Lutherans, Methodists, and open communion

On paper I’m still an ELCA Lutheran, but I’ve been attending a United Methodist congregation for the last couple of years, so this news from the ELCA’s recent church-wide assembly is of interest to me. A resolution was passed during the assembly to initiate a process looking at the church’s practices of administering communion, particularly with regard to the unbaptized. This seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that while the ELCA’s official position is that only baptized Christians should partake of communion, other churches with which it is in full communion practice “open communion.” That is, anyone who is so moved is invited to partake of the sacrament, whether or not they’re a baptized Christian.

This is, in fact, the practice of the United Methodist Church, with which the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The UMC’s official rationale for practicing open communion (a.k.a. communion without baptism) is this:

The table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation.  The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love, as the invitation to the table says.

The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive” (page 29). This statement means that in practice there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.

By Water and the Spirit affirms: “Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”

I’ve worried before that the practice of open communion can sometimes be 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.” But understood along the lines described here, I think it can be a faithful practice.* As a practical matter, apart from a pro forma statement in the bulletin, even churches that don’t officially practice open communion are unlikely to turn anyone away from the table (I find it almost unimaginable that this would occur in an ELCA church). In my view, the main emphasis should be on the sacrament as the sign of Christ’s presence, love, and grace, and the invitation should be for people to respond to it as such.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the UMC certainly doesn’t intend for communion without baptism to be the norm. The statement on baptism referred to above says this immediately after the quoted section:

Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.

And the church’s statement on communion adds this:

Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.

Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.

This seems to me to strike a good balance.


*I’ve also become more comfortable with the idea of open communion after reading Charles Hefling’s recent essay, which draws on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” as well as this paper from Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann, written 30 years ago.


20 thoughts on “Lutherans, Methodists, and open communion

  1. So how can anybody actually know whether or not they “intend to lead a Christian life” if they have no idea what that actually entails? What are the requirements of such a life? What are the terms and conditions? Does this have any real meaning to anybody who hasn’t already been initiated?

    In other words: to whom, exactly, is this statement addressed? How does somebody who just walked in off the street have to ability to answer it?

    And what in the world is “converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace”? Shouldn’t people be forwarned about this?

  2. I’m not sure we should be thinking of the proverbial visitor off the street as the target audience here. It may be a non-Christian who’s been attending church for some time, it might be a nominal or lapsed Christian, it might be a Christian from a tradition that doesn’t emphasize baptism, etc. And I think it’s important for churches not to be pushy about inviting people to receive; I’ve been to at least one church where they were so insistent that I would’ve felt embarrassed not to come forward.

    I think the UMC’s position, as expressed here, is more about not trying to set the conditions under which people may receive. The Holy Spirit can use the sacrament to convert, to provide forgiveness, and to strengthen people in the Christian life. Should the church be trying to establish limits on that?

  3. To me, the issue is that the church needs to establish limits on itself – and I think the visitor off the street is the very person we should be thinking of. If the church believes that something real happens during Communion – and apparently the Methodists do – then it has the obligation to inform the people it’s inviting to participate about this,

    Furthermore, in the Episcopal Church at least, the rite involves statements and responses to those statements; the participant responds “Amen” to what the priest says to him or her. That’s an active affirmation of something – but of what? There is clearly something going on, but the recipient has literally no clue what it might be. I don’t think this is even ethical.

    Clearly, in the cases you mention, exceptions can easily be made; all the people you mention have at least some familiarity with Christianity. But I have to point out that there are contradictions at the heart of the argument for each case. For instance, if the person who’s been attending for awhile “intends to lead a Christian life” – then getting Baptized should really not be an issue for them; that’s the very sign of “the intention to lead a Christian life”! Likewise, it’s not clear to me why a Quaker, say, would want to participate in Communion if s/he believes that Sacraments are superfluous in all cases. (If s/he does, though: who would oppose it? Quakers are certainly Christians, and this would be a nitpicky violation of the spirit of the law.) And the lapsed Christian is eligible anyway, so doesn’t fit the conditions.

    So you see: I do think this is actually aimed at the neophyte; it certainly is, in the case of the Episcopal Church. And that’s exactly why it’s wrong, in my estimation. You mention another problem here: insistence on the part of some priests about this. That’s because there are no standards at all in place – about something that we claim is the “summit of the Christian life”! And I don’t see any effort, I must add, to establish any standards, either – again, from my vantage point in TEC. I don’t think anybody even feels this is necessary…..

  4. My church lives mostly at the other end of the spectrum but there are exceptions made all the rime. The reasons given for why some people shouldn’t be allowed communion can be rather creepy (1 Corinthisns 11:29). My own feeling about open communion is summed up by what Ben Witherington wrote in ‘Who can Commune with God?’ …

    “Jesus came into people’s lives, whether sinners, tax collectors etc. without them already being in a worthy condition. And indeed, even at the Last Supper, Jesus distributed the elements to very unworthy participants whom he knew were about to deny, betray, and desert him.”

    Communion maybe isn’t about whether a person meets a certain church’s requirements, but is instead a meeting of that person with Jesus, who seems to have no requirements 🙂

    1. I really don’t understand (from the article you link) how “a practice of welcome for any who desire to receive [could be] surrounded by regular and robust teaching and reflection on the sacraments in the life of faith and of the church, and take place within a process of catechesis and formation that intends to lead to baptism.” How is this supposed to happen? What’s the scheme here? How are people supposed to lay hold of this “regular and robust teaching”?

      Besides: either Communion is open to all, without condition, or it’s not. If the church declares that everybody’s welcome – and that’s the central idea, isn’t it? – how then can it immediately put a condition on this welcome? It’s making exactly the same kind of demand that it’s claiming to put aside. Here’s another contradiction, to my way of thinking.

      I can assure you, from my experience as chalice bearer in CWOB parishes, that people do not even know what do once they arrive at the altar. I had a guy look back and forth at the wafer in his hand, at the other people along the rail, and then at the chalice in my hands, and ask me: “What do I do”? I mean, people want to do the right thing; they simply don’t have the first idea what that is – and nobody’s bothered to tell them. This is mystification at its worst, in my opinion.

      I’ve also seen “Instructed Eucharists” in which people invited to Communion are told to respond “Amen!” to whatever the priest says to them at the altar rail. I wonder if they’d do that themselves, when attending a religious service of some other faith?

      1. I think you could have “regular and robust” teaching without it being a condition of receiving the sacrament, right? I mean, none of us fully grasp (or ever will) the full meaning of the sacraments, but we continue to partake of them and (hopefully) continue to expand our understanding of them. In principle, this is no different than any other Christian teaching: our commitment to the practice usually outstrips our theoretical understanding (which is inherently limited in any event).

        As for the more mundane logistical issues like the ones you raise (What do I do with the wafer? How should I respond?), I’ve seen them handled in a variety of ways. The most straightforward way I know of is to print a little blurb in the bulletin explaining how one is to receive. In fact, many churches would have to do this anyway since practices vary (e.g. intinction vs. drinking from the chalice, common vs. individual cups).

      2. The condition I meant was baptism itself; that’s described in the article as the ultimate goal. But of course, that’s not mentioned in the invitation itself, and can’t be, given that the idea is “welcome to any and all.” This scheme has definitely got a “bait-and-switch” feel to it, from my point of view.

        The how-to-do-it blurb you’re talking about was indeed printed in the bulletin; it was clearly ineffective. It would be especially ineffective, I’d guess, for new people, who may never have set foot in a church before and certainly wouldn’t be looking for it; it’s tough enough figuring out what’s going on and following along with the service. But the confusion I was talking about above was of a much deeper nature anyway. When I was confirmed as an adolescent, I remember attending a complete session of instruction for receiving Communion – including information and ideas about the disposition involved – and of course I’d seen it done before.

        “All baptized Christians are welcome to receive Communion. Those who do not wish to receive are invited to the altar to receive a blessing.” That seems very friendly to me; it doesn’t put any pressure on new people to try to figure things out on their own. It doesn’t leave them hanging out there, mystified about what’s happening and trying to work out the proper ways to do things. It doesn’t put religious words into their mouths that they might not want to say (but of course, how could they know?). It doesn’t put the church in the position of violating anybody’s boundaries – or possibly violating their actual beliefs. It doesn’t put the church in the position of offering something with a condition on it – or of saying, essentially, that “We don’t really care if you know anything about this ritual or about Christianity itself.” It doesn’t make Communion – its central Sacrament – into a free-for-all without any protocols or standards.

        There should be a blurb in the announcement bulletin that says, instead, “If you’re interested in learning more about the Christian faith, please speak to XXXX or XXXX; we’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.” The visitor will be much more likely to find this later at home reading over the announcments.

        The church is not Jesus; I think what’s happening with CWOB is that they are being conflated. The church needs to operate by institutional rules, in an orderly way, for the benefit of all people and for its own.

      3. Anyway, Baptism is the ultimate welcome – and it, most definitely, is open to all.

        The new person can learn about the faith and its rituals, and what the church believes about them; there’s extended interaction with at least one human being; the new person can ask questions and get answers; s/he can think all this over, and decide whether or not the Christian faith is for them; everything is aboveboard and out in the open, and people are allowed time to absorb it all. During the ritual itself – also a Sacrament – the congregation vows to support the new Christian in his or her life of faith.

        What could be better than that?

  5. I’ve never been that clear myself on who the ‘target audience’ of open communion is. In my experience, the people who are really miffed about closed communion are Christians who are annoyed that another church doesn’t think they’re Christian enough to commune with them. Unbaptized visitors don’t seem to assume that this is a judgment on their ‘worthiness’ unless the church is giving off judgmental vibes in other ways.

    The amateur anthropologist in me is thinking that one problem here is that in our ‘stranger society,’ public functions like the sacraments are having to perform social functions that they didn’t used to. I remember in that book about the little fundamentalist Baptist church I blogged about a few years back the author wrote that nearly all visitors were brought in by a church member who knew them from somewhere else, and so they were instantly greeted with introductions and attention and bantering. From what I’ve read, the social-networking approach was the standard during the church’s initial growth in Roman times; in fact I remember reading that a Christian traveling to an unfamiliar parish would carry a letter of introduction from his bishop. I think that’s because that’s pretty much how ALL interactions between strangers used to go; as recently as the early 19th century it was still considered gauche to introduce *yourself* to someone you wanted to befriend.

    Nowadays, of course, people show up in churches where they don’t know anybody quite a bit, leading to these ‘How can we be more welcoming?’ discussions. But it does seem to me that communion isn’t really better at conveying that than the good old interpersonal means. I mean, how welcomed is anyone going to feel just by spending a few minutes participating in an odd ritual where you don’t even talk, apart from the pastor reciting a few canned phrases? It’s people who are already steeped in Christian thinking who make the leap from that to Jesus dining with tax collectors and whatnot.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think open communion, if practiced, should be based on a vague effort to be more welcoming. If there’s not a solid underlying theological rationale, it’s probably a bad idea.

  6. The thing we can’t know unless we’re told is why someone who doesn’t belong to a church decides to take communion there. Years before I was a Christian I went with a friend to his church and I participated in communion because everyone else was. I had no idea of its religious significance but it made me feel like an accepted part of the group. I don’t think Jesus in the form of a wafer, or people who don’t know what they’re doing by eating the wafer, really need to be protected from each other.

    1. I don’t think Jesus in the form of a wafer, or people who don’t know what they’re doing by eating the wafer, really need to be protected from each other.

      So you believe that all people are perfectly well mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and that we should have no qualms at all about inviting them, alone, and without offering them any kind of support whatsoever, into a religious ritual they know nothing about, with the object of “meeting Jesus in the form of a wafer”?

      Can’t agree, sorry.

  7. @Barbara (bls) (since we seem to have reached the limits of direct reply threading): I do wonder if part of the push for open communion is a result of the watering down (so to speak!) of baptism. I do worry that communion is being asked to do too much. I’m all for a renewed emphasis on baptism!

    1. Lee, I just think that the whole CWOB movement, doubtlessly well-intentioned on the part of most people, creates way too many problems – a few that I think are serious ethical issues. (I seem to be sort of alone in the “ethical issues” aspect, I should add!)

      I have no desire whatsover to police the altar rails – and I have no problem with Crystal’s example of attending with a friend and receiving Communion There was somebody there with her to answer questions and explain things if she should have questions; he could show her what to do and just be there with her. There may be a few sticklers in TEC (for instance) that would flatly prohibit this, but I’m not one of them.

      Baptism-before-Communion should absolutely remain the order of things, because all the problematic issues are eliminated by doing things that way; I’m fairly sure this is why this has always been the path. It’s even Biblical! If you take a look at the book of Acts, you’ll notice that whenever a new person comes into contact with the church and appears interested, the very first thing that happens is that a Christian rehearses the entire history of salvation! Philip spent a long time explaining things to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who had a chance to ask questions and have them answered – and then he was baptized.

      I used to be “of two minds” about CWOB; I sort of understood why people argued for it. Then I realized that nobody found it strange to tell people to go up to the altar and agree with whatever the priest said! That just seems flat-out wrong to me – and I think it’s really bad for the church. I had a few actual experiences with the practice, and realized there were other problems too. Yours is not the first story I’ve heard about priests attempting to impose Communion on people who really didn’t want to participate in it. It’s clear to me from these examples that individual priests should absolutely not decide this matter for themselves – yet they are doing so, everywhere.

      At this point, I’m really, really against it, for all these reasons. CWOB really doesn’t work in practice, from what I’ve seen, and all the contradictions tell me that the problems are very deep and are not just a matter of changing one small thing. I do think Communion seems to have become more important than baptism itself; not sure of cause-and-effect, here, though….

    2. Oh, and: at the first parish I went to, which loudly and proudly practiced CWOB in the name of “hospitality,” it was still a fact that nobody ever talked to me at Coffee Hour….

  8. Well, what exactly *is* communion? Is it a reward for being a member in good standing of a certain denomination? If communion is instead a way to share the memory of the last supper or a way to presently experience Jesus then I don’t understand why it matters if someone has the etiquette correct or not – we made up all that stuff. I have to wonder if this is all about exclusivity … how can communion be cool if just anyone is allowed to do it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s