Over the Christmas holiday 1969-70, I attended Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s “Urbana 70” Missionary Conference, along with, as I recall, 10,000 or so other young people.
Two episodes at the conference stood out in my memory these 50 years later. One is irrelevant for present purpose.
The other was an epiphanic episode wherein it was first announced that communion would be served to conferees at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall in a New Years Eve service. It made me feel all warm and comfy inside.
Then some spoilsport posed a question that conference organizers felt they must answer: By what authority was a parachurch organization enacting a sacrament of Christ’s Church? The question stunned this low Protestant boy, who had no answer, yet somehow felt that the proposed service was meet and right.
Organizers farmed the question out for answering to the late John R.W. Stott, low church only by the standards of high-church Anglicanism, who invented, live and in front of mostly smart and pious kids, a completely unpersuasive (and thus unmemorable) answer.
The show went on, but I was left pondering a conundrum, whenever that memory came back, until events decades later cut the Gordian knot: The questioner was right: IVCF had no authority to administer sacraments and should not have.
Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship was tacitly Inter-Varsity Low Protestant Fellowship when the rubber met the road, just as Christian Legal Society was really Low Protestant Legal Society. It’s an error it’s easy to make in America, where even the public schools in my childhood were tacitly Protestant.
That episode in my life came back to me as I read the following in a paean to the late Rachel Held Evans:
At every conference she hosted, Communion was served, and the table was always open. She knew how important its tangible reminders were, especially for those told they had no business imbibing the bread and wine.
I crave your forgiveness if it seems too proximate to her death to say anything, but I didn’t go looking for this; RHE’s own friends brought it up to eulogize her, and I’m loathe to let it pass.
I don’t doubt that this felt right to her, and that she meant as well as she knew how to mean. But at this point in my life, it shocks me, as something analogous apparently shocked someone 50 years ago at Urbana 70.
My shock today has little or nothing to do with her table being open, with all that implies in the context of her life, because surely all that was on the open table was “bread and wine,” not the body and blood of Christ. My shock has to do with the scotoma of “sacrament” without church. (Learning the meaning of “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” was part of what cut that Gordian IVCF knot for me.)
Some critical analysis in a long-form piece from 30 months ago, which I just discovered, is highly relevant: Alastair Roberts, The Social Crisis of Distrust and Untruth in America and Evangelicalism. It surprised and delighted me with its insight into how we get anti-vaxxers, President Donald Trump, autodidact super-peers — and, by implication, your Uncle Harry the climate denier (who has “done a lot of research on this hoax”) and churchless sacraments. It’s longish, but joins a very select club of clipped articles I’ve tagged as “important.”
Let he who has ears to hear, hear: This is not about Rachel Held Evans; it is about Church, about rightful authority, about the erosion of trust in rightful authority, and about the unreliability of most of those who, uncredentialed, fill the resultant void.
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