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.

Cautious optimism about the new pope

Look, I’m a Protestant, so no pope is ever going to satisfy me. And I totally get that progressive Catholics would be upset by the same-old, same-old on women’s rights, LGBT rights, and other issues about which the Catholic hierarchy remains steadfastly conservative.

But there are reasons for cautious optimism about Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio). He is, by most accounts I’ve seen, a humble man attuned to the condition of the world’s poorest people and less hung up on doctrinal minutiae than his predecessor. He also appears to be more oriented toward ecumenism and interfaith relations and less concerned with asserting the superiority of Catholicism in all things. As a Jesuit, he reflects a tradition of engagement with and openness to the world that can be very appealing. I don’t expect him to revolutionize Catholicism, but these provide hints that he could do some real good.

One major concern that’s been raised is whether he’s got it in him to undertake certain reforms needed within the Vatican machinery, and given his age (and Benedict’s re-establishment of the precedent of papal retirements), it’s not unthinkable that his papacy may have little impact at all. But as a fellow Christian I’m certainly happy to pray for the new pontiff and pray that he will represent the love of Jesus to a world sorely in need of it (as we’re all called to do!).

On ecumenism and the unity of the church

There’s a bit of hubbub in the theo-blogosphere about ecumenism and the unity of the church (e.g., at Inhabitatio Dei and An und fur sich). I haven’t given this a ton of thought because I think ecclesiology is boring, but, for what it’s worth, I see the unity of the church as having two aspects. First, it’s a gift; we are, through no merit of our own, reconciled with God through Christ in baptism–and, as a corollary, with each other. Second, this unity, which already exists, needs to be made visible. How do we do this? Through our works alongside other Christians of caring for the world and worshiping God. This doesn’t require all existing churches to merge into some kind of super-church. The church should not be divided along economic, racial, gender or other invidious lines; at the same time, there are differences that are legitimate and can be enriching. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity enforced in some top-down fashion.

As far as the implications for ecumenism go, in my view there’s already enough agreement for most major Christian bodies to be “in communion” with each other in the sense that we should be able to worship together, partake of the sacraments together, and work for the common good and well-being of the world together. Of course, not all Christians agree with this; some think more is required for “real” unity–something like institutional unity, or everyone being under the same ecclesiastical hierarchy, or agreement on fine points of doctrine. These aren’t issues that are going to go away in the near future. What I think we need to do is seek the greatest degree of unity possible while respecting the views of those brothers and sisters who feel that they need to keep their distance a bit. It may be that full visible unity is an eschatological concept.

Throne and Altar

A troubling article on the treatment of Protestant “sects” under a regime of strengthening ties between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state.

Russophile Fr. Chris has some comments here.

Items of interest from the JLE

From this month’s Journal of Lutheran Ethics:

First, an article on the neglect of spiritual practices in the ELCA and how, if the church doesn’t offer pathways to intimacy with God, people will seek them elsewhere. I can definitely sympathize with this. As someone who (re)turned to Christian faith as a young(ish) adult I was expecting to be drilled in spiritual practices and other ways of deepening my faith. Alas, most of the ELCA congregations I’ve been associated with have scarcely mentioned, much less inculcated, intentional pracitces of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading and so on.

That’s one of the reasons I’ll always be grateful for my year attending the Church of the Advent, an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. I was exposed to a very sacramental form of worship, the daily office, the rosary, and other spiritual practices that I’ve gotten a lot of nourishment from. Maybe as part of our full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church Lutherans will learn to be freer with borrowing form our Episcopal brothers and sisters, who seem to have preserved more of our shared heritage in this area from the undivided Western church.

Second, a response from the former chaplain of Gustavus Adolphus College to Carl Braaten’s article from a couple of months ago (which I blogged on at some length here). This piece seeks to go beyond natural law and understand marriage, not as something that exists for purposes extrinsic to itself, but as a community that exists for its own sake as a union of two selves. I’m not sure I’d go all the way with this: doesn’t marriage, in Christian perspective, exist at least in part for the upbuilding of the community? But this in no way excludes same-sex couples, who manifestly do contribute to the upbuilding of communities of which they’re a part. If Christian marriage is partly a “school of sanctification,” then it seems to me that a Christian marriage should have an inherently “ecstatic” direction – the partners should be drawn out of themselves and give life to others. And this can have a variety of manifestations, including (but not limited to) the begetting and rearing of children.

More stuff I haven’t read yet

An ecumenical symposium of sorts at First Things on the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
J. I. Packer
T. M. Moore
Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
Matthew Levering