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Theologians resist call for open communion in the US Episcopal Church

10 June 2022

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General distribution during a papal mass in Philadelphia, United States, in September 2015

General distribution during a papal mass in Philadelphia, United States, in September 2015

A MOVE to seek the admission of unbaptised persons to holy communion — sometimes called “open communion” — in the Episcopal Church in the United States has been followed by a statement of concern from 22 theologians at seminaries within and beyond the Episcopal Church.

Their names include those of the Revd Professor Bryan Spinks, at Yale, and the Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, the Very Revd Dr Ian Markham, the Episcopal News Service reports. Other signatories are associated with Virginia Seminary, the University of the South, the Seminary of the Southwest, Princeton Theological Seminary, Bexley Seabury, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the General Theological Seminary, and Nashotah House.

The diocese of Northern California, at a diocesan convention last November, resolved to ask the General Convention to consider repealing Canon I.17.7, which requires that “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” The motion, headed “All are welcome at the table”, was considered to have “no fiscal impact, but offerings could increase if congregations grow”. It was carried by 166 to 125 (Clergy 49-44, Laity 117-81).

The arguments advanced in support of it include that the Episcopal Church is known for welcoming all to attend services, and also that, during the Last Supper, Jesus made no mention of baptism; that “It is uncomfortable to visualize Jesus turning anybody away who desires to remember Him”; that the catechism of the 1979 (US) Book of Common Prayer makes no mention of the requirement for baptism in describing the eucharist; and that “This [change] could help grow congregations by reducing the number of visitors who do not return because they felt excluded during communion.”

The proposed resolution is described as the “precipitating cause” of the statement in the covering letter to the chairs of the relevant committees of the Houses of Bishops and Deputies. But the signatories’ concern is described, on their behalf, as broader by the writer, the Revd Dr Robert MacSwain, an Associate Professor of Theology in the School of Theology, the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

The statement asserts that the link between the sacraments of holy baptism and the holy eucharist is central to the Episcopal Church’s historical understanding of sacramental theology, and that it should not be portrayed as “exclusive or inhospitable”.

Dr MacSwain writes: “The statement speaks for itself, but it arises from the more pervasive sense that something has gone amiss in our collective sacramental theology when (1) Baptism is regarded by many as a barrier to participation in the Church; (2) the essential relationship between Baptism and Eucharist is ignored or forgotten; and (3) the Eucharist is regarded exclusively as a ‘meal’ on a ‘table’ and not also a ‘sacrifice’ on an ‘altar.’

“Regardless of the fate of Canon I.17.7 either this summer or later, The Episcopal Church must reaffirm its commitment to Baptism as the foundational sacrament through which we become members of the Body of Christ and share in the life of grace; to the Eucharist as the repeatable element of the baptismal rite of initiation; and to an understanding of the Eucharist that holds together the equally necessary emphases of meal/table and sacrifice/altar.

“To let go of any of these three commitments is to relinquish our distinctively Anglican sacramental theology and baptismal ecclesiology as articulated in The Book of Common Prayer, many internal statements, and ecumenical dialogues.”

The other signatories are the Rt Revd Professor J. Neil Alexander, Professor Anthony D. Baker, the Revd Dr Hilary Bogert-Winkler, Professor Ellen Charry, the Revd Professor James Farwell, the Revd Dr Jason Fout, the Revd Professor Julia Gatta, the Revd Professor A. Katherine Grieb, the Revd Professor Nathan Jennings, the Revd Professor Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, the Revd Professor Benjamin King, Canon Lizette Larson-Miller, Dr Scott MacDougall, the Revd Dr Robert MacSwain OGS, Canon Kevin Moroney, the Revd Dr Juan M. C. Oliver, the Revd Dr Matthew S. C. Olver, the Revd Professor Katherine Sonderegger, the Revd Dr Shawn Strout, and the Very Revd Professor James Turrell.

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