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COLUMBUS, OH: The Open Table

COLUMBUS, OH: The Open Table

News Analysis

By Peter Toon

On Monday morning at the 75th General Convention, the Committee on Liturgy and the Prayer Book heard witnesses speaking about the latest major innovation in the Episcopal Church but not yet an official doctrine of this Church. To appreciate what they said we need some background information.

In some cathedrals and churches within the Episcopal Church, this invitation is made: "Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome at the table of the Lord." In others these words: "Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself in the journey of faith, come and receive the body and blood of Jesus."

This open invitation to all and sundry to share in "holy communion" is, in terms of the Episcopal rule book [Canon Law], a deliberate breaking of the rules. These require that to receive the Sacrament a person be baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Those who use the open invitation in the Eucharist believe that God's sacramental gifts of the body and blood of Jesus are for the whole world and not merely for church members. They are a means of evangelism calling outsiders into "the community of faith" by gracious hospitality offered by the community. Just as Jesus took food with all kinds of "outsiders" so his church offers spiritual food for all - be they insiders or outsiders.

There is, of course, opposition to this very major change in the doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Way. Members of the Diocese of San Diego voiced this before the Committee.

To appreciate the reason for this opposition, we need to take a brief look at the relation of Baptism to Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church since the 1970s.

Before the 1970s the route to Holy Communion was usually: baptism as infant; instruction in the Faith as a young person; Confirmation by the Bishop, followed by first Communion. (This is still the usual route in most of the Anglican Communion.)

The 1979 Prayer Book changed this route by its declaration that, "Initiation is complete in Baptism." So infants were given Holy Communion and Confirmation ceased to be the "sacrament" that completed the dominical Sacrament of Baptism. Instead it became an optional service for entry into church membership. Canon Law was also changed to state that to be admitted to Holy Communion a person should be baptized.

The official position of the Episcopal Church is still that set forth in the 1979 Prayer Book and current Canon Law. And it is this position which the folks from San Diego wish to keep in place.

It is important to realize that, in the past, innovations were adopted by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (e.g., the ordination of women) after they had been already known in parts of the Church through direct action, a kind of "civil disobedience." It appears that more and more churches are adopting the open hospitality policy and thus a change in the rule-book will follow (in 2009?) the direction of change already in place.

It is also important to note that the Church has over the centuries regarded admittance to the Sacrament of the Holy Communion as limited by God's rules. In 1 Corinthians 10-11 the apostle Paul makes it very clear that only those who are baptized and living as the disciples of Jesus are proper recipients of the body and blood of the Lord. And this basic teaching is incorporated into the Exhortations of the various editions of the classic Book of Common Prayer since 1549. An open Table is from this perspective an act of defiance against the Lord of the Church, and it is a rejection of the common discipline of all branches of the Church of God from the earliest times to the present.

One thing more needs to be stated. The innovation of an Open Table does not mean that the Episcopal Church is likely, in the near future, to set aside the need for Baptism. And it will not do so at least for this reason: that in the Episcopal Baptismal Service is what is called "The Baptismal Covenant." This contract that the newly baptized person makes with God is absolutely central to the present, dominant Episcopal Religion for it is the often-mentioned and claimed basis for (a) its radical commitment to peace and justice, with the dignity of all persons whatever their "orientation"; and (b) its doctrine that in Baptism is contained in potential all ministries of the Church, lay and ordained. So anyone who is baptized and has signed on to the baptismal covenant is eligible for consideration for, and then entry into, all three Orders of the Ministry.

So the way of the future is most likely to be for a growing number - hospitality at the Open Table, baptismal classes while continuing to come to the Open Table, and then Baptism, signifying full commitment to the full religious, social and cultural agenda of the Episcopal Religion.


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