Wednesday, October 27, 2010

God goes Gluten-free?

[Excerpted from a talk at the Annual Dinner of the Friends of St Paul's Cathedral, University House, October 2010].

Ten years ago or so I first saw a satirical version of a pew-sheet offering advice concerning the options available in an Episcopal Church for receiving communion. Part of it went as follows:
To receive an ordinary, unleavened Communion wafer, kindly wink your right eye as the minister approaches. For a certified, organic, whole-grain wafer, wink your left eye. For low-salt, low-fat bread, close both eyes for the remainder of the service. For gluten-free bread, blink both eyes rapidly while looking at the ceiling.
Blinking aside, this isn't so far from reality in some places. At St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne, the Dean has become accustomed not only to issue evacuation directions that will protect the congregation from external threats related to the fabric of the Cathedral; he has also learned to offer instructions to protect the interior of the worshipper by indicating where gluten-free wafers are to be found at the time of communion.

Both the real and the fake announcements arise of course from the prevalence of coeliac disease, which is four times more common than fifty years ago, even taking into account different patterns of diagnosis and reporting. The reason for this new prevalence are not certain, but there is real suspicion that the kind of modern hard wheat we now eat in great quantity, and/or the presence of gluten and other wheat derivatives in other products, has triggered the spread of this auto-immune disorder. There are also much more common, if less critical, forms of allergy or intolerance to modern bread wheat found in a fair proportion of the population.

Anglicans can arguably consider gluten-free options for the Eucharist because the old Prayer Book rubric states “it shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten” which allows alignment or correlation with cultural change; but it goes on to say “but the best and purest Wheat Bread that conveniently may be gotten”, both urging conscientious attention to the quality of the bread, and privileging use of wheat. What the tradition seems to have in mind is the desire to use what Jesus used at the Last Supper, instituting the Eucharist. The Lambeth Quadrilateral, to which Anglicans look as a guide for what is necessary across Christian traditions, speaks of “unfailing use…of the elements ordained by him”.

Roman Catholics are officially less free about choosing Eucharistic bread. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2000) states: “The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.” This means no gluten-free wafers on offer at St Patrick’s Cathedral, across town.

The insistence that the bread be wheat, noted in both traditions if not held with equal insistence, may well be a historical mistake, if intended as imitation of the Last Supper.

The accounts of the Last Supper do not specify of what the bread was made. For that matter, the species of grain known in Jesus’ time are not the same ones we have today; wheat in particular underwent repeated hybridization even in the pre-industrial world, let alone after the more aggressive changes of industrial agriculture and recent plant science, now including genetic modification. So it is not even possible to know exactly what Jesus used, let alone use it.

As reflected in slightly later Rabbinic traditions and since, unleavened bread – matzah – is made from the same grains that are otherwise prohibited at Passover because they create natural yeast cultures and leaven—and hence bread: wheat varieties, including spelt and emmer, as well as barley. In subsequent history, rye and oats have certainly been included in this obligation, although they may not have grown in ancient Judea. Some rabbis included rice.

At Passover, Jews do not eat anything leavened, from the command in Exod 12 to eat in haste without leavening the bread. Our modern ways of baking can lead us to misunderstand the implications; leaven in the ancient world did not come from yeast in packets, but from the natural fermentation processes that arose spontaneously in moistened grain or flour – something which has returned to popularity in some circles as sourdough, but whose use takes time.

As a result observant Jewish households now bake or buy unleavened bread or matzah, but rid the house of all (other) flour, of any kind – not just of yeast, and not just of wheat flour. In fact yeast itself is allowed at Passover, since it is involved in the fermentation of wine; but while yeast-derived wine is allowed, grain-derived drinks like beer and whisky are not.

So although it is likely that the bread of Jesus’ Passover would have been made from an ancient wheat variety, it is not stretching things too far to say that other ancient Jews, and hence early Christians, may have eaten bread made from any of these grains.

Why then the more restrictive view?

In the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas notes the question, but argues not only from the superior quality of wheat, but from the awkward ground that Augustine of Hippo viewed biblical references to barley - which was admittedly cheaper and coarser - as indicating the Mosaic Law. This is a little ironic since the insistence on unleavened wheat bread is supposed to reflect the Mosaic Law too!

Thomas' prescriptive advice about wheat apparently carries more wheat weight in Roman Catholicism than the ambiguity of the biblical texts. Anglicans will have to object that what cannot be established scripturally ought not to be insisted on for all and everywhere, however customary. While wheat may be very appropriate matter for the sacrament, it is dubious to conclude that St Thomas' preferences and St Augustine's attitudes to barley (and to Judaism) should trump provisions at the Eucharist that have their own real claim to historical authenticity, and make sense in the present.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Synod 2010: Word and Flesh

[Extract from the Sermon given at the opening of the 50th Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, October 6 2010] 

 Synod is also about words – more printed papers than you can absorb, and more speeches than you’d ever want to listen to (at least this will be the case about mid-way through Friday evening). Whether or not all the words we read or speak in these coming days are the right ones, there is a Word underlying all we do, and to which – or rather to whom – all our words are accountable. This one Word of God is witnessed to in the words of scripture that we also call the Word of God. Yet the specifically Christian understanding of God’s Word is not about words as such, but about flesh. In Jesus Christ we encounter the one who, as Word made flesh, does in and as flesh what our own words cannot.

In Colossians we read that Paul “became …servant [of that body, the Church], according to God’s commission that was given to me…to make the word of God fully known”. Where the NRSV speaks of “[making] the Word of God fully known” the original Greek actually has “completing” the Word or “fulfilling” it.

To complete or fulfil that ultimate Word is not to utter every word that might occur to us, but more and more to become that body which is the Church; thus to have, as Colossians puts it, “Christ in [us], the hope of glory”. We can be tempted, as Tom Wright puts it, to turn flesh back into words again “…but what changes the world is flesh”. (1)

John’s Gospel, which more than any other part of scripture witnesses to Jesus the true Word of God made flesh, presents Jesus offering his most intimate words to the Father in chapter 17 of the Gospel. He prays “not only [for] these, but [for those] who will believe in me through their word”; God’s Word, speaking his own words, about our embodiment of his word.

Jesus calls us together, not simply for our own various words, but for the sake of those who might believe through our embodied witness to him. If really being Church means that we have the authenticity and diversity of Christ’s fragile body, the other condition of being Church must be that we are here for others who may therefore believe. We are called to make the Word fully known in word and deed, not just saying or doing but being what we are called to be, and thus living and proclaiming the Gospel.

So in the end even Synod is not about words, however much it depends on them, but about the one Word who has pitched his tent among us, and the mission to which he calls us. Synod is about Church; not because institutions matter, or even because Synod does, but because we have this call to make the Word fully known.

So perhaps the two most important things we could do in these coming days of Synod, prayerfully and carefully, would be these: to ensure that our decisions, and the words we use to make them, acknowledge and protect and enhance the fragile, difficult and rich diversity to which we have been called as Christ’s body; and to pray that our decisions and actions reflect our shared call to make the incarnate Word fully known, not only to those in our existing communities, but to those who may believe through our word.

 (1) N. T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 61

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Synod 2010: Being Church

[Extract from the Sermon given at the opening of the 50th Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, October 6 2010]

Those of us who come to Synod may have self-selected in such a way that we need less convincing than others that the Church is still important; but we, too, know that being here has its oddities and its challenges.

Synod is about the Church. And Church is not, by and large, wildly popular. In a secular world that is indifferent or hostile to faith, and a religious world that is increasingly post-denominational, even many Christians are cynical about the institutional Church.

And after all, we Melbourne Anglicans are ourselves not “the Church” but a fragment of Church, one tradition or trajectory in a diversity that is two parts divine mystery and three parts human pride. The Church is broken, still struggling to free itself from everything we are called to oppose and transform in human life otherwise.

But the Church has never been imagined, even at the earliest point, as an ideal institution or community without contradictions or wounds. If you ever find yourself in a really wonderful, perfectly holy Church, it would probably be time to check whether it really was Church at all, or whether you and some friends had managed to filter out the undesirable and disagreeable people that, with the rest of us, actually make something that approximates a real Church.

Our deficiencies as Church, like our personal lacks, are not a meaningless mistake that we can strategize or theologize our way out of; however much we should hope to be freed from what limits us and our mission, the renewed life we are called to is not shiny superficial success, but the continued embodiment of Christ’s own life – this is why we are not just any “body” but the “body of Christ”. That life, that body, was offered to us in frailty as well as in power, and its reality today has both dimensions.

The Letter to the Colossians depicts Paul “rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. This doesn’t mean that Christ’s work is itself incomplete – it means that we, like Paul, are called into forms of life that continue Christ’s own real life – the life of victory enmeshed with ambiguity, and even with suffering. It means we are called to be in community, not with those we agree with anyway, but those whom Christ has called to be with us.

In this Diocese we have the blessing of a diversity not much less than that of the wider Anglican Communion – and you know how that’s looking! So it is not an easy blessing – you will doubtless be reminded of this at some point before the end of Synod. But every word you hear that confronts or challenges this week, more even than those which warm or console, is a gift that offers us the possibility of being Church more fully and authentically.