Open Questions About Open Communion

A couple of years ago, my church switched from “all baptized Christians” to “all those worshipping with us” being invited to receive the sacraments, a practice that I hear is not uncommon among liberal churches. This change upset some traditionalists while making others, including my multi-religious family, feel more welcome. I’m content with the current policy, though I wouldn’t be offended if they invited non-Christians to receive a blessing at the altar rail instead.

My personal opinion about communion is similar to how I feel about premarital sex: It’s important to reserve certain intimate acts for a fully committed relationship so that those vows represent a real life change and not a mere formality. However, it’s hard to point this out to someone without shaming them in a way that is worse than the original offense. A public distinction between people (like not inviting your daughter’s live-in boyfriend to Christmas dinner) is less defensible than a private word spoken in love.

Bryan at Creedal Christian has posted a thoughtful defense of closed communion that’s got me wondering about different theories of the sacraments and what they imply for salvation. Bryan writes:

My concerns about violating Church teaching, breaking ordination vows, and making discipleship optional derive from my principal concern that this new theology moves us away from an objective understanding of Baptism to a subjective understanding. On the objective theology of Baptism, here’s what the Prayer Book succinctly says:

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298).

It’s difficult to imagine a clearer affirmation that Baptism objectively makes persons full members of the Church than this. And the implications of the “indissoluble bond” created by God in Baptism are far-reaching. No matter what I do or fail to do – no matter how far away from the fold I may drift – the “yes” that God says to me in Baptism never changes to a “no.” I can always return home, where the father will come running out to meet, embrace, kiss, and welcome me back.

That’s powerful stuff. But since its core meaning derives from Baptism and not from the Eucharist, the baptismal theology of membership and of the “indissoluble bond” are put in peril by the new theology of “inclusiveness” that shifts the locus away from Baptism to the Eucharistic table.

Among other implications, the theology of communion for the unbaptized means that Baptism as the sacramental foundation of the Church gets replaced by the individual’s desire to receive Communion as the ‘sacramental’ foundation of the Church. This signifies a virtually wholesale adoption of a ‘consumerist’ ecclesiology that turns the 1979 Prayer Book on its head. Instead of being primarily about what God does, the new theology is about what the individual human being does. It’s about what I choose and what I desire. Shifting the locus away from the “indissoluble bond” of Baptism to the individual subject’s desires, we can no longer speak (as we do when introducing the Apostles’ Creed in the burial office) of “the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism” (BCP, p. 496). The only assurance we have is what I happen to want right now.

Without pretending to understand how it “works”, I lean toward a strong theory of the sacraments as conveying God’s real presence, as opposed to a mere symbol. In our materialistic age, to say that something only happens in the mind is the first step toward letting it become unreal and irrelevant. I need a startling reminder that God can be as present to our bodies as He is to our minds. The plausibility of the Incarnation is continually refreshed when we are shown that God works this way all the time, infusing the finite with the infinite, bridging the gap between matter and spirit.

However, when we consider baptism as a similarly objective operation, making us “sealed as Christ’s own forever” no matter what we do, are we endorsing a magic-ritual theory of salvation? Is it impossible to “lose” your salvation because the water sprinkled on your forehead had objective power apart from the vagaries of your current desires? I’m more convinced by C.S. Lewis’ argument that heaven and hell are states of being (closeness or estrangement from God) arising from the daily choices that shape our character. I suspect most Episcopalians would agree, to the extent that they believe in hell at all.

Somewhat inconsistently, evangelical Protestants who believe baptism is the dividing line between heaven-bound and hell-bound also have a low-church view of the sacraments as mere symbols of fellowship. Now I am really confused.

I’m being a little unfair to Bryan, since his post wasn’t focused on soteriology, but I’d like to know what baptism “does”, in an Episcopal theology of the sacraments, beyond making the individual believer feel subjectively committed to Christ. As a practical matter, any church that’s going to re-close its communion table will have to explain this to the congregation.

14 comments on “Open Questions About Open Communion

  1. Bryan says:

    Hi Jendi. Thanks for plugging my piece over at Creedal Christian.

    If you haven’t already seen it, I’ve posted a piece entitled “What is Necessary for Salvation?” at both Creedal Christian and the Anglican Centrist. That discussion might be a good place to address your questions.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Bryan’s post on salvation (as usual, moderate and well-reasoned!) can be read here. Two questions often get conflated in the current Episcopal controversy: what is the correct interpretation of the Bible, and what issues are so serious that disagreement about them is grounds for schism. As the rhetoric heats up, this in turn gets mashed into the separate question of whether those on the wrong side are going to hell (assuming that hell-avoidance is, in fact, what “salvation” means). Bryan and his commenters are doing a good job disentangling those strands. I’m especially intrigued by Thomas Bushnell’s comment below:

    …Baptism cannot be “undone”. That doesn’t mean at all that there are no baptized people in hell. Hell is not a place where people cease to be loved by God or where they are cut off from God. God is present in hell just as much as in heaven, indeed, it is God’s very presence in hell which makes it so aweful for those who may be there: the one thing a damned person wants is to be rid of God and God’s love….

    The church has never taught that any particular person is damned. The question seems to presume that there is some dynamic where sins (or at least some sins) must be repented to be forgiven. While that’s a valuable spiritual insight, it’s odd for Anglicans who supposedly reject the Tridentine character of this assumption. It is not repentance which forgives sins.

    A Christian does not repent sins in order to be forgiven them. There are many good reasons for repentance, but this one is not one of them.

    To conceive of salvation as the forgiveness of sins could be taken in two ways. If we mean that one consequence of salvation is sinlessness, then well and good.

    But if the idea is that salvation is nothing more than the forgiveness of sins, then it’s nowhere near true. Salvation is about our transformation, and not just a legal clearing of an account. Where there is no transformation, there has been no salvation: one of the things I must be saved from is myself.

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