Thursday, October 13, 2011

Extending Communion to All Present

There is serious debate taking place among Episcopalians about what is commonly called “Open Communion.” This means that we should invite all persons present at a Eucharist to receive communion even if they are (a) not baptized or (b) a member of a different faith community. I would like to suggest that our current discussion about communion might be moved to another level if we consider our present situation in light of, and contrast to, that of Bishop Cranmer’s.

Cranmer’s problem was definitely not ours. Nothing reveals this more than the fact that baptism was never a concern in the matter of the reception of the communion. He could assume that everyone in an Anglican Church, indeed the Nation, was baptized. His concern was whether the baptized were actually Christian. From his theological viewpoint he had many in the Church who were "sacramentalized," but not evangelized. They were at best “cultural Christians.”

We must all remember as members of a highly liturgical church that one of our most vulnerable areas is that liturgy, once it becomes familiar, can also dull our senses to what is actually happening. For Episcopalians the prophetic words that “these people honor me with their lips, but there hearts are very far from me” could have direct application to us.

In contrast to this, Cranmer made his invitation to confession – the prerequisite for receiving communion. Remember the words?

“Ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith and make your humble confession to almighty God devoutly kneeling.”

Where is baptism in all this? Cranmer’s concern was that the baptized person look inwardly at one’s own heart and examines oneself as to our willingness and intention to receive the Lord’s Supper with a right attitude and disposition. Now, personally I am a Cranmerian when it comes to this issue.

Consequently, I think the emphasis on baptism leads us in the wrong direction. Mostly, what I hear now in Episcopal Churches, or read in the bulletin is something like this: “We welcome all baptized Christians (which should be “baptized persons”) who wish to receive communion to come forward and to the altar rail and join us.” I think all of us clergy rightfully avoid the awkward addition from the House of Bishops directive “who are able to receive communion in your own church.”

At the heart of my discomfort with all this wording in our attempt to be gracious and inviting is two-fold. First, our world is not one in which all are baptized. Even more importantly as the House of Bishops directive indicates, our emphasis at that moment becomes “membership” in a church. This is precisely what I think a seeker person hears from us. I think Cranmer would be astonished to discover that his descendents are more concerned with membership than attitude. Again, his theological perspective was largely one of the heart.

All this is made more complex by the fact that we now live in what is clearly both a post-Christendom world and a post-denominational culture. No wonder we are confused, life has gotten very complex. In the midst this complexity, we stubble over trying to be Episcopalian in welcoming and being inclusive toward others.

I would like to see our House of Bishops theological committee construct a brief paragraph that could be placed in our bulletins that expresses our theology, that all who are baptized are one. It also needs to express our pastoral reality that as a Eucharistic-centered community we welcome, in the Lord’s name, everyone who wishes a deeper participation in Christ and desire to follow him in his ways. This means that in our world we will inevitably have non-baptized seekers as well as non-Christians in our midst. Excluding those seekers from receiving communion may not be in our Lord’s best interest. Not clarifying the need for repentance and renewal may not be in their best interest whether they are seekers or members of our or some other church.