The welcome is upbeat, gracious, and theological: “All persons who seek God and are drawn to Christ are welcome to receive the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist.”
Open-door hospitality, says San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral – on its Worldwide Web page – is a revelation of the true nature of divine love, `promising intimacy and proximity to the mysterious God.’
This contrasts with a resolution of the world conference of Anglican bishops at Lambeth in 1968: “In order to meet special pastoral needs of God’s people, under the direction of the bishop, Christians duly baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity and qualified to receive Holy Communion in their own Churches may be welcomed at the Lord’s Table in the Anglican Communion.”
At Lambeth, Anglicanism adapted to emerging ecumenical relationships by relaxing the criteria for admission to communion. The bishops invoked a situational ethic, `special pastoral needs,’ but kept one principle: only the baptized were welcome at the altar.
Grace Cathedral sets no such condition. Is theirs also a Christ-centred response to special needs, or an erosion of the boundaries and content of authentic Christianity? Pastoral practice, scriptural authenticity and historical precedent all factor into the emerging discussion.
Rev. Harold Percy, incumbent of the growing congregation of Trinity Anglican Church in Streetsville, Ont., cites the pastoral ministry of Christ as inspiration: “I can imagine Jesus saying, `Who among you, if you have strangers in your home and it’s time for supper would say, the family is just going to eat. If the rest of you would like to remain here in the living room, we’ll be back in just a few minutes?’
“Everybody in this culture would understand how offensive and rude that is. We would say that family is so inhospitable that they need to rethink who they are and what they think they are doing.”
Rev. Richard Fabian, a leading U.S. advocate of this thinking, focuses on biblical research. “The essential sign that Jesus picked was a table where the `wrong people’ were present,” he said. “Jesus was flagrant about this. He picked out, it would seem, a symbol from Isaiah with all the nations, a banquet for everybody. The presence of the unprepared at the table is part of the symbol.”
For Rev. David McKenzie of the Diocese of New Westminster, B.C., tradition is convincing. The practice developed by leaving an empty place for Elijah at the Passover meal. The kicker was that, “despite a biblical caution that only the faithful remnant partakes, the prophet could come as a beggar, a stranger, or a sojourner. Anyone who decided to come in must be welcomed. If at the Last Supper Jesus went so far as to include the doubter and the betrayer, how more inclusive can you get?”
Mr. Percy admits to no admission test, but raises questions about how sacraments link the mission of the church to the welcoming of the ex-churched or unchurched. “We try to be fuzzy at the edges,” he said. “We are getting rid of all the barriers, but as you move towards the centre you discover there’s a solid rock of belief in Christ.”
Trinity’s comprehensive educational framework provides the context for an open-table practice which Mr. Percy plays down: “I don’t think in and of itself it counts for a whole lot, but it is part of a whole systemic ethos. What we’re trying to do here is to be a community that welcomes people wherever they are, wherever they’re coming from, and wherever they’ve been.”
Inclusivity has a learning theory, he said. “People are more likely to act themselves into new ways of believing than believe themselves into new ways of acting. So if we invite people to communion and have them receiving the bread and the wine within the body of Christ, that becomes a part of what they
do. I know it is absolutely essential in their conversion.”
The process has made the baptismal commitment even more important. “I’m scared stiff of being portrayed or having other people pick this up and use it in a sloppy way. I want to stress it’s not an argument for no standards or everything goes,” said Mr. Percy. “We are not in any way undermining or downplaying the importance of a person seriously investigating Christian faith and making an informed, intentional, committed decision to turn to Christ and follow.”
Can the locals presume to start a reformation? “The norm of the church is still that you are baptized before you receive communion,” said Bishop Ann Tottenham, of the Diocese of Toronto. “The norm is still the norm but, as in all things, there are conceivably situations where there might be good reasons for not observing the norm. I am content to give Harold the benefit of the doubt because my experience with Trinity Streetsville is that they’re very careful and very intentional about what they’re doing.”