The question in the headline is not a hypothetical one. It isn’t rhetorical. It is not the musings of some half-baked-postmodern-millennial theology or of a philosophy of religion geek (guilty as charged).
It’s a serious question about the state of Baptist life. This past year, I had the privilege of co-presiding over communion during closing worship at the Baptist General Association of Virgnia’s 2017 annual meeting. I also partook in communion at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia’s annual gathering. Many of the same people were in the room at each gathering.
This week, on Monday afternoon, I sat with a heavy heart, realizing that I had served communion, and shared communion with two organizations that are breaking communion in several ways. If the communion isn’t broken, it is certainly strained.
Communion — that holy and sacred ordinance — reminds us we are one in Christ’s body, and reminds us of Christ’s love and grace covering us all.
Many of us would have no problem reciting the Apostles’ Creed and our belief in the “communion of saints,” which traditionally refers to Christians both living and dead. How silly will we feel when we get to heaven one day and realize the communion of saints includes people we have broken communion with?
Communion can be defined as “an act or instance of sharing” or “intimate fellowship or rapport.” The earliest known use of the word communion derives from the Latin communio, which means mutual participation. Make no mistake: communion, in a sense, was broken this week between the BGAV and the CBF. Not only that, communion suffers among those who remain in the BGAV family, just as it suffers in the CBF family.
In the CBF, communion suffers for progressives because many cannot yet share fully in ministry. Communion suffers for centrists because there is seemingly no middle ground to be shared. Communion suffers for right of center of churches because they feel a loss of intimate fellowship with a denomination progressing past their own consciences and comfort. People and churches right and left of center have lost rapport with one another in the wake of the Illumination Project report and its so called Implementation Plan. Does communion mean anything?
In the BGAV, communion suffers because there will no longer be cooperative sharing of missions and witness, and member churches who dually affiliate with both the CBF and BGAV perhaps feel as if they have lost rapport in the BGAV family. Let’s be frank. Some BGAV and CBF loyalists have always seen the other organization as competing for increasingly scarce resources and dollars. Overall, however, there has also been a strong sense of cooperation between the BGAV and CBF on a variety of issues including combating poverty in western Virginia, funding theological education and standing for religious liberty.
I pray that as communion fractures in some ways, it holds fast in others.
In my local community, we have an annual event called Operation INASMUCH. Many readers may be familiar with this weekend-long ecumenical community outreach event. In our county, over 30 congregations participate in Operation INASMUCH each year for local missions and service projects. For one day, we share in communion (in the Latin sense) as people of faith, partnering on a variety of projects — from wheelchair ramps to diaper drives to singing in nursing homes.
If your church is like mine, your congregation may partner with area churches for Lenten and Holy Week services, annual baccalaureate and Thanksgiving services, and other special events. If we partner with other congregations locally who diverge on the same questions causing fracture among moderate Baptists, then why can’t we Baptists partner with each other in ministry? It seems we possess a willingness to partner with others (Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans) who are far more progressive (in ways) than we are, but when we partner with them for shared mission it’s not an issue because they don’t carry the name “Baptist,” and it’s only temporary.
For the BGAV and CBF, perhaps “communion” now means we just share a little instead of share abundantly. Maybe “communion” now means we have only periodic public fellowship with each other instead of intimate friendship as brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps “communion” now means rapport and affinity move towards separation and estrangement. Could “communion” now conceivably mean that ventures of mutual participation in ministry are now done in isolation? Of course, such a “communion” is counterfeit, and certainly not the communion of Christ.
Personally, the hardest thing in all this is having deep feelings of communion with many individuals in two organizations increasingly not in communion with each other. I sure hope communion still means something.