Since You Asked... September 2008

August 31, 2008

Q: "Why do some Episcopal Church parishes say only people who are baptized may receive Holy Communion but others say anyone may?" 
The Rev. Clayton Morris, Episcopal Church program officer for liturgical and spiritual resources, responds.

A: The Episcopal Church's canons are clear: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church" (Canon I,17.7 Constitution and Canons, page 55).

Yet, increasingly, one sees printed in service leaflets for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist invitations for everyone present to receive the sacrament. How can it be?

Those who promote an open invitation to Communion usually cite the ministry of Jesus as their rationale. Jesus, they say, was executed for his unwillingness to exclude people from the table. If Jesus exercised a ministry of radical hospitality, how can we rationalize a ministry of exclusion?

Debates on the subject are interesting. One hears a speaker defending the canons of the church, insisting that initiation precedes the reception of Communion. Of course. The position makes perfectly logical sense.

Then, a second speaker speaks eloquently of the necessity of an experience of public worship that radiates hospitality. This, too, makes perfect sense.

Perhaps the difficulty is that the discipline of debate works when the opposing speakers represent differing positions on a particular issue. The problem with the open-Communion conversation is that the discussion really can't function as debate. How does one stage a debate between a canon and a practice? One precedes the other.

Everyone one would like to believe that the church's practice is shaped by its doctrine -- or, in the case of the Episcopal Church, its body of canon law. But in fact, the rules by which the church lives are shaped by its behavior over time.

The decision of the church to ordain women to the priesthood provides an example. The canons changed after ordained women convinced the church that they could function as priests.

The law had to be broken in order that it might be reshaped to reflect the church's authentic experience.

Another example might be the evolution of liturgical text. In order for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to become the church's authorized collection of liturgical texts, Episcopalians had to set aside the 1928 text in order to explore new vocabulary and reformed liturgical structure.

If one expects to answer the open-Communion question by appealing to the rules, the clear answer is that only the baptized are to receive. But if one wonders how God is calling the church to welcome the stranger, other possibilities emerge. In time, the church will decide.

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