Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of "Open Communion"

Article excerpt

The opening of the eucharistic table to the unbaptized is a practice inspired by the radical hospitality of Jesus. Too often, however, the practice of open communion is adopted casually, without the systematic theological reflection called for by something so central to ecclesial identity and mission. Among the issues the practice raises are (1) its reliance on the claim that Jesus would not have shared a ritual meal with his disciples alone, (2) its departure from the paschal ecclesiology at the heart of contemporary liturgical renewal, which links baptism and eucharist to a post-Constantinian understanding of mission, (3) its failure both to appreciate the pastoral value of longing, and to avoid a modernist commitment to the immediate gratification of individual desire, (4) its naive assumption that boundaries are necessarily inhospitable, and (5) its taking the place of genuine evangelism and public ecclesial witness. This essay, while not an exhaustive argument against open communion, addresses these critical issues.

It has become commonplace, in some circles of the Episcopal Church, to argue that communion ought to be offered to the unbaptized in public worship as an expression of the radical hospitality of Jesus. A handful of high profile parishes, in conscientious defiance of the canons of the Episcopal Church that restrict communion to the baptized,1 have undertaken the practice and inspired a number of other parishes to do the same. While the actual practice of offering communion to the uiibaptized does not appear to be widespread, its profile is high enough to have warranted a resolution before the 74th General Convention asking for the appointment of a task force to consider the serious ecumenical and theological ramifications of this growing practice.2 The topic was recently on the agenda of Anglican liturgists who meet annually with the North American Academy of Liturgy. The Episcopal Church is not alone in reconsidering the traditional restriction of communion to the baptized. Recently, scholars and pastors of the Presbyterian Church (USA) devoted a vigorous session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion to this topic, and Methodists have long discussed whether Wesley meant by his claim that the Lord's Supper is a "converting ordinance" that the table should be open to all.

On any given Sunday, should "seekers," those "passing through," unbaptized guests or family members of parishioners, the spiritually curious, or even people of other religions be invited and encouraged to receive the consecrated bread and wine of the eucharist?

Among those parishes that answer this question affirmatively by practicing "open communion,"3 the quality of theological reflection that accompanies the practice has been uneven, at best. Some parishes have adopted open communion after considerable discussion and analysis of related issues in sacramental theology, ecclesiology, and evangelism, while others have offered little justification beyond a general deference to the notion of the hospitality of Jesus. Of course, the hospitality of Jesus is of great significance: by those who articulate it carefully, the call for open communion aspires to embody the hospitality of Jesus Christ in our sacramental practices-practices themselves grounded in Christ as the primordial sacrament of God.4 Any argument that challenges us to be more open and hospitable toward the other deserves attention, both because of the human propensity to fortify our own egos and privileges by excluding others and because, by any reading of the gospels, Jesus' vision of the kingdom was one which renders problematic any hard boundaries between insiders and outsiders. However, before we rush toward the practice of open communion for all as more reflective of the ministry of Jesus, there are some questions that need further exploration. We have not settled the matter simply because, on the face of it, open communion appears more hospitable than the tradition of inviting the baptized to communion. …