Church is usually the last place that we want to find controversy. Although it would be a mistake to imagine that church is that comfortable place that always affirms what we think, our spiritual home is supposed to be a safe place that is built upon God’s indiscriminate love. Because of that, I have seen people leave their own congregation during a period of strife—not because they disagreed with the clergy or lay leadership but because remaining in a church that was caught up in controversy was too much to bear.
Usually conflict and strife wound the body of Christ. We are called by Jesus to stand together in love, and human nature often confuses disagreement with disrespect. Our conversations on sensitive topics sometimes melt down into arguments, and then arguments erupt into battles, and then the church we love is rent by controversy. But, as nature so often reminds us, struggle and strife can be life-giving. Occasionally, our passionately held disagreements actually add to the life of the church.
During my time at General Convention, most of the conversation has been far from controversial. In fact, on the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of resolutions, amendments, and procedural motions that we have considered, only one has been close enough to require an electronic tally of our votes. Yet I have seen one issue split us right down the middle, but that split has involved the most wonderful, beautiful debate I have ever witnessed in the church.
Should Holy Communion be open to unbaptized people? This might be the sort of controversy that only captures the attention of the sorts of people who would spend twelve days at a church conference, but I believe we should all take part in the conversation. If you have heard me invite people to the table, you have probably heard me say, “Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians regardless of your denomination.” Compared with some traditions, that is a gracious invitation, but, for many who are gathered here and who worship throughout our church, it is not gracious enough.
Although this is not a good space to rehearse all the arguments for and against open table, suffice it to say that those who want open Communion feel that it can be an evangelistic tool of hospitality. By inviting individuals to receive the bread and wine become body and blood, we can invite them into a deeper relationship with God that they might otherwise miss were we to turn them away from the table. Those who speak in favor of baptism-first have two-thousand years of precedent on their side, and they usually cite ecumenical relationships and the universality of the sacraments when they make their case. But I believe there is something more important to consider.
Jesus might be inviting all of us to his table, but sitting down and taking part in the Eucharistic banquet requires new birth. As Jesus said to Nicodemus who came to him at night, “In order to enter the kingdom of heaven you must be born again” (John 3:3). When we gather at the Lord’s table, we do so to participate in a foretaste of that which we envision in the fullness of time—God’s heavenly feast. Anyone and everyone is welcomed into that kingdom, but taking part in God’s reign requires a change within us. If we think that participating in the kingdom does not ask anything of us, we have given up on conversion itself, and doing so means that we have cheapened grace to the point of worthlessness.
Saying “No!” to someone who asks to receive the bread and wine but who is not baptized could be a terrible example of the church allowing its rules to get in the way of God’s love, but I am not ready to give up on the importance of baptism-first. Because of that, you may begin hearing me say something different on Sunday mornings: “Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians…and if you are not baptized but want to become a part of the body of Christ please speak with me after the service. Holy baptism is open to all.”
We can find room for hospitality in our worship, but it might involve reenvisioning what it means to gather together in the name of the Lord. Is our Sunday-morning experience primarily for the already-initiated, or do we want our worship to be a time to invite newcomers into a relationship with Jesus Christ? Those of us who believe that Communion is about participating in God’s kingdom might need to rethink its place in the church if we realize that most of us—baptized or not—are approaching the table out of habit. Perhaps an emphasis on an open font that then leads to an open table enables all of us to rediscover what it really means to participate in the Eucharistic feast.