Of Communion: Open and Otherwise

Coming around the bend seems to be a discussion of “Open Communion” perhaps better called “Communion without Baptism” in the Episcopal Church.

I thought it might be interesting to spend some time with this topic and think about some of its implications, especially for our baptismal identity and ecclesiology.  I went back this evening to take a look at the Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism to see what the prayer book offers by way of insight into the nature of Communion.

I am planning on taking a look at other sources as well in the coming weeks – particularly Scripture, the Church Fathers and Mothers, ecumenical documents, and spiritual writings.  None of these entries on any given item will be particularly academic or even erudite!  They are just musings on what is.

There are several commendable impulses at work in the move toward communion without baptism.  A desire to include those often excluded, a genuine view that the “table is always open,” and a real desire for the liturgy to have an evangelical function all are part of the various arguments I have heard very fine Christians make for “opening the table.”

Yet, what are we being included in?  What are we offering to the guest in our churches?  What is being opened?

Of the Sacrament: Commanded by Christ

What happens in the Sacraments?  Do we believe something happens?

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a prayer book which emphasizes time and again the baptismal identity of the Church and her people, says of the Eucharist, “The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament commanded by Christ for the continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again.”

I suppose this is where I would begin as well in thinking about the relationship between Baptism and the Eucharist.  It is “commanded by Christ.” When the Christian participates in the Mass, they do so, in part, because we are called to do so by our Lord.  It is not a simple meal we drop in on – there are other ways to spend a Sunday morning – we do this in remembrance of the death and resurrection of the Christ who calls us to the altar to be reformed in his image.

We do this in remembrance.  We do not come without a sense that we are participating in something of profound significance.  To “open the table” to all who are visiting the church fundamentally alters the first reason given in the Prayer Book – that Christ commands it.  It also upends the understanding of why we are commanded to do so – in remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again. Christ commands us to the altar in remembrance – not simply for hospitality.

The way we begin to participate in that life, death, and resurrection is through the Sacrament of Baptism.  To invite a non-believer to participate in that because we do not want to be unwelcoming is a profoundly unwelcoming gesture.  It is something of well-intentioned trickery as we draw them into a mystery they do not yet acknowledge exists, in thanksgiving for a salvation they do not realize they need, anticipating a Kingdom they have heard little of, in remembrance of one whom they have not declared to be the Lamb of God.

Of the Sacrament: the Church’s Sacrifice

According to the Prayer Book, the Eucharist, “the Church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself.”

Participating in Communion is not simply an issue of hospitality or lack thereof.  Receiving Communion is the way by which we come to participate in the Sacrifice offered for us.  We join our offerings, simple as they may be, to the one great Sacrifice of Christ seeking to dwell with him as we ask him to dwell in us.

Why would we ask a non-believer to come to the altar for this?  Why would we bring someone to that altar without offering them some understanding of (or some real chance to affirm their belief in) the salvific action they are being joined to in this Sacrifice?

We are not the Church of altar calls (driven by a mix of peer pressure, shame, and guilt).  The altar is the site of our deepest encounter with the holy – the point at which the sacrifice of Christ is made present for the believer.  Our altar call is one that deeply and powerfully demands something of the Communicant.

“He unites us to his one offering of himself” is one part of our participation in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.  All we are meant to be is offered on the altar for we are meant to be one with Christ.  This is a life-changing encounter that cannot be offered lightly or received without preparation, care, and intention.

Of the Sacrament: the Benefits we Receive

Why come to Communion?

For the believer, the answer lies in the Prayer Book’s formulation, which says we receive “the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”

The move toward Communion without Baptism leans heavily on the second half of the second benefit listed – the strengthening of our union with one another.  Yet the first benefit is the forgiveness of our sins and the second is the strengthening of our union with Christ.  Communion without baptism moves our relationship with one another ahead of our relationship with Christ.

The Sacrament’s chief benefit is to draw us into closer relationship with Jesus Christ.  There are manifold ways in which we can show our love for and care for the many people outside the Church that desperately need it.  Communion is the primary means given for us, within the Church, to be joined to Jesus Christ.  The forgiveness of our sins and our Communion with Christ give us a foretaste, a hint, of that Kingdom we hope for.

The non-believer receives none of these benefits – for they have not come seeking them.  They have not come seeking forgiveness of sins.  They do not seek a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ (as I have seen both Muslims and Jews offered Communion within Episcopal churches).  They do not share our hopes for a Kingdom consummated in the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.

Life Consecrated

The liturgy provides a means of divine revelation of multiple orders of unity. Unity of action, intent, purpose, fulfillment, longing, apprehension, joy, offering, remembrance, and more are all manifested at various points in the Eucharistic action.

The liturgy of the Church provides a place where memory of people, place, and time interact with our search for pattern and meaning. That search becomes one line in a complex pattern of the entire creation’s search for meaning and depth in the midst of need.  The Eucharistic action transforms us at the altar.  As we are drawn into the life and death of Christ we are given new meaning and hope.

Welcoming the other, the non-believer, or the non-baptized into this holy relationship with Jesus Christ is absolutely commanded of us.

Yet, the Eucharist is that place where our lives become consecrated for God’s use – where we offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to be wholly God’s to use.  It is an act of intimate exchange with the holy.  We prepare future communicants that they may grow to see and know Jesus as the model and means of life.

There are so many ways by which we can welcome friends, neighbors, and loved ones to church or show them that we care deeply for them.  However, the Eucharist is that place where our identity as Christians, as recipients of Christ’s grace, is made real.  The true welcome, the true hospitality, is offered at the font so that these guests of ours may become more than guests – that they may become the Body of Christ.