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Diocese of Newark releases task force report on “Open Table”

Diocese of Newark releases task force report on “Open Table”

The Diocese of Newark has released a report on Open Table and The Episcopal Church.

In early 2013, The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, commissioned a Diocesan Task Force to discuss and discern “the many theological, liturgical and pastoral issues regarding the receiving of the Eucharist, ”specifically with regard to the Open Table.

The report is the culmination of research, asking others for feedback, and a year’s worth of discussions that were all held within the sharing of a meal at an actual dinner table. After a Preface and Introduction, it is organized in this way:

I. BAPTISM VS. EUCHARIST TODAY AND IN THE PAST

II. SACRAMENTAL VALUES AND ALTERNATIVE JOURNEYS TO CHRIST

III. PERCEPTIONS OF OPEN TABLE

Following a brief conclusion, we include three appendices:

A. Stories of Eucharistic Inclusion and Exclusion

B. Sample Open Table Invitations

C. Open Table Resources.

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elleceleste

There are a couple leaps made in the document that bear scrutiny. One in particular is that while we allow untrained infants to receive (provided they are baptized) it is illogical that we require training before adults are allowed.

In fact we do not require "training," but we require baptism. Now you will say I am mincing words, but please allow a brief explanation of how training is significantly different than preparation. First, a biblical story that came to mind.

The Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8 was baptized without delay, but not before he heard the "good news" about a lamb led to slaughter who did not get justice. In this passage the Eunuch asks for an explanation and gets one, but the crucial aspect of this story, I think, is not his level of understanding, but the content of the conversation. The words of the text tell us that he is puzzling over death and injustice. While we might make historical arguments about the marginalization of eunuchs, this is not what the passage speaks of explicitly. Even if the context of cultural divisions may stand, the good news is about death and injustice, not inclusion for its own sake.

What a good catechetical program does for the potential baptisand is more like going over the fine print before asking someone to sign a contract. We are not so much vetting the person to be baptized, as we are engaging in a process of full disclosure. It is the church that is under scrutiny as the seeker learns about the history, theology and disciplines. We do not investigate the moral fitness of the catechumen. We do not do a background check. Members of the church must spend enough time with the person to ensure that the catechumen knows what he or she is getting into and must testify publicly that they have done their due diligence in disclosing to the potential new member of the body the real nature of the commitments they have expressed a desire to undertake. The question really is, "after undergoing a period of preparation, do they still really want to join us?" rather than, "Have we deemed them worthy of joining?"

The framing of the issue as one in which the church is either setting up boundaries or throwing wide the welcome is understandable but ultimately shallow. It likewise renders both the baptismal rite and the Eucharist shallow.

In a culture of easy intimacy it is much more radical to assert that we are committed to a process of allowing others to get to know us before enacting a ritual that symbolizes unity that is deep, physical, emotional and intended for the long haul.

The APLM Listserv was privileged recently to read an essay written for a Sociology class by an undergraduate. She visited a Roman Catholic church, an Episcopal Church and an Evangelical Mega Church. She felt intense pressure to participate in the altar and to partake in communion at the mega church. She reflected:

"My experience of Communion at Calvary Chapel was particularly unpleasant due to the unavoidable and crushing guilt simultaneously associated with participating and not participating. I have never experienced such intense peer pressure in a religious setting as I did in that service and likewise upon many visits to Calvary. The necessity for a personal encounter with God embodied in the altar call provides a way for an attendee of a church that is so huge to feel directly involved and initiated. As a result, my lack of claim to personal experience of God succeeded in alienating me in an audience of hundreds. Still the understanding of Communion is that "we become, in effect, one by the meal that we share together" according to Pastor Hietzig at a baptism ceremony the transcript of which is available on the Calvary website. This is an exclusive community, though, as only those who have claim to personal commitment and experience of God are allowed to be involved."

This brings up something that I think many have not considered: the relief that many visitors feel that comes with understanding that while they are welcome, they are *not* expected to participate in the Eucharist. This young lady said she felt *most* welcome at the Episcopal Church she attended. She was welcomed as a visitor, and observer, without pressure to participate fully on her first visit.

While much of the "Open Table" discussion has centered on stories of those who felt an intense connection and desired to commune with God and the rest of the people, I think it has neglected to look at the very real and negative consequences that an "Open Table" policy may have on those who, naturally and appropriately, will enter more cautiously and slowly.

We can follow Jesus' example and embody welcome by eating regular food with visitors at the coffee hour, at the potluck following the service or at a restaurant if we are courageous enough to invite a visitor to dine with us in one or more of these settings. Inviting someone to come have lunch after church, even though they have *not* professed a desire for intimacy with God by making the long walk to the altar, may be a much more radical welcome than giving food to someone whose name we don't yet know, food that embodies a commitment to becoming one with a body that was dead and buried before being resurrected.

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Shawn Strout

I am honestly not sure where to begin when it comes to this report. I am simply amazed at its bias and undocumented assertions. As others have already commented, I also felt that a “bait and switch” occurred with the opening reflections. Some of them spoke of communion without baptism and others spoke of closed communion. The two issues are entirely different issues. Confusing them does not help us to have a productive dialogue. I don’t believe anyone in the Episcopal Church is suggesting that we return to the days in which only Episcopalians could receive communion. However, many of us do have grave concerns about how communion without baptism will affect our sacramental theology. This report only exacerbates those concerns.

With Ruth Meyers, I was equally confused by the idea of “baptism vs. Eucharist.” I believe this title articulates far more clearly than I ever could what my concerns are about this issue. Somehow baptism is becoming the “bad guy” in this issue. Baptism is being set up as an exclusionary practice that is keeping people from Christ. That is extremely disturbing! Particularly when we consider that the reformers of our Prayer Book worked so hard to make baptism CENTRAL to our ecclesiology.

The report then states, “Many people ‘church shop’ and go where they feel most welcome. We want to make unbaptized people welcome; their exclusion from the Eucharist does not do so.” Again, this assertion characterizes one of the great concerns that I have about communion without baptism. What does it mean for someone to receive Holy Communion? Does it simply mean that they are giving Jesus a try? Is Holy Communion supposed to be like those little tasting stations they set up in grocery stores to entice us to buy a product? Are we trying to entice people to become Christians by giving them Holy Communion? I would hope not. And yet, this report would seem to indicate that is our goal. If we believe the words that we say in our Prayer Book, then we believe receiving Communion means that we are “. . . graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ [BCP p. 365]” and we promise “. . . to do the work you [God the Father] have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord [p. 366].” Does someone who has come to “church shop” realize that they are making that kind of a commitment to Christ when they receive Holy Communion? Do they realize that they have just accepted him as their Lord and Savior and are promising to be faithful witnesses to him? Or are we giving them the impression that they just “sampled” Jesus in this one experience?

The report then goes on to suggest that Baptism and the Eucharist “vie with each other” because people see the Eucharist being celebrated every Sunday but do not see Baptisms every Sunday. Thus, the conclusion this report suggests is to change the Ordo of the Church to accommodate fewer baptisms. Might I suggest that increasing our baptisms could be a better solution to this supposed discrepancy? While the BCP does encourage us to baptize on certain feast days, it does not prescribe it. What a joy it would be if we had baptisms nearly every week!

Then, the report openly states probably the biggest concern of all, “but Baptism and Confirmation have come to be viewed by many parishioners as more or less optional.” Setting aside the fact that they do not provide any documentation for how they have gained this information, the very statement is extremely troubling! Baptism ought not to be considered “optional.” Our Lord commanded us to “teach and baptize all nations.” That wasn’t an option, just as it wasn’t an option for us to “do this in remembrance of me.”

On the ecumenical level, the report’s assertion that the United Methodists have been practicing “Open Table” since John Wesley is historically inaccurate. First, the United Methodist Church as a united denomination is only 46 years old. Second, prominent Methodist liturgical scholars (e.g. Karen Westerfield-Tucker, president of Liturgicas Societas) have written that this assertion is historical inaccurate as it takes Wesley’s statement about communion being a “converting ordinance” out of historical context.

The report’s use of Scripture is also troubling. It quotes I Corinthians 11:17-34 without considering the chapter right before it in which St. Paul likens Baptism and the Eucharist to the children of Israel going through the Red Sea and then eating manna in the wilderness. Clearly, St. Paul recognized a primitive Ordo already in place in the mid 50’s C.E. He was clearly speaking to baptized Christians about their abuses of the Lord’s Supper. This scriptural proof-texting is disturbing.

This report is extremely inconsistent in its presentation. I wonder if entirely different people wrote each section without seriously consulting each other as the “voice” of the report changes from section to section. Its historical reporting is inaccurate. It quotes both Scripture and the BCP out of context. It speaks of confusion in the Church about this issue and yet it perpetuates this confusion. We so desperately need clarity on this important issue, and unfortunately this report obscures more than it clarifies.

In Christ,

Shawn Strout

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Paul Woodrum

This report is less a conversation than a monolog that confuses change with progress. Phrases such as "set us up for Baptism," and a question mark after the phrase "strong arguments?" when applied to present practice and canonical requirements indicate its intent.

The death knell of the Episcopal Church may well be its desperate pursuit of members by lowering standards, a fine example of which is the mushy theology of this report.

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Ruth Meyers

I'm glad to see sustained conversations about this. We need lots more of these conversations in the church. I'm startled, and a bit troubled, to read that baptism and eucharist "vie" with each other for significance. I thought they are complementary and wonder why it seems that they compete witheach other.

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Evan D. Garner

I appreciate the task force's work--especially the first section about the changing relationship between Baptism and Eucharist. Uncommon in previous generations, the existence of unbaptized Christians is a real phenomenon. Adults whose parents left the church while they were unbaptized young children have returned to the church as adults and have not heard the gentle, inclusive call to be baptized (our fault, not theirs). But giving Communion to someone who professes Jesus Christ as Lord without having been baptized is very different from admitting non-Christians (even "seekers") to the Lord's table. The body and blood are about transformation. The Lord's invitation is not "come and eat and consider whether you might want to ask for forgiveness." To sit at his table _is_ to be transformed and to embrace that transformation. That's a fact that culture can't undo.

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