Monday, December 08, 2008

Open communion (...or not)

Hey, here's a shocker: I'm still the token liberal at my school (at least in my current class). How did THAT happen??

Yes, I managed to start a huge debate by presenting my chosen topic for my final paper: why there is actually maybe some theological justification (built up over the last hundred years by advances in systematics, historical/biblical studies, ritual evolution, and liturgical theology) for open communion - that is, communing the non-baptized.

I am really not happy with my paper, nor do I have time to get it to a happy place (mommyhood is just too demanding). Done will have to be better than good. But perhaps I'll still post some bits of it. Just be kind and realize I wrote most of it in a sleep-deprived haze.

Here's what I presented that got me about martyred right there in class:

This paper began as a study of two moods of Eucharist: the solemn and the joyful. Recognizing the slippery nature of the term “mood,” I moved towards the theology undergirding each subjective response, which I understood to be revealed in the metaphors of memorial meal and/or sacrifice, for solemnity, and the eschatological heavenly banquet, for joy. As I began my research, I quickly discovered two common themes in the writing on eschatological eucharist: it had largely come back into vogue in the last century because of new trends in biblical studies and theology, and the authors nearly always came to the conclusion that the communion table should be open. The more I read, the more interested I became in just this topic (rather than its comparison with other themes – which was good since I needed to narrow my focus). Furthermore, I was intrigued by the notion of supporting open communion with a real theology, not just some vague notion of hospitality or inclusivity. I began to explore the theological culture that has led to this practice being considered and/or adopted, particularly in Episcopal churches.

Thus my thesis became centered on how certain theologies and movements in biblical and liturgical studies over the last hundred years began recovering and enriching some traditional beliefs about the Eucharist. For example, eschatology has come into its own as a field, and there has been an emphasis on the theology of hope by such scholars as Jurgen Moltmann. Modern ecumenical statements on Eucharist (e.g. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, and the ARCIC agreed statement) and new prayers that came out of the Liturgical Movement renewed the biblical emphasis on Eucharist as an eschatological meal (something that the Eastern church never lost), and recovered the metaphor of a heavenly banquet at which persons from all nations will feast with God (to quote Jesus).

Biblical scholars have paid more attention to the total life of Christ (particularly the members of the Jesus Seminar, but also those working in reaction to them) and the idea of recovering the historical Jesus has led to more emphasis on patterning the Christian life after Jesus’ own practices rather than later dogma. One way this played out was that theologians and liturgists noticed that there were many ways Jesus used meals to illustrate the kingdom of God – primarily by subverting both cultural and religious norms of his day by eating with the “wrong” people – and began questioning whether the Church’s practices really matched those of its founder. There is also biblical scholarship questioning the authenticity of the Last Supper accounts, which has caused it to fade somewhat as the focal point of Eucharist and be put into conversation with the other biblical examples of Jesus breaking bread as an act of communion with his followers. Whether or not we agree with the work of these scholars, my point is that they have influenced the Christian community into thinking about Eucharist in new ways, especially as an open meal of fellowship.

Liturgical studies has also contributed to this “perfect storm” of factors which are opening communion tables. The recognition of diversity in historical practice (e.g. “splitting”) has opened the door to the acceptability of a variety of practices here and now, rather than pretending there is, and always has been, only one way to do Eucharist. The endorsement of cultural influence on communion, based on scholarship that has uncovered the way that culture played an important role in the original meal practices of Christians, has helped to open the practice as well.

In the liturgy itself, a significant development is the renewal of the weekly practice of communion and, for my church (Episcopal), the replacement of Morning Prayer on Sundays with a service of Eucharist. This has made the Eucharist the primary element (or co-primary with Word) of the Sunday service. In churches that primarily reach out to the unbaptized (which could be most any adult in our post-Christendom country), this ritual change meant excluding many from fully half of the worship life of the community. Another ritual change is the renewed focus on the baptism of adults through new catechetical processes (based on the RCIA). This has altered the meaning of baptism somewhat, stressing its nature as a commitment by a person who is already participating in the life of the church (and, let’s be honest, has probably been taking Eucharist since that’s the main thing to do at church!). These developments in ritual have altered the meaning and purpose of Eucharist in the Sunday service for many communities of faith.

These are just a few of the examples of ways that the last hundred years have seen developments that may be leading to an evolution of eucharistic theology and practice. We must remember that the way Eucharist has been “done” over the centuries has varied widely, from the original fellowship banquets to ocular communion, from propitiatory sacrifice to memorial meal to means and enactment of grace. Changing understandings of Scripture, new evidence from archaeology and texts, cultural and political factors, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit have all played a role in the evolution of the rite. It is not possible to say it has “always” been done one way – though admittedly, the overwhelming evidence is that it has almost always been fenced to the baptized (remember, however, that the “baptized” used to be the entire population). As theologies have changed and grown, in response to and in discussion with biblical and historical scholarship and cultural factors, so practices have evolved to reflect – or push – changing liturgical norms. To propose a change in practice, arising from a change in or new nuances of theology, is by no means unheard of or unholy, particularly in a tradition, such as Anglicanism, that locates its theology squarely in its worship practice.

What I am doing here is asking whether what we’re seeing now is another shift in theology that is significant enough to change practice. Does the theology, biblical scholarship, and liturgical development of the 20th century warrant opening the table? At the least, I would suggest that it helps us understand why some communities already have done so – how the theological culture of our time promotes open communion, which needn’t be without theological grounding.

Finally, I wonder whether there particular contexts in which this would be most appropriate? I think for example of a community that wishes to welcome all to the table as Jesus did, thereby making communion their rite of initiation and opening the entire worship service to all; then promoting baptism as a rite of commitment – in accordance with the RCIA model – rather than a means of putting people in categories that can exclude them from participation. It is rather silly to send catechumens – who are serious about their commitment to Christ – out of the church during communion time, when any person off the street might stick around and partake without anyone checking her credentials!

What am I not doing? I am not addressing, at length, the question of communion replacing baptism as a sacrament of initiation (and baptism then becoming the sacrament of commitment). I am looking at how communion can play a role as an initiating device, but I will not have space to argue the role of baptism itself and how that would change with open communion (I will, however, point the reader to articles which do so). I am also not able to go very deeply into the ecclesiological issues that are raised by open communion, though I will mention some of the problems that must be dealt with. Finally, I am not writing a paper on sacramental theology, but rather noting how a paradigm shift in theological studies led to a defensible change in eucharistic practice. The next step (another paper!) is to go back from practice to the theological academy to evaluate the implications of this ritual evolution on sacramental theology, ecclesiology, and related disciplines.

The practical question raised by this study is whether the larger church body and hierarchy should recognize these developments and sanction the open communion tables already practiced by many congregations. Are we ready to put the official seal of approval on this evolution in theology and practice?

But really, whether we agree or not with the practice, what I hope to prove is that the culture was ripe for this change, that people who are doing it are coming by it somewhat honestly – we can at least see why and how it makes sense even if we react gutterally against it.

Finally, a couple of quotes from the fabulous Geoffrey Wainwright (so you can see I didn't just make all this up):

“We have pressed people to come in…and then left them without food and drink at the meal which is the sign of the great supper of the final kingdom, telling them rather that they must wait several years until by their acquired knowledge and virtues they have earned the right (we do not use quite those words, of course) to baptism, and, after a further interval, ‘confirmation’ (by whatever name), and only then will they be admitted to the Lord’s table.”

No one should be refused communion who has been moved by the celebration of the sign then in progress to seek saving fellowship with the Lord through eating the bread and drinking the wine.”

(both from Eucharist and Eschatology)

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