In Liturgy Coming to Life published in 1960 John Robinson describes his theology of the Eucharist in the context of an account of the liturgical experiment he conducted when Dean of Clare College Cambridge from 1951 to 1959.
Robinson said the Communion should be an event of revolutionary fervour, “social dynamite, if we really take seriously the pattern of community known at the altar. The church discovered that, in time, in the case of slavery. We have to discover it in terms of race and class and all that is involved for the distribution of the world’s resources in practice in which we indulge so thoughtlessly each Sunday, of the absolutely unconditional sharing of bread.”
I have always valued Robinson’s idea of Communion as dynamite, even though it has been so often anything but. I’d add the metaphor of a depth charge, drawn from my training as a psychotherapist, when I was introduced to the depth of work we need to do in ourselves and the charge that comes when we reach hitherto unknown depths. I was introduced to Robinson’s theology twenty years before I was ordained. By the time of my ordination, it was woven into my being and inspired the way we created worship when I was a parish priest in Wandsworth. In retirement without a license or PTO, dependent on worship for which other people are responsible is incredibly frustrating. Eucharist should be an event created by the gathered Christian community involving the whole of that community. It should be a charged event that takes people deep into themselves, into sacred space, and creates social dynamite that works to transform every person present, and the gathered community, and the society in which they live. Robinson saw the Eucharist as a controlled experiment of the local worshipping community vital to the health of the Body of Christ.
Robinson’s Eucharistic theology
Robinson described the Eucharist as:
“. . . the point where [the finished work of Christ] is constantly renewed to the Church, as those who have already been buried and raised with Christ in baptism come to share in the broken body and outpoured blood of him whose crucified and life-giving body they are called to be.”
“This is the crucible of the new creation, in which God’s new world is continually being fashioned out of the old, as ordinary men and women are renewed and sent out as the carriers of Christ’s risen life.”
The metaphor of the Eucharist as the crucible of the new creation echoes Robinson’s image of ‘social dynamite’.
“It is the most political act to which the church sets its hand. We come to communion not merely to feed upon the Body of Christ, but to be recreated the Body of Christ.”
I’d like to know how many people reading this blog experience the Eucharists they attend or participate in as having a quality of social dynamite or depth charge, when the service is consciously setting out to effect or wreak a transformation in the lives of every person taking part. Indeed, I like to know how many people have a sense that they are ‘taking part’ in an even designed to fashion and renew people into a new creation, sending them out as conscious carriers of Christ’s risen life.
I fear that an Alpha-based pattern of worship wants to make clones of us, and so, I fear, does the incorporated system known as the Church of England. There may well be energy and excitement and action in worship, but the intention is more to inject energy and enthusiasm into the congregation, with a significant dose of neo-substitutionary atonement theology. Alpha churches invite people to come to know Jesus as the atonement for their sins, not the Jesus whose unconditional love in itself is the transformative power, creating in us the courage to become agents of transformation ourselves.
The Eucharist where matter is redeemed and recharged
Robinson imagined Holy Communion as:
“. . . the great workshop of the new world, where the ‘we who are many’ are recreated as the true, the new community in Christ. And the holy community known at the Liturgy is only, as it were, the norm of what has to be made true of all society.”
“Communion is where matter is redeemed, this is where it is recharged and revalued as the carrier of God’s new life to men and women.”
He set out on his experiment at Clare because he saw that a “powerful . . .psychological barrier [has been] built up by centuries of thinking of the Holy Communion primarily as a ‘service’ rather than a meal.”
“By whatever means we must somehow help people to see the connection between this Meal and any other meal; for if they do not see its connection with any other meal, it is certain they will not see its connection with any other matter. And what we do with matter here has tremendous implications for what we do with matter everywhere.”
Communion has both to be absolutely grounded and earthed in the ordinary, in matter, and only when it is are we able to create Communion events that become the dynamite that fuels life in and outside ‘church’ and how we ourselves are given the energy and courage to live with the dynamite.
Robinson wrote of how our being can become fused with Jesus’ personality in communion.
“Here is the beginning point of the transformation which has to be wrought out, first in us, and then through us, till the whole body of this old world becomes conformed to the likeness of Christ’s glorious body.
“Do we really want a new and better world? Then this is the great solvent of the old, transforming it by divine alchemy into the new. Here, rather than at death, is where the resurrection of the body begins.”
“The forces of the risen life are released, and a hang-dog collection of condemned men and women becomes galvanised into the new community of the Body of Christ.”
“We come to this service not to get a jag of anaesthetic to put us on another week. We meet to bind ourselves in death and life with him who came to cast fire upon the earth. And that cannot stop here, in church. Once the fuse to a stick of dynamite is lit, you must throw it or be blown.”
“One cannot have Christ apart from his body, and in practice the power of Christ in any individual’s life will depend very largely on how dynamic is the Christian community of which they are part.”
Yes, the power of Christ in any person’s life will depend on the dynamic of the Christian community of which they are members. The HTB/Alpha model of enthusiasm for Christ can create energy and enthusiasm. I understand why the hierarchy thinks rolling out this model across the whole Church of England is the answer to apathy, lethargy and decline. But the Eucharistic theology of this model lacks the potency and depth, the depth charge of Robinson’s model. His is a model of deep, creative involvement of the ‘event’ by the whole congregation, and event requiring ‘work’, work on the person akin to therapy and work in the community akin to radical political ambition.
The work of radical transformation requires vision, courage, relationship skills, creative skills, and freedom from the patrolling presence of the gatekeepers, whether they be bishops, Archdeacons, or bloggers ready to pounce on those who transgress their version of the Bible and Jesus.
Robinson conducted his experiment at Clare at the very beginning of the liturgical movement in this country. Liturgy Coming to Life became an inspirational text book for many, as did the creative work of people like Michael Hollings, Catholic priest in Southall who set about involving as many people as possible in the worship of the parish community (published in His People’s Way of Talking, 1978) and Richard Giles who showed how design, layout and symbolism of the place of Christian Assembly speaks powerfully of our concept of God and of ourselves as a community of faith (described in Re-Pitching the Tent, 1996). Giles’ book and work came as the period of adventure in liturgy, language, spatial exploration and theology begun in the 50s was moving into neglect and decline. I’m aware of very few congregations today