Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Open Table, Open Font

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.


  1. Evan, I think the open font,open table is a great idea. I understand the theological arguments as to why I am excluded from the table of Christ in a Roman Catholic church despite my baptism and life of commitment centered upon Christ. However, that is quite hurtful, and says to me, "you just do not belong here." Jesus broke bread for multitudes of people from various stations of life, some of whom I am sure had not been baptised, most of whom were catergorized as "sinners." He was radically inclusive to the point of being snubbed by the "religious" for eating "with those kind of people." So for me, let us not be perceived as having reserved seating at Christ's table...let any who are hungry/thirsty eat and drink. God's peace to you Evan.

  2. Great comments! I explored this issue in detail in an honor's thesis I completed this last spring at VTS. I believe we (the Church universal) got off on the wrong track when we first started separating baptism and the Eucharist. We attempted to reunite them through the Liturgical Movement generally and the 1979 BCP specifically in the Episcopal Church, but that doesn't appear to have "taken." I would argue that it is not so much a question of baptism first or communion first as it is about the indissoluble bond between baptism and communion. In other words, there's really no such thing as one without the other. They are bound together. And we can express this most vibrantly in a united liturgy similar to the Eastern Orthodox Church today. I could say very much more (about 120 pages actually ). But that's a start.

    Shawn Strout
    Diocese of Washington

  3. Evan, there is also a practical side. Every Sunday,I see a few "lurkers" who take communion and then head straight out of the church without saying anything to anyone. I wonder, how does that build up the Body of Christ, and what does the word "communion" mean to them? At least Baptism requires someone from the community to stand with the candidate, which requires a relationship, and there's a moment when the community welcomes the newly baptized. I don't know if that moment makes shy folks uncomfortable, but it for both the candidate and the community, we are reminded what we're supposed to be. Having folks come to communion with no commitment and no relationship would be like having folks crash a wedding reception without ever making an effort to meet the groom!

  4. As I understand it, there is one and only one circumstance in which a minister is permitted to refuse Communion to someone who comes to received it, and that is if s/he is "living a notoriously evil life," or if there is "hatred between members of the congregation:" see the disciplinary rubrics on 9. 409.

    That is, one is never expected, as you say, to say “No!” to someone who asks to receive the bread and wine. Quite the opposite: we are expected *and required* NOT to say no, except in those very rare instances.

    The question, the only question is: what - if anything - is said by way of invitation, (instead of or) in addition to "The Gifts of God for the People of God" (and the "may add" on p. 365/338)?

    I think much of this controversy is based on a red herring.

  5. Evan, this is one of the best pieces of writing I've seen on this. I like your emphasis on "open font."
    Bill Fulton


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