Tom O'Loughlin, "Eating Together, Becoming One"
4:40AM Jul 10, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
roman catholic church
Today it is our huge pleasure to be speaking with theologian Tom Laughlin, Professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham in England, and also author of the texts that we'll be discussing today, eating together becoming one taking up Pope Francis, call to theologians. Professor Laughlin, thank you so much for joining us today.
It's a pleasure, Jonathan.
Professor O'Loughlin, we understand that in November of 2015, Pope Francis called for further theological reflection on Eucharistic hospitality. Our viewers may be wondering what Eucharistic hospitality is. We understand this to be the possibility of the Roman Catholic Church offering the Eucharist to Christians who are not officially members of the Roman Catholic Church. What was your initial response to this call?
Well, it was very interesting that it took place in the Lutheran Church in Rome. And it has to be seen in the context of the pope deliberately wanting to celebrate a 500 years after the Reformation. So there's already in the in the, in the very place where the where this happened, there is a sign that this is an attempt to go up go out beyond the boundaries of inherited facing, and a spiritual repentance and renewal start to look at brother and sister Christians. And they are a woman who is a loser, a member of that church, a boy who's married to a Roman Catholic, and they're obviously living in Rome, asked the Pope, you know, how hurtful she founded that they could not share at the Lord's table together on a Sunday morning. So the pope I made a made a number of points. And then he said, but of course is a matter of the theologians have to look at. Now, I had been writing about the Eucharist for the last 25 years. And I had been writing about the problems of acumen ism for 25 years. So the moment this happened, I, I immediately, the more I read about it a couple of days later, I immediately dashed an article off. And then I realized that this is actually a very complicated question. And so I thought it, you know, it's a serious issue. It needs a book length treatment, where you actually try to put together there's no one super argument, but you can put together a whole load of arguments, which cumulatively make change in the Roman Catholic position. A not only something that should happen, but something that's desirable.
And Professor O'Loughlin, has there been much discussion since 2015? Obviously, we have your book, and we're extremely grateful for that. Has there been much interaction between other theologians since then?
There has it's it's suddenly brought the brought the issue back onto the on the agenda. And there had been a third been a rather cool period on humanism, a during the pontificates of Benedict the 16th. And some people said it was an ecumenical winter. But I don't think that's not a helpful phrase. theological discussions come and go. But the issue of inter communion had more or less gme, very much to the periphery. And now it's very much back into the center and people are discussing it. And that in itself is a good thing because the more any theological issue is discussed in a creative way. The more people can see whether or not There is a real problem there, or whether it's just an inherited problem. And
if I may ask is this question of inter communion or Eucharistic hospitality is that a theme that has come up in in say, the last century of Pontifical reigns,
from the moment that a humanism began to come on people's radar, and that's really in the aftermath of the First World War. So, for the last hundred years, there have been discussions between the eastern churches and the western churches and then between the western churches and inter communion has always been one of the one of the areas that people realize this would be where would be very awkward. This would be is where where the rubber would meet the road. And so for instance, in 1982, there was a crucially important documents called baptism new Christian ministry, produced by the World Council of Churches. Sometimes called the Lima document because it was produced after a meeting in Lima. And there, they realized that Eucharistic inter communion would be the real litmus test of whether acumen ism was going somewhere, seriously. So it's been on the agenda for the last hundred years. But it's this is the first time that a Pope has actually jumped in and said, Well, this is something we really must start thinking about. It hasn't been left to some, you know, commissioning to theological committees are, by their nature, academic talk shops. But this process right into the sort of from parlor of theology,
Professor Laughlin, we'd actually not plan to talk about bem baptism Eucharist in ministry, but if you're willing to I can't resist, may we dive into baptism and Eucharist and ministry for a moment.
Oh, yeah, sure.
So many of us live two years old,
and it's not You have known about?
Yes. So, Professor O'Loughlin, would you be willing simply to frame that document? It was produced by the World Council of Churches in 1982. Can you quickly give us an introduction to that document? And why is it? Why is it still so important for us today working on these issues?
It's so important, I think, for a number of reasons. The first thing is that it didn't dodge any of the hard questions. It's very easy to talk about, what do we mean by justification 500 years after, after the reformation, and 200 years after most of the churches gave up using that sort of argumentative style. So what a modern Christian believes by justification, they can't even enter into the late scholastic mind that 16th century theologians fought about and if they think they can they really You need to go and learn Latin and just realize just how just how hard it is to enter the 16th century mind. But here in BM, they actually went to issues that affect people in their communities, but in the local church, just down the road from you, and then in the other church down the other road from you. The question of ministry, the question of baptism and the question of Eucharist, are all touchstones. And so, the big thing of a BM was it said, hey, we've got to talk about the big awkward ones. The second thing is it produced a new style of talking about baptism, your Christian ministry, but mainly about baptism because they needed to pick up they could solve all the problems on baptism that they had the first stone in the river to get across to the other side on the other two problems and It was done in Lima. And it's interesting that the Roman Catholic a, they're not full Roman Catholics, not full members, the word counts their churches. But there was a Roman Catholic impulsion to be m. So the number of churches that actually can read BM and say yes, this is something we can sign up to is very wide. And then thirdly, there's something that people don't realize, even who use BM and that is that there is a new hermeneutic as work can be m. Instead of using scriptures of proof text, or using the past as proof texts, what it says is the mystery of baptism, the structure of ministry, in the mystery of the Eucharist, are all ultimately beyond us. And every theology, every theologian from Paul down to myself or yourself, we're all trying to understand this. Now that common Herman You should give discovery is not only theologically healthy because it doesn't get doesn't give the impression that you can ever really, you know that you know, you know, that sort of undergraduate thing. I never understand God, well, hey, you've just failed your exam. So it's got over that attitude. And also it's got over this idea. If I say this, you must say the opposite. BM presupposes a common journey of discovery towards a better theology.
It's our privilege today to be speaking with Professor Tom O'Loughlin, author of Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking up Pope Francis' Call to Theologians, and Professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, Professor Laughlin. Early on in your book, you argue that there is a certain grammar to meals meaning that there's a certain logic to the way that community is formed through the sharing of meals. What is happening when Christians share the Eucharist, please?
Let's start with every human meal. First of all, we're the only animals that share meals. Just think about it, we go to the bother of cooking. We're the only animals that do this. So meals are always more than just taking on fuel. You know, you know, the, you know, the old phrase, you are what you eat? Well, we're a lot more because of the way we eat. And because the moment I share food, I am creating somehow a unity around that table. And every religion has made food part of its ritual structure. The very obvious background to the Eucharist is the fact that there is no such thing as just a meal within Judaism because every meal is a place where One acknowledges one's thankfulness to God at the beginning of the meal through grace. And then one acknowledges one's thankful to God for the enjoyment of the food for the actual sharing, but the fact that we're around a table together, and we have had the pleasure of the table in the grace after meals. So when we think of it like that, we realize that every meal of Jesus is forming a community and it is a community that through him is focused on the Father. And every meal is also somehow or other a meal. That is anticipation, the kingdom. So Jesus is forming the kingdom around his tables. And, you know, Christians have tended to focus on just one meal, The Last Supper, but we have to think of Jesus as a very kneel sharing Rabbi and in the sharing of meals. All the disciples of this Rabbi are discovering who they are as the new people. And so when Christians share, whether it's the very formal liturgical meal that some churches have, when they gather for the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper, whatever you want to call it, or whether it's a potluck supper held at the church where you know, one person brings a bowl of boiled rice and one person brings a bowl of chicken. And the very fact that Christians are sharing together and acknowledging through Christ, there are thankfulness to the Father itself, creating a new space of discipleship and it's an anticipation of the heavenly vanquish. So literally, when they're gathered around the Lord's table, Christians have to acknowledge that they are elbow to elbow with the Lord. Because when they're gathered, the risen Christ is present among us,
Professor O'Loughlin, you marshal many different kinds of arguments in this text, both biblical and theological. And you've already alluded to the fact that there's no one super argument to make the case for inter communion. But if you were to tease out some of these individual strands, what would you point us towards as some of the more important biblical arguments for inter communion or the Christian sharing of the communion together?
I think the single most important argument is the danger with any single most important is that it presupposes the theology is a bit like a computer program and it's not. But the single most important program is Christians are looking forward towards the eschaton. And the eschaton is conceived as the bank question, which reconciles. And its image in the story of the young man, the prodigal son who is brought back and in being brought back, there is the great feast. So every Christian feast must itself the feast of reconciliation. Now, if we've fallen out over theological arguments, we have something we need to reconcile. And so, if I am unwilling to welcome a sister or a brother to the table, then I am failing to recognize that that table is a table. None of the none of the people who've never gone astray but are the ones We all admit that we are all the strain some. And therefore we all need to be reconciled. And so it's the it's the eschatological image of the bankwest. That to me just means that as we go, Hey, I need to be reconciled to be the Lord stable, you need to be reconciled. We all do. So if we're going to try and make liturgy, something that anticipates and prays for the coming of the kingdom, it's got to be it's got to be it could be a table of reconciliation, rather than, hey, never guess what your ancestors did in 1517. Or you'll never guess what your ancestor said. That led to 1517 you know, we can go around in that black hole. But that to my mind is the is the agonizing egg. Father, I've always been faithful. You never gave me a half or two to To celebrate with me, you never gave me young calf to celebrate or get took out the good garments. If we actually think of the Father, as the one who ultimately brings us into salvation through reconciliation, then the Eucharistic meal has to model that.
Professor O'Loughlin, if I can continue on with a question in that same frame, you look at many biblical and historical arguments, can you isolate perhaps the most important historical argument concerning inter communion please?
Every event in salvation history is greater than any understanding we have of it. So theology is always a work in progress. And the event of us being able to enter in through crowds Christ into this relationship of thankfulness to the Father, and offering the sacrifice of praise. Praising the Father, for the goodness of the creation, for the gift of salvation, for sending the spirit among those that is always going to be greater than us. And one of the weaknesses of Western theology, probably since the 13th century, has been the illusion that he can get theology into the correct box. Doesn't matter where it is your box or my box, the very fact that we think either of us have the right box or someone else's box is itself a way of deforming the mystery of the Christ event. And therefore, the bottom argument is, we have always come To be continually open and assume that my theology can improve someone else's theology can improve. And so we're moving forward.
Professor O'Loughlin, in your text you are writing mostly, it seems to a Roman Catholic readership or the the ideas that you're framing are about the Roman Catholic Church, extending Eucharistic hospitality. What would you say to denominational leaders of Protestant denominations, evangelical denominations, Pentecostal denominations in this discussion?
Yes, you're absolutely right. This book is is written primarily to try and dialogue with Roman Catholics because the question has been posed to the Pope, and he asks Roman Catholic theologians to explore it and the situation right now is That if you actually go out onto the streets, people will say no only Roman Catholics can they use these dreadfully materialistic faces like, can take communion or receive Communion. Or go check mean all these are sort of consumer phrases a in a Roman Catholic Church. And so it is directly it's to try and explore for a Roman Catholic audience why Catholicism should to be true to itself and the gospel change. But the arguments, I think, also apply to any church leader, because every church has the temptation to imagine that the Eucharist is very much an in house thing. And what I'm trying to argue is that Eucharist must be as broad as the invitation of the Christ. And so I think, if you're not a Roman Catholic, but when I look at the tradition of arguments about the Eucharist, then I think my book has something to say to you, because it doesn't matter whether you're in an Anglican church or an, if you're in America, we'll call an Episcopalian church, or you're in a Baptist Church, or whatever. The same issues tend to come up, because we all tend to imagine that we are. We are keepers of the mystery, and we're so frightened about being keepers in the mystery. We're terrified to sort of escape. It's almost like we've only got enough water to get us through the desert. And so we mustn't have to drop out and actually Of course, We all know that if we make God, as narrow as our concerns, we make God as useless as we are ourselves and the grace of God extends by being extended.
That's marvelous. Thank you very much for that reflection. Professor Laughlin, it's often noted that the Eucharist is meant to be the sacrament that expresses Christian unity. And in fact, in the practice of the Eucharist is where we discover simply how broken this body of Christ is that we're so divided from one another. How do you reflect on this apparent paradox?
I think the paradox is that Christians have and this is true of all sides. We've we get into habits of arguing in particular ways. And once we get into a habit of arguing, or particularly No way any other argument appears because it's just not our argument to be defective. And it's human nature to end up in groups that define themselves as opposite to the other group. The problem for Christians of courses is that the church is not just our group. It's not. It's not fundamentally analogous to a to a political party, where you join it because you you share the ideology. It's more analogous to a family insofar as you find yourself in a family. And we find ourselves brought into our relationship with God which is an act of God's grace, not our job. And the moment I say, "Our Father," I am acknowledging that I am both a member in the Father's family. And I think I think we have to I think human nature makes us fractious and anxious, too anxious to, to be in our own group. But it's the nature of the Divine invitation that we realize that we have to be if we have been called friends by Jesus as his supper, the famous, I no longer call you disciples but friends, and we then refer to God as Father. We have to, we have to, we have to realize the graciousness that makes us Stand within this family relationship to the Father, this graciousness, must, must counteract our natural tendency to assume, hey, you pray in one language I pray in another a we let, let's split, we actually have to realize that all languages, you know, the great image, it's not for nothing that Luke in the Pentecost scene doesn't just have different groups, but he has different languages, singing one song.
Professor O'Loughlin, if I may close with a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be knighted today? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17.
The idea that we'll ever have some sort of single "super church" is is a complete illusion, because a human beings will always be creating new, new theological factions. There'll be new wings. Just look at any church today. And you will see that now sooner if they agreed on one thing from the past, but there's new wings that you know, that's just the nature of human human beings that some people will like some people more than others, but we will, we will recognize unity. When, whenever someone of the baptized has, you also are a disciple. And then a very real proof of that is that we as disciples, we can share a low Thunder cop. You will still remain your theological favor, you will still have your theological struction, your own human group that you feel very comfortable with. And I will be the same. But whenever we encounter one another, we can share. And I think what we can do is we can actually start saying, instead of sort of saying, I have this, you don't have us. We just start saying, You're trying to be a disciple. I'm trying to be a disciple. Now, let's meet up, let's talk about us. And if we meet up and we talk about it, we first of all have to be thankful to the Father. And we actually have to be human. There's nothing more painful to the Father and more human than sharing a meal. And that will be a Eucharist.
We're extremely grateful today to be speaking with theologian Tom O'Loughlin, Professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham in the UK, and also author of the texts that we've been discussing today, eating together becoming one, taking up Pope Francis, call to theologians. Thank you so much, Professor Laughlin, for being with us today.
Thank you, Jonathan. It's been a pleasure. And I hope, I hope you will have many more interviews, trying to explore these very painful but very urgent questions.