Yesterday I attended a Ukrainian Catholic church. I’ve had a growing appreciation for liturgy for several years now, and I was intrigued by their worship, but I was very distracted. I was angry, and surprised at how angry I felt. I even left for a while to cool off, but it didn’t really help. The people were lovely, but that seemed to make it worse. I realized after a while that this feeling went back a long way.
When I was in Bible college I had to attend worship services from other denominations to see how their worship differed. My good friends, Bill and Anna, attended a Catholic church in a neighbouring town, and invited me to their church for the assignment. Bill and Anna were always hospitality incarnate, so I was only a little surprised to find that they had arranged for me to interview the priest in his parsonage before the service. The priest was very nice and welcoming, though his chain smoking threw me off a bit (the good Pentecostal that I am). He indulged my questions about their worship, and when the service started he introduced me to the whole congregation. I felt almost overwhelmed with welcome.
Except when I didn’t.
There were a few things that put me off that day, and threw off the sense of welcome that I had received. There were a few distinctions, and they all had the same point: I was welcome, but I was still an outsider.
It started when the priest asked me, in his parsonage, where I was baptised. I had been baptised at a Christian Missionary Alliance church, but I made sure to explain that I was a Pentecostal, attending a Pentecostal Bible college. He seemed not to hear me: “Christian Missionary Alliance?” He paused. “Yes, but now I’m P-” He resumed: “Oh yeah, I don’t think those guys are heretics. They’re okay.” He said it with a smile, but with complete seriousness. I wasn’t sure how much I appreciated his “approval” of my Christianity. When he introduced me to the congregation, it was as a missionary from the Alliance church.
This threw me off. When I was baptised, it never occurred to me that I was being baptised to a particular denomination. I was being baptised with Christ, dying to self and rising to new life. I had been taught that it was merely a symbol to identify myself with Christ and remember his death and resurrection, but however my theology of baptism has changed since then, the intent was still the same: I belong to him now, and where he goes, I go. I could have been baptised in a sewer by hobos, and it would have meant the same to me. I understood when the priest asked me the question that he understood baptism as an initiation into a particular church, but I was still taken aback by it – that my baptism had to be questioned, that it was in doubt. To me, it was the same as questioning my faith, my confession, my Lord himself. I knew that no offense was intended, but it bothered me nonetheless, and blunted the effect of his hospitality.
At the time, this bothered me more than not being able to receive the Eucharist during the service. My grandmother is Catholic, so I had been to Mass a few times, and I was taught back then how to receive a blessing instead. The priest on this particular Sunday was very genuine in his blessing of me, and I felt honoured. Besides, Catholics eat wafers that taste like envelopes. Plus, I knew I disagreed with transubstantiation (that the host is transformed into the literal body of Christ), and had read that the ritual involved was a kind of idolatry. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on that point, but I was fine with not participating.
In the intervening years, being denied the Eucharist that day has bothered me more. It was bad enough that my type of Christianity was questioned in regard to my baptism, but I realized that even though I had “passed” that test, I was still an outsider. For several years now, the Roman Catholic Church has formally recognized most denominations of Christianity, Orthodox and Protestant, but only halfway. Instead of being heretics, we’re now in “imperfect communion”, meaning that we might go to heaven as long as our beliefs are orthodox, but we’re still not really Christians. Some formulations of this doctrine also imply that we’re only this kind of half-Christian so long as we’re ignorant of the doctrines of the “one true church” (the Roman Catholic Church), rather than having rejected them. So regardless of my devotion, my learning, my works, my wisdom, any exhibition of the fruit of the Spirit, even miracles, I’d only be half a Christian to them, and be denied the Eucharist. Still an outsider. Even if my baptism is recognized (which isn’t always the case).
My discomfort with being an outsider among Christians has increased the more I learn about the nature of the Eucharist, and of sacraments in general. I’ve come to understand Christianity as being primarily our participation in the life of Christ: partaking of the Eucharist is partaking of Christ himself, the Bread of Life. I’ve come to understand that sacraments are actions which embody Christ, making him known by making him take up space: in the Eucharist we take Christ’s body into our own, and are united to it. Exclusion from the Eucharist is exclusion from unity with Christ in the mystical and sacramental sense as well as the communal sense.
My hurt over this (because it goes way beyond mere discomfort!) increased even more when I learned more about the Catholic understanding of justification and sanctification. They believe that, being flawed and sinful people, we are incapable of receiving God’s grace fully. As we receive grace, we are transformed by it more and more into the likeness of Christ, so that the more grace we receive the more grace we’re able to receive. And we receive grace primarily by participating with the church, particularly in the sacraments, of which the Eucharist is generally thought to be the central or chief. So even if the Catholic Church recognizes my baptism, my doctrine, my character and intent, and my ethics and works, so long as I’m not officially Catholic I am barred from participating in the sacrament that unites me with Christ and his church, and which imparts on me the grace I need to grow in grace and ultimately be perfected toward my salvation. Not only am I not able to be recognized as belonging to Christ, but I’m denied the means of improvement in that regard.
So yesterday, when four or five people went out of their way to introduce themselves to me after the service and invite me into the fellowship hall for snacks, I politely declined. I didn’t want coffee cake, I wanted the Bread of Life. I was angry, but more than that, I was hurt. Their kindness, their genuine generosity and hospitality, had been completely undermined. No matter how “welcome” I was, I could never be more than a guest there. Suddenly, even the kindest people seem condescending, and I wonder if they shake their heads when I leave and pray for my lost soul. They might, they might not, and it probably wouldn’t be condescending even if they did, but it’s hard to recognize the kindness of people who are part of an organization that systematically excludes you.
Today as I thought about this, I suddenly made a connection. In some small way, I can begin to understand what it must feel like to be female, or gay, in a Protestant church today. Well, in any church, but I’ve picked on Catholics enough.
Yesterday my own church was talking about those verses in Timothy – you know the ones. They’re in the Bible, and I don’t doubt their importance or their status as holy scripture, but there’s an interpretation of those verses that has been dominant for a very long time, and is responsible for making women second-class Christians who are considered unworthy of speaking, teaching, or having any authority over any man, regardless of evidence of spiritual gifts, wisdom, or calling. This interpretation, if we were to take it seriously and follow its implications, even implies that Eve’s sin was of a different nature than Adam’s, that women have a different type of salvation than men (saved through childbirth, so nuns and spinsters and barren women, or the wives of impotent men, are out). If this is the case, what is the nature of a woman’s relationship to Christ? How does he represent her, and how is she united to him? Can she really even be called a Christian, or is she somehow less of a Christian?
Even outside of that passage’s interpretation, there’s still systematic sexism in the church. Denominations who officially interpret such verses differently, unofficially still don’t promote women in leadership, or promote leadership to women. We have no expectations of women, we provide few opportunities to women, and when we do, few or none step up. Then we say “well, women just don’t want to be in leadership,” and we go back to grooming young men for the pulpit (but never to be a kids’ pastor, that’s women’s work!). Women can be saved, but all too often, they’re still outsiders.
And what about homosexuals? In many churches they’re not just outsiders, they’re considered the enemy. In some churches they’re accepted provisionally, in a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell type of way. They can get along fine so long as they’re “passing” (i.e., don’t appear to be too gay, and keep any relationships under wraps, so that nobody will suspect them and embarrass the church), or if they go through therapies to repress or reverse their homosexuality. Other churches proudly welcome openly gay congregants, but require vows of celibacy, exclude them from ministry, and/or refuse them marriage. On this issue, even some of the most generous and welcoming churches have some pretty big holes in their hospitality. I realize now why there’s such thing as “gay churches” – because a church where a gay person can worship God and not feel like an outsider must be very, very hard to find.
I don’t know what I think about gay marriage from a theological perspective, but I do know that most of the Christian church has failed to recognize how serious our systematic exclusion of homosexuals is. Sin can break fellowship, it’s true – but we’re all guilty of that. When it comes to fellowships being broken over homosexuality, it’s not sin that does so, it’s us. We could acknowledge our own sin, forgive them for theirs, and worship Christ together, but instead we insist on their otherness even when we recognize them half-way.
So I still don’t know what I think of the theology of gay marriage, and I’m pretty confident in my theology of women in the church (and specifically in ministry), but I know that I can’t in good conscience push someone out of fellowship with God. I know that I’m sick and tired of half-measures that half-recognize half-Christians and completely ruin our unity. The hospitality of Christ is not exclusive. Outsiders: come on in!