"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

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Thoughts on "Open Communion" Part I

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~ Collect for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

It seems to me that it would make sense to begin this blog with some foundational reflections (e.g. Who/What is God?  Why do I believe in God?) and gradually work my way into more specific reflections and questions.  However, that would require a fair deal of planning and structure on my part, so ... I don't think that's going to happen.  Instead, since General Convention 2012 is nearly upon us, I'd like to offer some thoughts on the resolution proposing the Episcopal Church adopt what is being called (rather confusingly) "open communion".  (Note: this is going to be one of those preachy sounding posts, but please understand that I am not saying 'I've got it all figured out and this is the answer'.  What I am saying is 'This is how I see it', and I would very much like to know how others view the issue). Resolution C040 calls for an "Open Table", that is, the deletion of Canon 1.17.7 "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church", thereby enabling congregations "to invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar rail for Holy Communion."

There is, of course, that other, soon-to-be much talked about resolution A049 to authorize the trial use of  liturgies for same-gender blessings.  I'd rather focus on C040, for several reasons.  For one, I think the approval of same-gender blessings is almost a foregone conclusion at this point.  Secondly, I'm still not entirely sure what my position is on same-gender blessings, which is not really the case regarding open communion. Finally, and most significantly, I think this issue of communion without baptism is of very great importance for the future of the church, even more so than the issue of same-gender blessings.  The latter is primarily about us and our experience of being human.  The former is much more directly about Christ, and our experience of the Divine.

In the explanation section, the resolution offers the reasoning that "such an open invitation for all to fully participate in the Eucharist is in keeping with our catechism's teaching of grace: 'Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.'" The resolution continues, "that appropriate preparation and readiness to receive the spiritual body and blood of Christ is experienced within the unfolding of the Divine Liturgy, providing whatever an individual needs for examination, repentance and forgiveness amid the call to be in love and charity with all people" (again referencing the catechism). Finally, the explanation sums all up by stating, "We know from our strivings within ecumenism and mission that the communion Christ intended for all is perilous and difficult, and that boldness in offering radical hospitality is our calling rather than canonically driven caution." I would like to address each of these points.

First, regarding the idea of grace as presented in our catechism. I'm glad the catechism is brought up here, though I think it a bit ironic, since it seems to me that this whole issue could be not unjustifiably viewed as a case of dismissing basic doctrine and catechesis in favor of wanting to just be nice and not leave anybody out. God's grace toward us is indeed unearned and undeserved. And that grace is offered freely in baptism, the first great sacrament of the church, upon which all other sacraments of the church are predicated. The catechism states that "Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God." It continues, "The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit." Now, what does the catechism say about the Holy Eucharist? "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." Continuing, "The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith" and "The benefits we receive are 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" (emphases all mine).

Apart from the clear tradition of the church (I'll return to this point later), a simple reading of our catechism makes plain that there is a clear and reasonable order in the administration of these two central sacraments.  In baptism, we die and are resurrected with Christ, are made one with Christ, and adopted by the Father into the family of God.  Many today, including many within the church, speak of all humans as the children of God.  This sounds nice (and certainly God longs for all to recognize and embrace their origin in Him, and so on one level I don't think it is entirely inaccurate to speak this way), but it is not sound Christian theology.  The whole of Scripture and of the church's tradition proclaims that we have become estranged from God through sin, and that it is only through the redemption won by Christ that we are reconciled to God.  Paul writes to the Galations that "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal. 3:26-27) and "when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son ... in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:4-5).  Our baptism into Christ ushers us into the household of God, reconciling us to God, and marking us as "inheritors of the kingdom," the people of God.  That the Eucharist is the sacramental food for the people of God is clearly demonstrated in the words of the catechism: it is "the Church's sacrifice" by which we are united to Christ's sacrifice, reaffirming that which we embraced as truth in our baptismal covenant; through the Eucharist we receive "the strengthening of our union with Christ."  How can one who has not acknowledged and rejected the corruption of the world and turned to Christ in faith through baptism receive bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ?  How can the sacrament impart grace to strengthen one's union with Christ when there has not yet been any such union?

(Whew! This has turned into a bit more than I had anticipated, though I had a sneaking suspicion this would happen.  I'm going to call it quits for right now.  Don't fret; I'll be back soon with the much anticipated second half of this post!  Peace.)       

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