Why open communion doesn’t work

Published June 1, 2011

Editor’s note: In the May issue, the Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi wrote a guest reflection entitled, The case for open communion  (p.1).  In this issue, the Rev. Canon Dr. John Hill presents another view.
Communion before baptism sounds appealing because it seems to rescue us from having to deal with deeper challenges that have been creeping up on the church for a long time. Challenges such as our retreat from the public sphere. This has left us with no way to communicate the gospel except by waiting for people to show up on Sunday. Then too, our expectations of membership have deteriorated to the point where we expect next to nothing of the baptized anyway. And what about our centuries-old practice of normalizing emergency baptism (baptism as soon after birth as possible)? It obscures the purpose of baptism as a response to the gospel, and makes adult baptism an embarrassing anomaly.Hospitality and inclusiveness are definitely Christian virtues and vital elements of good liturgy; indeed, welcoming the excluded and sharing meals with them was a central part of Jesus’ mission. But his mission also included an appeal to the excluders, to the elder brothers (as depicted in his parable of the prodigal son); he challenged them to open their hearts to God’s new reign of mercy and learn to welcome the excluded, too. When they denounced him for profaning all that was sacred, he did not turn his back on them but insisted on going up to Jerusalem to make a final appeal and face their wrath.Jesus had come to “gather into one the children of God,” and yet his impact was to divide: “This is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”  This division reached its climax at the point when all were divided against him. Jesus himself became the excluded one; even his disciples abandoned him, seeking safety (inclusion!) in the angry crowd.So the execution of Jesus is more than a revelation of God’s love and mercy; it is also a revelation of our human enslavement to fear, of our self-justifying social consensus to resist the all-inclusive love of God. The gospel announces God’s intention to deliver all humanity from its captivity to the dominion of fear.  If, however, I claim to follow Christ but refuse to recognize the responsibility I share with all humanity for his death, I am simply repeating the deluded self-righteousness that condemned him in the first place. The cross and resurrection are at the heart of the gospel, and at the heart of the sacraments. Confronted by this suffering love, I am compelled to recognize that my whole world is judged by it, that my whole way of being in the world has come to a dead end. Thereafter, the one future open to me is the new one being offered by the risen Lord. In Christian tradition, baptism is the way to accept that offer.There is, then, an unavoidable exclusivity in the celebration of the sacraments: it is the self-exclusion of those who refuse to come to terms with the cross of Christ, who choose to avoid this crisis. Our administration of the sacraments must include guiding people through the crisis, not tempting them to avoid it.The issue, however, is not whether or not we should turn away anyone who holds out hungry hands at the Lord’s table. The issue is whether or not we wish to undermine the “grammar” of our sacramental language by explicitly contradicting the relation of baptism and communion. Inviting the unbaptized to share in communion does that.  Baptism is the defining moment in one’s life, incorporation into a new sacramental identity and vocation for the sake of the world, from which there is no turning back. Sharing in communion is the sacramental living out of this priestly vocation as we re-enact the truth decisively acknowledged in our baptism. What is at stake in this “grammar” is the meaning not only of the sacraments, but of discipleship, too: baptism is turning to Christ; communion is cleaving to Christ.  Words without grammar are sound without meaning.  By undermining this sacramental “syntax,” which serves as our corporate memory, we open the door to mindless revision of meaning, to commodification and fragmentation of the sacramental order. We risk pandering to a culture of spiritual tourism.  For most of us, of course, baptism predated any conscious coming to terms with the implications of Christ’s death and rising. Nevertheless, that is what baptism signifies. Sacraments celebrate both the grace of God and our response to that grace. We live, therefore, with a tension between our response, which is at best partial and emergent, and God’s grace, which is complete and unfailing.  Even though “we have died with Christ” in baptism, St. Paul still urges us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”  The slow process through which we awaken to the meaning of the rituals we celebrate is a normal and essential aspect of our sacramental life.So baptism before communion is the norm in Christian tradition for good theological and pastoral reasons. There may be justifiable pastoral exceptions to the norm, but these must not be allowed to erode or replace the norm. Unbaptized worshippers will, on occasion, receive communion with us in ignorance. This in itself does not undermine the church’s sacramental “grammar,” nor does it spiritually endanger the unbaptized. Rather, it is the explicit invitation to the unbaptized to share in communion that undermines the meaning of the sacraments. Ω  

For more on this issue, see Letters to the Editor on p. 5. and Liturgy Canada (Michaelmas 2010) at www.liturgy.ca/newsletter.htm The Rev. Canon Dr. John W.B. Hill, diocese of Toronto, is an ecumenical theologian
and the author of two books on baptism.


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