Sunday, June 03, 2007

Carded at the Rail

My wife, son, and I are in Japan together currently, and we were taking a vacation from our vacation with family and spent the weekend away in a nearby city.

For Sunday worship today, we attended a Nippon Sei Ko Kai (NSKK) Church – one we had not visited before. It was a pretty building, tucked into a bustling urban setting of high-rise apartments, condominiums, hotels, and students and shoppers and tourists enjoying the weekend.

Hiroko and I had agreed to tell no one I was a priest. It would avoid unnecessary questions and allowed me to participate simply as a visitor. I’m on vacation after all, and it’s good sometimes for clergy to travel incognito to see what the laity see. We were warmly greeted at the door, and a kind lady offered to look after three-year-old Daniel at the back of the nave.

Only a handful of faithful, a good number of them elderly, showed up for Trinity Sunday. Even by Japanese standards, it was a conservative and subdued setting. The altar was pushed hard against the sanctuary wall. The somber liturgy was the old NSKK mass, using a more archaic form of Japanese, all akin in some respects to our Rite I liturgies in the Episcopal Church. None of this made me particularly uncomfortable, though I was intrigued by the theological implications of seeing the priest at one point repeatedly turn towards the congregation as they prayed and back to the altar as he prayed.

Daniel, bless his heart, was doing his utmost to be quiet, but I still spent much of the liturgy distracted by his three-year-old energy filling the space (though no one seemed to mind!) as well as a pain in my back from an old injury. Pews can be most unforgiving, and the bed at the hotel had already left me tied up in knots.

But most notable was what happened when we approached the rail for communion. There we were with our hands outstretched to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the Gifts of God for the People of God, when the priest hesitated and quietly asked my wife, “Are you baptized?”

This is not the usual practice throughout of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai. I know that much from experience. So I was slightly taken aback. Neither of us had been carded at the rail before.

But what really dumbfounded me was what happened when Hiroko responded hai.

The priest’s immediate comeback was Honto? (Really?)

While this was a little bit more like going through immigration at Narita airport than entering the open arms of God’s offering made for the whole of Creation, I can easily forgive -- perhaps understand is a better word -- the priest working to be a careful steward of the sacrament. In some measure, it was a reflection of a faithful, assiduous following of order and rules. Not entirely un-Japanese. And certainly not unknown in Anglicanism at large. I take way too much pride in being an order and rules guy myself, and I endeavor not to run afoul of canons. There is only one in particular I knowingly bend. I only do so with what I believe is good reason, with lots of company, not a little trepidation, and only at the pleasure of my bishop. If he says stop, I stop. Others I have strained only out of simple ignorance and when I found out, I make the appropriate mea culpas and quickly got back into line.

But this priest’s apparent second questioning of my wife’s honesty is something that is not so easily set aside. Was there some mark she was supposed to have as a baptized Christian? Had he observed her not praying properly? Did she need to produce a certificate of baptism? How had she aroused suspicion?

Christians in Japan make up a scant 1% or less of the population. The only days of the church year where non-Christians are likely to walk in off the street to attend a service in any church, let alone the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (which has fewer than 50,000 baptized members in the entire country) are Easter and Christmas Eve. Why a non-Christian would approach the altar with hands outstretched to receive the sacrament in a ritual that is foreign in many respects to the greater culture. . . and then not tell the truth about being baptized. . . well, I simply cannot imagine the scenario.

As a pastoral matter, I also found it mildly insulting. Hiroko, even before we left home, had taken the trouble to look up the address and worship times of this little community and printed out a map. We had spent 30 minutes walking from the hotel to attend, and had spent the last ten minutes of our journey looking in earnest for the little church, as the map had turned out not to be as accurate as we had hoped.

We had suddenly run into an unexpected barrier to famous Japanese hospitality. An ostensibly Christian barrier. I wondered just who was being protected here by this mild, but persistent inquisition. The Church? Jesus? From what or whom, precisely?

These are questions I was not at liberty to pursue with the priest if I were to be polite both by Japanese and Christian standards as a guest in the House of God. I can only generously believe it may have been a simple slip of the tongue, or there may be pastoral reasons beyond my imagination that caused him to press the issue. And, in all honesty, he didn't know the journey we had made to his church. And this may simply boil down to a bona fide "lost in translation" moment. So bearing him no grudges – only more bewilderment at the encounter than anything else – we concluded Sunday worship with him and the gathered community on pleasant terms.

No need to provoke an Anglican Incident. Heaven knows we have enough of those on our hands already.

Hiroko and I did have a bit of a giggle aftewards, though, especially as we imagined the new addition for our must haves before we come again to Japan:

Passports. Check.
International Drivers license. Check.
Permanent Residence Card. Check.
Air tickets. Check.
Itinerary. Check.
Cash in yen and dollars. Check.
Baptismal Certificates. Check.

What I know in my own heart as an ordained priest is this: that when I administer communion and see a pair of hands stretched out to receive the sacrament, I see a gesture indicating readiness to receive God’s grace. It costs me, frankly, nothing to give it. Full fare has already been paid by God in Christ Jesus. Woe to me if I withhold it!

I must also confess that I found more unquestioning generosity today when my wife at last prevailed on me to have a professional masseuse attend to my spasmatic back with gracious hands.

Generosity for this small, imperfect piece of the Body of Christ. No identification required.

As a Christian, priest, Anglican, and Episcopalian, that gives me much to ponder and pray over.


Ormonde Plater said...

Just out of curiosity, which canon do you knowingly bend?

June Butler said...

Richard, I agree. The "Really?" was really too much. Were the rest of the people in the church Japanese?

R said...


Yes, all the other people were Japanese.

Ormonde, you can probably guess it's the one that limits communion only for the baptized. Doesn't make me all that unusual.

I certainly understand both sides of the argument, but at the end of the day, I am deeply hesitant to limit the reach of God's grace in this regard. I know and love a number of people who received communion before they were baptized, and I'm also moved by the spirit of Jesus' open table fellowship in the gospels.

As a pastoral matter, I cannot imagine many, if any, unbaptized approaching the altar to receive the sacrament blithely, or without a clear sense of what it might imply. Even in the United States, it's simply a very strange thing to do. And even if they do approach it lightly, I am not to judge the efficacy of Christ still at work in them through the consecrated elements. Moreover, we gladly offer the sacrament to small children (who may have little understanding) and to adults of all ages who may have little comprehension in the moment due to a wide variety of conditions.

So in that regard, I have a very high christology, and I believe, high regard for the grace of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ very much in line with the historic Church.

Finally, I find the canon essentially unenforceable (I suppose I could follow the example of the priest I met yesterday!) except to quote it in bulletins or verbally before communion (and hence leave it to the conscience of the congregation gathered) -- neither of which, at a deeply intuitive level, strikes me as consistent with the Gospel.

But, again, as I said, this is entirely at the pleasure of my bishop. If he says stop, I stop. And I have good friends and colleagues who stand by this particular canon. I certainly cannot fault them for doing so, on the principle of maintaining the discipline we as clergy are called to follow.

So. . .much fear and trembling.

Ormonde Plater said...

I don't have any problem with admitting unbaptized people to communion as pastoral necessity, or quiet happenstance. The last time I was in France, I received communion in the RC church several times, and I didn't bother to ask the priest first. But if a priest offers communion to the unbaptized openly, and makes a big noise about it, then I wonder what's going on.

Padre Mickey said...

That's quite a story, Richard. I can't imagine "carding" anyone at the altar rail. If they aren't baptized and receive, I figure it's between them and God. I have trouble believing that on the day I stand before the Throne of Judgement, I will hear "Padre gave communion to unbaptized people!" "Well, then, off you go into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth." I can think of a lot of other reasons for tossing me out there.

Have fun on your vacation. I miss Japan very much.

Mystical Seeker said...

This whole discussion reminds me of why I don't care to attend a Eucharist at Episcopal churches--or for that matter accept communion anywhere at any time. This means in practice that I'll attend Taize (as I sometimes do at Trinity Episcopal in San Francisco), and I would consider some other service that doesn't involve a Eucharist (like maybe a morning prayer), but the Eucharist has too much theological magic that surrounds it. Even when open communion is practiced, it just seems to be justified through a theology that places so much mystical importance to what is in my view simply a nice ceremonial act--that as a result I just hate to participate in it. I believe that God's grace is universally offered to everyone, not through a piece of bread, but continually through God's infinite and universal presence. I'm sorry that people in some churches have to pass a test in order to accept communion--it only makes things worse in my view. But when so much theology is at stake in the act, when it is elevated to such a High act of great importance, it doesn't surprise me that some would restrict who has access to it.

Last Sunday, I went to a non-Episcopalian church that practices open communion. I sat there in the pews during communion. I just couldn't bring myself to participate. And, for the record, I was baptized at age 10 or so, so unless my dozen or so years of atheism from age 16 to 28 resulted in a revocation of my baptism status, then I probably am technically eligible for communion at a lot of churches. But none of that matters to me.

R said...

Mystical Seeker wrote:

I believe that God's grace is universally offered to everyone, not through a piece of bread, but continually through God's infinite and universal presence.

I completely agree. The elevated importance of the Eucharist in our tradition seems to me, at its best, to point to the sacramental (grace-filled) reality in all of Creation. By setting it apart for a brief time on a regular basis, we might see the rest of the world through new, sacramental eyes.

It strikes me that the primary reason not to make a big fuss either away about who's eligible or not at the rail (I agree with ormonde in this regard) is precisely because people will approach for any number of reasons. Some will see it as merely ceremonial. Others as a highly holy act. Others will be concerned about their worthiness to receive and will be in awe at still being able to receive the sacrament. Others because they are hungry -- spiritually, physically, or both. I've approached communion for all of these reasons at various times over many years. That's the grace of it, it seems to me.

R said...

Just a quick note on language -- a couple friendly comments included the word "kichigai" roughly translating into English as "madness" or "crazy."

I was warned by my wife and a good friend in Japan that, at least in contemporary usage, the term can be quite strong -- perhaps more than was meant as it can be a powerfully shaming expression.


watashi mo desu.