a sad commentary indeed.  In a world of partisan politics, bitter divides, and thoughtless polemic, the Eucharist should be one place where God reaches through all of the muck and mire to speak a word of grace and peace.  The Lord’s Table is where, like Christ, we are taken, blessed, broken, and given.  To make the Eucharist our act instead of God’s, a mere tool in a game of political manipulation rather than a sacrament of God’s grace, is a great disservice to Christ and his church.  The words of Brian Wren remind us what can and should happen in this holy mystery:

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,

each proud division ends.

The love that made us makes us one,

and strangers now are friends.

Sadly, this particular time at the Table exacerbated each and every “proud division.”  Strangers became even more estranged.  The body was not discerned.

Kýrie, eléison.

18 thoughts on ““I Hear That There Are Divisions Among You”: Discerning the Broken Body at General Conference 2012”

  1. I was at GC 2012. I was there praying outside the bar. I was not praying for victory but for peace and healing. I knew about the planned wittiness if the Hamilton/Slaughter amendment went down. I was hesitant about it for many reasons. My plan was to stay standing in support of those who we having communion. When the Hamilton/Slaughter went down, the spirit moved me. I, in that moment, needed the Eucharist. I knew that communion with my friends and strangers who the church had just closed the doors to yet again was the only way that I could start healing. It was the only way that I could even begin to think about staying in a church the would outright be discriminatory.
    This act of communion was so much like the upper room last supper. Jesus was trying to console a sad bunch, give them hope and way to remember. This communion did exactly that for me. In my sadness there was the hope of Jesus in my broken church.

    1. Kristen, I am quite sure that this was very meaningful for you and the others who stormed the table that day. My issue is that, on the whole, this action increased the brokenness of the church rather than diminish it. It drove the wedge deeper, and, in biblical parlance, placed a stumbling block in the way of genuine community and an authentic celebration of the Eucharist.

      1. I know that I am a little late to the party, but I reject your characterization of those of us at the Table furthering the divide. When a 60% majority can declare that there is no disagreement, the divide is as wide as it’s going to get. The United Methodist Church, in the way of General Conference, is a lying denomination. We tell lies when we refuse to acknowledge the division in our church, when a majority can say we are unanimous.

        Those of us at the Table did not further that divide so much as call attention to it. My young queer siblings who grow up in a church are several times more likely to attempt suicide than my young queer siblings who are not in a church. The Church is literally killing people, and the United Methodist Church is complicit. The Church’s heterosexist and homophobic reading of scripture is the stumbling block to genuine community. My coming to the Lord’s Table to be fed, and to find Grace in the midst of the ungraceful and unloving actions of this General Conference cannot be seen as a stumbling block.

        You mentioned that you are not a liturgical scholar. I have an MA in liturgical studies — I am not sure if that qualifies me as a scholar or not. Not only that, I have a high sacramental theology. I believe very strongly that the Eucharist is the most important liturgical action the Church does, and we should do it much more frequently, daily as the Rev. Mr. Wesley would suggest.

        As I was standing at the table, a delegate came up to me and asked what I was doing on the floor. She asked, by what authority am I allowed to be there? I told her, by the invitation of God. All are welcomed at the Lord’s Table. And that is at the heart of why we gathered at the Table — to remind the church that no matter what it calls me, no matter how poorly it reads scripture, no matter how complicit it is in the murder of my siblings, no matter that a pastor can say I am not worthy of membership, no matter any stumbling block (or three-foot high bar with blue fabric) they put before me, no matter any of that, I am still welcomed at the Lord’s Table; The Table of Grace. They can take away my dignity, but they cannot take my welcome at the Lord’s Table.

        Part of many Eucharistic Liturgies are a recollection of the mighty saving acts of God throughout history. Anamnesis is a theological word that means, essentially, to go without forgetting. To remember that God acts in the world and that God saves God’s people is central to (good?) liturgical/sacramental theology. To remember specifically the life and teachings, death, and glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ is something that, in the times of the greatest hurt, must be done.

        Also, as part of many Eucharistic Liturgies, there is a petition that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we be made one through our participation with the Holy Sacrifice. This petition is not descriptive, rather it is aspirational. We are not one, but we pray that the Holy Spirit will make us one. That was certainly my prayer as we gathered around the table. We are broken. We are disjointed, and we prayed that the Holy Spirit would breathe upon us and make us one, even as the delegates voted to further the divide.

        With regards to the whole assembly gathering for the meal. When we say or sing the sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might…) we are praying the same prayer with the Angels and Archangels and all of the company of heaven, as well as the whole Church — the Church militant and the Church Triumphant. We are praying it with all those in every time (past, present, and future) and place that have prayed the Great Thanksgiving. And that includes those delegates, visitors, and bishops who did not gather physically around the table with us. Because as we gather around the Table, we stand with one foot in chronos (human time) and one foot in kairos (God’s time). Just because in that chronos those who chose not to come to the table were not with us physically does not mean they were not there in kairos. The Eucharist transcends physical time and space.

        The vote, not our Eucharist divided the Church.

        And was our Eucharistic praxis perfect? Certainly not. I agree that passing the peace should be part of the liturgy. I also believe that the liturgy should always be said aloud and in a participatory fashion.

        Yet, there was a delegate at the 2004 General Conference who said that he wouldn’t even touch a gay person. How can we pass the peace when someone wont even touch me? At a different event — the 2010 United Methodist Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly — one delegate said that gay people can’t be Christians. How can I offer my hand in Christ fellowship when the person on the other end does not believe me to be a Christian; that denies my Baptism?

        The Body is Broken. And you have placed the onus of fixing it on one side.

        Finally, I will add, that the Christian faith is essentially a political one. To say that Jesus is Lord is a political statement. To say that we are gathering at the Lord’s Table is a political statement. To say that Christ has won victory over death and the powers of death is a political statement. Everything we do as Christians should be seen as political — including the Eucharist.

        (And I suppose, there is one further Finally…As you may know, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition hosted Daily Communion in the Tabernacle across from the street from the convention center. If we had gone there to gather around the Table, would you have the same challenges?)

        I hope that helps flesh out some of the theological understandings I have of the beautiful gathering that is show in that picture.

        Grace and peace,

  2. Pastor Mack,
    I was not at GC2012 but I followed through the blogs of Becca and others. With that, I would wonder what those who would have denied the protest would have done.

    There were times in the past, when I was in the midst of a journey through the wildnerness, when I would have been denied communion if I had tried to take communion. On one occassion, the denial would have been appropriate because I was pushing the boundary of that church, in part because I was not a member. The other time, the pastor would have denied me communion not because I was not a member but because he wasn’t sure that I believed as he believed. But if he had denied me the communion, it would have been because he changed arbitrarily changed the rules. I did take communion that Sunday but I decided that I would never again visit that church.

    We say, as United Methodists, that the table is open to all and yet it would seem to me, on the outside and far away, that General Conference this year and in the past two or three has been driven by those who would close the doors of the church and deny to some that which we say is open to all.

    When I thought about the first time, the minister would have been proper in denying me communion because I was not a member of the church. I choose not to go forward simply because I knew how it would play out. We are denying to members of the United Methodist Church the rights of membership because of our ignorance and not because it is so stated in the Bible somewhere.

    In the second case, I understood the game that the minister was playing in trying to deny me the right to communion. I wasn’t a member of that church and he had the right to deny me communion provided that I did not know the rules of the church. But I did know the rules and so he added another rule to see if he could stop me that way. But, as I said, I knew the game he was playing and meet his challenge. But I also knew that I didn’t want to play that way, where a non-member is challenged by a set of arbitrary rules and where I may or may have not been as honest as I should have been..

    And we are asking some individuals to be less-than-honest because of a set arbitrary rules that sometimes seem to change in our own policies.

    As long as we have an open table, then we have to keep the doors open to all. We have to see the differences between each of us as they are and not as they arbitrarily set by those who do not understand the differences.

    That is the challenge that we face in moving forward.

    1. Dr. Tony,

      I’m not suggesting that anyone be barred from taking Communion (though the extent to which Wesley himself practiced what we now call an “open table” needs to be explored more deeply).

      I’m suggesting, instead, that because this was an act of a few and not the whole, it was unfortunate. And again, my problem was not with the cause being protested but with the nature and context of the protest. Thank you for stopping by and re-blogging my thoughts.

  3. I was very troubled to see the bread and wine as props in a political scrum where the end seems to justify the means – any means. It just isn’t right.

    1. Political scrum is an interesting choice of words, polity has a place in this for certain but this continued circle of theology and “politics” as ever increased this chasm. When it was determined years ago that scientific data could not have impact on morality as identified through interpretation of scripture because science doesn’t entertain the concept. When we refuse to entertain reason when factual information becomes available we close the door on the Wesleyan theology.

      Was this a politically correct protest? When scripture is used as a weapon absolutely it is a correct or appropriate time to heal brokeness through communion. I daresay that calling people to communion and unity when hatred is spewed what better “Sword of the Spirit” is more appropriate. When we can’t even agree to disagree what time is better to remind us and encourage people to move toward a peaceful understanding of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us. When is a better time to invite people to the table. While I don’t expect everyone to agree however this appears to be more akin to spiritual warfare than “Holy Conversations”

  4. Thank you for shedding light on this. As a life long Methodist who was taught love and respect for its sacraments and practices, I have been idisturbed with how the pro GLBT contingent lodges its protests when things don’t go the way they see fit. I struggle mightily with this issue and they are not making it any easier for me. I have also been disturbed with what they have been “allowed” to get away with. Although I understand ordained elders are the ones designated to preside over Communion, in the context of General Conference, which is reprsentative of the entire denomination, I would have thought only the Bishops would be”‘eligible” to preside over communion. But that is my lowly opinion.

    And just for the record, I have struggled with some decisions made within my local UMC that I absolutely did not agree with and that left me greatly disappointed. I would never consider it appropriate to use the sacraments or practices of the church as a means of protest. Highly inappropriate.

    We seem to be dissecting the Bible more and more in dealing with this issue and now the importance of the sacraments are being minimized. What’s going to be left?

  5. Was there any impetus at the General Conference for either proud division to end? From the outside (I’m a British Methodist) it looks like the only unity being offered from both sides was “There will be unity when you repent and agree with our theologically correct position”. In which event, the official communion was equally as egregious as the unofficial one. It doesn’t appear from the outside that either side really wants to listen to each other.

    1. Pam,

      You are correct in many ways. The church dialogue has unfortunately become as stilted as the larger cultural conversation going on; we are talking past one another than with one another. But we also have to imagine the complexity of getting people with a diversity of cultural contexts such as Germany, Liberia, California, and Alabama to actually take each other’s views seriously.

      I don’t share your thought that the official communion was “as egregious” as the protest communion. It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace. I believe it is a separate order of action altogether to have what is effectively a private mass in protest that drives the fissure deeper. Thank you for your comments.

      When shall British and United Methodism join hands, do you think?

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