I am not an atheist, but as the debate in my own denomination begins to heat up around the issue of “open communion”, I have wondered what an atheist or agnostic would make of it. Here is how I imagine that someone with some knowledge about the debate, but without connection or affection for the church’s message might respond.
Dear Mainline Protestants:
I can’t help but notice you are debating what you call “open communion”.
I’ve watched you make adjustments to your theology and practice over the last seventy years in the name of inclusion. For a while, your efforts were meant to include Christians in the life of the church who were excluded on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Good for you. At least you were getting clear about what it means to say God loves everyone. Excluding people, who are members of your own faith on the basis of something other than their faith, reflected badly on your message.
But now you seem to have turned your attention to those of us who don’t believe at all. You seem to assume that if you offer communion to those of us who don’t believe, that: (1) We will get the message that “God is love”. (2) We will feel accepted – or, at a minimum, we will get the message that you are accepting – and (3) that we will start coming to church.
Please leave us out of your debate and stop hoping that this will improve church attendance.
First, you must know that because I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to church, and I don’t believe in your rituals. So, it really matters very little what you require or don’t require, in order to participate.
Second, I am not going to prostitute myself by participating. I’m not sure you are paying attention to the language of what you call “the Eucharist”, but it is pretty clear that you are “giving thanks” for life-changing, world-saving work that God has done “in Christ”, as you put it. I place far too great a priority on my integrity to say this kind of thing, never mind say it in public. And I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I believe what you claim by receiving your sacrament in public. You may call it welcoming. I find it exploitative.
Third, even if I did believe in God, the proposition that “God is love” is hardly a complex notion. And it hardly justifies a ritual that does nothing, enacts nothing, and is just an overly elaborated way of saying it, never mind saying it — over and over again. Your Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Orthodox brothers and sisters seem to believe that baptism and communion enact and deepen a genuine transformation. Bully for them. That, I suppose, explains why they do it all the time. I don’t buy it. But you aren’t telling me anything that I didn’t already learn from John Lennon: “All you need is love.”
Put another way, I can see what you are doing. For the better part of two thousand years your church connected baptism and communion. The first ritual was the beginning of what you pretentiously describe at “the spiritual journey” and the second was all about continuing that journey and feeding on the body and blood of your Savior. Your Bible makes that connection. The early literature of your church insists on that connection. For most of its history, your church has believed it.
But over the last fifty years you have been throwing it all away and repackaging your institution to get us into your church pews. That tells me it isn’t all that important to you. It’s not going to make it important to me, and – frankly – I am not so insecure that I need someone to tell me, “I belong.”
Your Neighborhood Atheist