As a priest, I often find myself thinking with trepidation about Jesus’ statement that what we exactly we are binding and loosing (Mt. 16:19). I think of this often in light of ongoing conversation around closed communion (here, ‘closed’ means to the baptized, not to a particular Christian community). My concern with closed communion is not that denying the Eucharist to the unbaptized is unwelcoming. It is that the act of denying God’s body to an embodied person made in God’s image mis-forms those of us already at the table. 

I take as axiomatic that the liturgy is a place where we are formed through habitual and ritual practices to become active participants in God’s love of all creation. By participating together in a communal act of love and healing, we become participants with God in loving and healing all creation (which includes us!). However, liturgical formation is hardly innocent. It is possible, even quite common, that our ritual habits also misfire us. Think only of the ways for centuries our liturgies formed us to believe in incapacity of women by refusing them the capacity to fully participate according to their gifts. Or the way denying baptism, and then shared communal space, underscored the white Christian belief that black bodies created by God as less capable, less worth. I am a theological ethicist, which means that I am always asking “what is the ethical import of our beliefs and practices?” It is simply a fact that participation in the Eucharist, and the entire Eucharistic liturgy, has been used to exclude others is habit-forming, society-shaping ways that are racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist. We cannot ignore the way we have lived our theologies, and must be willing to consider that perhaps we have lived them badly because we believe badly. When we deny the Eucharist to others, when we deny what we recognize as a place in which God’s grace is being made manifest, we form ourselves as people who build in to our ritual habits a closing in, a restricting of God’s grace, and a suspicious conviction that our practices control God’s profligate love. 

We practice this restriction for a number of reasons, but I will highlight three here: fear that God’s grace, wrongly received, might be destructive rather than life-giving (receiving for “condemnation”, 1 Cor. 11:29); protecting God’s body from those who might misuse it; because the proper order of receiving God’s grace and participating in the life to which that grace invites, even demand, we live, must begins with the sacrament of baptism. Each of these historical and biblical reasons for denying the Eucharist to the unbaptized misses something of the abundant, overflowing, love of God who is irresistibly bringing all creation into full participation with them. 

To the first, that receiving the Eucharist without proper preparation (baptism, and in some traditions, proper repentance) might be destructive causes me to ask, Can God’s grace ever be destructive to us? We may not receive it, may not embody it well, or may ignore it, but I cannot imagine of a single instance where God’s love and grace is not, at the very least an invitation to a life filled delight and healing. What does it say about us, as ministers of God’s body in the world, that we might deny someone even the briefest taste of the goodness of God? Claiming that God’s grace is never destructive, it can never be received to our eternal condemnation, is quite distinct from the very-real and necessary conviction of present sin. However, along with many theologians (including the rather conservative Alexander Schmemann), I do not believe that even confession of our sins (either via a formal sacrament or silently only to ourselves) is a requirement for the Eucharist. Moreover, my conviction that all creation will eventually fully participate in a flourishing life of mutual love and joy (which is what I take “salvation” to be) does not reasonably allow for any hint of condemnation to be attached to God’s persistent love. Can I, as a priest, engage in a practice that implies God is destructive rather than life-giving? Should our liturgical and sacramental theologies have this as an underlying assumption? What kind of people do we become when we believe God is condemning rather than slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love? For possible example, one needs to look only as far as our litigative and law-based retributive society in the U.S., created by a set of Christians for whom God’s justice is always condemnation. Is this anger-filled world of retribution and violence the society into which we want to be liturgically formed?

The second, that only including confirmed (used in a colloquial, not sacramental sense) believers is safe, certainly has its bases in histories where the Christian community was vulnerable to misrepresentation (they are cannibals!) and persecution by outsiders. But lurking in this reasoning, at least as it was often articulated to me in my Orthodox upbringing, is somehow the idea that we are protecting not only the community from outsiders, but also God. How in the world is it our job to protect God? As Creator of all that is, God will surely outlast everything as we now know it (I am leaving room for a resurrection in which we eternally participate in God’s ongoing creation, just in a manner we do not yet know). Further, let us be clear: we already crucified God in Jesus. We already killed God-incarnate. What worse can we really do? Every time we fear that human beings might damage God, we forget exactly how God responded to our death-dealing execution of Jesus as a criminal: by resurrection! By trampling down death by death, by making more clear (still not crystal clear as we still see through the marbled glass of stories rather than the sure touch of Thomas), that all creation has as its created end glorious, fruitful, life with God! Thinking that we must protect a God we already executed is not only laughable, it is arrogant. We remain God’s creatures, even as we are invited to creatively participate in God’s creation. Nothing can separate us from that, even when our communities are vulnerable to the hostility of strangers. What kind of people are we who structure our lives around the fear that our God might be slain yet again because an enemy (and I do believe we have enemies) sat down to eat with us?

Third, simply because we have abundant historical and scriptural (the ‘tradition’) evidence that baptism consistently precedes Eucharist does not mean it always does. I do not mean that perhaps at some point someone received the Eucharist, and then was baptized (though I know, for a fact, that this has indeed happened). My concern is more ‘meta’: are baptism and Eucharist necessarily linked in one particular linear order? Baptism and Eucharist are designated sacraments because we in the church are confident that they are places where God’s grace is ‘visible.’ We (at least most of us) do not argue that they are the only such places, in part because we recognize God’s free-wheeling engagement with the world. God is simply not contained, limited, by our practices, no matter how much those practices convey God to us, and no matter how essential they are to our lives. By insisting that the unique ways in which God is present in each of these sacraments only happens in a particular order seems to undermine the unpredictable, extravagant, and outside-of-our-control God in whom we delight. Such linear imposition of control may be more comfortable for us, but it does not acknowledge, and may even undermine, a belief that God is simply not limited to our particular bodily engagements with God’s grace. 

Related to our imposition of a linear timeline on God’s grace is a cognitive control as well. Often in arguments against open Eucharist is an underlying implication that there are certain things we ought to understand and believe first. I do not mean to undermine the importance of engaging in intentional communal formation, a process which often occurs via catechesis. I agree with those who express concern that welcoming all to the Eucharist without also insisting on a clear movement towards baptism which includes learning about and engaging in a Christian life is a serious problem. I simply think that such engagement can happen after participating in the Eucharist. After all, all of us who are baptized (especially those of us baptized as infants) are (or should be) always continuing to learn, grow, participate. I just do not believe that the movement of God within us, the invitation and desire which moves us into participation is primarily, whether in order or importance, cognitive. I find the insistence on some sort of cognitive assent as sort of intellectual works-righteousness that undermines the long-term practice of infant baptism, subtly values an intellectual rather than practice-based Christianity, and denies one of the beautiful hallmarks of Protestant Reformers: we can do nothing to earn God’s persistent love for us.

I realize this is an incomplete address of the subject, and I am not at all sure that I am arguing for an overturning canons which limit the Eucharist to the baptized. In practice, the canon of The Episcopal Church is regularly and pastorally ignored. As someone who grew up in a tradition where strangers were asked, at the chalice, if they were baptized Orthodox Christians, I would never advocate for such a publicly shaming practice. I remain deeply ambivalent about any use of the Eucharist as a means of “discipline”, not only because such discipline is too-often wrongly applied, but because I am not sure that people (today? ever?) actually repent through such exclusion. Denying communion to the baptized is a different (and important) conversation.

My point is to highlight reasons other than being welcoming for considering accepting all to the Eucharist, without exception. I find welcoming a dubious concept, in part because there are many situations where hospitable welcome goes hand-in-hand with the expectation of certain behaviors and the bearing of certain responsibilities. Think of the social expectations we have for behaving well at the Thanksgiving dinner table, expectations which produce all sorts of anxiety as we debate the merits of the conflict engendered by confronting our racist uncle. Many (most?) cultures do not offer hospitality without obligation, and I think there is something quite normal in expecting a particular behavior from those we eat with. 

The expectation, obligation, of particular kind of life is actually the heart of our Eucharistic practice: we eat together both because we are becoming God’s communal image in creation together, and as a way to become that image. Our eating is a commitment, a practice, a habit that informs our work after we do the work of our liturgy. Clarifying these expectation when we invite all to the table seems deeply right: as you eat here, if you eat here, know that you are becoming what you eat, God’s body in the world. I am just not sure that we can every really know whether that expectation already exists in the minds and hearts of those receiving, I am quite confident that baptism is no such guarantee of such a life (our history regularly demonstrates this), and I do not believe that as a priest, I should be in the business of binding the profligate abundance of God to a particular linear, cognitive, or traditional process. As a priest, I bind what I see before me, the life-giving desire of God unexpectedly moving in and through our desire to eat together, and am grateful that such desire will also be bound in heaven.

Photo by Sylvain Brison on Unsplash.

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