The Burden of Open Communion: Rescuing the Eucharist from the United Methodist Church, Final Part

Before we move to specific reforms in Eucharistic practice, we must devote more words than I would like to an elephant in the room. United Methodist worship takes place in an environment of open Communion. Open Communion relieves the pastor and congregation of certain burdens, but it also brings additional burdens. A rite that is used before listeners who are barely familiar with the Christian faith, if at all, needs to be a clearer guide, more precise, and more catechetical–not less. Many denominations practice open communion, but in United Methodist practice the term is too often synonymous with indiscriminate Communion.

One may celebrate open Communion without engaging in indiscriminate Communion. Open communion encourages a response to the call to the table by all baptized disciples of Jesus Christ. It does not hinder them because they belong to a different tribe in the Christian family or because they are temporarily unaffiliated with any tribe. Conversely, we offer no help by encouraging members of certain denominations to break their church order when their discipline inhibits them from communing outside of their Church. Yet, we may still include faithful Catholic and others at the altar with folded arms across their chest as a sign they wish to receive a blessing rather than the elements. 

Open communion is discriminating in regard to sacred time and sacred space. It is not offered as a pleasant ending to a business meeting or a bingo night. The Lord’s Supper is always connected to acts of praise and thanksgiving, the proclamation of the word, confession and pardon, and a call to deeper faith and discipleship. It is not severable from the complete worship of Word and Table.

Open communion is discriminating in regard to persons. It cares about the state of one’s soul. We do not encourage participation by the irreligious, pagan, or unrepentant sinner so that visitors may feel more comfortable in our church. It is not a matter of hospitality. It simply is not our job to make people feel comfortable on the road to hell.

The meal in the Upper Room is unlike any other meal in which Christ participated. The Sacrament that went out from that room is unlike any other ritual.  This is not an open-air fish fry for whoever is in attendance among the five thousand. It is not the coffee hour or a covered dish supper.  Jesus selected disciples for this meal and gave them instructions for its preparation and continuance.  The Eucharist was instituted by Christ and delivered to the disciples as care for our souls. Christ does not invite anyone to the table. Christ calls disciples to the table.

United Methodists make too much of John Wesley’s observation that the Eucharist can be a converting ordinance. They make much more of it than he ever intended or that the term could reasonably bear. When Wesley speaks of Communion as a converting ordinance, he means for those he describes as the Almost Christians. Christians who have the form of religion, observing all its ordinances, but lacking a saving faith. Christians such as himself before the Aldersgate experience. At the table we may receive the supernatural assurance that if the whole world since Adam had managed to live without sin, that if the only harm that the world had ever known was the hurt which I brought to it, if the only offense that God had ever seen was what I brought before him; then Christ would willingly go to the cross just for me. “Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Wesley took the Gospel into open fields to whomever would hear, and he was insistent on the duty of constant Communion; but he never took the Sacrament into open fields to whomever was present. He does not hand it out like sausage samples on a street corner expecting people to be converted by the elements. Open Communion does not need to be indiscriminate Communion.

An authentic presentation of the Sacrament makes it clear that the call to the table is for disciples or those earnestly desiring to be. Anyone who comes truly seeking Christ—he would by no means turn away. Others should expect no benefit from the Sacrament. If they come to the table anyway and have respect for our faith, then they are encouraged to accept a blessing but not the elements. The rite ought to make this clear.

An authentic presentation of the Sacrament does not require that we employ bouncers to eject people from the table. Out of concern for souls we are obligated to make the purpose plain and the call clear. It is up to each person to choose how they will respond. Only if the sin is so notorious or the conduct at the table so disruptive that it risks celebrating the Sacrament in an unworthy manner should the celebrant intervene with all the gentleness and decorum the occasion allows and all the intensity and assertiveness the occasion demands. This is true not only for the Sacrament but for any act of worship. Most of us should live out our lives without witnessing such an occasion.

If we believe that our congregations routinely include people who would not benefit from the Lord’s Supper (as we have described here), then the solution should be obvious. The tone of worship and the content of discipleship classes needs to be more intensely evangelical.

Regardless of which method one chooses for the restoration of sacramental integrity, each rite will benefit from the return of some sort of exhortation at the beginning of the service. It need not be repeated every Sunday, but it is appropriate for those Sundays when you know to expect a significant number of visitors and perhaps one or two additional days. The first Sunday of each liturgical season would probably cover everything.  Most people will not like the older forms that are available. You will have to adapt them as seems right.

Furthermore, if the church is not going immediately to every Sunday Communion, then it ought to at least move to every Sunday at the altar. (See the concluding four paragraphs of part 2 in this series). People need an awareness that we are participating in the supernatural. We need to know that the transcendent God wants to break into our lives, and we deserve an expectation that lives will be transformed in a way that exceeds what we get in a twenty-minute self-help lecture. We need an appreciation that what is about to happen in this consecrated space is something you can’t get anywhere else. You must get out of bed, get dressed, and come down here to experience this.

Recognizing this environment, we can look first at how to develop a restored Eucharistic practice and then how to implement the reformation. I only mention what many are already doing and share some commentary on the advantages and disadvantages. Any reform ought not be attempted independently or in isolation, but in consultation with peers of like faith and trustworthy judgement.

The most common reform practice is to use Rite 1 or 2 but replace everything from the Invitation through the Pardon with elements from older Methodist liturgies or borrowing from other denominations. If one also is careful about inserting appropriate words for the day and proper prefaces, then this method can be helpful in reorienting the service toward the proper object of worship and the purpose of its institution. It encourages an expectancy of transformation. However, at this point you have basically rewritten the entire service and are still left with a service with awkward continuity from Word to Table. There remains a need for some sort of Exhortation at the outset of the service.

A practice born of frustration that seems to be increasing in popularity is to abandon all existing liturgy and start from scratch with the Biblical narrative. I do not endorse this practice, but I understand it, and I have seen it work. It usually consists of an impromptu introduction to the purpose and benefits of the Sacrament, a rehearsal of God’s saving acts in history culminating in the cross and resurrection, a prayer of confession, Scriptural words of assurance, a recitation from 1 Corinthians, blessing the elements, distribution, and a closing thanksgiving—all mostly impromptu. In many ways I find this a more complete reform than doing patchwork on Rites 1 or 2. The three obvious downsides: (1) The local church becomes further disconnected from the greater Church through lack of common forms of worship. (2) An inattentive omission or addition by the pastor can lead to false teaching. (3) It is almost impossible for the pastor—even using great care—to avoid imprinting their personality upon the Sacrament. Established liturgies take the pastor’s personality out of the rite.

If you have not seen such practice in your conference, it is coming your way. I live in area where the integrity of sacramental practice has completely collapsed. I have seen alleged Baptisms in the name of the creator, redeemer, and comforter. It is common to witness invented rites by more progressive clergy with neither prayer of Confession nor epiclesis and where no person of the Trinity is named. I see this even at Conference and District events and even by those in the superintendency. When you have a Big Tent episcopacy that doesn’t care what anyone teaches or believes about Jesus, atonement, or salvation then things get random. In the absence of legitimate teaching authority that guards the faith, people will try to solve the problem on their own. I do not endorse this practice, but I understand it.

The simplest solution would be to use Rite 4 which is the ancient Anglican Rite (almost), but it has three significant problems. The version in the hymnal is not a complete service of Word and Table but an uneasy addendum to some liturgy of the Word. The language is dated and awkward. The Thanksgiving after Communion is moved to a place before the distribution of the elements and tacked on to the Prayer of Humble Access creating a redundant and unwieldly prayer of excessive length even for me. I am sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Finally, a very few are returning to the form in the 1964 Book of Worship. It seems reasonable that if something is missing then you go back to the last place you saw it. It is a complete Word and Table. It only requires some adjustment to the rubrics to align with the pastor’s ecclesiology (I prefer ad orientem posture—others will need to modify those instructions).  Apart from the dated language, it has no fatal flaw.

Each pastor must choose a path. There is no denominational or Conference resource that can help. If there was, we wouldn’t be in this mess. It bears repeating: do not do this in isolation but in counsel with clergy of like faith and trustworthy judgement. Develop the liturgy and consider what things cannot be compromised and what things may be adjusted to local preference. Once you have committed to a specific goal, then introduce it to your local church. As pastor you know the best process for implementing change. Only, make sure the process is time bound. This is not something to present as, “wouldn’t this be nice,” or “do you think we could do this?” The better approach is, “Here is the problem. Here is where we are going. I expect us to get there by this date. What can we do to best make this happen?”

This is the last essay in the series. I conclude with an observation. Our faith cannot be divided into evangelical Christians or sacramental Christians, orthodox Christians or charismatic Christians, traditional Christians or contemporary Christians. The primitive religion which John Wesley expounded so well is evangelical and sacramental and orthodox and charismatic and traditional and contemporary. If it is not all these things, then it is nothing. It is mocked by its critics as simultaneously KJV bible thumping and Romish superstition. It saves souls and transforms lives. It is my desire that we experience all these things in a restored celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

 I am obviously not an accredited academic, so I hope I have not extended myself beyond my competency. I regret that I lapse into a vocabulary that is sometimes unfamiliar. My excuse is that this work is longer than I would like. If a word could replace a paragraph, I yielded to temptation and opted for the word. Perhaps this series will move someone to address the matter in a way that is both more succinct and more accessible.

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