Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Baptized into Eucharist - The Problem With "Open" Communion. Some Anecdotes

First, here is a quote from Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:

It must be said, of course, that this complete sharing of baptismal and Eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretive story of Jesus. To share Eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd-not because the sacrament is 'profaned', or because grace cannot he be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus' death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope for their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done.
–  Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 61

I agree with Williams and am convinced that the church is right to maintain the connection between baptism and Eucharist. For one thing, it respects the integrity of the other in her/his disbelief or belief in something other than “the paradigm of Jesus' death and resurrection” and being "committed to another story or system." From my own experience I know that we can do that while also extending deep hospitality to one another when we worship and to our guests. Here are some examples:

1. At the church I served before becoming bishop, we had a blurb in our bulletin that invited all who wanted to to come forward  to receive Communion if baptized or a blessing if not. It also allowed for the possibility that someone might prefer to refrain from either and stay seated. And there was an invitation to discuss baptism and membership. I did not generally call attention to it verbally. I did always make a point during announcements of inviting everyone to join us in sharing food and drinks at our fellowship/hospitality time immediately following the liturgy. I never interrogated visitors who came forward to receive Communion. Contrary to common misrepresentation, this is not about trying to protect Jesus from the unworthy or ignorant.

2. We did not pass the plate. Rather, members knew that belonging – communing – includes financial commitments and know where and how to give. It seems to me that if one of our concerns is to be more hospitable, a good place to start would be to stop hitting up visitors for cash. I would start there rather than changing church doctrine or discipline, or disregarding church canons.

3. We had a new member of our congregation who received communion every Sunday for several months before mentioning that he was not baptized. He had been raised, and had been an officer in, the Salvation Army which does not do sacraments. Upon learning this, we had a conversation in which I explained the rationale for requiring baptism. We then met for several weeks of baptismal preparation. During which time he came forward during Communion for a blessing. Once baptized, he received communion again. It was no big deal.

4. There are ways to make noncommunicants welcome while still respecting distinctions. Another member of the congregation I served is married to a man who years ago became a Buddhist while he was in college. In many ways he is more active than many of the baptized members, attending congregational events beyond his regular Sunday attendance. He and his wife linger long at the fellowship/hospitality time after the liturgy. He is even the chair of the IT committee. By his own admission, he feels most welcome. When I asked him what he thought of our limiting Eucharist to the baptized and if it bothered him, his response was, “Why would I take Communion, I am not a Christian.” I suggest that we respected him more and he us by acknowledging that distinction than if we had pretended it was irrelevant.

5. Several years ago, I was a guest speaker at an event at a mosque around the corner from our church. Since the main event took place in their place of worship, they requested/made us take our shoes off before entering. I could have taken offense, I suppose, at this expectation. I believe it is sufficient to remove the sandals of our hearts (though as one who takes bodily action seriously, I do wonder if they are onto something). Would I not be guilty of presumption if I had ignored the request? Would they not have been disrespectful of their own tradition’s understanding of God/Allah had they not insisted? Would they not have been less than respectful of me and my convictions if they had just said that our differences don’t matter and I could go ahead and wear my shoes if I wanted to since we are all just generic people seeking an experience of a generic 'Holy'?

I remain convinced that inviting anyone, regardless of baptism to participate in Eucharist is a theological error that is neither respectful nor hospitable. Striving for both hospitality and honesty is harder, but better.


  1. I am going to respectfully disagree. You have yourself fallen into a severe theological error -- that of putting preconditions on Grace that God Himself has never done. You have put theology before relationship.

    I am a fairly young Episcopalian (not a young person, mind you). I have lived under various theological systems, some by choice and some not. My understanding of God has changed over the years. I have never achieved a complete understanding of Who God Is and never expect to. I have at various times in my life thought I had gotten there. Each time I was proven wrong.

    God does not expect or require "completion" to form relationships. Jesus told the Jews He had other sheep which were not of the Fold (of Israel) that He would make part of the Flock. He healed the Syrophoenician woman -- extending her grace where she had no right to expect it! And God even gave the Gift of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles *before* they were baptized! How intimate a Grace was that?

    I note that in the article, you presume that the Disciples participating at the Lord's Supper, the First Eucharist, were baptized. You have no record of that in Scripture. Do you presume to speak where Scripture does not? And no, you are not allowed to "assume" in order to tie up theological loose ends.

    Consider Abraham. He believed God was a corporeal being, one with whom He could speak face to face. He ate a meal with God! God told him that He had come to go to Sodom personally to see for Himself whether or not Sodom was as wicked as He had heard. He would make a judgment. And He allowed Abraham to plead based upon what God would find. God promised Abraham that He would spare Sodom if He found 10 righteous people.

    And in that exchange, God was being dishonest. By our Theology, God is OmniPresent, everywhere at once. God had no need to "go" to Sodom. God was already there! God is Omniscient. He had no need to discover whether Sodom was that wicked. He already knew. God sees the End from the Beginning. He knew He was going to destroy Sodom. Yet He disclosed none of that to Abraham. He not only let Abraham keep his misconceptions, He communicated with Abraham within those misconceptions.

    Why? Because Relationship is more than Theology.

    Jesus Included the Woman at the Well, Samaritans in her city. Jesus included the Sinners and the Publicans. Jesus included the children who could not understand, and who the disciples would have prevented from coming to Him. He even healed those who had no faith to be healed! He bursts all boundaries. He creates relationships outside of the Rules! He is the Lord of Sabaoth. God has made the unclean Clean. He broke Bread for thousands of "unbaptized" people as He taught them about the Kingdom of heaven to bring them to faith.

    Revelation 22:17 “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” There are no preconditions made. No, "... once you are baptized." No, "... if you understand fully the ramifications of what you are doing."

    Respect for Jesus takes Him to those who might otherwise be turned away. He would shatter your Rules, and promise millstones to those willing to turn away the little ones. As we have seen in the Acts, baptism often happened AFTER the Holy Spirit was given!

    By all means, let us invite people to Jesus' Table. He is a Gracious Host. And perhaps He will do a truly Odd Work of Grace outside of your meager expectations and rules.

    1. Dear Raymond,

      Thank you for reading the blog and engaging.

      I have to say though, that I don't think you actually addressed the point(s) of the the essay much. That might be because I did not make my points clearly enough or that they are so wrongheaded as to not call for much response. Or perhaps we are coming at this from such different places that we are talking past one another. I make no pretensions about having "gotten there."

      I said nothing about anyone needing "completion." I specifically said that this was not about who can or cannot receive grace.

      Jesus did indeed refer to other sheep and as I said in the essay after the resurrection and Pentecost the Church began to include gentiles. But it is hard to imagine why that was such a big deal if Jesus had already done so (cf. Acts 15 and several of Paul's letters, esp. Galatians). As an aside, it is very possible that Jesus was the region of Tyre and Sidon where he was met by the Syrophoenician woman because that territory was understood by Jews of his time to be part of the Greater Israel from the era of David/Solomon. According to at least one historical Jesus scholar, Sean Freyne, Jesus was touring all the territory of the Jewish people he understood himself to be calling back to faithfulness (Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus Story). As I suggested in the essay, Jesus was more Jewish than either "Progressive" Americans or "Conservative" Americans want him to be. Which among other things means he was about the formation of a people. To be a Christian is to be incorporated into that people. Or, as Paul puts it, grafted like a wild branch onto the olive tree of Israel.

      As for whether or not the disciples were baptized here is what we know from scripture: Jesus and his initial followers started out connected one way or another with the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus was himself baptized. Jesus and/or his disciples are recorded as baptizing. I do not think it is much of a presumption to conclude that they would have been baptized well before the Last Supper.

      Of course Jesus engaged lots of people who were not baptized. But there is no - no - evidence that any of his disciples were not already part of the people of Israel. Or that he ever broke bread with Gentiles. He was quite willing to accept the invitation to eat with just about any Jew regardless of her or his reputation. And that is something for which all of us sinners can be grateful.

      Jesus himself turned people away or presented the cost of discipleship starkly enough that many turned away. And Jesus warns of judgement. I know that many of us - I did - got a dose of Fundamentalism in our early years, some a heavier dose than others. But the fact that some people have been heavy handed and mean and exclusionary does not mean we should imagine Jesus s simply affirming. Grace is the first and last word. Within the context of that grace, those of us who are Christians are called to particular self-sacrificial disciplines as R Williams points out in the quote above.

      I thought I made it clear, but, again, maybe not, that I believe it is all about relationship. Which means the quality of our relationships and our belonging matter.

      Finally, this is not about a club or who is "acceptable" and who is not. It is about what it means to be formed as a people and trained in a mission. And that mission is to proclaim the good news, and make disciples baptizing them . . . And it is about our learning what it means to love as Jesus loved.

      Again, thanks for commenting.


  2. I guess my problem with this is not so much who feel themselves to be explicitly outside of Christianity in general but those who are baptized or believe themselves to be baptized but their baptism probably would not be acceptable to us -- not with water, not Trinitarian, or whatever. These are all people who would agree with the statement by Rowan Williams above and have devoted their lives to Christianity (as they define it). I personally would not know how to refuse them the sacrament (even those I know personally and their background) because I don't know how to say even though you think you are baptized, you really aren't by our definitions. It might be a conversation starter later on, but I'm not sufficiently convinced that our definitional requirements for baptism from other faiths is inclusive enough of the range of practices and views of the sacrament within Christianity and I'm not sure our view is completely correct as the definitional minimum with respect to this sacrament (or communion for that matter).


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Matthew,

      Interesting question. I don't know how common an issue this is. I'm not even sure I know who we might be talking about. Mormons? i guess if i was a leader of a congregation where someone who was baptized, but not baptized "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" was receiving Communion, I'd want to have a conversation with them. As I said above, it is not about policing the Eucharist. But, we are part of a people with a way of doing things and understanding what we are doing (however imperfectly). It does not seem outrageous to me to say, "Wow, it is good to have your here with us. You give every evidence of being a Jesus follower and appear willing say the baptismal covenant. Given that baptism is the way of joining this community, let's talk about your baptism and how it is congruent with what baptism is as we have received it.


    2. Thanks. Mormons and Quakers would be two groups to name a few. I think part of the trouble with Mormons is there are dioceses where such baptisms are recognized. It varies in the church. I have lived in Utah so many Episcopalians are former Mormons and that is their only baptism............ and then they move and its an issue. Could even be an issue for a priest. We have had one bishop, Carolyn Tanner Irish whose only baptism was Mormon. But I know of several people whose confirmations were held up because they were curious about Anglicanism but there was no bishop at the time and the standing committee didn't want to deal with it. I wish there were a church wide policy on different denominations.

      Then there is the dicey issue of expecting lay people to police it, enforce it, or God forbid expect them to have that conversation. In my diocese we have "communion services" which are led by lay people using previously consecrated elements. Boy, what are they supposed to do when someone shows up, they know personally the person has only a quaker baptism and there are no clergy, based on their training. We had better get some rules about how to deal with this. I have been in this situation. But my bishop is perhaps more open to being flexible about the rule. I don't know how lay people can be expected to have that conversation. Its especially problematic to have that conversation when the communion service is administered around a table (think early church, Agape Meal, Maundy Thursday and not in the church proper but in the social/dining hall). There is nothing private about that space. Thanks. Matthew

    3. Eucharist is food for the journey of our lives that hopefully will result in full communion with God. It is food and drink meant to strengthen the spiritual body as much as food and drink strengthen the physical body. We all know that if a hungry person were standing before us asking for food, our first impulse, I would hope, would be to feed that person. If that homeless person were at my door, it would mean inviting him or her in and giving them the food they need. I would not require that person to become an adopted member of my family before I would feed that person. That person is hungry and I have the food. One can then see where I am going with this -- there are people coming to our churches who are hungry, without a family or home. They need spiritual food in order to continue on their spiritual journey. They are to be members of the family before they are fed? The teachings of the Church has always been yes they do. And now that is being challenged.
      Where does the challenge come from? Hard to say. But I do know that those who are eager to promote open communion can look to Mt. 15:1-9. The Pharisees ask Jesus by his disciples to not wash their hands before they eat as prescribed by the elders. Jesus answered, "Why do you break the command of God for the sake of tradition?" Jesus goes on to quote the Decalogue, specifically honoring one's parents. Jesus points out what the Law sates and then says that the elders will say that if the parents are in need of help, if the child has said that what is needed has been given to God, then the child need not honor his or her parents. "For the sake of your tradition, you made void the word of God." The sign of a devote Jew was taking care of the widow and orphan who had no other means. Taking care of the widow is honoring a parent. Not feeding the widow is dishonoring the parent. Communion has been consecrated, given to God. The widows that come to our church, those without a church family, we do not feed her because communion is God's? Did not David eat of the shew bread given to the priests? Is not our shew bread communion? Jesus' answer is "you hypocrites!"
      Also look to Mt. 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus' response to the woman's request was that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel only. What is to be given to the children is not to be given to dogs. And her response to him was "even the dogs receive the crumbs from their master's table." Jesus marvels at her faith and heals her daughter.
      While neither example is Eucharistic, the parallel arguments coming forward about open communion should not be lost: people come not having been baptized, but are searching for God, hoping that their hunger and thirst will be fed and quenched. They present themselves with all humility; are we not to serve them with the same degree of humility? As a teacher of the faith, do I teach total hospitality for event hose unbaptized, or do i teach the tradition of the Church that would deny communion to the baptized? The answer is both. Am I comfortable with knowing that it is both? No of course not. My role and your role is to make disciples of Christ, to go out and preach the salvific news of Christ. We are to feed the hungry. The real hunger though, is wanting to belong. Requiring baptism before communion is feeding the one who hungers to belong. And so is feeding that person regardless of baptism. I am quite discomfited by this paradox. I sense that others are as well. And so it seems that the Spirit still has something to teach us on this subject.

  3. Here is an interesting and pertinent short essay by Andrew McGowan, Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

    The Hungry Jesus (

    "There is really just one, quite large problem [that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host]: such meals are a fantasy, not (or not only) for those who are sceptical about the historicity of much of the Gospel meal material, but even at the canonical, literary level. Jesus is simply not depicted as welcoming diverse guests to festive meals."

  4. Here is a fine piece on the topic by a young priest in Western Michigan:

  5. I think that I am most disturbed that this is being questioned. For me it is akin to the question of continuing to ordain to the diaconate prior to the priesthood. How is the Church at such a point that something which has been accepted for so very long as Tradition is now allowed to be questioned?