Balancing competing values at heart of `open table’

Published April 1, 1999

IT’S NO SECRET that as the village becomes more global, the more people ponder what values mark their house from the one next door or across the street. Competing values are at the heart of many of the disputes between nations, between provinces, between political parties, churches and interest groups. Two areas of interest to Canadian Anglicans in this regard have been in the news recently. The Anglican Journal’s stories about the Diocese of Toronto’s struggle over whether to allow unbaptized people to receive communion (termed “open table”) have been picked up in several daily newspapers. At the heart of the issue are the competing values of welcoming strangers into the church family and maintaining the integrity of the church’s practices, which date back virtually to its foundation. Another story is how new immigrants and their practices from places other than northern Europe are to be accommodated in a country like Canada. A recent New York Times article raised a number of questions about values that immigrants bring that initially clash with existing North American culture. As the Times writer put it: “How do democratic, pluralistic societies, based on religious and cultural tolerance, respond to customs and rituals that may be repellent to the majority?” The article raised a number of difficult issues, including “the common African ritual that opponents call female genital mutilation.” Proponents of such practices – it’s known to happen in Canada although it’s illegal – say this is no worse than male genital mutilation – circumcision – which is permitted. Such arguments ignore the fact that male circumcision, which at least physicians are recognizing needs serious pain management, is otherwise relatively harmless and is not done to control the male baby’s future sexual urges. Female mutilation, on the other hand, tries to destroy part of a female baby’s anatomy in the misplaced belief it will control her sexuality. That runs counter to our North American values about women’s equal rights, not to mention our knowledge about the body and sexuality. But are all foreign practices unacceptable? Some years ago, there was furore in Canada over whether Sikh Mounted Police could wear turbans. Opponents were wedded to the current American-derived Rangers hat. It had somehow become an inviolable part of the Mounted Police uniform. Sikhs, who served the British Empire with distinction and with a turban, were hurt and perplexed. Fortunately, the issue was resolved sensibly, allowing Sikhs to retain their turban, but not without considerable turmoil. The Times article raised the possibility of what some scholars call “non-ethnocentric global morality,” setting a “global moral minimum” to sift what Old World practices should be permitted in the New World. But it is hard to see how that can happen any time soon, particularly with women’s rights almost unknown in many parts of the world. The story about the Diocese of Toronto’s struggle over unbaptized people receiving communion raises similar questions. As so often happens, the restating of the ancient practice that only the baptized may receive the sacramental bread and wine unless official exemption is sought, was an attempt to bring some order to current rule-breaking. Many questions still need to be addressed: What’s the point of having rules if those who break them aren’t disciplined? Do bishops even have the authority to grant exemptions in this kind of matter? What are the criteria that allow one parish to change the church’s practice but not the whole diocese? But at the heart of this issue are even deeper questions about competing values. People with little or no previous connection to the church are now beginning to venture inside the doors. Like immigrants to another country, they bring certain expectation that may clash with the existing order. How is the church to appropriately welcome them? Seekers no doubt expect a warm welcome. If they don’t receive it, they will look elsewhere. As it is, Anglicans have a poor, largely deserved reputation for being unwelcoming in their attitude towards others. Too many still act as if the church is a private club. What is the church doing to change that? Is changing our theology about the sacrament part of that?In the end, superficial answers like permitting some parishes to welcome unbaptized to receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood will go only so far. Some serious thought is required about what the church has taught about sacraments, why we have them and what their role is in opening the fold to admit new members. It’s time for some serious scholarship to connect with serious pastoral considerations. Without some grounded answers, our solutions will have no more permanence than the flavour of the month. One of the most important values of Christianity is drawing people to the Body of Christ – after all, it is one of Jesus’ stated goals. But when that value appears to conflict with the value of theological integrity – and recalling Jesus own words about baptism and the eucharist – how do we balance them? Therein lies the challenge.


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