The issue is known as “open table.” The question: are there situations in which unbaptized persons are welcome to receive the sacrament at communion?
If another controversial reform is emerging, bishops in the most populous diocese are not sitting on their hands. Citing “a new urgency,” they have weighed in heavily on the side of tradition. But with a still, small voice, they are also opening the door to other possibilities.
In January, the five bishops of the Diocese of Toronto circulated a statement to their clergy emphatically reiterating the familiar stance: “We continue to affirm as our normative ecclesiological and sacramental pattern that the church is the community of the baptized, and that participation in the eucharist presupposes baptism and a baptismal community … The present norm of qualified admission to all the sacraments and ceremonies of the church should be maintained.”
The bishops acknowledge that the context for the “present norm” has been changed by several decades of liturgical renewal and social upheaval. “The increasing centrality of the eucharist in our Sunday pattern” has developed in a changing society where increasing numbers of unbaptized persons, when they “decide to explore the Christian option … are likely to appear on Sunday morning, expecting to do whatever people do when they “go to church.”
The result is a dilemma at the altar rail: how to “support and encourage seekers in their spiritual quest … communicate the gracious hospitality of the Lord” and still “strive to keep faith with the tradition we have received.”
Clergy communicate unbaptized persons all the time, as the bishops admit: “It is one thing to administer communion to visitors who come to the table, without challenging them; it is quite another thing to imply, by a more inclusive invitation, that we have abandoned this norm.” Explicit invitation to an open table is a deeper issue. How should it be handled?
The easiest thing would have been for the bishops to say, “let’s stop this,” says Rev. Harold Percy, incumbent of a Mississauga parish where open table is practised. The bishops did say that … and they didn’t.
Rev. John Hill, a specialist in liturgical theology and practice, is a member of the doctrine and worship committee which prepared the statement at the bishops’ request. “The text certainly expresses resistance to what seems to be a unilateral modification, by some Anglicans, of the meaning of the sacraments,” he says. “If we change so basic an element of traditional sacramental practice, we owe the rest of the church a serious account of our reasons for doing so.”
Talk is good. “We need to go back and examine this theologically,” says the dean of Toronto, Douglas Stoute.
“Jesus was making a profound theological statement that the church has had trouble with … a common table. So that is why you have such prominence on the feeding and loaves and Jesus bringing people together to break bread and to eat, regardless of where they came from. That is a strong argument.” On the other hand, he notes, “the institution of the eucharist was just for the apostles and disciples.” If the time has come to re-examine two roads diverging, he says, “I would embrace further discussion.”
In fact, the bishops encourage that discussion in the name of reaching out. “The qualifications for admission to the sacraments should be revisited from time to time, especially in the light of the rapidly changing circumstances in which the church pursues its mission.” In the meantime, they provide for exceptions: “Any standing deviation from the norm of baptism as qualification for admission to communion requires special permission from the bishop.”
“I applaud these bishops” said Canon Percy, whose parish has been granted permission. “This is the process of Anglicanism at its absolute best, with bishops who seek to guard the faith but who are also aware of the need to explore, who are showing some courage and at the same time saying, ?Let’s do this decently, and in order.'”
The core issues for Canon Percy are evangelism and discipleship.
“Given that we’re a community of people who are charged with penetrating this culture with the good news of Jesus Christ and influencing people towards Christ, how do we do that effectively? Some of the things that we’ve always done that we take for granted might in fact be barriers. For me that’s the bigger issue – not baptism, not communion. And how do we address that?”
Open table may be one of the ways. Bishop James Cruikshank of the Diocese of Cariboo directed the attention of the 1998 Toronto Synod to the issue in an address last fall, and the cathedral in San Francisco has given it a high profile, saying: “All persons who seek God and are drawn to Christ are welcome to receive the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist.”
While the Toronto bishops hold firm to established tradition, they also engage in the familiar Anglican struggle that marries catholic tradition with protesting reform. Dean Stoute summarizes the strategy: “Certainly in this diocese they’re saying, ?Yes, let’s talk,’ but in the meantime let’s hold to the traditional pattern.”
Brian Dench is a freelance writer based in Young’s Point, Ont.