I actually did complete my “post-evangelical pilgrimage,” but managed to come down with a series of illnesses which have pretty much knocked me down for the past month so I haven’t had a chance to write about it. At last, I have the time and energy to do so.
For the last two weeks of my “pilgrimage,” I stepped firmly outside of the comfort zone of my evangelical tradition and visited the Episcopalians and the Catholics. While I have attended services of both traditions in the past, I really enjoyed hitting them back-to-back, as it gave me a really good sense of the continuity between the two.
Being a non-liturgical Christian, I did quite a bit of stumbling in the two services. Besides being able to respond “thanks be to God” to the pronouncement of “the Word of the Lord,” I was unable to follow the liturgy in the Catholic service (I believe there is something analogous to the Episcopalians’ Book of Common Prayer, but it wasn’t present in the pew in which I sat). With the Episcopal service, I was able to follow along, but had to get used to the switch between the BCP, the hymnal, and a supplemental hymnal that they had. Not to mention the standing and sitting and kneeling going on in the midst of that.
That being said, I REALLY enjoyed both services. While I believe evangelicalism is very good at making us aware of the immanence of God (sometimes to a “Jesus is my boyfriend” extreme, sadly), the Episcopalians and Catholics are very good at lifting us into his transcendence. In these two services, I truly felt that I was on holy ground and in the presence of the Lord God.
Now to the meat of both services: the eucharist. Obviously, not being Catholic, I was unable to partake of the elements in that service, whereas I was able to join with the Episcopal congregation in receiving the sacrament. But in both cases, it was during the Eucharist that I was most aware of the presence of God. Which given the fact that the two churches will not allow their members to receive communion in the others’ services makes me wonder why we can’t get past this barrier (I know, I know, five hundred years of history and fine points of doctrine).
But it also made me question the way that my own church performs communion (and even raised a question inside of me as to whether we actually DO administer communion at all). One of my biggest complaints about my own church is the self-service nature of the communion – there is no blessing of the elements during the service, and each person individually goes up and takes their own elements during the time communion is given.
And it also raised theological issues – one of the areas where I break from evangelical doctrine (there are quite a few, but this is an important one) is with regard to what is actually going on with the elements during communion. For our church, and for most evangelicals, the bread and wine – er, grape juice – are just symbolic. There is no presence of Christ during communion. But from my experience, my understanding of church tradition, and even the scriptures themselves (see Paul’s description of individuals falling sick and dying for receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy fashion), it seems clear that regardless of WHAT happens during the Eucharist, SOMETHING does happen and Christ is present.
Now, I’m not exactly sure in what capacity Christ is present – do the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ as the Catholics claim, or do the elements merely reside alongside Christ’s presence (I apologize if I’m misinterpreting the doctrine) as most Anglicans/Episcopalians would say, or is it something else entirely? I’m not sure. But I definitely feel that there is more there than just a symbol, and my sense of God’s presence during the Episcopal and Catholic services reinforced that belief.
So in conclusion, I have some serious thinking to do with regard to the Eucharist. While my predisposition is against the kind of doctrinal division which has hounded the church since it was born, I have to seriously consider whether I should continue to receive communion in my church, whether I should continue to receive communion in my church but also supplement it with the Eucharist at a church like the Episcopal church, or whether I can accept that Christ can be present even in our self-service communion as long as I am looking for him there.
But setting aside my personal struggle with the issues raised by the Eucharist, the biggest thing I came away with from these two weeks was the fact that we are all one Church, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, and my prayer is that one day we would be able to live like that church.