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Who’s invited to the communion discussion?

Who’s invited to the communion discussion?

by Andee Zetterbaum

Just in time for Pentecost, the new banner went up. Made by an extraordinarily talented fabric artist, it showed a streak of light swooping down to Earth: the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Or so we all thought.

It took a 10-year-old boy to correct us. “Isn’t it great,” he said, “that our God is powerful enough to swat away that comet that’s about to destroy the Earth?”

It’s been nearly 20 years since this incident, but I’ve been thinking about it – a lot – as I read the various postings about the pros and cons of welcoming the baptized and unbaptized alike to the communion table.

You see, I think we’re discussing this with the wrong people.

In the times and places (even now) where Christian worship had to be held secretly, for safety … in the times when newcomers weren’t even allowed to witness the sacred mystery until they were baptized … in the thousands and thousands of villages over the ages where the population was so homogeneous that non-Christians in church were almost as unlikely as unicorns … in all those times and places, the Church had the luxury of being able to define the theology of baptism and communion. The Church – those inside the faith – could decide what baptism and communion are supposed to mean, confident that they would have the opportunity to instruct all into these meanings – before they ever witnessed the sacraments.

We no longer have that luxury.

We lost the ability to define the theology of communion the moment churches started publicly inviting people to come in. The Church didn’t plan to lose the right to be the one to define this, but we did – by the very presence of our public buildings, our signs, ads, blogs, and campaigns urging members to bring a friend.

The overwhelming majority of our unbaptized church visitors will never cross the threshhold of this particular church ever again. They are the relatives and friends of the bride and groom, the mourners at a funeral, occasionally the friends and relatives of one who is about to be baptized. A few are the unchurched or anti-church or other-faithed relatives of our members, who may come a couple of times a year, at best.

You won’t find most of them joining your next inquirers’ class, or spending weeks learning about the Scripture, tradition and reason that led us to require (or not require) baptism as a prerequisite to communion. They won’t care what General Convention decides the canons should be. They won’t tell you how glad they were that they waited to receive communion until after baptism and how deeply meaningful that was to them; nor will they relate the story about how taking communion, even though unbaptized, gave them the joy and strength to embark on the voyage that led to their eventual baptism.

Instead, for them, the theology of communion will be decided, on the spot, by the gut-level reaction of each visitor who witnesses it. Their desire to know God-in-Christ in community may be stirred up – or utterly destroyed – by that moment.

And that takes this discussion to a whole different level. The question we need to be asking isn’t what SHOULD the theology of baptism and communion be, it’s what is the PERCEIVED theology by the outsider who is present at our worship. And the people who need to be involved in that discussion are:

The 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepover

The grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents

The 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won’t allow him to be baptized until he turns 18

The teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend

The anti-church spouse

The Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson’s baptism

The Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas

The ‘spiritual but not religious’ 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace

The homeless person who wanders in off the street

Those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals

What do our communion practices say to them about the nature of the God we worship? What does God say to them, through the way we share communion?

Does God say the same thing through the way we celebrate communion to the unbaptized who are present at a Eucharist in memory of those who died of AIDS, or violence, or the latest war or natural disaster? If the Eucharist is held in a federal prison, or nursing home, under the bridge at the homeless encampment, or among the migrant workers during the annual blessing of the fields and forthcoming harvest?

Because, you see, I think God has cherished and adored all these persons since before they were born. Has been in relationship with them, all along. And is longing to be closer to them, speaking to them through our worship, even if they only once step through our doors.

And before we make a decision about whether God wants us to change the relationship between baptism and communion, I think it’s time for us to listen in – and honor – and then with deep awe, join in that conversation.

Andee Zetterbaum is a member of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Lodi, CA, Diocese of San Joaquin, Founder of World In Prayer, a few years ago she taught an online course through CALL on “Meeting the God We Worship”– how exploring perceived theology among members and visitors can help ease worship wars.


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Troy Haliwell

I appreciate the conservative point of view you offer, so let us look at the Scripture passage and note that:

1. It is a Passover seder that is being prepared. Passover is the celebration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. It is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays.

2. Every Jew I know (which are 7 including one Conservative Rabbi) tells me that Passover seders are an open celebration–anyone of any faith is welcome to it–there are no exclusions on the basis of belief. As the Rabbi put it “Why would we exclude anyone who wants to celebrate our freedom?”

3. In no case did Jesus bar the door; he just ordered the Holy 12 to prepare the seder and secured the accommodations to host it and gave instructions to them to follow the man. No one interrupted the seder, so we have no way of knowing if Christ would have welcomed them in, or rejected them.

4. In no case do we see in Scripture any command for us to even have Communion–Christ never said that this event is required of us as religious practice.

Given that we have a religious practice that we instituted based on a non-exlusionary public holiday, it would stand to reason we have the right to make the rules our Church should follow–and let’s be honest here–religion is something we “make up” and is filled with prejudices and opinions. Why should mine-or yours-be excluded from viable options? What makes your closed table any more valid than my open one?

Given how we have stated over and over and over that the Episcopal Church Welcomes You, it would stand to reason you are welcome to the entire service-not just one part of it.

Given we have no evidence that Christ would have excluded others from attending the Passover Seder (and ample evidence that culturally the Passover Seder is an open and welcoming religious celebration) it stands to reason that we should open our Communion table as well.

How many times have you come away from God’s Table filled with the Holy Spirit? Who is to say that a non-believer won’t come through the doors, get moved by the homily, the “theater” that happens, and then is also filled with the Holy Spirit at the rail and is now ready to join with us? Would you exclude such a powerful experience from happening?

You are welcome to close the table in your parish; my parish has decided to open ours.

C. Wingate

Troy, not to put too fine a point on it but your statement comes under the ancient heading of “just making it up.” If you read the passages in Mark and Luke, there is the whole “follow the man with the pitcher” thing which suggests a very private function indeed. Perhaps the notion is debatable, but simply saying, “well, I think Jesus would have done this” is just your prejudices and opinions talking. There has to be a better basis for doing theology.

Troy Haliwell

It is my belief that if people showed up to the Last Supper off the street, Jesus would have made room on the table for them and would have served them.

So the communion service should be open to any guest who wants it, because Christ would never turn away anyone who wanted to partake of it.

We can certainly still practice our Episcopal/Anglican way of blessing, serving at the rail, and prayer afterward while our guests can also follow at least the rail practice and accept our offering to them. You never know what the Holy Spirit will infuse the guest with. . .

Bill Carroll

I think what we’re actually saying is that we can offer what is allegedly good about “open table” while upholding the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. At least that’s what I’m saying. And furthermore what’s lost with open table is far more than conformity with an arbitrary norm. It’s the basic sense of sacramentality and of the non-negotiable gift and mystery of Church as such. We are left with an undifferentiated mess rather than a well defined community translucent to Holy Mystery.

Miranda Hassett

These waters are a little too warm for comfortable conversation, but I need to say one thing. I see several folks suggesting that some churches or clergy are using an open invitation as a replacement for hospitality before, during, and after the service. I wish I didn’t believe that, but I do. However, let’s not paint everyone with the same brush. I know for a fact that there are also parishes that practice open Communion in addition to deliberate and effective hospitality and integration ministries. So: I agree 100% that nobody should be using “what do you mean you didn’t feel welcome, everyone can take Communion” as an excuse for lousy hospitality. But neither should “y’all are just replacing real hospitality with sloppy liturgical theology” be the mainstay of anyone’s argument.

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