Wide, wide open Holy Communion

Paten on chalice big 01Regular readers at this weblog are probably aware of the fact that each of my computers -- at home and work -- contains an email folder labeled "GetReligion guilt." It contains religion-beat articles that I really intended to write about, but things, kept, getting, in, the, way. Every now and then, I dig in there and pull out an article about which I feel an especially high level of guilt.

That's the ticket. So I have been traveling quite a bit during the last week or two and, well, you may have noticed that there is this election coming up in a few hours. So I never got around to writing about the Boston Globe article that several of you sent in that ran with the headline, "Who is worthy to receive? Open Communion trend stirs hearts, a quiet controversy."

Now, this piece by reporter Michael Paulson focuses on a behind-the-scenes controversy inside the Episcopal Church about who should and who should not be receiving Holy Communion. That should raise a red flag right there.

Why do I say that? Well, because the Episcopal Church has already been practicing what is historically known as "open Communion" for, well, so long that I don't even know -- as an issue of church history -- when the practice began. If there is a reader who knows, please leave a comment with info and a solid URL for this key fact.

The term "closed Communion," as one would guess, is the opposite of "open Communion." So what is "closed Communion" and who practices it? As a rule, the more ancient a Church, the more likely it is to practice "closed Communion," meaning that the Sacrament is received only by believers who are in full doctrinal fellowship with that Church, people who have, so to speak, taken and kept their vows. The Roman Catholic Church and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy keep this tradition and so, last time I checked, does the conservative Missouri Synod branch (and several other smaller branches) of the Lutheran tradition.

"Open Communion" is practiced in churches where professing Christians from other denominations are welcome at the altar, if they, in good conscience, choose to receive the Sacrament or the symbol elements or whatever the church in question practices.

So, if a Presbyterian goes to Mass at a Catholic Church, they would not be invited to receive Communion because he or she is not part of the body of the Catholic Church.

If that same Presbyterian goes to Mass at an Episcopal Church, this Presbyterian would be free to receive.

This brings us to the Globe report, which begins this way:

A quiet revolution is taking place at the altars of many churches - in the form of bread and wine.

Communion, the central ritual of most Christian worship services and long a members-only sacrament, is increasingly being opened to any willing participant, including the nonbaptized, the nonbeliever, and the non-Christian.

The change is most dramatic in the Episcopal Church, particularly in liberal dioceses like Massachusetts. The denomination's rules are clear: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." Yet, a recent survey by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts found that nearly three-quarters of local parishes are practicing "open Communion," inviting anyone to partake.

Why make this change? Some liberal Christians say that the goal is to be as open and welcoming as possible. Why judge people's beliefs by denying them Communion? Some say that allowing people to explore their feelings by taking Communion is a form of evangelism.

Others say that this is heresy. Remember that fight a few months ago, when Sally Quinn of the Washington Post -- who is not a Christian believer -- elected to receive Communion at the Catholic Funeral Mass for the late Tim Russert? That was a collision between several different interpretations of this doctrine.

johninWhy make people feel bad by turning them away?

Among those persuaded by that rationale is Tina Roberts, a worshiper at St. John's Episcopal Church in Westwood, who was raised as a Catholic.

"I grew up in a home where my parents were divorced, and my mom didn't take Communion, and although I was only a child, I felt bad for her," Roberts said.

Roberts and her husband left the Catholic Church over a variety of disagreements about issues such as the Church's teaching on birth control, and found their way to an Episcopal church after they had children. Roberts said that the church's open Communion "felt a little weird to me at first," and that she struggled in particular with the absence of a first Communion ritual, ultimately choosing to read a book for children about Communion to their eldest before allowing him to participate for the first time.

But here is the problem I have with this story. It never makes it clear that what is happening in many churches is not really "open Communion," as traditionally defined in opposition to "closed Communion."

Instead, we are dealing with something completely new -- "wide open Communion" or "postmodern open Communion" or something like that. Maybe this is not as wide open as that St. Francis Day Gaia Mass I witnessed long ago at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine (second picture), where worshippers brought their pets and I saw a faithful dog or two given Holy Communion, but still something radically new.

This was a good story that is covering an important new issue. Bravo. But the Globe needed to do a better job of defining its terms. The readers needed to know just how "open" this new practice truly is.

Please respect our Commenting Policy