Who is Communion For?

Who is communion for?

The debate over the open table

Nov 19, 2012 by Charles Hefling – Christian Century

“This is the Lord’s Table. It is not Grace Church’s table. All are welcome to receive communion.”

It is not unusual to hear or read these or similar words—with the local parish or its denomination named—at a service of worship in which the Eucharist will be celebrated. Such an announcement reflects the practice commonly called “open communion.” To say that a church has an open communion policy has generally meant that persons who are not formally members of that church are nevertheless allowed or encouraged to share in the eucharistic meal.

Open communion in that sense is not universal, of course, and never has been. Some denominations as a matter of principle allow only their own members to commune and in practice take pains to ensure that the restriction is observed. But among churches of the Reformation, open communion has long been a custom widely accepted and fairly uncontroversial. Hence the invitation.

Lately, however, what is or might be meant by open communion has shifted. The received understanding has always included a proviso, sometimes explicitly stated but often simply assumed: “All are welcome to receive” has been taken to mean “all Christians,” which in turn has been understood as including all (and only) those who have been baptized with water in the name of the Trinity. In other words, an open eucharistic service has been open irrespective of denominational status but not of baptismal status. That proviso is now under discussion in many quarters, to the point that to ask whether such-and-such a church practices open communion is apt to be ambiguous. The disputed question at present is how open the practice is or ought to be.

The logic of what has been the accepted interpretation, which does in a sense limit the openness of open communion, is not hard to see. It stands to reason that if taking part in the Eucharist is a specifically Christian privilege, and if Christians are defined, minimally if not exhaustively, by their baptism, then those who would avail themselves of the privilege can be expected at least to have met this one objective criterion. Is this expectation indeed valid? That is the question at issue in the current discussion.

Confusingly, the result has been that even when the language of open communion continues to be used, what is often being discussed is somewhat different: the propriety of a practice which those who favor it sometimes prefer to call communion without baptism—CWOB for short, or less blatantly, “open table.” The distinction could be put this way: an open communion policy might, in very rare cases, apply to the unbaptized, though probably it would not, whereas an open table policy most definitely would.

But there is more. Some open table advocates would insist on going further by reversing completely the order that open communion (in the older sense) has taken for granted. There are congregations in which baptism is no longer held to be even the normal, much less the necessary, condition of receiving communion. Things are done the other way around. Communion without baptism is not an exception but a rule, which instead of requiring communicants to be baptized requires candidates for baptism to be communicants.

In short, to use the popular phrase, “it’s complicated.”


For full article in the Christian Century click here (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-11/who-communion)