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.

Clergy and theological/liturgical experimentation

Derek has a good post on those he calls spiritual adventurers/seekers in the Episcopal Church, in the context of debates about messing around with the liturgy. As Derek points out, the liturgy (including, I’d emphasize, the creeds) provides guard rails for the life of the church. A priest or pastor who ignores these for the sake of following his or her own spiritual bliss is doing a disservice to the congregation he or she has been called to serve.

For whatever reason, this seems to be a more prominent phenomenon in TEC than in the ELCA. I don’t know if this is because Lutheranism has a more defined theology, or because the Episcopal priesthood attracts more free spirits, or if it’s some other reason altogether. Personally, I want my pastor to be more theologically conservative than I am. As a layperson I prize my freedom to explore theological possibilities and entertain outlandish and even heterodox theories. Not to say that we should have a double standard for laypeople and clergy, or that laypeople don’t have responsibilities to uphold the faith–we do, as part of our baptismal covenant. But someone who is called to the pastorate/priesthood carries a much heavier and more public burden to hew to orthodoxy in preaching, teaching, and leading worship.

And yet, many of the great reformers, saints, and mystics of the church who were also ordained clergy have pushed the envelope of what’s acceptable and orthodox. (A certain Augustinian monk comes to mind.) If anything, the church has often erred on the side of suppressing the spirit of freedom that allows new insights to be unearthed. This is probably not the biggest problem in mainline churches today where, if anything, an overly-liberal, anything goes attitude holds sway in many quarters. One of Derek’s concluding points strikes the appropriate note:

On one-hand, I’m open to legitimate spiritual adventurism on the part of the clergy in so far as it reflects necessary growth and listening to the Spirit and transformation into the Mind of Christ. On the other hand, I believe that much of it reflects a failure of our discernment and formation processes. Yes, it’s fine to deepen, but I’m seeing a lot more wandering around than rooting down.

I guess the question–which is hard to answer in particular cases–is whether someone’s theological, spiritual, or liturgical gyrations are occurring because they’re on a quest for self-fulfillment or self-expression, or because of a deepening fidelity to Christ and his gospel. I think Derek is right that formation is a prerequisite here–both for clergy and laity–to ensure that we are grounded in the tradition before proposing changes to it. And community discernment is necessary to “test the spirits” of any proposed innovations.

Poetry and liturgy

I’m with Christopher on this.

Catch-all blog update post

Sorry about the dearth of posting: a confluence of extreme busyness, travel, and computer issues has put a cramp in my blogging style. Although one perk is that I’ve been forced to detach from the various teapot-sized tempests roilling the blogosphere, which is always a benefit of time away from the computer.

We’re in Indiana visiting the in-laws for Christmas and enjoying some much needed R&R. In my free time I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. This is a marvelous little book in which Lewis delineates the worldview that underlies the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Sometimes I think Lewis has (unjustly) gotten a reputation as something of a shallow thinker due to the popular nature of his apologetic works, but in this book his incredible erudition is on full display, though tempered with his lucid and homey prose.

I’ve also been catching up on my magazine reading – that is, actual printed matter. I recommend this interesting article from Mother Jones on Ron Paul’s online following, as well as the current issue’s cover story (which doesn’t seem to be online yet), detailing the environmental consequences of China’s amazing economic growth. Also, Jason Byassee has a provocative article on pornography and “Christian eroticism” in this month’s First Things that is well worth checking out.

Other highlights of the trip so far: hanging out with my brother-in-law and his wife, a trip to Half Price Books (yea!), and taking in a civic theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat.

Here’s a few of the notable links I’ve come across in the last couple of days: Wayne Pacelle on Animals and Christmas, two posts on Scripture from Elizaphanian, Marvin writes about stopping global warming, Christopher on recapturing the joy of the Christmas message and Christian living and in defense of the Virgin Birth.

I’m looking forward to the Christ Mass tonight at a local Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish – the same one we attended last year. For a variety of reasons I’ve had a hard time getting into the spirit this Christmas, but I think this will be just what the doctor ordered.

I hope everyone reading has a verry Merry Christmas!

Bad Protestant

I’m late posting on this obviously but last night I went to a Mass in honor of Our Lady’s Glorious Assumption. It was heart-breakingly beautiful in parts, set as it was to music from Mozart’s Spatzen-Messe, KV 220 (Those words mean nothing to me; I copied them directly from the bulletin. All I know is that the music was amazing).

Here I wrote that my theology had shifted away from Lutheranism over the last couple of years. One of the respects in which that’s the case is in my attitude toward devotion to the Blessed Virgin (and the Saints in general). I worked through the theological arguments to my own satisfaction some time ago, but more recently it’s become an increasingly important part of my own devotional life.

I know that there are Lutherans who accept devotion to Mary and the other Saints, but the fact of the matter is that it’s simply not part of the practice of any Lutheran church I’ve ever been to. At some point it becomes exhausting to try and maintain such practices without the support of a church community. Not that this would necessarily be a “deal-breaker” for me, but I like being part of a congregation that can pray the Ave together or sing “Ye Who Own the Faith of Jesus.”

Macquarrie on Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament

I returned from Florida yesterday afternoon to find some actual decent weather here in DC. I mean, it’s hot, but not stiflingly, oppressively humid like it has been. And Capitol Hill is noticeably quiet with the congressional recess.

Having missed Mass yesterday morning we went to last night’s Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament service at St. Paul’s, the parish we’ve been attending.

Evensong was lovely, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Benediction service as I’d never been to one before. Though few things could be more calculated to offend one’s Protestant sensibilities, I found it to be very moving: it was a quiet, reflective service of thanksgiving, meditation, and adoration.

For those not familiar with this type of service (as I wasn’t until last night), it consists of kneeling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance while singing hymns (in this case two beautiful hymns by Thomas Aquinas traditionally used for Benediction and Corpus Christi) between which there was a brief meditation by the priest; then the priest blesses the congregation with the Sacrament, making the sign of the cross over them with the monstrance; finally, the congregation responds in prayer using a version of the Divine Praises and the singing of Psalm 117 with an appropriate antiphon.

By the door there was a helpful pamphlet written by none other than the late John Macquarrie, explaining the meaning and value of the Benediction service. Macquarrie breaks it into three essential parts: contemplation, the blessing, and thanksgiving/adoration. He calls it an “amazingly simple and beautifully proportioned act of worship, and although it is very brief, it has a wonderful completeness.” I have to agree with that judgment.

Macquarrie writes:

God does not leave us with just some vague general knowledge of himself. It is true that St. Thomas believed that there is a “natural theology” and that every thinking man can form some idea of God. But beyond this, we believe also in God’s “revelation” by which he has extended and purified our knowledge of him. We may think of revelation as meaning that at particular times and places and in particular events and persons, God, as it were, has focused his presence and has caused to shine brightly and clearly before us that knowledge of himself which otherwise we can only dimly grasp. The great events in Israel’s history were “revelations” of this kind. Above all, Jesus Christ was “the true light that lightens every man” (John 1:9), the great focus of God’s presence and acting in history. But Christ in turn appointed the bread and wine of the Eucharist to be the focus in which generations to come would find anew his presence. Anglican theologians have wisely avoided trying to give too precise a formulation of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, but they have consistently affirmed it and it is, of course, implicit in our liturgy. It is in terms of this focusing of our Lord’s presence that the service of Benediction is to be understood — and also justified, if anyone thinks it needs justifying. Psychologically speaking, we need some concrete, visible manifestation toward which to direct our devotion; theologically speaking, this is already provided for us by our Lord’s gracious focusing of his presence in the Blessed Scarament.

When this is understood, complaints about “idolatry” or “fetichism” are seen to be beside the point. Let us assure any who may be perturbed over such matters that we are not being so stupid as to worship a wafer, nor do we have such an archaic and myth-laden mentality that we believe the object before us to be charged with magical power. Rather, it is in and through the Sacrament that we adore Christ, because we, being men and not angels, have need of an earthly manifestation of the divine presence, and because he, in his grace and mercy, has promised to grant us his presence in this particular manifestation.

Lord, teach us to pray

This weekend we were visiting my family in my ancestral homeland of Western Pennsylvania. As is our habit, we attended the early service at the ELCA congregation in my hometown. This is a gem of a church and we always receive a warm welcome when we worship there, even though we don’t have a particular connection to the parish.

Anyway, the pastor was on vacation but in his stead the ELCA bishop of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, Ralph E. Jones, presided and preached. The Gospel lession was the story from Luke 11 where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray and he responds by giving them the Lord’s Prayer as well as by telling them that their Heavenly Father is always ready to give them the gift of the Spirit.

Bishop Jones’ sermon began with recounting a message he’d heard on a Christian radio station against the practice of “rote” pre-written prayers. God, the speaker suggested, wants prayers that come spontaneously “from our hearts.”

However, Bp. Jones, good Lutheran that he apparently is, suggested, the problem with prayer “from the heart” is that our heart’s desires are often self-centered and misaligned with God’s will. What prayers like the Lord’s Prayer do through repeated use, he said, is form us in such a way that our thoughts and desires gradually come to be aligned with God’s will.

As he put it, if I pray from my heart, I’ll spend a lot more time asking for things than praying for others or offering praise or thanksgiving. But the prayers of the Bible (and the tradition of the church) help us to readjust our vision and our priorities in line with God’s kingdom. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that pre-written prayers keep us in touch with “sound doctrine” and prevent our religion from becoming wholly privatized. I’m also reminded of Bonhoeffer’s dictum that our prayer should be rooted in God’s word, not in the poverty of our hearts.

He also pointed out that, according to the Gospel text, the gift that God is always ready to give us when we ask in prayer is the Holy Spirit. Some Christians have been misled into the view that God will literally give us whatever we ask for if we have sufficient faith (this seems to be the root of some “prosperity gospel” preaching). But in this story at least, the gift of the Spirit seems to be chiefly what is promised. And the role of the Spirit is to form us into new people who love God and our neighbor.

I don’t think this should be taken as an argument against “spontaneous” prayer or to say that we should only use pre-writter prayer forms. Personally most, though not the entirety, of my prayer life (pitiful as it is) consists of traditional prayers. I tend to think of prayers as tools for helping me to focus on God, and the great prayers of our tradition seem to me to do this best. This isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t have recourse to spontaneous prayer, but I do think that Bp. Jones is right that those prayers need to be formed and directed by God as we believe he has revealed himself to us.

On almost being liturgically indifferent

See here for a well-informed (my comment excepted) discussion on things liturgical in light of the rumored forthcoming liberalization of the use of the pre-Vatican II Mass in the RCC. Obviously Protestants don’t directly have a horse in this race, but as Derek points out what the RCC does tends to affect Protestant bodies.

I admit that I am still quite the liturgical philistine. As a parishoner at what is widely considered to be the flagship parish of Anglo-Catholicism in America it’s still very much a matter of casting pearls before swine in my case. 😉

We still gravitate toward the Rite II Sung Mass rather than the High Mass in Rite I, due to the greater prevalence of congregational singing and participation. Maybe the sign of a true Protestant is that you have a hard time imagining a church service without lots of hymn-singing! I’ve certainly met some people whom I affectionately refer to as “liturgical fascists” – they genuinely seem to believe that the High Mass is objectively superior to any other possible service.

For my part I think C.S. Lewis’ self-description fits me pretty well:

[M]y whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is being snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit — habito dell’arte. (Letters to Malcolm, p. 5)

Of course Lewis didn’t live to see some of the more banal, not to mention heretical, liturgies that have been inflicted on long-suffering Christian people in the last thirty years or so. Still, I can’t get too excited about arguments over liturgy, though of course I want worship to be reverent, reflect sound doctrine, etc. I definitely have my preferences – I probably feel most at home in a highish traditional Lutheran service that many Anglicans would probably consider pretty middle-of-the-road. But it’s not a hill I’m particularly willing to die on.

I am glad that there are smart people like Derek, et al. who give this stuff serious thought since they’ll be the ones influencing the shape of worship for the rest of us in the future!