It’s interesting to see how theological niceties, including questions that have absolutely no relevance to the greater world as we know it – a few Anglican excepted – manage to occupy our time and, indeed, lag behind what is currently accepted practice down in the parish trenches. Now the question of ‘open communion’ is certainly not in the same absurd league as Swift’s cutting example of the “Big Endians” and the “Little Endians” when it comes to breaking open an egg, or even with ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ for that matter. But let’s face it, to the greater part of Canadian society, whether Anglicans view the right to partake in Holy Communion as one reserved for the baptized only, or whether sacramental participation should be open to those exploring faith in a social and cultural post-modern context, is as significant as thinking about breaking eggs at the big or small end. But as a church, we incarnate Jesus’ presence in the world, so the question is ultimately an important one for us.
Because the question is internally important to us as Anglican Christians, I’ve searched around for reasoned points of view and interestingly enough, found two Anglican responses to the question of Open Communion, one reflective of the current discussions of ‘missional ministry’ in the church and one reflective of an unfortunate approach taken by those who have chosen to leave and then denigrate the Anglican Church of Canada – or as one former clergy person of our diocese whom I once respected – but sadly, no longer can – put it, “leaving Egypt”. How’s that for inappropriate bombastic rhetoric? But the kind of on-going silly slander such statements represent is another issue, and pronouncements like that deserve to be ignored totally.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi, rector of St. James, Westminster in London, Ontario (a fine parish in which my elder son served a term while an M.Div. student at Wycliffe College) presents a reasoned and informed approach both to Open Communion as a theological issue and to our position as Christians in Canadian post-modern society. Nicolosi, once the Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of BC, understands the true significance of this issue; Rev. Michael Pountney, now a clergy person for the ANiC, simply does not. This lack of understanding is reflected in his inappropriate insulting dismissal of any kind of reasoned response to the issue.
Nicolosi clearly knows how to put traditional Christian practices into two important contexts: Scripture and changing cultural contexts. He takes seriously Paul’s concerns about eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” (I Cor. 11:27), balancing that with Paul’s admonition that the decision whether to partake is personal, according to one’s conscience (I Cor. 11:28). While the Roman and Orthodox churches continue to maintain a “Closed communion”, Nicolosi points out, many Anglican churches throughout the world now practice open communion for sound theological and ‘missional’ reasons.
These Anglicans understand that their ecclesial practice has “never been content to adopt a sectarian mentality, to insulate itself from culture or to refuse to connect with an unchurched population”, as Nicolosi states. This stance reflects Diana Butler Bass’s observation that as missional ministers to a seeking society, we follow a pattern of “experience, community, and faith” – in that order. Holy Communion can be a “converting ordinance” in which the experience of receiving communion transforms the heart of the recipient (Solomon Stoffard, New England Puritan pastor and father-in-law of Jonathan Edwards). Open Communion can provide the kind of experience that ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ people are seeking – an experience of transcendence and even ecstasy. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of Reform Judaism, in his recent article, “Ecstasy and the Future of Liberal Religion”, (Huffington Post, July 11, 2011) points out that the decline in mainline American Christianity is reflective of a lack of invitation to participate in a sense of transcendence that Holy Communion can offer:
“Hundreds of articles and books have been written on the decline of liberal religion, and the eplanations offered usually depend of sweeping and unproven sociological generalizations: the decline is due to cultural turmoil, or economic dislocation, or confusion about sexaul mores, or growing individualism. These ideas are interesting but wrong. American are disenchanted with liberal religion because they crave religious passion, because they yearn for moments of religious ecstasy, and because they are disenchanted with religious institutions and leaders who spend too much time talking and who seem genuinely afraid of religious feeling.”
Many Anglican have become sensitive to this social and cultural reality in their practice of Open Communion:
“This new model of Christian formation is consistent with church growth methodology. ‘The old paradigm taught that if you have the right teaching, you will experience God,’ writes Leith Anderson. ‘The new paradigm says that if you experience God, you will have the right teaching.” (quoted by Nicolosi).
Nicolosi’s experience as a parish priest in Southern California witnesses to non-Christians receiving Holy Communion and experiencing God in a powerful way, leading to a desire to be baptized:
“Might not the Lord’s Table in Anglican churches be understood as a welcoming table? Is it possible for us to see the altar as a symbol of inclusion rather than exclusion?…Salvation is feasting in the kingdom of God, where people will come from north and south, east and west to sit at table together (Isa 25:6-9).” This is borne out in the Ministry of Jesus.
Great food for thought.
Rev. Michael Pountney takes quite a different approach. Dismissing the issue as an excuse to take a swipe at his former Anglican Church of Canada, the best he can come up with so far is to blame the whole discussion on the “bureaucratic gnomes in the Anglican head offices” – pardon me?? Say what?? These small gnomy creatures, opines Pountney, “seem breathtakingly astray in their dizzying descent into what can only be seen as an ecclesiastical form of advertising…taking away yet another element of what has made Anglicanism a powerful force over the centuries.” Dramatic rhetoric, but reflective of no reality I know of. It’s hard to imagine what Pountney is getting at in terms of church polity and history. Using a reductio ad absurdam argument – one I’ve seen all too frequently in commentary from the ANiC – Pountney equates Open Communion with the church becoming a “community social club”. Such superficial thinking is disturbing. The consideration of Open Communion is hardly “dilution and diminishment” as Pountney contends without much to back up that assertion. Again, contrary to Rabbi Yoffie’s reasoned observations on the decline of Christian participation south of the border, Pountney drags out the now tiring illusion but constant ANic refrain that adopting a positive attitude toward Open Communion represents”the disastrous decline in membership of the Anglican church of Canada” caused by embracing “fads” – another unjustified pejorative term that reflects a failure to understand even the basic nature of the whole discussion around Open Communion. How sad, but totally reflective of a lot of bumphy rhetoric we’ve been exposed to over the past few years by once respected Anglicans. Too sad for words. Must every occasion for debate and discussion be used to engage in demeaning insult and superficial swiping?
“A charge to keep have I, a God to glorify,” goes one of my favorite old hymns. So let’s get on with our mission and go beyond throwing around at one another, as Christians and as Anglicans, stunningly stupid and unjustified juvenile adjectives.
All in all, Nicolosi reminds us that the question of Open Communion demands serious discussion in Anglican circles. Let’s engage in that discussion seriously.
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Rev. Steve Bailey is deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and one of the blogmasters of New West Anglican Blog. What are your thoughts about open communion? Your comments are always welcome.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi, Anglican Journal: Guest Reflection: A Case for Open Communion
Reverend Michael Pountney, Anglican Essentials Blog: Misguided Anglican Church
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, Ecstasy and the Future of Liberal Religion, Huffington Post, July 11 2011