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.


rrchapman said...

"Excluding those seekers from receiving communion may not be in our Lord’s best interest."

Could you please unpack this sentence for me. I don't want to misunderstand what you meant.

Maybe, as much as I try to expunge it, there is enough Calvinistic influence on me that keeps me from from thinking we can do anything in our Lord's best interest. We can do things in the best interest of other seekers along the way, however.

Martha said...

In my neck of the woods, the bulletins generally say "This is God's Table and all are welcome." And the intent is open communion - to demonstrate God's hospitality. Somewhat ironically this is frequently promoted by those who are deeply committed to "mutual ministry" models which seek to recognize and nurture the spiritual gifts of lay persons to lead and support small congregations, based on the "baptismal theology" of the 1979 BCP. One of the issues we challenge students to think about is how does open communion impact a baptismal ecclesiology, which will actually be part of next week's discussion.

Ben said...

You make an interesting point and one that has never occurred to me. Still, there are several things that need to be said about "membership." First, the notion of membership and belonging is not a foreign concept in our culture. People are "members" of a health club, or children are "members" of a sports team, or a school club. So, I wonder if even the unbaptized who want to know Christ more deeply would fail to grasp the concept, indeed the significance, of membership. Second, the membership in question is in the Body of Christ. No doubt you include this under the umbrella of “Church”. But since we are talking about those without a working Christian vocabulary, the word “church” means no more than “this bunch of folk who worship under this roof.” And, of course, that notion of church is woefully inadequate. Fellowship in the Body is akin, I think, to the Gospel from last Sunday about the wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-14). All are welcome, but you need to put on the garment befitting the occasion. The notion of wearing the right clothing abounds in the New Testament. The language of taking off the old and putting on the new is closely linked in Paul’s thinking, I believe, with baptism. Finally, it has been observed, including by you if I am not mistaken, that the success of the so-called “mega churches” could be attributed at least in part by their instance on setting standards. They require more, not less, of people. Maybe I am mistaken. For instance, I don’t know what Saddleback’s requirements are for communion. Then again, they have open baptism (I’ve seen it myself).
I also wonder why the debate is narrowed to fit into a Cranmer-like framework and not, say, a Catechetical one?

Dean Kevin said...

Martha, re: the inconsistency between open communion and emphasis on mutual ministry: I've never found consistency to be a major flaw of us Episcopal Clergy. :-) we tend to pick and choose the positions on issues we like

Martha said...

So true, but I actually think it is an issue of ecclesiology. What does it mean to be "church" or more closely connected with communion, what does it mean to be the Body of Christ?

Dean Kevin said...

Ben, of course you have made several good points. As I said, my article is "an aside" and not meant to be comprehensive. I just think that inadvertently we have made it about membership and not Christ.

Dean Kevin said...

To RRChapman. First let me say, there is no Calvinism in my position. :-) But to unpack. If the Lord's intention is to draw all men (sic) to himself and they are drawn to know him in communion, it is for me "his best interest" to allow them. The emphasis here is on "his" best interest not mine. I don't think this excludes his grace or work of the Spirit in doing so.

Dean Kevin said...

Allow me to clarify my friends, we do not practice "open communion" at the Cathedral. Here is our invite, "We invite all Baptized persons who desire a greater knowledge of God and a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ to share in this Holy Eucharist." My article is about "the heart" which I think is Cranmerian.

Nate Bostian said...

Kevin: You surprised me with your stance on this issue. And it is a good surprise. For me it boils down to the issue of who Jesus himself had table fellowship with. And, since I believe that Jesus was at least as present in his own body as he is in the sacrament of the altar, I think his own bodily "real presence" in earthly table fellowship 2000 years ago is indicative of who he welcomes to receive his sacramental "real presence" at the altar today. And the truth is that our Lord did not make baptism a prerequisite for sharing a meal with people. His main prerequisite seems to be receptivity and hospitality, which both are outward manifestations of the Inner "heart issues" you point out. In Jesus' ministry it seems that the shared meal led to baptism as much as, if not more than, baptism led to the shared meal. And today in our parishes, it is not just the font that leads to the altar, but the altar often leads to the font as well (as I have heard many laypeople and a few clergy attest to!). As for Paul's instruction regarding the discernment of the body, I would argue for a wholistic interpretation that not only considers Christ's presence in the elements, but his presence in the gathered body of believers as well. If a person, baptized or not, fails to perceive the sacredness of the meal (in the sin of sacrilege), or fails to perceive the sacredness of the people gathered (in the sins of apathy, hatred, or abuse) then I would advise them not to partake. I would advise them, in the words of Jesus, "to first be reconciled and then offer their gifts at the altar" (cf. Mat 5). But again, this is based on heart issues, and not on an external criterion. Thanks for the post!