There’s a lively debate among Episcopal clergy in the Madison area about the words we use in our service bulletins to invite people to communion. I won’t share the particulars of the debate nor why we are currently engaged in it. Here’s what we say at Grace:
We welcome all baptized Christians to take part in the Communion: coming forward to kneel or stand at the altar rail, receiving the bread in an open palm or guiding the chalice to receive the wine. If you would prefer not to receive, you may come forward to the altar rail, crossing your arms on your chest to indicate your desire for a blessing.
We’re not the only ones engaged in this debate. Today appeared two essays that address the issue. One is by Richard Beck, from the Churches of Christ tradition. Beck has written extensively about open communion:
Is communion dangerous? Should people be warned about their participation?
Yes and yes. But those answers, in light of what we’ve just discussed, do not mitigate against the practice of open communion. In fact, I’d argue that open communion is better positioned here relative to closed communion given the particular warnings we need. More, I’d argue that the fact that communion requires a warning presupposes its openness. Why warn if communion is closed and safe?
So, yes, open communion is dangerous. People do need to be warned, as Paul warned the Corinthians, that if you take this meal of inclusion while shaming, humiliating and excluding others then you’ve brought judgment upon yourself. You’re being a hypocrite as your ritual actions in the Supper are not being supported by your lifestyle. In taking the Lord’s Supper you are professing that you have “equal concern” for others, that you give “greater honor” to the least of these. Thus you bring judgment upon yourself when you shame and humiliate others, when you fail to discern and care for the many parts of body of Christ. Especially the most shameful parts.
The other is by a Lutheran, Russell Saltzman, who wonders why Lutherans can’t take Catholic communion and posits that the reason is women’s ordination.
A great deal was made several days ago over a post at the Cafe by Andee Zetterbaum:
The question we need to be asking isn’t what SHOULD the theology of baptism and communion be, it’s what is the PERCEIVED theology by the outsider who is present at our worship. And the people who need to be involved in that discussion are:
The 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepoverThe grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents
The 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won’t allow him to be baptized until he turns 18
The teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend
The anti-church spouse
The Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson’s baptism
The Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas
The ‘spiritual but not religious’ 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace
The homeless person who wanders in off the street
Those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals
What do our communion practices say to them about the nature of the God we worship? What does God say to them, through the way we share communion?
So I wasn’t going to say anything more on the topic. I’ve made my position clear, and I think at this point there is more heat than light in the conversation. There are those who think open table is crucial to our mission, our proclamation of Jesus Christ, and our self-understanding as inclusive and welcoming communities. There are others who see the practice as an affront to scripture, to two thousand years of Christian practice, and an offense to the sacraments.
Then I read this by Jesse Zink, who visited an “official” Protestant church in China last year:
One Sunday I visited one of the major, sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing. The congregation stood while the pastor prayed over the communion elements. Then, just before the distribution, the pastor made an announcement. “If you are not baptized, please sit down.” About a third of the congregation did so. They watched while the rest of us received communion that was passed through the pews. None who sat down seemed offended. No one stormed out in a huff. This was how things were. They were not baptized yet but looked forward to the day when they were.
So what’s the difference between this church in Beijing and your average Episcopal congregation, where I can never imagine something like this happening?
One difference—and there are many—is that folks are beating down the door of this church in Beijing. I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into that service. The sanctuary could probably hold 1000 people and it was standing room only that morning. In the Episcopal Church, perhaps, we’re so desperate for folks to come in, we don’t want to do anything that will turn people away.
I know it won’t change any minds, but still.
Or “Communion without Baptism.” A cogent three-part article by Derek Olsen that argues against the new custom on historical and theological grounds. I’ve talked about this before, but I agree with him that this practice constitutes so significant a change, that it needs careful and convincing theological formulation.
The comments are worth reading as well, because they offer insight into the depth of the disagreement and some of the strongest counter-arguments.
I had a conversation yesterday about “open communion” with a new parishioner who shared with me the story of her journey to the Episcopal Church. She came to Grace from a church in another state where open communion was practiced; that is to say, communion was not restricted to baptized Christians. I have written before on this issue and needn’t repeat myself. Certainly, our practice does exclude people–the unbaptized.
But there are other ways to exclude people. I’ve also been asked by members of Grace why I don’t address people by name when I distribute communion. The answer to that is simple. To do so is to elevate the relationship between priest and parishioner above the relationship between Jesus Christ and the one receiving communion. When I place bread in someone’s hand, or offer them the chalice, I am sharing Jesus Christ with them, not myself. I came across an interesting observation concerning this at Anglicans Online. You may read it here.
But there’s something else even more important. I don’t know everyone’s name who comes to the altar rail. I will never know the name of everyone who comes to receive communion, and to name some people while leaving others unnamed is to create distinction between insider and outsider, between those with whom I have a relationship and those I don’t.
General Convention begins next week and surely one of the hot topics will concern changing the canons to allow unbaptized people to receive communion. The House of Bishops Theology Committee has issued its report. It is available here as is a lively discussion.
Some people may find it odd that what seems to be an esoteric debate sparks such strong emotions. In fact, the question of whether unbaptized people should be admitted to communion gets at the heart of our theology, our liturgy, and our understanding of the sacraments. The argument for centers around “radical hospitality,” the idea that we need to be open and welcoming to everyone, just as Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. On the other side are equally sound arguments based in the church’s traditional practice in keeping the Eucharist limited to baptized members.
As I see it, the church’s tradition, our liturgy and sacramental theology, all seem to militate against changing our practice. Hospitality can be shared, radical hospitality can be shared without opening the Eucharist to anyone. Communion knits us together as one body of Christ, and baptism is clearly what brings us entry into that body.
At the same time, I have no interest in becoming a gatekeeper, or an ID checker. I will never demand to see a baptismal certificate before putting bread into an outstretched hand at the altar rail. But if I learn that a child or an adult has received communion without being baptized, I will take the opportunity to begin a discussion about what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ, and what baptism and the eucharist mean.
I’ve detected in many of those most vocal in their opposition to the practice of open communion, not so much theological rationale, but concern for boundary maintenance. Boundaries are important, distinguishing and defining the nature of the church is crucial, but it is also true that all boundaries are porous (just ask our Border Patrol).