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“Open Table,” Excommunication, and the Mission of the Church

By Matthew Kemp 

As we approach the next (belated) General Convention, there is once again a proposal, Resolution C028, to rescind the requirement that one be baptized in order to receive Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church. On the one hand, this would entail an explicit change in the current canons, to say nothing of 2,000 years of Christian practice. On the other hand, it would simply make official what numerous parishes, and even dioceses, are already doing. Nor is this a new issue; this practice, sometimes called “open table,” has come up in some form at the last several General Conventions.

The rationale presented in the Resolution’s “Explanation” claims that the current requirement lacks a biblical foundation and is in fact contrary to Jesus’ own message and practice. I could easily write an entire piece dismantling the specific logic used in this Explanation, but it will be more fruitful here to address the underlying concern, which is typically at the forefront of the discussion of “open table”: the idea that offering Communion to all, including the unbaptized and those who profess non-Christian or no religious faith, is an expression of the radical hospitality demonstrated by Jesus, which the Church is called to continue. Such inclusivity, the argument goes, is a key aspect of the gospel, and thus must be embodied in the Church’s practice as part of its mission in the world.

But is this in fact the case? Do such open invitations to the Eucharist foster greater hospitality and inclusion? Or do they actually evade the possibility of a deeper reconciliation, in the Church’s mission to reconcile humanity to God through Christ?

To answer these questions, I suggest comparing the requirement of baptism to another instance of Eucharistic “exclusion,” one likely to raise eyebrows: the practice of excommunication as a disciplinary measure. This is not to imply that these are essentially the same; any connections can only be drawn by way of analogy. But in both cases, specific categories of people are explicitly barred from receiving the sacrament. Moreover, in both cases, there are clear ways forward for such people to be welcomed (or welcomed back) to the eucharistic table: for the non-Christian it is baptism, and for the excommunicate it is repentance and reconciliation. On this basis, I would like to flesh out some important insights that eucharistic discipline offers the discussion of “open table,” especially as it relates to reconciliation and the identity of the Church.

The 1979 prayer book contains rubrics for when and how eucharistic discipline is to be applied. While no specific sins are listed as grounds for denying the sacrament to someone (thus leaving it to the discretion of the priest, and ultimately the bishop), there are three broad reasons for doing so: (1) for “a person who is living a notoriously evil life,” until she “has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life”; (2) for “those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation,” until they “have made restitution for the wrong they have done”; (3) when “there is hatred between members of the congregation,” until they have reconciled with one another (BCP p. 409). The first scenario is admittedly broad, but there is a noteworthy feature about the second and third, namely that they are clearly concerned with actions that are sins against the Church insofar as they create scandal or dissension within it.

This means that the primary purpose of eucharistic discipline is to address what might be called “ecclesiological offenses,” which jeopardize the identity and visibility of the Church as Christ’s body. Such sins differ from others not in degree, but in kind. While I do not wish to imply that even so-called private sins have no effect on the community of faith, there are certain things that directly attack or undermine the Church’s corporate life. The excommunicate, then, is not just an exceptionally bad or frequent sinner, but has done something to endanger the Church’s integrity, to the point that such a person must rectify the situation before being allowed to receive the sacrament.

To be sure, discipline in general, and sacramental exclusion in particular, might seem harsh and juridical. And I will readily admit that there have been all too many times in Church history where the practice has been abused and misused to coerce or punish. But there are also times when it is precisely what is needed.

Contemporary theologian William Cavanaugh discusses one such case in his book Torture and Eucharist, which considers the Roman Catholic Church’s responses to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in Chile from 1973 to 1990, a government known for routinely “disappearing” and torturing its own citizens. Cavanaugh’s overall argument is that the practice of the Eucharist provided the Church with the effective resources to resist the torturous state by constituting the Church as a “contrast society” that operates on a different set of assumptions than the state. As part of this vision, Cavanaugh sees sacramental discipline playing an important role. He tells of how, in 1980, seven Chilean bishops issued a decree of excommunication aimed at torturers. Since in many cases both torturers and tortured were members of the same church, these bishops deemed it necessary to acknowledge that such activities were damaging the body of Christ. This discipline also served a revelatory function, to show that the unity of the body alleged in the Eucharist was not a reality while the torture was going on.

As Cavanaugh argues, the Church’s sacramental discipline logically flows from its identity as the body of Christ, which is revealed and re-constituted in every celebration of the Eucharist, as “a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice” (p. 22). In other words, the Church “becomes visible through its disciplined practices” (p. 234), and this includes the discipline of barring certain offending parties from receiving the sacrament.

Cavanaugh argues that such discipline is in fact the embodiment of forgiveness, a temporary measure oriented toward permanent reconciliation. “Eucharistic discipline,” he writes, “does not anticipate future condemnation but rather future reconciliation. Excommunication is the formal offering of reconciliation in the hope that even the most hardened offender will be saved” (p. 240). Cavanaugh admits that such exclusion seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ practice of welcoming, even eating with, sinners. But he also notes Jesus’ own justification for this practice in Matthew 9:12 (“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick”). Excommunication too can serve a “medicinal” purpose, to offer healing to the sinner through repentance.

The reason for this is that excommunication does not really exclude the sinner from the Church; it merely discloses the reality that the sinner has already excluded herself. Sacramental discipline thus “clarifies for the sinner the seriousness of the offense, and, if accompanied by a proper penitential discipline, shows the sinner the way to reconciliation with the body of Christ while shielding the sinner from the adverse effects of continued participation in the Eucharist in the absence of true reconciliation” (p. 243). From this perspective, excommunication can be an act of hospitality, a clear invitation and means for the sinner to be reconciled with the body of Christ. It is indeed the failure to excommunicate which would truly abandon the sinner, leading to eating and drinking one’s own condemnation (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

Why does any of this matter? This brings us to the deeper, underlying issue: the role of the Church, as the body of Christ, in reconciliation. The early Church’s penitential practice arose from the conviction that reconciliation is not simply a private matter between the sinner and God, but is actualized in being reconciled to the community. Such reconciliation is oriented toward unity, which is integral to the sacrament itself. The 1979 Catechism lists among the benefits of Holy Communion, “the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another.” Thus, “It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (BCP pp. 859-60, emphasis added).

To summarize, eucharistic discipline is integral to sacramental practice and thus plays a key role in the unity and integrity of the Church as the body of Christ. It is to be used cautiously and reservedly, but when exercised correctly, it discloses the real division and self-exclusion that is already going on within the Church, and invites the offending party or parties to seek reconciliation. In this way the Church’s identity is preserved while an individual’s relationship to it is clarified.

This reflection on excommunication offers a helpful perspective on the debate over “open table.” As with eucharistic discipline, denying the sacrament to someone who is not (yet) baptized seeks to disclose the reality that the person has not (yet) been reconciled to God in Christ, at least insofar as the Church understands such reconciliation in the context of its mission. If excommunication can be a hospitable invitation to reconcile, the requirement of baptism also sets forth a clear path of repentance, conversion, and reconciliation through the ordinary means of grace offered by the Church. The baptismal prerequisite then is not intended to be exclusionary or oppressive, nor is it a relic of some less inclusive age in Church history; rather, it extends a true welcome into the body of Christ by becoming a full member of it.

Restricting the Eucharist to the baptized does not then go against the teaching and practice of Jesus, nor against the Church’s mission to those outside its fold. On the contrary, a “closed” table constitutes the Church in its integrity, including its “outward” orientation to its mission. As Cavanaugh notes in another work, the Eucharist calls the Church to see all people as “potential members of the body of Christ” (Theopolitical Imagination, p. 5). True welcome is embodied in baptismal initiation, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28), not in an invitation to the Eucharist that is stripped of all condition and context. True welcome comes when the Church invites someone to become part of it in truth.

The Rev. Dr. Matthew Kemp is a priest of the Diocese of Springfield. He currently resides in Chicago with his family, where he teaches and serves as a supply priest.


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