Monday, April 28, 2014

Post-Modern Open Communion

Below is my final paper from Introduction to Theology. Since I shared my ethics final, I thought I would share my theology final as well. This is another paper that I would love to continue thinking about and working on...I wrote it a year ago (and got an A+!) but still believe the same things when it comes to theology. Like my paper about abortion, researching and writing the paper really influenced my beliefs and challenged what I had previously thought. Questions/comments/concerns? Send them my way!

Sarah Bennett
May 7, 2013
Introduction to Christian Theology
Term Paper
Radical Hospitality: Open Communion in the Post-Modern World
Introduction: Context and Importance of Communion Practices
As long as there have been formally recognized sacraments, communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, etc has been considered one of the most important ones. During the Reformation, churches decreased the number of sacraments, but continued to hold onto communion. This is a testament to how important communion is, has been, and will continue to be for Christians around the world.
            Communion is a controversial topic. Aside from the differences in opinion as to Jesus’s presence, real or not, at the communion table, churches also vary on who should be allowed to participate. There are those Christians who believe that in close(d) communion – only those who subscribe to their particular theology and church doctrine can partake in communion. Open communion is the stance of many Reformed church denominations – any baptized Christian is welcomed at the table. There is a third group, newly emerged, who’s beliefs I have called post-modern open communion. This third group doesn’t limit communion to only church members or those who are baptized. Instead, communion is open to any and all who are present and feel called to the experience.
            The United Methodist Church has long believed that open communion should be practiced. Recently their theology and belief on this subject have expanded to include the non-baptized in the congregation. The Anglican Church has also recently (within the past few years) had this conversation.[1] Post-modern open communion is often housed within a church’s desire to practice radical hospitality. But just how far does the church have to go in order to practice such hospitality?
Communion is a very important church practice for me. In high school, as I was experiencing doubt about my Christian faith, I would only attend church on the first Sunday of every month so that I could have communion. My theology on communion has shifted dramatically during the course of this semester. As a cradle-Presbyterian, I have always experienced communion from the reformed position. My best friend is a cradle-Catholic, so I have attended Mass a number of times. When I was younger, I did not understand why I could not have communion at Mass, but Emily could take communion in my church. Before diving into my first year of seminary, I believed that communion should be open to everyone. During the course of the year, my theology shifted as I learned how diverse the Christian position is in regard to communion. After researching this paper, my belief has swung back towards a more open communion.
There is a concern by some that these post-modern open communion tables “water down” the link between communion and Christian baptism. I agree with those concerns, but think that communion should be open to anyone, including the unbaptized, as long as participants realize what this holy sacrament means.
Debate Among Theologians
Close Communion Practices
In order to have a discussion about open communal practices, a slight comparison has to be made to those who practice close(d) communion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that anyone who wants to take communion must confess his or her sins first.[2] This automatically limits participation in communion to those who were baptized in the Catholic Church since only baptized Catholics can go to confession. This idea of “good standing” within the eyes of the church is also shared by Baptists. O.L. Hailey, a Baptist from Little Rock, Arkansas, argues that since communion is a holy task given to Christians by Jesus, the church must make sure that only those who are worthy can receive it. This sacred meal should be limited to only church members so that the preacher knows who should and should not take communion.[3] This is true for those close communion churches – only a few are worthy of taking communion, so church membership is a requirement so that the church leadership can make sure that no one outside the church’s beliefs takes communion.
Open Communion Practices
Churches who practice open communion disagree with that fundamental statement: that only a few are worthy of taking communion. As Daniel Migliore points out in Chapter 12: Proclamation, Sacraments and Ministry of his book, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, the sacrament of communion is a tactile example of God’s love for the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Communion is meant to be an uplifting act that gives Christians hope.
Migliore broadly defines open communion as inviting all those who want to take communion to participate. This is a fairly unchallenged view among Reformed churches. Migliore clarifies that what the Reformed theology actually meant was for any baptized individuals to freely take communion at a church where he or she is not a member. Migliore argues that communion is the sacrament that partners with baptism to form Christian life. Baptism is the one-time act, but communion is a constant reminder of the commitment that an individual makes to follow the teachings of Jesus. Partaking in communion with other Christians strengthens the community.[4] In the hopeful celebration of Jesus is expressed the Christian desire for justice, equality and peace on Earth.[5] Justin Martyr who wrote that a prerequisite to taking part in the communion celebration was full acceptance of the Church, aka baptism supports Migliore in this view. Additionally, the Didache explicitly states that only those who are baptized should be allowed to partake in communion.
Those who practice open communion accept that although there might be slight differences among their theology, this should not limit Christians from celebrating communion together. Migliore even argues that an open church congregation wants to share in the communion experience with those who practice closed communion.[6] Although Christian theology differs on how Jesus is present at the communion table, open communion churches say that this does not matter since all are baptized in the Holy Spirit and acknowledge that Jesus is present in some form at the table.
The ethical implications that open communion has are extremely important. Migliore does point out that Jesus’s ministry focused around fellowship with ‘the other’ and our communion practices must do the same thing. Most Reformed Christian liturgy around communion does make the clear statement that all are welcome to the table. This fits in well with Jesus’s desire for equality. In order for a Christian to sit at the communion table, Migliore writes, everyone must be welcome there. Additionally, it is not ok for Christians to be at this holy, open table and then perpetrate forms of discrimination and inequality.[7] This holy meal is intended to be shared with all.
Post-Modern Open Communion Practices
Post-modern open communion agrees with the theology that Migliore puts forth in Faith Seeking Understanding, but takes it a step further. Post-modern open communion churches argue that we are living in a world where not all church-goers are baptized individuals. During the Reformation, it was not the case that large numbers of people who attended church were not already baptized. This is the context that we find ourselves in today. Kathryn Tanner argues for the opening of the communion table to unbaptized individuals to practice the radical hospitality taught by Jesus.[8] She is not alone in this opinion, as the United Methodist Church openly gives communion to unbaptized people. John Wesley thought that communion could be used as an evangelism tool, and that to deny someone communion might prevent that person from becoming a Christian.[9]
Kathryn Tanner argues for this post-modern open communion[10] by disputing some arguments against post-modern open communion.[11] One argument against is that The Last Supper never actually happened, and that early Christians invented it to support the practices they were already following. Tanner writes that this is not important and all that matters is understanding the practice Jesus followed of eating with everyone – not just his disciples.[12] Additionally, she argues against close communion in this way by stating that Jesus’s disciples were not worthy. These were not holy and sinless men – Judas was about to betray Jesus, Peter was going to deny Jesus 3 times, etc.[13] Just like us today, they did not deserve this gift, the disciples were not more worthy than any of us today.
Tanner challenges the baptismal requirement for participation in communion. She asks if the act of baptism is really one that educates Christians to the extent that some say that it does. Specifically, Tanner raises the question of infant baptism. How is it possible, she asks, that a child who is baptized is allowed to take communion, but an educated, unbaptized adult cannot take it?[14] She answers her own question by saying that the entire point of communion is to remind people of their baptismal vows because the baptized are not better than those who are unbaptized. If baptism really made that much of a difference, then communion would not be necessary.[15] She also points out that the idea that an unbaptized person would take communion with absolutely no idea of what it means is ridiculous. Many people take communion everyday out of habit or because they are expected to. Tanner argues that a baptized person who takes communion simply out of habit or because they are expected to, without regard for what it means, is not more deserving of communion than an unbaptized person.
Tanner argues that people today attend church for spiritual reasons, compared to those in the past that made their decision regarding church on a more political basis. Broadly speaking, people do not attend church simply to look good in the eyes of their peers. The only reason someone should fear the unbaptized or be weary of their motives for taking communion is if one is living in a Christian nation. Then, and only then, should someone’s faith be questioned for having an alternate motive.
My Theology on Communion
With a fuller understanding of the debate within the church universal regarding who is eligible to have communion, I have to move closer to my original opinion of open communion. Given the trend in church membership, communion being open to those outside the baptismal vow is perfectly ok. As Kathryn Tanner points out, church attendance used to be something that everyone did so that one wouldn’t be a social outcast. I think the argument can be made for the opposite today – in some circles, simply attending church regularly can place one on the outside. So the sheer fact that someone is devoted enough to attend church in the 21st century could be claimed as essentially the same as being baptized during a period of strong Christian rule. Aside from increasing the number of baptized church members, Tanner questions what the point of requiring baptism before communion if the person taking communion is educated and acknowledges what communion means.
Post-modern open communion, although an attractive sounding theological stance, is something I struggle to fully support. My personal attachment towards communion is too strong for me to say that I am comfortable with communion being open to everyone 100 percent of the time. I am struggling with the notion that some non-Christians will take communion, just to know what it feels like. And the idea of a devoted Jew, Buddhist or Muslim taking communion to me is a strange thing. I have to acknowledge Tanner's point that this would probably not happen. Just as an unbaptized person would not come to the table without any understanding of baptism, the argument can be made that a truly devoted person of another religion would not simply come sit at the table for no good reason. And if I agree with and support the non-baptized person's right to communion, why would that be limited to people who don't subscribe to any religious beliefs? 
Although I do not often speak in terms of evangelizing non-Christians, I do agree with John Wesley's perspective of communion being the thing that brings people to know and understand Christ's love for us. I strongly believe in being open to letting the Holy Spirit work in ways that we cannot imagine. To say that we as humans know and understand just exactly how Jesus expected us to interpret communion is preposterous and conceited. If the experience of taking communion is what turns someone's life around, that is something I fully support. When I was questioning my faith, I continued to take communion. If I had been a member of a close communion church, they would not have allowed me to continue experiencing Christ through communion and I might not be a Christian today. Truly, the only person who can judge someone's 'worthiness' is God. It is not up to the leader of a church or denomination. And since one can never truly be sure of what is in someone’s heart, regardless of baptismal status, we should follow the command given by Jesus in Matthew and allow everyone to eat and drink, for this is truly what Jesus wants.[16]
No matter what one believes regarding the openness of communion, Christians cannot take part in this meal and not strive to share a meal with the sick and the poor. The ethics of communion means that all are supposed to be fed. If your church believes that only members should eat, I think seriously theological discussion needs to happen around the idea of feeding the hungry. In my opinion, Migliore did a good job of linking communion to a Christian’s duty to act ethically and responsibly in the world.[17] It is good that he acknowledges that communion is an act of hospitality, but he only goes so far as to describe this act as welcoming strangers. Does this mean that Migliore believes non-baptized individuals should be allowed to take communion? I think not because of his discussion between the connection of baptism and communion. However Migliore makes sure to point out that the naturalness of the communion elements shows the interdependent nature of the relationship between humans and the earth. Only through caring for God’s creation is humanity given the gifts necessary for communion. This is a point that I believe all Christians should pay attention to, regardless of one’s personal theological stance on who should be allowed to participate in communion.
Concluding Thoughts
            The Christian faith should be open to the idea of change. Our practices and beliefs need to constantly be reconsidered in the light of societal changes. Though one might not think it is important, who is allowed to take communion speaks towards who The Church thinks is acceptable.
As Thomas Breidenthal points out in his article, Following Jesus Outside: Reflections on the Open Table, allowing non-baptized young adults the chance to experience communion helps these young people to realize and reflect on what they are hungry for.[18] Many people who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” do so because they see The Church as exclusionary. This is in contrast to the message of Jesus. They see this contrary position and decide to hold themselves outside the boundaries of traditional Christian faith.
If through the act of communion, people can come to understand that communion is not a symbol of inclusion, but instead a symbol of exclusion, perhaps The Church can regain some of its members who have left. Uniting oneself with Christ through communion is not the act of someone trying to be a part of a group, but actually the action of someone who says, “I don’t want to be a part of society.” Jesus did not break bread with the disciples so that nothing would change. Instead Jesus taught the radical idea of going against the norm and being on the outside of what is considered to be normal.
            This is truly the Good News! Post-modern open communion teaches the radical hospitality that Jesus intended. I know this to be the case because I am not completely comfortable with it. The Christian faith is not intended to make one comfortable one hundred percent of the time. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus tell the disciples to do what makes them comfortable. Practically speaking, The Church should consider it’s position on the matter of who to invite to the table and then think about what that says regarding their faith as a whole. Christian communities should not exist to make its members happy with the status quo. That type of thinking is how Christians have been on the wrong side of inclusion almost since the beginning. We are called to inclusion regardless of race, gender, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, career, etc. I believe this call should also govern how we open communion to others. Jesus called everyone – why should humankind limit that call?

Works Cited
Breidenthal, Thomas E. Bp. 2012. "Following Jesus outside: reflections on the open table." Anglican Theological Review 94, no. 2: 257-262. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 7, 2013).
Catholic Church, “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” (accessed May 5, 2013).
Hailey, O.L. “Why Close Communion and Not Open Communion.” (accessed May 4, 2013).
Hefling, Charles. “Who  is communion for? The debate over the open table.” The Christian Century 129, no.24: 22-27. Scanned article in Moodle. [Did not cite this source, but I read it.]
Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, Kindle Edition.
Tanner, Kathryn. 2004. "In praise of open communion: a rejoinder to James Farwell." Anglican Theological Review 86, no. 3: 473-485. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 7, 2013).
The United Methodist Church. “This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.” (accessed May 5, 2013).

[1] For an overview of the Anglican Church’s discussion of Open Communion, please refer to the following article written in 2011:
[2] Catholic Church, “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” (accessed May 5, 2013).
[3] O.L. Hailey, “Why Close Communion and Not Open Communion,” (accessed May 4, 2013).

[4] Daniel L Migliore. Faith Seeking Understanding An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, Kindle Edition, Location 5792.
[5] Ibid 5792
[6] Ibid 5780
[7] Ibid 5911
[8] Kathryn Tanner. 2004. "In praise of open communion: a rejoinder to James Farwell." Anglican Theological Review 86, no. 3: 473-485. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 7, 2013).

[9] The United Methodist Church, “This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion,”, (pages 9-17).
[10] I need to note that Kathryn Tanner does not actually refer to post-modern open communion in her article. Instead she is working from a more broadly defined definition of ‘open communion’. I think it is important for the purposes of this paper to make a clear distinction between ‘open communion’ as it is broadly defined by most Reformed traditions and specifically this idea of open communion in the post-modern world.
[11] The article she writes in response to is Farwell, James W. "Baptism, Eucharist, and the hospitality of Jesus: on the practice of "open communion." Anglican Theological Review 86, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 215-238.
[12] Tanner 476
[13] Ibid 476
[14] Ibid 477
[15] Ibid 477
[16] Matthew 26:26-27: While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sings may be forgiven.” (CEB)
[17] Migliore KL 5911
[18] Thomas E Breidenthal. Bp. 2012. "Following Jesus outside: reflections on the open table." Anglican Theological Review 94, no. 2: 257-262. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 7, 2013) pages 261-262.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment!! :)