Wide, wide open Holy Communion

Paten on chalice big 01Regular readers at this weblog are probably aware of the fact that each of my computers — at home and work — contains an email folder labeled “GetReligion guilt.” It contains religion-beat articles that I really intended to write about, but things, kept, getting, in, the, way.

Every now and then, I dig in there and pull out an article about which I feel an especially high level of guilt.

That’s the ticket. So I have been traveling quite a bit during the last week or two and, well, you may have noticed that there is this election coming up in a few hours. So I never got around to writing about the Boston Globe article that several of you sent in that ran with the headline, “Who is worthy to receive? Open Communion trend stirs hearts, a quiet controversy.”

Now, this piece by reporter Michael Paulson focuses on a behind-the-scenes controversy inside the Episcopal Church about who should and who should not be receiving Holy Communion. That should raise a red flag right there.

Why do I say that? Well, because the Episcopal Church has already been practicing what is historically known as “open Communion” for, well, so long that I don’t even know — as an issue of church history — when the practice began. If there is a reader who knows, please leave a comment with info and a solid URL for this key fact.

The term “closed Communion,” as one would guess, is the opposite of “open Communion.” So what is “closed Communion” and who practices it? As a rule, the more ancient a Church, the more likely it is to practice “closed Communion,” meaning that the Sacrament is received only by believers who are in full doctrinal fellowship with that Church, people who have, so to speak, taken and kept their vows. The Roman Catholic Church and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy keep this tradition and so, last time I checked, does the conservative Missouri Synod branch (and several other smaller branches) of the Lutheran tradition.

“Open Communion” is practiced in churches where professing Christians from other denominations are welcome at the altar, if they, in good conscience, choose to receive the Sacrament or the symbol elements or whatever the church in question practices.

So, if a Presbyterian goes to Mass at a Catholic Church, they would not be invited to receive Communion because he or she is not part of the body of the Catholic Church.

If that same Presbyterian goes to Mass at an Episcopal Church, this Presbyterian would be free to receive.

This brings us to the Globe report, which begins this way:

A quiet revolution is taking place at the altars of many churches – in the form of bread and wine.

Communion, the central ritual of most Christian worship services and long a members-only sacrament, is increasingly being opened to any willing participant, including the nonbaptized, the nonbeliever, and the non-Christian.

The change is most dramatic in the Episcopal Church, particularly in liberal dioceses like Massachusetts. The denomination’s rules are clear: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” Yet, a recent survey by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts found that nearly three-quarters of local parishes are practicing “open Communion,” inviting anyone to partake.

Why make this change? Some liberal Christians say that the goal is to be as open and welcoming as possible. Why judge people’s beliefs by denying them Communion? Some say that allowing people to explore their feelings by taking Communion is a form of evangelism.

Others say that this is heresy. Remember that fight a few months ago, when Sally Quinn of the Washington Post — who is not a Christian believer — elected to receive Communion at the Catholic Funeral Mass for the late Tim Russert? That was a collision between several different interpretations of this doctrine.

johninWhy make people feel bad by turning them away?

Among those persuaded by that rationale is Tina Roberts, a worshiper at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Westwood, who was raised as a Catholic.

“I grew up in a home where my parents were divorced, and my mom didn’t take Communion, and although I was only a child, I felt bad for her,” Roberts said.

Roberts and her husband left the Catholic Church over a variety of disagreements about issues such as the Church’s teaching on birth control, and found their way to an Episcopal church after they had children. Roberts said that the church’s open Communion “felt a little weird to me at first,” and that she struggled in particular with the absence of a first Communion ritual, ultimately choosing to read a book for children about Communion to their eldest before allowing him to participate for the first time.

But here is the problem I have with this story. It never makes it clear that what is happening in many churches is not really “open Communion,” as traditionally defined in opposition to “closed Communion.”

Instead, we are dealing with something completely new — “wide open Communion” or “postmodern open Communion” or something like that. Maybe this is not as wide open as that St. Francis Day Gaia Mass I witnessed long ago at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine (second picture), where worshippers brought their pets and I saw a faithful dog or two given Holy Communion, but still something radically new.

This was a good story that is covering an important new issue. Bravo. But the Globe needed to do a better job of defining its terms. The readers needed to know just how “open” this new practice truly is.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Fr. J

    Maybe it’s just because I’m inside of the Episcopal Church and living this controversy, but it seems to me that you’re splitting hairs. The report refers to “open communion” and “closed communion” because that’s the way that the issue is actually being discussed within the church. Personally, I’d rather we use a whole different set of terms, as the idea of “closed communion” is in itself not an accurate way of describing the doctrine of the fenced table. Still, it’s hard to fault the media for using terminology that virtually all of the participants in the controversy at hand are using themselves.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    There is a big difference between welcoming:
    1) all baptized Christians,and
    2) anyone who wishes.
    Episcopalians have offered communion to practicing Hindis, as reported here in the Los Angeles Times.

    (Note: I’m not sure if the link is working on this comment. You can also get to the LA Times article by going though my website post here, and scrolling down to

    Los Angeles (Bishop Jon Bruno) — Wrote a proclamation which was read at St. John’s Cathedral renouncing the proselytizing of Hindus and apologizing for such efforts in the past”
    and click on St. John’s Cathedral. That seems to be working.)

  • Caelius Spinator

    The term Communion Without Baptism or CWOB is generally preferred as a term of debate in the Episcopal Church. Just google it. It comes up fairly quickly. I haven’t ever heard serious suggestions of something like an Akron-Galesburg Rule, so I’m fairly sure it is CWOB, not open communion that is at issue here.

  • http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/ Kendall Harmon

    It really is very important that we use precise terminology when discussing this important issue. I strongly encourage people to describe it as “the communion of the unbaptized” becuase the phrase “open communion” takes many people to a different place.

    As for the practice, two points. I discovered its increasing widespread practice when I participated in an email listserv for Episcopalians/Anglicans in the late mid 1990′s (1996-1997ish). When the subject came up I asked an open question to the list as to how many knew that it was occurring in their diocese/geographical area. The responses were numerous, and from quite a wide variety of locales. My sense is it began in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s but really took off in the mid 1990′s.

    Second, it is NO accident–none whatsoever–that the question of the communion of the unbaptized came up as matter of debate/discussion/ possible action at the General Convention in 2003 (it ended up being referred in the end), the same Converntion which gained worldwide publicity for two other public actions.

  • Dan Crawford

    The issue the media consistently misses is the doctrinal foundation for Holy Communion. Just what is the nature of the sacrament – what does the sacrament mean – what (or who) is “communicated” and with what (or whom)? “Open Communion” can be justified if all that is being done is “remembering Jesus” by sipping grape juice and oyster crackers. But if one believers that in taking the wine and the bread, one receives the Body and Blood of Christ (transubstantially or consubstantially), then there is no way in Christian theology or tradition that “open communion” is justifiable or even makes sense. The articles, I suspect, don’t venture there since it might require some work to understand.

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  • jmc

    I believe the answer it quite possibly Richard Fabian and Donald Schell, who in 1975 started St. Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco.

    Dr. Phillip Turner, previous dean of Yale’s Berkley Episcopal Divinity School, comments that we should perhaps be more concerned about open communion for the unbaptized than we should be about sexuality & ordinations, since this strikes at the doctrine of Christ and Christ’s body – see this first things article.

  • Irenaeus

    “Quite possibly Richard Fabian and Donald Schell, who in 1975 started St. Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco”

    That would be consistent with St. Gregory’s commemoration of non-Christian saints,

    I understand that they allowed communion of the unbaptized in their college chaplaincy days, before they founded St. Gregory’s.

  • R.S.Newark

    You must know by now that many of your readers consider you to be much too easy on these writers. Especially, to my knowledge the Boston globe which has been so clearly cleverly anticatholic and secular for years. Going back to their somehow forced support for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960 and back much further to the infamous “Uncle Dudley” editorials of earlier years, filled with ‘nativist hate’. These were, perhaps you don’t know, editorials so undefendable in logic as to be signed by someone other than the editorial board of the newspaper. Yet,so to bad, that so many people in the area mistakenly look to it for direction in their lives. As some say ‘How funny is that’?

  • William Tighe

    Re: #9,

    You are correct. I attended the Episcopal Church at Yale from 1975 to 1978, and can testify that it did take place there, even though it was not (to my knowledge) discussed, debated or defended openly. They considered baptism a big deal, the result of a committment to follow “the Way,” but communion was open to all comers, even if they were regular “comers” and unbaptized.

  • http://www.bcartfarm.com Jim Janknegt

    The Episcopal church I attended in the 90′s shifted the Eucharist invitation from “all baptized Christians” to “anyone seeking Christ” which clearly meant you did not have to be baptized. Only me of the reasons I became Catholic.

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  • jmc

    The husband of a friend of mine came to Christ, and wanted to get baptized in early autumn, and was told by his Episcopal church that adult baptisms in that church occurred on Easter. This would mean months of going without Eucharist. So the poor man went to a Baptist church and explained this, and they agreed to baptize him, much to the empifflement of the Episcopalians, though he was then able to take communion with them.

    This might explain the motivation of some regarding eucharist for the unbaptized, how misguided it might be. I’m rather taken aback that a new Christian would be asked to go for months and months without the eucharist, and with a policy of having adult baptisms only once a year.

  • Dan Crawford

    As an Anglican priest, I can’t say I have ever heard of a policy setting aside one day a year for adult baptisms. My practice would be to make sure the person requesting baptism had adequate prior instruction about the faith and the sacraments – once I had some sense that the person understood what s/he was doing, I would perform the baptism and give communion the same day.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Well, the 1979 BCP says that “Holy Baptism is especially appropriate at the Easter Vigil, on the Day of Pentecost, on All Saints’ Day or the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, and on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (the First Sunday after the Epiphany).” Of course, the way the rubrics get observed these days… Still, waiting from fall until Easter is extreme.

  • BJohnD

    It was 54 weeks between my last communion in the Episcopal Church and my first as an Orthodox Christian. An arduous wait, to be sure, but I understood later that it was vitally important that I be ready first, both spiritually and catechetically.

    For a sense of perspective, remember that in St. John Chrysostom’s time converts spent 3 years as catechumens before being baptized.

    Perhaps we moderns are in too much of a hurry?

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