There is now, and always has been, a debate amongst Christians regarding the practice of the reception of Holy Communion. I find it very troubling that the very thing that is supposed to unite us as Christians is the same thing that keeps us so divided. Eucharistic theology is a hot button issue and it has been for nearly 2000 years. What did Jesus mean when he said, “This is my body” and, “This is my blood”? Are the Communion elements truly the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ? Or is Communion more of a symbolic representation? Is the Eucharist a sacrifice or is it more of a meal? Who is authorized to consecrate the bread and the wine? Theologians wrestle with these questions constantly and there is a lot of emotion behind their arguments. Denominations have split because they disagreed on the answers their leadership offered. Lately there has been national news surrounding the sacrament of Holy Communion and the propriety of its reception by representatives based on their political views. A central question in the Christian Church today is this: Who can receive Holy Communion?
In the Episcopal Church, the official policy is that all baptized Christians are invited to the table. Lately, the debate has become more heated. This summer, a motion is being presented to General Convention seeking to remove this canon and allow what is called “open table.” Churches that practice open table do not require communicants to be baptized. All are welcome. Denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church welcome only members of their own denominations who are “in good standing”. This means they must be free from any kind of state of sin in order to receive. As of late, some Catholic bishops have made statements barring political candidates from receiving Communion within their dioceses because they believe them to be in a state of mortal sin. One such bishop is a bishop I knew when I was younger. At the time, he was a priest in the small border town of Calexico, California. I must admit, I am saddened when people are denied the reception of Communion for any reason.
To be fair, the act of reserving Communion for the right people comes from a good place. The consecrated Communion elements are indeed so sacred that they ought to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. When a communicant has discerned what is meant by receiving Communion, that person is more likely to treat the practice with reverence. With this, I certainly agree. However, I do not believe my job as a priest is to protect God from his people. God created all of his people. He already dwells within us. It is not going to harm God if he is received by the wrong person. In fact, I would argue that we can have faith in the possibility that the reception of Communion can be so powerful that it offers an opportunity for a person to change their ways. If I am open to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament, and I welcome him into my heart, I have faith that he will guide me and help me to choose to do right instead of wrong. I would never want to limit the possibility for someone’s heart to be changed.
I want to welcome everyone to the table. I want to welcome those with whom I agree and those with whom I disagree. I want to welcome those who are baptized, but I do not think someone will be harmed if they receive and they are not baptized. My hope is certainly that that person would choose to become baptized. If an invitation to receive Holy Communion is what brings a person to desire baptism, who am I to get in God’s way and stop that from happening?
The reason I am an Episcopalian today, and subsequently the reason I am your priest, is because I was welcomed to the Communion rail even though I was not already an Episcopalian. I was not required to go to confession first or to make a public act of contrition. Since that time, I have shared Communion with convicted murderers. I have shared Communion with the sick and the poor. I have shared Communion with young and old, including newly-baptized infants. It is my hope that Communion not be used as a political football. The altar is not mine or ours. It belongs to God. As a pastor, my role is to lead others to God. As such, all who hunger for God are warmly invited to the Communion rail when I am presiding. Through the Blessed Sacrament, we can be in full Communion with each other and with Christ.