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The looking-glass world of the judgemental

08 March 2019

It is wrong to use St Paul’s teachings to deny LGBT people the sacrament of communion, says David Ison

IN SOME churches, members have to be judged worthy by others to receive the sacrament of communion, going beyond the English Book of Common Prayer’s concerns about what it used to call “open and notorious evil livers”.

The General Synod last month heard about “pastoral principles for living well together” (News, 1 March). The fourth principle refers to the sacraments as God’s gift: none of us are worthy to be saved by God’s mercy. But it also asks “what it means to be in right relationship with God before receiving these sacraments”.

And it goes on to say: “The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), for example, helpfully exhorts everyone to examine their ‘worthiness’ before receiving communion,” and asks us to wrestle with “how to become a Church that exhorts everyone to examine their ‘worthiness’ in a meaningful and habitual way”. And this is in the context of “the tensions that may arise between discipleship as a personal and individual response to Christ driven by conviction and conscience, and discipleship as membership of a community — the Church — seeking to live in the light of its historically received and understood traditions”.

To link “worthiness” with individual conscience is a modern cultural take on what scripture actually says: yes, it’s in the BCP, but it is a partial reading (in both senses of the word “partial”) of the words of St Paul on which it is based. And the pastoral principles use “worthiness” in a context where it is assumed by some that LGBT people are likely to be living in a way that is unholy, and disqualifies them from receiving God’s grace in the sacrament.


THIS was made more explicit in the January “Letter from Concerned Anglicans in the Oxford Diocese” (News, 11 January). It tells the Oxford bishops that “in supporting the formulation first produced by the Bishops of Lichfield, [your ad clerum] letter makes specific reference to nobody being excluded or discouraged from receiving the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s Supper.

“Such indiscriminate participation seems to be inconsistent with the witness of Scripture: for the early Christians, these sacraments were only for those of the household of faith (eg, Acts 2.41-42); and the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11.27-29 clearly discourages participation in the Lord’s Supper for those who have not examined themselves.”

The Lichfield and Oxford bishops were not, in their letters, advocating “indiscriminate participation” by anyone, but upholding the Church of England’s policy on admitting people to the sacraments (see Canon B16 “Of notorious offenders not to be admitted to Holy Communion”). But the “Concerned Anglicans” assume that LGBT people are outside the household of faith, and that they have not examined themselves, because they have not come to the same view as that of the Concerned Anglicans.

It is a relief to go back to the words of St Paul, more searching and radical than words such as “worthiness” or “worthy reception” suggest. In 1 Corinthians 11.17-34, Paul addresses an abuse in the Corinthian church: there are factions that do not acknowledge each other’s equal worth before God, and, at communion, the rich keep their bread and wine for themselves and eat their fill, while the poor next to them go hungry. Paul scolds them, and points them back to Jesus, whose loving death they should proclaim in sharing the bread and wine together, as his body.

What Paul points to here is not the Corinthians’ individual spiritual lives before God (“Am I worthy?”), but the manner in which, when together, they deny by their actions the body of Christ in the sacrament, and his body in the Church (”are we acting together in a way that demonstrates the embodied love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ?”). And the Corinthians have been judged because they do not value the body of Christ.

It is not individual “worthy reception” that Paul talks about: it is the action of eating and drinking unworthily together, not recognising the body of Christ in those with whom we disagree. The BCP acknowledges that, as we come to the sacrament, we should repent of our sins (not the sins of which others assume we are guilty), and also obey the command to live in love and charity with our neighbours.


SO, WHO is Paul addressing today, and how? LGBT Christians who seek to follow Jesus Christ and feel called to faithful relationships? Those who welcome others in Christ’s name to the table of Jesus Christ? Or those who judge the worthiness of other Christians with whom they disagree, and refuse to pray with them or share communion with them?

It is ironic, and worse, that Paul’s confronting of corporate division and contempt is used by one part of Christ’s body as a stick with which to beat and exclude another part of Christ’s body — when Paul is telling his hearers to take a good look at themselves, not others.

The Very Revd Dr David Ison is the Dean of St Paul’s. This piece was published with the permission of ViaMedia.News.

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