A worry about open Communion

I don’t have really strong feelings one way or the other about “open” Communion–i.e., communing the non-baptized. I can see arguments both for and against it. But I do have some questions about how I’ve seen it put into practice.

At several churches I’ve been to that practice open Communion, there is little or no effort at instructing the congregation in the meaning of the sacrament. Which is odd since you’d think that if atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, etc. are being invited to participate, they might be interested in knowing just what it is they’re being asked to participate in. Surely we can’t assume that everyone already knows what Communion is all about, can we?

This raises the suspicion that open Communion–at least as it’s practiced in a lot of places–is really more about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence. It also suggests that if you really want to invite people to participate in Communion with some meaningful understanding, something like catechesis is necessary. But doesn’t this just call the whole practice of open Communion into question? I’d be interested in hearing what others think about this, especially if they think they’ve seen it put into practice effectively.

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19 thoughts on “A worry about open Communion

  1. Thanks for this post. Ultimately, I think open communion is probably the “right way to go” theologically for a variety of reasons.

    However, I do think you’re right. The churches that practice this tend to be from the reformed tradition that have already in many instances reduced sacraments to “ordinances” or rationalistic reminders. They didn’t really take it all that seriously in the first place, and the approach has not really been theological. The justification is more “we don’t want to exclude anybody” rather than christological, i.e. something along the lines of Christ calling all to his body.

    A “third way” that I’ve heard practised is along the lines of making it quite clear that communion after baptism is normative, while also underlining that ultimately the church will not deny a means of grace to anyone who feels genuinely called to partake beforehand. That’s where, I think, the christological reasoning could play out.

  2. How much “instruction” did the participants at the first communion get beforehand? From our records, they were invited to take and eat, including the betrayer.

    I think behind your question is an assumption that Eucharist somehow “doesnt count” if one doesn’t understand what one is doing, whatever that might mean. But communion isn’t a cognitive task (thinking about Jesus’ sacrifice, say) that we supplement by a physical act, unless you’re Zwingli, and even he was more nuanced than that. It’s a narrative/symbolic social practice (to my Anabaptist way of thinking), or a sacrament if you prefer. It’s not really about understanding. The words of institution are all the preparation required, and pretty much everyone uses those or something close. Unless the hypothetical atheist communion-taker is simply not paying attention, he/she will have heard that Jesus, on the night he was handed over to be killed, gathered his disciples and said take, eat, this is my body, and so on and so forth.

    Or does one need to read Aquinas on transubstantiation to eat bread?

    • Well, the participants at the first communion were Jesus’ disciples so they presumably had some context for understanding what was going on. I agree that we should avoid an “intellectualist” error of supposing that the “efficacy” of the sacraments somehow depends on the understanding of the recipient; but there is an opposite error–the one that sees the sacraments as a kind of magic that are effective regardless of the subjective state of the recipient.

      I think the idea that you only need the words of institution as preparation is an over-simplification. Those words are not self-interpreting. They make sense precisely in the context of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and more broadly, I’d say, within the entire biblical narrative). It’s that kind of catechesis–not reading Thomas Aquinas or whatever (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)–which I have in mind. I think that to us as Christians these stories are so familiar that we assume the meaning must be obvious to everyone. But that’s not true–and increasingly so as fewer people are raised as Christians “by default.”

      Again, I’m not particularly interested in building fences around the communion table–but I think if churches are going to practice open communion they need to think about what forms of catechesis they have in place to instruct people about the meaning of the sacrament. And doing so might end up reinforcing the notion that baptism properly should–at least in the normal run of cases–precede communion.

      • Good point that they were his disciples, but it’s pretty clear they didn’t know what exactly Jesus was up to, especially during the run up to Jerusalem. I think their actions after the supper are evidence enough of this. Probably the only person at the last supper besides Jesus who understood it was Judas.

        Also, your mileage may vary depending on your tradition, but I don’t actually have much to *say* about communion beyond the pretty brief narrative of Scripture that isn’t better expressed in practice. To practice it weekly, at the heart if the gathering, says something about it. To freely welcome all to receive the gift and share in the table fellowship says something about it. At my church we don’t have a specialized figure “making it happen”; we all break bread and pour wine or juice for each other, which says something about how we conceive of the egalitarian, interdependent body of Christ. Eucharist is catechesis, not because of some sacramental magic but because we learn by doing.

        I absolutely agree it should be contextualized in the whole narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I just think that should be done “along the way”. Christianity is an apprenticeship where you learn on the job, not a degree you acquire before actually doing any work.

  3. I highly suggest if you haven’t read the book “Take This Bread” that you do so. It’s about a woman who was an atheist, wandered into an Episcopal Church one day, took Communion, and had one of those mind-blowing conversion experiences we who were brought up in the faith are both jealous and suspicious of.

  4. I think you’re missing at least part of the open/close(d) communion question. Proponents of both are right in asserting the good order that the sustaining grace of the Eucharistic meal sustains the original grace imparted in baptism. At which point there is a question as to whether grace received in any form is not simply grace received, good order or not. But when I hear close(d) communion exerted, it is not exerted against non-Christians or those who have not been sufficiently catechized. Among Lutherans, for example, communion may be reserved for those of whom doctrinal conformity can be verified (close or closed communion), or made available to any baptized Christian who trusts enough to partake of it (open). Among the Catholics, it is strictly closed.

    There is in these discussions a basic question of whether the grace of God may be harmful to the unprepared — whether this is what Paul means by “eating and drinking damnation” by partaking “unperceiving.” And then what the necessary qualifications are for valid, safe reception of eucharistic grace. But this is primarily a question of infighting, not exclusion of true outsiders.

    • Yes, the issue of sharing communion among Christians is a different issue than the practice of communing the unbaptized. I tend to come down on the “liberal” side of the intra-Christian issue.

  5. “the sacraments as a kind of magic that are effective regardless of the subjective state of the recipient”

    I’ve been reading a book by Ben Witherington on communion and he has a quote from Berkeley on Catholicism abd this point.

    Some Catholics bring up 1 Cor. 11:26-29 to justify not allowing open communion, which seems to both agree and disagree with Berkeley in that the eucharist has real presence no matter what the communion taker believes, and if they don’t believe the right thing, then ka-boom!

    As a Catholic convert, I’m still trying to figure out all this communion stuff, and believing that there *is* something to figure out makes me a questionable Catholic 🙂

  6. We don’t expect those who join us to understand anything about communion other than all are welcome and invited to out table. Over and over Jesus reached beyond the margins and welcomed them, the tax collector, the bleeding g woman, the lepers, etc.

    We follow it up by opening our building to homeless guests, Buddhist monks traveling through and our Muslim neighbors at Christmas. They don’t need to believe or agree on anything. They are just welcome in this place and at our table.

    • I think it is absolutely vital that Christians exercise radical hospitality toward all. What I’m less sure of is that we’re necessarily doing people a favor by offering them the sacrament when they may not be clear about what it is or why we think it’s so important.

      A related question: does open Communion change the character of Baptism?

      • Our baptism is pretty open, too. My congregation is merged Anerican Baptist-United Church of Christ. Baptists traditionally did not recognize infant baptism. UCC does. We practice both and because we have a number of Quakers who do not practice any baptism, our members can be infant or adult baptized, sprinkled or immersed or not baptized at all.

        As for ou communion, I think we’re pretty clear that Jesus welcomes them to the table and so do we. For me, the theology is that all are welcome in Jesus. That’s all they need to understand. We very seriously do not embrace a particular creed.

  7. Personally, I would never even consider participating in the central sacrament of another faith if I didn’t have any idea what it was about. It’s hard for me to remotely understand the attraction of this, in fact. (Any idea that it might be aimed at gaining me as a convert is rather unappealing, I must say, and in fact I think I’d stay far away from any group that seemed to be aiming at this.)

    In fact, I don’t think people are exactly beating down the doors to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ anyway. I know I didn’t receive Communion myself for quite a long time precisely because I didn’t believe in it. So I don’t think it’s a strange objection to make at all that inviting people to participate in something they know nothing about is somewhat questionable.

    • Personally, I would never even consider participating in the central sacrament of another faith if I didn’t have any idea what it was about.

      Yes!

      Also we may think we’re being maximally welcoming by offering the sacrament to all, but some people may not experience it that way. They may think they’re being asked to participate at a level of intimacy they’re not comfortable with. I was at a church recently that came across as rather “pushy” with trying to get everyone to commune and I thought a newcomer might well find it off-putting. (I’m a Christian and I found it off-putting!)

    • I always took bls’ view of it, but I also understand the herd instinct that might lead visitors to take communion even if they’re not sure what they’re doing. For all that Christians worry about whether they’re welcoming hosts, I think most visitors also worry about whether they’re being good guests; and it is awkward to turn down something you’re offered, or be the only one sitting in the pew while everyone else is going up to the altar (a situation in which I have sometimes found myself). That’s why I always liked the custom of being able to get a blessing instead, if you wish; I think everyone understands what a blessing is, and it gives you a way to not stick out so much.

  8. There is the objective and the subjective. On the objective side, I think the arguments could be framed to favor open communion. That is, the sacrament is “valid” apart from our understanding. That was one of the points of the doctrine of the “manducatio impiorum” or the eating by the ungodly. The Gospel side of this doctrine was that it doesn’t require MY FAITH to make the sacrament happen.

    On the subjective side, however, I think this goes in another direction. There is a danger of eating to our condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:27). When the Corinthians did this, it was the instructed who were bringing this upon themeselves, so it is not altogether clear what other situations might fall under this. But it does suggest that casually including everybody thinking it could do no harm might be wrongheaded.

    Also, are we ready to follow up on all the implications? Are we to consider these people one body with us (1 Corinthians 10:17)? Will this mean a suspension of all association with such people if they don’t follow Christian morality (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)? If we took both these injunctions seriously, this might mean less contact with these people rather than more.

    Historically, Jesus’ command that we not give what is holy to dogs (Matthew 7:6) was also part of the argument. (Pascal brought it up in his Provincial Letters.) The Syrophoenician woman makes me wonder about exceptions.

    I don’t believe the door should be shut tight. I doubt there is one perfect way to handle this. Most positions along the scale appear best at one time or another.

  9. Sorry, I misremembered it. The quote was from William Barclay, not George Berkeley – quite a difference! It’s on p. 120 and is a comment on decisions of the Council of Trent. Here’s part of it …

    “The priest simply by virtue of his ordination and apart altogether from his spiritual or moral quality was able to effect this change in the elements, which makes it a matter of magic rather than of religion. Into this there comes the conception of intention. That which was intended happens. Therefore, if the priest intended the sacrament for all, all recieve it, irrespective of their faith or their life or their spiritual condition ….”

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