Friday, June 29, 2007

Open Table

The subject of open communion is an ongoing one in the Church, but has been so overshadowed in recent years by the controversy over sexuality as to be rendered virtually invisible.

I was moved to reflect more about our hospitality around Holy Communion by Taste and See, a sermon delivered recently by our deacon, Betsy Rosen, reflecting in part on Sara Miles' Take this Bread. Also prompting me was a remarkable essay by friend and theologian, Christopher over at Betwixt and Between.

At the center of this discussion in The Episcopal Church we have the brief, rather sharply worded canon, however else it was intended:
No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.

This is often rephrased, for self-evident pastoral reasons, when put in worship bulletins something like this:
All baptized Christians are welcome to receive Holy Communion.
As an important aside, the phrasing in the positive rather than a negative takes on more than a different tone, but points to an underlying change in trajectory. Compare, for example, these two quotes attributed to Jesus in the gospels:

Whoever is not against us is for us.
Mark 9:40
Whoever is not with me is against me. . .
Matthew 12:30

Context is, of course important here. The former statement appears in response to a question about an outsider casting out demons in Jesus' name. The latter in the context of the religious authories' accusation that Jesus is in league with Beelzebul.

While the logic of both statements appears identical, the spirit and application of one is clearly very different from the other. The first points to a grace of goodness outside the normative body of disciples. The second towards a closed system that damns the outsider, bars the doors, and guards the periphery.

So our canon and its pastoral practice on the ground are engaged in some level of spiritual conflict, even in the more assiduous application of the strictures that many of our local congregations follow. The canon limits, guarding the boundary. Its pastoral rephrasing, meant to be more hospitable, more suitably opens.

And, of course, the present argument begins around the suggestion that the pastoral rephrasing and the hospitality it points toward should go further, welcoming all to table, regardless of their baptismal status. Here is how we presently, and most imperfectly phrase our bulletin invitation at Church of Our Saviour:
All who seek God are invited to Christ's table to receive the bread and the wine: spiritual food and drink for all God's children.
Our bishop, in engaging in this discussion, has pointed us to the oral invitation found in the Book of Common Prayer:
The Gifts of God for the People of God.
This implicitly calls for spiritual self-examination before approaching table, while not necessarily barring the unbaptized (the canon for a moment notwithstanding).

In a previous reflection, I wrote about experiencing a wholesale application of the canonical principle. We risk spiritual violence by carding people at the rail. Yet to treat communion in a casual way is not the aim here, either. Flinging bread and wine to the masses (no pun intended) without intention, that is prayerful engagement, not only disrespects the tradition, but fails to honor the spirituality of those who receive.

I'm more concerned about the latter in this case. We are not simply conservators of tradition, of course. But changed lives are paramount. The transformation (metanoia) that is imperative in the Gospel demands engagement of the full person. To further illustrate: it is one thing simply to give money or food to the poor. Quite another, in addition, to sit down and engage in conversation and nurture relationship that might ultimately prove transformative.

The key, it seems to me, is that Communion is ultimately transformative and relational or it is not Communion. The much maligned Eucharistic Prayer C puts it this way:
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.
BCP p. 372

Far from merely a criticism of the baptism-first assertion, my argument here is that while Eucharist indeed reveals the baptized community, it also gives rise to the possibility of new community. That was the experience of Jesus' table fellowship in the gospels as he invited the outcast and sinner.

And here we move into what I believe is a quite salient argument for the open table, and that is Jesus' conscientious engagement in fellowship across all kinds of social, religious, and class boundaries. But we must be clear that in practicing open table, we cannot be casual about distribution or simply leave seekers with bread and wine in their bellies. Jesus did not simply feed the outcasts, but through the gathering brought them healing, relationship, transformation, and restoration that led in many cases to true repentance, metanoia. In this way, the table fellowship led to discipleship. We might well therefore say that it is in keeping with the witness of the earliest of Jesus' followers to experience communion first -- "taste and see" -- and that this will then lead to baptism.

Christopher argues this question another way. He addresses the sacramental issue through the lens of the eschaton, and in so doing further posits a tangential, but substantive argument about sexuality, embedding it in the context of eucharistic and baptismal theology. As sexual intercourse embodies commitment and utter self-giving to another person, Eucharist embodies utter self-giving to God in Christ. Perhaps more important, and indeed more grace-filled, Eucharist embodies Christ's utter self-giving to us. Commitment, if it does not precede such self-giving, is the most appropriate spiritual, human, and graceful response to it.

The normative approach of baptism first should certainly not be dismissed, but when we institutionalize it and then police it (ever the great temptation of the Church), we are risking closing doors into the community of discipleship. Shutting doors and locking them might be a good policy when protecting property or safety (as often in our homes), but the heart of the Church's mission to reveal Christ and God's radical grace is not about safety, nor, clearly, about protecting property. So I question the canonization of the norm, and the strong desire (most notably in myself) to preserve it at the cost of pastoral humility.

Beyond the norm, it seems to me, is a deeper truth: that of God's grace working in our midst through the sacraments. Rather than asking chicken-egg questions about which must come first, it might be more true to articulate simply that baptism and eucharist are deeply intertwined and one should never be divorced from the other. The very Anglican balance Christopher seems to strike is to recognize that each points profoundly to the other, without us playing gatekeepers about the "point of entry," or which must come first.

Our hospitality must treat with awe and reverence each life that approaches the table with outstretched hands; we should deny God's grace to no one seeking it. Yet we must also be ever inviting that life into the transformative journey of discipleship, even as the Body and Blood of Christ do the same. . . too often despite us!

Derek Olsen offers more perspective on Communion without Baptism over at Episcopal Café.


Ormonde Plater said...

"The Gifts of God for the People of God."

This doesn't mean quite the same as the original phrase, in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, which may be translated: "The holy for the holy" or "Holy things for holy people."

R said...


Perhaps not, but we do retain that language elsewhere, as on p. 375 in Eucharistic Prayer D, which is based on the 4th-century Liturgy of St. Basil:

Lord, we pray that in your goodness and mercy your Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people. . .

I also know of at least one Episcopal priest who uses this more ancient phrase in place of the prescribed invitation when presiding at eucharist.

Thanks for the visit!

Mystical Seeker said...

I appreciate very much the effort that you put into looking at various sides of this issue. It was a very thoughtful piece.

Still, all this soul searching about when it is appropriate to allow certain people to participate in a corporate worship ritual just reminds me of why I don't even bother to participate in communion at any church service I attend. I was baptized at age 10 or 11 or so (I was raised in a church that didn't believe in infant baptism), so I probably qualify for participation under even the strictest of Episcopal guidelines, although I should point out that I was an atheist from ages 16-28 or so, during which time I basically renounced my baptism, so it is an interesting question as to whether churches consider a renouncement as binding or not.

But it is the preciousness of it all that I just can't accept. The Quakers have got it right, as far as I am concerned--everything we can do can be holy, and everything can be a sacrament. When you draw a line between the sacramental and the non-sacramental, you make that which you place on the "sacramental" side of that divide so precious that it introduces this whole nasty subject of worthiness, it puts pressure on the whole experience, and it really makes a spontaneous experience of the divine more difficult (in my humble opinion). I just don't think it is in the interests of a religion of grace to concern itself with who is worthy to participate in a ritual. I don't have much use for a religion that is busy worrying about whether I have reached a level of worthiness for anything. I left that whole preciousness thing by the wayside a long time ago.

That's why I like attending Taize services (such as is offered at at least a couple of San Francisco Episcopal churches on weeknights now). No communion. Makes it all so much easier.

The Anglican Scotist said...

Even so, if "the people of God" could be coextensive with "your holy people", and a CWOB-friendly reading can be given to the former, a CWOB-friendly reading can be given the latter as well. Or: the BCP and Orthodox Divine Liturgy in the letter will not settle the issue.

R said...


I agree. In order to make the language work for one argument or the other, we have to engage in the painful task of defining "holy" or casting certain boundaries on what we mean by the "People of God."

Both would obscure the grace Mystical Seeker points to in his comment.