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.