I recall from General Convention 2012, how surprised I was by the energy and reflection two resolutions on “open table” generated. The original language of C029 from that convention proposed That the 77th General Convention direct the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to appoint a special commission charged with conducting a study of the theology underlying access to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion in this Church and to recommend for consideration by the 78th General Convention any amendment to Title I, Canon 17, Section 7, of the Canons of General Convention that it deems appropriate.
A related resolution, C040, proposed That The Episcopal Church ratify the rubrics and practice of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion; and be it further Resolved, That Canon 1.17.7: be deleted: Sec. 7 No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church. and Canon 1.17.8 be renumbered Canon 1.17.7.
Both resolutions at 2012 were referred to the Evangelism committee. This committee had been assigned to a fairly small room and it quickly became clear they did not have enough space. My memory is that this was the third most followed topic in 2012, behind the liturgy for blessing same sex relationships and the many resolutions on structure which led to TREC.
In the end, C040, the one calling for a change in the canons, was discharged. The final text of C029 did not call for additional study and simply stated –
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, that The Episcopal Church reaffirms that baptism is the ancient and normative entry point to receiving Holy Communion and that our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to go into the world and baptize all peoples.
Deputies had first approved a version of C029 that included a second sentence: We also acknowledge that in various local contexts there is the exercise of pastoral sensitivity with those who are not yet baptized. Bishops deleted this part, reaffirming baptism prior to communion and placing the emphasis on baptism.
Given all of that energy three years ago, it is a bit surprising that I’m hearing less about the topic this time. One resolution on open table came before the House of Bishops on Tuesday – C010 Invite All to Holy Communion. The resolution in its original form called on General Convention to “express awareness” of the fact that some churches are experimenting with the practice of open communion . In committee, the resolution was altered to call again for the formation of task force to study the practice of inviting all persons to receive Holy Communion.
In discussion on Tuesday, some bishops were clearly in favor of more conversation. Others expressed concern about surrendering the teaching work of bishops to a task force. Several pointed out the serious ecumenical challenges such a conversation would provoke. Gulick, Assistant in Virginia, said, I oppose this resolution for several reasons. I choose to oppose it primarily for ecumenical considerations. I’m aware of certain assurances this church has given to other members of the Body of Christ that we hold and maintain the universal practice of the church catholic on matters of the doctrine and discipline of the Eucharist. The Eucharist belongs to the whole church, not the Episcopal Church. I urge my brothers and sisters to be cautious.
This sense of caution ruled the day. Bishops voted 79 to 77 to defeat this resolution, which means it will not go to the House of Deputies for consideration.
This may be discussed again. D051 is awaiting action by the committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music. The current text reads Resolved, the House of _______ concurring, That The Episcopal Church affirms that Holy Communion as instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, through which he gave himself to the world that all might be reconciled to God, is appropriately offered to all seekers of his grace, in the context of the Divine Liturgy. But given the conversation yesterday, I doubt our bishops will support this resolution. There may be other resolutions on this topic still to come, but I haven’t found them.
For the record, I think our bishops did the right thing yesterday. I, too, prefer that they not surrender their teaching office to a task force. However, on this subject, I hope they will take the conversation from 2012 and 2015 as an invitation to tell us more. If it were appropriate for General Convention to request a pastoral letter from our bishops on this subject, this would be a good opportunity. Our current teaching on this subject is clear but often ignored, and many clergy and laity seem uncomfortable with our teaching. Congregations and clergy seem to do whatever they want to do, sometimes thoughtfully and sometimes casually.
I’ve tried this both ways. My previous congregation (where I served as an associate) went through a thoughtful, reflective process of discussion on this topic, and through that process discerned a call to offer communion to all as part of Christ’s open invitation to us. Newcomers to the parish reported that this stance made them feel welcome and more ready to explore the Christian life, and over time we celebrated four or five adult baptisms in the six years I served there. In my current congregation, we have not yet taken the time for thoughtful theological conversation together about this, so I have maintained the church’s current teaching around inviting people to be baptized before receiving communion. At every baptism, I do extend an invitation to be baptized right then, though no one has taken me up on it yet. We’ve baptized five adults in the past year. Yet many in my congregation feel uncomfortable with our current practice because it feels inhospitable to them.
Clearly, we all need more conversation on this topic, and I would welcome more teaching and direction from our bishops. Since they have now twice rejected the call to appoint a task force to study this issue, let’s hope they take it upon themselves to do the work. I would encourage them to do this work in conversation with the laity, especially those baptized as adults in this church.
When the Presiding Bishops nominees were introduced to convention, Bishop Breidenthal was asked, “What are your beliefs and policies concerning open communion?“ He responded, This is one of the deepest questions facing our church today. I have some problem with open communion as the norm because I think it runs roughshod over our theology of Baptism. Baptism is our radical welcome to the Christian life. The life of pilgrimage which is the life of Exodus – moving out of privilege into connection with the world – is a hard life. Part of that life is learning hospitality but hospitality is not the highest value. We have to learn to be open to the stranger away from our own turf. Jesus has called us to be his Body and accept our own weakness so that we can receive it back as the Body of Christ. We are not just inviting guests to our table when we celebrate the Eucharist. We are inviting people to something hard. So we need to keep talking about it.
Indeed. Please make it so.
Update – at Wednesday’s morning session in the HOB a few proposed reconsideration of C010, saying that the discussion yesterday turned into more of a conversation about our current teaching than a conversation about creating a task force. This proposal was defeated, but at least the question came up again. Also, I apologize for confusing the terms open communion and open table in my original post. I must not be getting enough sleep! We do practice open communion, in that we offer communion to all Christians of any denomination. We do not currently practice open table, or offering communion to those who have not yet been baptized. Sorry for my mistake and thanks to all who have pointed this out.
Photo by Jürgen Howaldt (Own work (selbst erstelltes Foto)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons