Communion as a means of conversion

“Open communion”–or what is sometimes referred to more precisely as “communion without (or prior to) baptism”–has become something of a hot-button issue in mainline Protestant circles. In this article at the Christian Century, Boston College theologian Charles Hefling provides the best overview of the issue that I’ve seen.

Drawing on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” Hefling says that there is a case for seeing communion as a means by which some people are drawn to Jesus. “The drawing may go unregarded, but on the other hand a readiness to receive and follow it may also be nurtured by deliberate practices, among which is participation in the Lord’s own supper.” Thus it may be wrong for the church to insist on baptism as a prior condition for receiving. But this isn’t simply a matter of being “inclusive” or welcoming–it’s an invitation to enter more fully into the Christian life, with the commitments and sacrifices that entails. Hefling goes on to suggest that any practice of open communion should be accompanied by a robust program of catechesis and a more explicit linkage of communion and baptism. “Communion never is irrespective of baptism, although possibly it may in certain circumstances precede it.”

He concludes:

The recommendations do not in themselves resolve the question of whether an open table policy is theologically justifiable in general or pastorally appropriate in any particular instance. They are not meant to. They do, or would, give concrete expression to a conviction that if the Eucharist is to be regarded as a means of Christian formation—and that is arguably the surest ground on which to build a case for open table communion—then eucharistic worship needs to belong to a larger pattern and process. A visitor who experiences a communion service as a discrete, one-off event, like a tour of the Grand Canyon, has missed the point, or else the point has not been made clearly enough.

That point, the embeddedness of this liturgical action within an all-inclusive, corporate turning to God, is one which has been made, negatively and somewhat mechanically, by insisting on “no communion without baptism.” There seem to be serious reasons for thinking it would perhaps be better made by saying, in many and various ways, “We are glad to have you join us in our pilgrimage. Please know that you are very welcome. Please know too that to join, you have to be prepared to join, to take the plunge, literally.” In that context, the question is not whether a ritual requirement for receiving communion may at times be waived for individuals who are indeed so prepared. The question is whether opening the communion table to them now is the most appropriate way to prepare them further.

Whether or not open communion is the best policy–and I’m still somewhat on the fence–I think this provides a good framework for thinking about it.


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