Next month the Episcopal Church will hold its General Convention in Baltimore. Each diocese in the Church sends its bishop, four clergy, and four lay delegates to debate the issues of the day and to pass legislation. (The convention is usually held every three years. This year’s gathering was originally scheduled for 2021, but postponed because of Covid).
One of the hot issues before the Convention this year is a resolution calling for communion to be open to all people.
“What’s the big deal?” you may ask. The bulletins for all our services always has this sentence: “All people are invited to receive communion.”
Every Sunday when I make that invitation I am going against the canons (laws) of the Church. The official policy of the Episcopal Church, set out in our canons is: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in the Church.”
The debate over who may receive communion became more heated last week when a group of 22 Episcopal theologians and seminary professors (including our former bishop Neil Alexander) issued a statement against the proposed resolution.
The statement (attached below) speaks in lofty language, but it is bad theology. The key sentence that made me cringe was this:
“Holy Eucharist is not intended for ‘all people’ without exception, but it is rather for ‘God’s people.'” That is not just bad theology; it is heretical.
All people are God’s people. We learn that in the first chapter of the Bible, which tells us that God created male and female in God’s image. Each of us, baptized or not, Christian or not, carries that divine image.
Much of the sin of this world comes from one group thinking of themselves as “God’s people,” while everyone else is not. That division is the first step toward seeing the other as “less than” — less human, less sacred, less worthy.
Jesus was pretty clear about this tendency of humans to create in groups and marginalized groups. He always welcomed those who did not belong. He healed people who were not Jewish. He ate with notorious sinners, like prostitutes and tax collectors.
In an era when Jewish men were not to converse publicly with women, Jesus’ longest recorded conversation was with a woman, a hated (by Jews) Samaritan woman. In fact, she was the first person to whom Jesus revealed his true identity as the Messiah. Another Samaritan, not a Jew or a religious leader, was the hero of Jesus’ most famous parable.
In other words, when Jesus saw hungry people, he fed them. When he saw hurting people, he healed them. He didn’t ask for their credentials first to determine whether they were eligible for his services. The idea of Jesus turning someone away from the table is unthinkable.
One frequent argument for the rationing of Christ’s body and blood is that people shouldn’t take communion until they understand what it is. Here’s the truth — no one really understands the power and mystery of the Eucharist.
What happened to Sara Miles, the author of Take This Bread, is a good example. Miles was an adamant atheist. She not only did not believe in God; she had contempt for those who did.
And then one Sunday morning on a walk through her neighborhood she inexplicably felt the urge to enter the Episcopal Church she was passing. A woman stood up and announced, “Jesus invites everyone to his table.”
Miles found herself at that table, with someone putting a piece of bread in her hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing her a chalice with the words “the blood of Christ.”
“Then something outrageous and terrifying happened to me,” Miles writes. “Jesus happened to me.”
“I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced…The disconnect between what I thought was happening — I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening — the piece of bread was the ‘body’ of ‘Christ,’ a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening — God, named ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus’ was real and in my mouth — utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.”
Thank God no one asked Sara if she was baptized when she came to the table that day.
I don’t know what will happen at the convention next month, whether those who believe that all should be welcomed at Jesus’ table or those who feel the need to protect the purity of the sacrament will prevail.
But I do know that our Sunday bulletin will continue to have these words: “All are welcome to receive communion.”
All people. Without exceptions.
Here is the theologians’ statement:
A Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in The Episcopal Church
Holy Baptism is the sacramental foundation of our common life with God and one another.
Freely offered to all humanity, Baptism is the fountain from which the other sacraments flow, that which joins us to Christ and enables us to share in the divine life of the Holy and Blessed Trinity. This condition is not a natural human birthright but a gift of supernatural grace. Holy Baptism is what makes the Church the Church and therefore what enables us to participate in all other Christian sacraments or sacramental rites, such as the Eucharist.
According to The Book of Common Prayer (1979), the Eucharist is not only a holy “meal” served from a “table,” it is also a sacramental “sacrifice” offered on an “altar.” These descriptions are not opposed but complementary, and both emphases must be maintained. More specifically, according to our “Commentary on Eucharistic Sharing,” approved by General Convention and found in The Episcopal Church’s Handbook for Ecumenism, “The Holy Communion is a sacramental event in the life of God’s people. It is a special offering of thanksgiving by those who are united by a common faith, responsive to the Word proclaimed in their midst and recalling in Eucharistic Liturgy the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, their common Lord.
It is a sacrament of unity for God’s people, as it is the divine presence of the one and undivided Lord, and serves to bind into a common body those whose differences He has reconciled.” Unlike Baptism, Holy Eucharist is therefore not intended for “all people” without exception, but is rather for “God’s people” understood above as a common body united by a common faith.
To require such corporate faith as confessed in the Baptismal Covenant is not exclusive or inhospitable but simply what it means to receive Communion in this Church. Indeed, according to our “Commentary on Eucharistic Sharing,” in addition to being baptized, those who receive the Eucharist in The Episcopal Church must “examine their lives, repent of their sins, and be in love and charity with all people” and “shall approach the Holy Communion as an expression of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ whose sacrifice once upon the cross was sufficient for all humankind.”
There are thus specific moral and theological commitments both expected in and expressed by the act of reception. Finally, in liturgical terms, the Eucharist is understood to be the repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation, in which those who receive the elements publicly reaffirm their baptism, as the post-communion prayers clearly indicate.
These are the basic sacramental convictions of The Episcopal Church, and however the canons. express them they need to be acknowledged as such.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Neil Alexander (Dean Emeritus, Professor of Liturgy Emeritus, and Quintard Professor of Theology Emeritus, The School of Theology, University of the South)
Dr. Anthony D. Baker (Clinton S. Quin Professor of Systematic Theology, Seminary of the Southwest)
The Rev. Dr. Hilary Bogert-Winkler (Assistant Professor of Liturgy, The School of Theology, University of the South)
Dr. Ellen Charry (Margaret W. Harmon Emerita Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Dr. James Farwell (Professor of Theology and Liturgy, Virginia Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Dr. Jason Fout (Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Anglican Theology, Bexley Seabury)
The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta (Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology, The School of Theology, University of the South)
The Rev. Dr. A. Katherine Grieb (Director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies and Distinguished Professor of New Testament Emerita, Virginia Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Dr. Nathan Jennings (J. Milton Richardson Professor of Liturgics and Anglican Studies and Director of Community Worship, Seminary of the Southwest)
The Rev. Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski (Duncalf-Villavaso Professor of Church History and Dean of Community Life, Seminary of the Southwest)
The Rev. Dr. Benjamin King (Professor of Christian History and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, The School of Theology, University of the South)
The Rev. Canon Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller (Huron University College, former Nancy and Michael Kaehr Professor of Liturgical Leadership and Dean of Chapel at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific)
Dr. Scott MacDougall (Associate Professor of Theology, Church Divinity School of the Pacific)
The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain O.G.S. (Associate Professor of Theology, The School of Theology, University of the South)
The Very Rev. Dr. Ian Markham (Dean and President, Virginia Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Canon Dr. Kevin Moroney (H. Boone Porter Chair of Liturgics, General Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Dr. Juan M. C. Oliver, Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer and Visiting Professor, The School of Theology, University of the South)
The Rev. Dr. Matthew S. C. Olver (Assistant Professor of Liturgics and Pastoral Theology, Assistant Director of Chapel Liturgy, Nashotah House Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Sonderegger (Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology, Virginia Theological Seminary)
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Spinks (Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology, Yale University Institute of Sacred Music, Yale Divinity School, and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale)
The Rev. Dr. Shawn Strout (Associate Dean of Chapel and Assistant Professor of Worship, Virginia Theological Seminary)
The Very Rev. Dr. James Turrell (Dean, Norman and Olan Mills Professor of Divinity, and Professor of Liturgy, The School of Theology, University of the South)