“Open” Communion?

It was good to hear the keynote speaker — Dr. Louis Weil — at this year’s “Epiphany West” conference come out strongly against so-called “open communion” (communion of the un-baptized). That was especially courageous here in California where the practice is becoming widespread.

Cautioning against “playing God at the altar rail” (meaning that he would never turn anyone away from communion), Dr. Weil nonetheless  believes that this practice trivializes baptism and wonders why, after all the years reclaiming its centrality, we would now want to make it virtually optional.

The theme of this conference has been “Baptismal Water: Thicker Than Blood” and we have looked at baptism through a variety of lenses — liturgical, ecumenical, and missional. Dr. Weil, of course, has taught generations of clergy and laity about the important rediscovery of a baptismal ecclesiology, the recovery of the Easter Vigil, and the use of the rich symbols in our liturgical life.

I am in absolute agreement with Louis Weil here. I am familiar with the “open table” of Jesus argument — that he ate with outcasts and sinners and never turned anyone away, etc. However, I am unpersuaded that this is the same thing as the Eucharist and would encourage congregations really to invite the poor into their homes and parish halls for meals rather than believe that they have  actually exercized hospitality by inviting the unbaptized to communion.

Certainly, it is an ecumenical nightmare. An Orthodox priest friend of mine wandered into an Episcopal Church inviting “all who are hungry for God” to receive the sacrament and later told me, “If you think Gene Robinson is a problem, that is nothing compared to this from our perspective!”

The point being, we have ecumenical covenants and commitments that we have made over the last forty or fifty years which are predicated on our commitment to certain basic sacramental practices. When these practices involve the most basic sacrament which unites all Christians together, regardless of our other differences, surely we run the risk of being considered unreliable ecumenical partners when we make these changes with virtually no theological conversation among ourselves and certainly none with our ecumenical partners.

And, of course, any priest who formally and publically invites the un-baptized to Holy Communion is in direct violation of canon law and subject to discipline for that.

But, hey, who cares about that, right?

22 Responses to ““Open” Communion?”

  1. rwk Says:

    I agree. We celebrated the Communion this morning in Mexico City in a long-established non-denominational Protestant parish where the Gospel is proclaimed clearly and directly every week from the pulpit and in addition to calling for Communion to be restricted to believers we were reminded that if we had anything against our brother we should not come to the table as well. We don’t have ID checks at the rail, but the call is clear. This is certainly a much higher view of the Eucharist than I see in openly proclaimed in many TEC dioceses.

    Prior to Mexico City I was in one of the breakaway churches of TEC. If the clergy were aware of someone living in open defiance of church discipline, that is after those persons had been approached and counseled, they were also denied Communion.

    I have been in other churches, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and I always made sure I asked what their stances were rather than just approaching the altar in my own arrogant self-confidence. If I did not have time to approach, I did not partake. Part of true tolerance is respecting the other’s differences.

    PS: I’ve enjoyed the other posts. I have been reading them and wanted to comment but have tried to wait and reflect on what I wanted to say. There is too much shooting from the hip on the web and I don’t like shooting others or myself.

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks, rwk.

  3. JB Says:

    Just give it time, good bishop, it will likely grow on you (or made to grow on you by later GC’s). Given our current theological misunderstandings of the sacrament of baptism, I think Open Communion will prove simply to be an outgrowth of that line of thought.

    I agree that it is a disturbing trend and am glad to hear that our chief ecumenical officer finds it problematic (and has heard that it is from some of our partners), but I expect nothing to be done about it until we decide that the Spirit has spoken another new thing.


  4. ecubishop Says:

    Well, I don’t we have “theological misunderstandings of the sacrament of baptism.”

    And, as far as the Spirit speaking “another new thing” that is always a possibility.

  5. Tom Rightmyer Says:

    Thank you. Would it help for the SCEIR to remind General Convention of its resolution on communion hospitality?

    Tom Rightmyer, Asheville, NC

  6. Dirk Reinken Says:

    Chris, thanks for this. Will papers be published?

    It seems to me that hospitality means welcoming people into the traditions of the community and helping them learn them, evaluate them, and embrace them (if the choose) rather than changing the traditions of the community for the sake of whomever comes in through the door.

    As one who came back to the Church in 1982 as a teenager and was thoroughly steeped in Baptismal theology for confirmation prep, this changing emphasis is truly mind-boggling.

  7. T. Sly Says:

    I am so glad that someone is standing up against this. It is wrong to begin giving Jesus’ Body and Blood to people who may or may not belive in him.

  8. ecubishop Says:

    Yes, it seems to me that there is a distincition between this uniquely Christian “family meal” and any other meal that Christian might rightly (and should always) share with others, regardless of their belief.

  9. Ephraim Radner Says:

    Thank you, Bishop Epting, for being so clear (and thanks to Louis Weil as well!). The Supper of our Lord is about hospitality, yes, of the most profound kind. But it is about the accomplishment of that hospitality, that is, a participation, on a par with “whoever would be my disciple….” (which is also a hospitable invitation). The ecumenical “nightmare” is one you are deeply sensitive to, and I am grateful that you are speaking so forthrightly here about it.

  10. Guyer Says:

    I take arguments about hospitality seriously; the church, in my experience, is usually not that hospitable – indeed, we are cordial at best. However, genuine hospitality is something that is done face-to-face and person-to-person. It is done at the dinner table, and involves communication of a non-Eucharistic sort: the sort of conversation that is had on the way towards friendship. I fail to see why it is that participation in a ritual should be seen as act of hospitality. Ritual is profoundly powerful, of course, but I participate every Sunday with several hundred people in a ritual that takes us to the altar. Sadly, this doesn’t make people any more friendly at the coffee bar after the Divine Service. Politicizing the Eucharist and making it the site of theological revision seems to me to be a rather misplaced good intention. If anything, it is a cop-out from the real work of hospitality, which takes place in the more intimate space of the dinner table and, perhaps, the home. To make the Episcopal Church a church that invited others into the home would be truly radical, and truly like Christ. It would also mean something more risky on personal and emotional levels, threatening the self-congratulatory, bourgeois complacency that shouts out loudly about “justice” from little more than the comfort of the pew. If people want true hospitality, let them toil for it! Let them get their hands dirty by laughing, weeping, and truly reaching out! Do not let them turn the Eucharist into mass-sanctified food dealt out in the name of a hospitality that exists in nothing but name only!

  11. Randall Stewart Says:

    As a layman who has argued we should follow the Canons on this issue at the parish level (and lost the argument), I am extremely pleased to see Dr. Weil speak so forcefully on this issue. Thank you for posting and your commentary, Bishop Epting.

  12. Nathan Humphrey Says:

    How refreshing. I second Tom Rightmyer’s recommendation, though I’d be afraid of it backfiring if brought before General Convention. Certainly, it seems to me that GenCon might do well to issue a call to serious theological reflection, perhaps by convening a special commission to review the arguments and make recommendations to the church for policies (and their catechism and enforcement). I nominate you to chair it!

    I have written on this topic, too. If interested, take a look at this post on CWOB on my own blog.

    Nathan Humphrey+
    St. Paul’s, K Street
    Washington, DC

    Also check out http://covenant-communion.net/ for a community of people in dialogue on this and related issues.

  13. celticanglican Says:

    Thank you for this, Bishop!

  14. Bp. Epting on “Open Communion” « CelticAnglican’s Ramblings & More Says:

    […] Read it here […]

  15. AnAnglicanInnocent Says:

    Does anyone on this thread know if CANA has taken a position on the question of open communion?

  16. Jim Hammond Says:

    Not to be contrarian intentionally, but, I do wonder a bit. The Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, has also been called in our (Anglican) prayer books, “The Lord’s Supper”. I like that title because it reminds me that the sacrament does not belong to us, but to the Lord. Why do we restrict access? What is the reason? If we are going to do that we really ought to be able to name the issue. Is there something ontological about baptism which then makes it okay for a body to intake the elements of Communion? I am not being flip. What is the real, underlying reason for restricting access to the Lord’s Supper?

    Pastorally, this issue presents in two ways most frequently in my experience. First, young children whose parents for whatever reason have not brought them for baptism begin to stretch out their hands at the altar, sometimes (perhaps often) to their parents’ dismay. Turning away a little one with such a look of hope and expectation is very difficult to do. Secondly, one meets adults who have been raised in a tradition which teaches “believer’s baptism” (baptism only after the age of consent — oxymoronic though it may be), and who, for whatever reason, never have been through the ceremony, even though they are by all measurable definitions thoroughly committed Christians (followers of the teachings of Jesus). Even with carefully printed instructions in the bulletin, often these adults do not identify themselves — after all, they have been worshiping regularly for years and do not think about the issue until it arises in an educational setting or during coffee hour conversation.

    Some say, why would you give Communion to someone from another faith? The more accurate question is why would someone from another faith approach to receive Communion? If a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim takes the initiative and risk of coming up the aisle of a Christian church and approaches the altar to receive Communion, seems to me that God may be very active in that person’s life at that moment. If the heart of such a one is open to Communion, ought not my heart be open to them?

    I do not intentionally violate any Canon of our church, and I have always printed in the bulletin that Communion is open to all baptized persons. That is our rule. I do not, however, turn anyone away from Communion at the altar rail. While I truly value ecumenical work and wish we were not so very fractured, I am unconvinced that our ecumenical relationships are sufficient reason to maintain an exclusionary practice. Holy Baptism may in fact take on more significant meaning if it is not tied to admission to Communion. If anything compromises Baptism it is putting people in the position of requiring it for admission to the rites of our church, thereby encouraging folk to view it is as a necessary rather than voluntary step.

    Food for thought!

    Jim Hammond

  17. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. Once again: never turning anyone from rail is, to my mind, a very different matter than publishing in the bulletin, or announcing from the chancel steps “Anyone seeking God is welcome to receive Holy Communion in this church.”

    If we wish to change 2,000 years of Christian practice in this regard, then let us have a theological discussion about it, change the Canons and Prayer Book rubrics and take (as we have certainly done in other matters) the “ecumenical hit” we will take.

    But let us not drift into this practice without at least having the debate!

  18. Bp. Epting speaks out against “Open” Communion « The Episcopal Oysters of Southern Ohio Says:

    […] here: Cautioning against “playing God at the altar rail” (meaning that he would never turn anyone […]

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