Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell

Article excerpt

This essay engages in an extended dialogue with James Farwell's Spring 2004 ATR article "Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of Open Communion,'" rebutting many of his arguments against open communion and suggesting a number of theological considerations that might lend support to the practice of inviting unbaptized persons to take communion. The logic of the relationship between baptism and eucharist is discussed in light of the reference of both to the kingdom, and tied to the various forms of Jesus' meal ministry in the gospels. The essay also speculates about what in the present context of Episcopal church life might be driving the trend toward open communion. Finally, there is a review of factors to be taken into account in deciding whether the consequences of open communion for Christian life are acceptable.

In the last issue of the ATR, James Farwell significantly raised the bar for theological reflection on open communion, the practice in some Episcopal parishes of inviting everyone to the Lords table whether they have been baptized or not.1 As so often happens in liturgical reform, congregations here and there have taken the lead to alter their worship in ways that challenge church directives (in this case the church canon that only the baptized should take communion) before any sustained attention to the theological ramifications of doing so.2 The time for such sustained theological reflection is now. As Farwell shows very well, the consequences of such changes are potentially quite major, and require careful theological assessment. It may well be, as Farwell rightly cautions, that the intention of hospitable inclusion in imitation of Jesus' own practices of table fellowship, which lies behind such changes, might be better served without them-by, as Farwell recommends, shifting the concern about hospitable inclusion instead to a renewed evangelism for baptism and a more engaged commitment to the kingdom in the ministry of the baptized. Baptism and the church's mission to the world are the usual and proper sites for inclusive hospitality; the changes recommended by advocates of open communion are therefore not necessary and might indeed prove harmful in that they bring along with them substantial and perhaps implausible alterations to the usual understanding of how baptism, eucharist, and mission are related to one another in Christian life.

We owe a debt of gratitude to James Farwell on both these counts-for the call to theological inquiry to which his own essay provides a model response, and for his typical Anglican caution about the burden of proof assumed by those who advocate change. I believe, however, that following Farwells own lines of argument there is much more to be said in favor of open communion. Indeed, many of the assumptions and arguments he brings to bear against open communion can be turned around to provide theological support for the changes.

Farwell develops his case against open communion with reference to three major topics for discussion, topics, it seems to me, that are crucially important for any assessment of open communion. First is the complex question of the relationships of baptism, eucharist, and mission to the coming kingdom, as those relationships are worked out with reference to New Testament accounts of the various forms of Jesus' meal fellowship, and in terms of what Farwell calls the "logic of participation" in the eucharist and in a community dedicated to serving God's kingdom. second is the whole question of what in church life and in the broader socio-cultural context prompts the trend towards open communion. An unfavorable judgment here brings enormous damage to the open communion cause. Third is an evaluation of the likely consequences of open communion for church life, very broadly, and for baptism and mission, more specifically. In what follows I shall take up each topic in turn, using Farwells arguments as my starting point; like all the best theological work, his essay is good to think with! …

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