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The Open Door to Closed Communion

In the foreword of Thomas Howard’s book, Hallowed Be This House, the philosopher Peter Kreeft outlines Howard’s project by calling the reader to imagine the [7] sacraments as different rooms of a house:

[T]he front door is like baptism, the hallway like confirmation, the dining room like the Eucharist, the kitchen like ordination to the priesthood (where the Eucharist is confected), the bathroom like confession, and the bedroom like both matrimony and extreme unction, the bed hosting both birth and death. That leaves the dining room, which is for living this life, this exchange, this conversation.”

On the other hand, a story that ran several years ago on The Episcopal Cafe, which was written by Jennifer Philips ( a member of the Standing Committee of Liturgy and Music) ran as follows:

“All sorts and conditions of people are drawn to the rail for all sorts of reasons conscious and unconscious, in a great variety of states of preparedness and unpreparedness. There’s always lots of teaching going on to help form people in our sacramental life, but the plain truth is that the power of God in the liturgy touches, moves, transforms, and attracts people right then, and at the rail doesn’t seem a good place to question beyond ‘do you desire to receive the Body of Christ?’”

God does not invite us to violate him, to receive him at our convenience and without any real protracted-and-planned-out commitment on our part.  Hospitality does not mean we can invite people into using Christ if and when they feel “caught up in the moment.”  If our invitation does not also involve challenge, then how can it be possibly be faithfully rooted in the cross (this is, as Bonhoeffer noted, cheap grace).

Indeed, it seems to me that recent conversations around consent parallel ecclesial conversations around open vs. closed communion (or at least, do so potentially). There is a sacrament of great hospitality, it is called baptism, which we open to anyone who is seeking the presence of our Lord who is present in the sacrament, Jesus Christ.  Again, this sacrament is called baptism, and we no more need to invite would-be Christians into receiving communion than would-be spouses need to consent to sex before a covenantal agreement; before consent.  Hospitality does not mean inviting people into the most sacramentally intimate spaces of the Christian life, it means being honest about intentions, healthy boundaries, the shape and form such commitments will take, and yes, eventually, the intimate sharing of one body with another.  If consent is important in our debates about sexual boundaries, should it not be central to sacramental boundaries, especially in the nuptial gift given to us in Christ’s own body?  The #MeToo movement has been incredibly powerful in unmasking many unjust practices of sexual aggression.  At least one presupposition funding #MeToo is built on an important sacramental principle: no person ever has the right to another person’s body, and this includes Jesus’s body, and those who would seek to claim it for themselves without mutual consent and commitment to honor the body given and exchanged. In the Christian narrative, consent looks like sacramental commitment via baptism; it looks like being willing to go on “many dates” leading to an eventual marriage to the Church, precisely before conjugal rights are bestowed.  One has no right to the body of another, and that includes the body of Christ.  Being interested and desirous of the body of another simply does not sanction such an intimate self-giving and exchange.  Such intimate union demands a covenantal commitment shared between both parties—it takes two to tango.

But hospitality is not the only argument, as evidenced by the this portion of a resolution from the Diocese in 20xx:

“Grace as mediated in the Sacrament of Eucharist, is nourishment for our redemptive work in and with human systems, most especially the very one we have been charged with stewarding.

This redemptive work cannot be done only by those within the system but must involve people outside the system. Therefore, when people feel called to our Table we, as stewards of our Table, are called to welcome them so that we might work together towards redemption. This is not to proclaim that all people are “anonymous Christians,” but it is to say that as Christians, we more than anyone should know that the mystery of our Sacraments is beyond our ability to comprehend and, by implication, beyond our ability to contain. Our location as Christians enables us to identify the Holy Spirit at work, not to own it. Nonetheless, we are wholly responsible for stewarding this Table, not to create boundaries as if we could protect the Sacrament, but to point to it and translate to all who come among us that God is incarnate in the flesh of the Son. And we must not be wary, but faithful that the Holy Spirit is present and guiding those who come, while we bring our ministry of service and hospitality to our most sacred place.”

The argument of stewardship:  Stewarding the body; asking for consent goes both ways (use the argument of consent as analogous to inviting others into receiving, quite intimately, the body of Jesus.

Again, Howard reminds us that stewarding a guest at our table does not negate the consensual (and covenantal) nature of eating together:

“This sitting down around this table with our family or with our guests is an act in which we may perceive and mark and celebrate the thing which is true: that our fellowship with each other is most literally a matter of eating together, since it is here that we not only profess, but also enact, our common indebtedness to the order of exchanged life. As you and I break bread together, we signal and enact together our participation in the order of creation (we both depend on bread to stay alive), and we seal our solidarity with each other (this bread broken between us will become the sign of the love that will obtain between you and me: my life laid down for you; my life drawn from yours laid down for me). For Christians, of course, the whole thing is caught up in the biggest transaction of all, of which all these smaller transactions are but examples, namely, the life of the Lamb of God laid down so that we might live.”  (Howard, pp.72-73)

This raises an interesting question though: what does it look like to steward the body of our Lord?  In no particular order, here are some reminders from friends in the past:

Sacramental theology: [list examples from the great eucharistic debates]

End w/ the question: What then is the open door to closed communion?  It is________ …


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