"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Friday, July 6, 2012

Thoughts on "Open Communion" Part II

The grace which we have by the holy Eucharist doth not begin but continue life. No man therefore receiveth this sacrament before Baptism, because no dead thing is capable of nourishment. That which groweth must of necessity first live.~Richard Hooker Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 

A second point  made in the explanatory section of resolution C040 is that "the unfolding of the Divine Liturgy" provides all the spiritual preparation an individual needs in order "to receive the spiritual body and blood of Christ".  While I would be the last one to in any way seek to decrease an appreciation for the great spiritual realities to be encountered within the liturgy, it seems obvious that this statement rationalizes an "open table" at the cost of making baptism superfluous.  If simply experiencing the liturgy provides "whatever an individual needs for examination, repentance and forgiveness" in preparation for partaking of the sacrament that unites us to Christ and one another, then does baptism still serve any meaningful purpose?  Maybe it does, but I think it would certainly be understandable for a newcomer to be confused about baptism.  If the church were to officially endorse a policy of inviting the unbaptized to the Eucharistic table, then the clear message would seem to be that baptism, although preferable, is by no means necessary.  Is that the message we want to send about one of the two great sacraments given by Christ to His church?

Lastly, the resolution argues that "boldness in offering radical hospitality is our calling."  While I agree that the church is called to radical hospitality, I do not think that this means the church should feel compelled to invite the unbaptized to partake of the Eucharist.  The church can be hospitable in many ways: by inviting all to the liturgy; by making all feel welcome not only in the context of the services of the church, but in our everyday social interactions; even by inviting the unbaptized to the Eucharistic rail to receive a blessing.  But to partake of the bread and the cup is to partake of the very Body and Blood of Christ.  Though the specific ways of seeking to theologically articulate this mystery have varied, the church has always held to the belief that in the central act of the Eucharist, the church participates in a sacrament, a mystery in which we mortals are united to God and one another through the sacrifice of Christ.  The belief that this is the reality of the Eucharist is born out by both Scripture and tradition.  There are the plain words of Our Lord in the gospels: "This is My body ... this is My blood" (Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20).  Paul expounds on the significance of these words in his First Letter to the Corinthians, proclaiming that "we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" (I Cor. 10:16-17), and warning against the real danger of receiving the bread and the cup "in an unworthy manner" (I Cor. 11:20-34).  It seems clear that this is no mere community supper.  The very early traditions of the church confirm this high view of the Eucharist as sacrament.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch (late first, early second century), in his letter to the Philadelphians, writes, "Take great care to keep one Eucharist.  For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us by his blood."  Saint Justin Martyr (second century) writes in his Apology:
"This food is called Eucharist with us, and only those are allowed to partake who believe in the truth of our teaching and have received the washing for the remission of sins and for regeneration ... We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink.  But as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him - the food by which our blood and flesh our nourished through its transformation - is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh."
Saint Irenaeus (latter second century) writes, "For as the bread, which comes from the earth, receives the invocation of God, and then it is no longer common bread but Eucharist, consists of two things, an earthly and a heavenly; so our bodies, after partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of eternal resurrection" (Against Heresies).  And the examples go on and on throughout the history of the church.

Our own Book of Common Prayer, beautifully and powerfully drawn from both the Scriptures and the ancient liturgies of the church, gives clear assent to these teachings.  The "Exhortation" (pg. 316) recalls Paul's admonitions, stating "But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament."  In our liturgy we pray that "we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him" (Rite I, Eucharistic Prayer I).  Again, "Sanctify (these gifts of bread and wine) by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him" (Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer A).  Likewise, in all our post-communion prayers we acknowledge the great significance of the grace we have just received as it relates to our present and future state.  For example, "we thank you ... for assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of your Son, and heirs of your eternal kingdom" (pg. 366).  I have gone to the effort of pointing out all the preceding points because I believe that resolution C040 is flawed in its premise.  The resolution is fundamentally based on this idea of offering "radical hospitality" to all.  Hospitality certainly is a vital aspect of our calling as a church.  But it is simply not what the Eucharist is about.

The Eucharist is, rather, the sacrament of the Church by which God's people, those who have through baptism died to the world to live to Christ, receive grace to be united to one another and to grow into unity with God in Christ.  I believe that the church should offer radical hospitality to all, but not by rejecting the historic understanding of a central practice of our catholic faith and confusing people about what we believe, which I think would be the inevitable result of passing the "open table" resolution.  I would rather see us presenting ourselves in love as servants to all humankind, while also boldly inviting all to respond to God's call to be led out of darkness and into His marvelous light.  I certainly believe this resolution has been offered out of a sincere desire to be faithful to God's call to embrace all.  But, in my opinion, this is entirely the wrong way to go about it.  It is ironic to me that the resolution mentions "our strivings within ecumenism" as a justification for what it proposes.  It seems to me that many of the decisions of the Episcopal Church in recent decades have done serious (I pray not irreparable) damage to the ecumenical gains of the last century.  I think the passage of resolution C040 would be yet another widening of the breach between ourselves and our brothers and sisters in other branches of the church.  And, though it is clearly not the intention of the proponents of the resolution, I think such a practice would eventually be viewed negatively by those serious seekers outside the church as well.  We want to be a church where people can ask questions, and feel welcome despite doubts and disagreements.  Well and good, but if we think that the way to become such a church is by refusing to articulate what we do believe and make no claims at all, then I think we will continue to see decline in the Episcopal Church.  Such a church would be like to one who wants to engage all in conversation, but ends up having nothing herself to say.

 Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel in General Convention for the renewal and mission of your Church.  Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory.  Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment