Open Communion?

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

For the last several years the Episcopal Church has been wrestling with the idea of opening communion to the non-baptized or keeping it closed to only Christians. This debate happens continuously but it seems to ramp up every three years around General Convention. Will the Episcopal Church finally open up the Sacrament to everyone or will they maintain the position of the Anglican Communion and wider Church and keep it only to those baptized?

I maintain the traditional belief that the Holy Eucharist should be restricted to only those who are baptized. Not baptized Roman or Orthodox or Anglican, just baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I recognize that there are those who will disagree with me so I would like to take this opportunity to explain the reasons for this belief.

First, the Holy Eucharist was begun in the context of the Passover Meal. After the meal, at the third cup, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and gave it to His Apostles. In God’s instructions to Moses for the Passover, He clearly states that only Jews are allowed to eat of the Paschal Lamb. If a non-Jew would like to celebrate Passover and eat the lamb, he must first be circumcised thus joining the Jewish Community (See Exodus 12 for the institution of the Passover, especially verses 43-49). God did not forbid Gentiles from eating the Passover because He didn’t like them, but because the Passover was a reminder of God’s salvation of the Jews in Egypt and therefore was meaningless to those who were outside the Family of God. If you wanted to celebrate Passover you were expected to become Jewish therefore making yourself part of the Family of God and inheriting the truth of salvation.

It may be argued that other people where in the Upper Room during the Passover but this argument is unsustainable as the Gospels only record the presence of the Apostles. Besides, given the tradition of the Passover being restricted to the Jews it would be highly improbable that Jesus would have broken it and had He, it may have cast a shadow on the entire Christian movement which was about to begin.

This closed Passover policy was of concern to the Jews when Gentiles began to follow Jesus. If the Eucharist is understood in context of the Passover, thus Jesus is our Paschal Lamb, then non-Jews cannot receive it, including these Gentile followers of Jesus. The conversion of Gentiles proved problematic to the Church and gave rise to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Did the Gentiles have to convert to Judaism to follow Jesus and by extension, receive the Eucharist? The Apostles conferred and Bishop James of Jerusalem gave the consensus among them that Gentiles did not have to follow the Mosaic Law, but would be required to abstain from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating meat from animals that were strangled, and from blood. What about the idea of the Gentiles being made part of the Jewish family and becoming heirs of God’s salvation? In Romans 11:17, Saint Paul speaks of Gentiles as being grafted into the Jewish family tree. This grafting is done by baptism. Once we are grafted into the Family of God then we have the right, and the obligation, to take part in the celebration of God’s salvation.

A final argument against my first point is that Jews today allow non-Jews to join them in eating the Passover meal. This is true, to a point. It must be noted that not all rabbis are in agreement with allowing Gentiles to share in the Passover and the reasons for the Jews to open the doors for the Passover is something for Jews to discuss and not me. Suffice it to say that because some Jews are allowing Gentiles to eat the Passover today is not a good reason for Christians to do the same.

Second, it has been the Sacred Tradition of the Church to keep the Eucharist closed to non-Christians. Taking upon the tradition of the Jews to keep Passover within their community, the Christians did the same with the Eucharist. In every instance we have of the Eucharist in the New Testament the presence of only Christians is either stated or assumed. If the Church were trying to change the practice of the Passover to include non-Christians it would make sense for them to make that a point. At this time we might hear someone bring up the conspiracy theory that the Scriptures have been changed and adapted over the years by the Church who wants to keep the power solely to themselves. That theory falls apart rather quickly when you look at the facts but there isn’t time to address that here.

The earlies liturgical text we have, The Didache (written around the time of Revelation), says in Book 9:5, “But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized in the Lord's Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs." Again, if the Apostles meant for the Christian community to give the Eucharist to anyone, it stands to reason that it would have been reflected in the Didache. Furthermore, in the Early Church, when the Catechumens would attend in preparation for baptism they were asked to leave the service before the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer. The mysteries of the Eucharist were so sacred that non-Christians could not even be present when the Sacrament was being prepared and given.

The tradition of the Church has been to reserve the Eucharist only for Christians and we have to ask, in lieu of the idea of opening to everyone, why should we change the Sacred Tradition of the Church in this matter? This is not about using the vernacular, or vestments, or where the Exchange of Peace should be located, this is about the most sacred mystery of our Faith. Casting aside two millennia of tradition for no other reason than false hospitality is not good enough. We’ll come back to that.

Third, what is the point of the Eucharist? The Eucharist, in the sense that Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox take it, as a Sacrament, is much more than a memorial. The Book of Common Prayer defines a Sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The Eucharist conveys God’s grace directly to us. What is that grace? The grace of sanctification and union. When we receive the Eucharist, we are becoming holy (set apart for God) and are joining in a greater union with Jesus. In the theology of a Heavenly Banquet Table, we are also sharing a divine meal with the Church Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant. The Eucharist unites us not only to God, but also to each other. With the powerful grace that is given, what is the point of allowing non-Christians to share it? This is not meant in a mean-spirited way where we say they are not good enough for God, but if they are not baptized, not grafted to God’s Family Tree, can we rightly expect them to experience the power of the Eucharist? Can we expect them to be transformed by Christ even if they do not know Him or care? Can we unite them in the Universal Family of God at the Table when they have yet to become part of God’s Family? Clearly, we cannot disregard the power of God to touch a non-Christian’s soul in this Sacrament but, as to my second point above, one or two people “feeling” something is not a good enough reason to change the Tradition of the Church.

Fourth, Saint Paul warns us in First Corinthians 11:27ff of the dangers of taking the Eucharist in an unworthy manner. Not only does Paul warn us to be careful about the state of our souls when we take the Eucharist, he even suggests that some in the community have become sick and have died because of the unworthy manner in which they receive it. From what we know of Paul, he was not being hyperbolic, he asserted that the Eucharist was so powerful that to take it unworthily is to bring judgement upon yourself. I direct you to page 316 of the Book of Common Prayer where the priest exhorts the people before Communion to think about their lives and whether they are able to receive the Eucharist worthily. It warns of the dangers of receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy manner. If we take this seriously, then not only do we need to examine our own conscious before the Eucharist, we need to consider the dangers of encouraging a non-Christian to enter into a meal he or she is unfamiliar with and might receive unworthily. If we take the power of the Eucharist seriously, why don’t we take Paul’s warning seriously?

Fifth, what about baptism? If we are willing to let non-Christians receive the Eucharist then aren’t we negating the importance of baptism? Baptism is the Sacrament that brings us into the Church, washes us of all our past sins, and makes us heirs of salvation. The Eucharist, while its own Sacrament, is a continuation of our baptismal promises and each time we eat of the Body and drink of the Blood we share in the foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom in which we will one day arrive at due to our baptism. If we allow non-Christians to receive the Eucharist and welcome them into that foretaste, and in essence, assume them to also be inheritors of salvation, then baptism becomes meaningless. It is also a false hope because Jesus clearly tells Nicodemus that you must be baptized to inherit eternal life (John 3:5). It doesn’t matter how much we want people to be saved through the Eucharist, it is the Sacrament of Baptism that brings Christ’s salvation. We have no power to change God’s mind and if we lead people to believe that they are saved through the Eucharist only, then we must accept the guilt and judgment.

We also miss a great time to discuss Baptism with someone. If a person comes to the Church and wants to receive the Eucharist but they are not baptized, that is the moment to encourage them to begin a new life of Faith. How can we willingly remove from our conversation a key time to witness and evangelize? This is not just hypothetical, in my priestly career I have had several people who have come to me asking for the Eucharist. When I find out that they are not baptized I immediately speak to them about it and encourage them to join the Church and I have had great success!

Sixth, why? Why should we allow non-Christians to receive the Eucharist? Despite what you may think of me based upon what I have written above I am open minded and willing to think critically about different ideas. So in that spirit, if we want open Communion to the non-baptized, why? For what purpose? Truth be told, as these debates continue on in the Episcopal Church I hear two reasons. The first reason is, because we want to practice radical hospitality. We do remember what the author of Hebrews says in Chapter 13, verse 2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” We must be hospitable but I don’t see offering non-Christians Communion as hospitable. If we want to be hospitable to visitors in our churches then let’s be friendly and encouraging. Let’s make sure they do not stand alone at Coffee Hour (the 8thSacrament). Let’s connect with them during the week and let them know we appreciated them joining us. Let’s have nice restrooms and clean facilities and maybe even a coffee mug to take home. Let’s be hospitable by making them feel welcome in our community, not by allowing them to take part in a religious rite in which they may have no understanding. The Orthodox Church, while not allowing even other Christians to receive the Eucharist, has a basket of bread that the priest blesses which everyone is allowed to partake. It is a beautiful gesture of a hope of eventual communion.

The second reason is, Jesus loves all of us. Well…yeah, but that isn’t a good enough reason to open Communion to the non-baptized. The Eucharist isn’t the only Sacrament which we deny people if they are not baptized. You can’t be confirmed, ordained, or married in the Episcopal Church if you’re not baptized (in the case of marriage, one of the couple must be baptized). Do we allow non-Christians to be ordained because Jesus loves all of us? Of course not! The statement that Jesus loves all of us is without a doubt truer than gravity, but that does not give us carte blanche to change the Tradition of the Church whenever it suits us.

One of the greatest problems the Episcopal Church has is that we are willing to change established Church doctrine without trying to justify it biblically or theologically. We put the cart before the horse and then pay for it later on because when the wider Church asks us why we did something we have no real defense.

Welp, these are my reasons for holding that the Eucharist should only be given to those who are baptized. If you disagree with me, that’s fine, you’re not alone. If you disagree with me and would like to talk it over, that’s even better. I always like to talk.

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