OK, Elizabeth Kaeton has thrown down the gauntlet. She who a year ago was bemoaning the taking of Ash Wednesday out into the highways and on to the platforms of train stations now wants open communion to everyone. No baptismal requirement. No denominational requirement. At least that is what I read here.
Since both of us come from the rather anal approach of the Roman tradition to membership in the Church, we can both claim a catholic heritage and ecclesiology. The rules that demand membership, baptism or shriveness come not from God but from those who are pledged to guard those sacraments from profanity. They are warned by their office that they are to make sure that the faith is handed down in a particular way. It matters not what denomination or tradition. Each group wants to preserve a particular way of administering the signs of God’s presence in the life of the Church. The Church demands of its ministers: lay, bishops, priests and deacons, to administer the signs of faith in ways that further the teachings of Christ and the Church.
In the third and fourth century Church one could not even attend the Eucharistic portion of the service if one was not baptized. Only those who were shriven or confessed of their sins and were in a ‘state of grace’ could receive Holy Communion. Only those who had been immersed fully and cleansed by running water were accounted as baptized. And even in the earliest churches (Ebionites) after Jesus, circumcision was still demanded to be considered part of the faithful. (cf. Galatians) The Church demanded some commonality of religious experience as normative for membership and consequently for reception of the Sacraments.
Now we all know that who determines what is normative has control. Of course, the clergy have been those who have been ‘in control’ of who comes to the table for millennia. We are taught that we ‘safe guard’ the sacred symbols so that they do not become a mockery or ‘common’ (which is what profane means). And so we end up being ‘religious cops’ rather than those who host and include.
Early in our sacramental lives we tend to like the role of having control of the sacraments. We clergy have a noble cause to make the sacraments ‘available’ to the faithful who present themselves for our Good Housekeeping seals of approval. But if we are truthful, we are no more arbiters of what is holy or what is profane than the next guy. We find that what is holy and sacred is something far more complex and far more interior than we were taught. And if we allow ourselves to observe how such things as the communion with Christ interacts with those who receive it, all we can do is stand in awe. That foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet is so much more than we can ask or imagine that there is no way that it can be limited.
Today, I am unwilling to hold ANYONE from the sacraments unless there is a bold attempt at mockery. If someone presents themselves to receive Holy Communion, I give it to them. I do not know where that person is on their journey of faith and I am unwilling to stand in their way. I don’t care what denomination they are from, whether they are baptized or not, because I believe that God is the one that is acting in that person’s life at that moment. I have communed those who did not claim themselves as Christian but came to the Altar moved by something beyond them. Even if they did not understand it the way I would like, they will ponder it and eventually ask. There is a reason why the bread is called the Host. It is Christ who invites, not the mere cleric.
I cannot ask other denominations to do as I do. They may understand Holy Communion differently than I. And if I am in my clericals I do not present myself to receive communion in those traditions that do not recognize my faith or office. I try not to put another cleric in a difficult position. He/she is in a system which is different from mine. If I am in mufti, I might, depending on where I am in my desire to be a part of that community of Christ. At a wedding or a funeral, I generally will to be in solidarity with families and friends.
If I understand the era in which we find ourselves at present, I see a great ‘un-alignment’ with Church going on as the various denominations realign themselves. When the various churches begin to realign I think that there will a fairly clear line between those who have open communion and those who do not. I find that in the higher liturgical traditions,( Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholic and Orthodox)we will see a shifting of allegiances by how we interpret scripture and how we administer the signs of the faith. It will be there that there will have been considerable discussion the meaning of the signs of faith. There will be a gradual redefinition of what it means to administer those signs and symbols. And perhaps a whole different schema of those signs and symbols much as Trent did in the 16th century.
In the meantime, I will give communion to anyone who puts out their hands. I will baptize anyone who comes. I will marry and bury those who wish Christ’s blessing on their lives. I will follow my bishop’s guidelines because I am a priest of the diocese. But I will be more inclined to ask ‘for forgiveness’ than ‘permission’ because I want to be an invitation to the Christian life rather than a guard dog.