Reforming Communion among United Methodists

I want to alert you all to an excellent discussion going on through some Methodist blogs. First is Andrew Thompson's article Recommit to Communion as a means of healing Grace.

Shane Raynor over at Wesley Report responds to Andrew here, agreeing that we should move towards weekly celebration of the blessed sacrament, but undecided (or disagreeing) that we need to "rethink the Open Table."

For my two cents, I think the meaning of "Open Table" in The United Methodist Church is already a muddled thing. Open to whom? To Christians of other denominations? Certainly. What about to unbaptized believers in Christ? Ummm... Or to adherents of other religions altogether? Or atheists? Appeals to Wesley's words about some experiencing "conversion" at the table are somewhat misleading, since virtually everyone he worked with in 18th Century England were in fact baptized (Wesley's point is that, then as now, not all baptized individuals were truly converted in heart).

The ancient discipline of the Church catholic, dating back at least to the Didache , is that only the baptized may recieve Communion. This is the practice of Lutheran and Anglican "open table" churches: all baptized Christians are invited to recieve. Other Lutherans, along with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and some Baptists and others only allow members of their own church to recieve at the Table.

If we United Methodists insist on using the language of "open Communion" or "open table" at all, I'm of the opinion that we ought to understand "open Communion" in the Anglican fashion - open to all baptized Christians. This has always been the orthodox position of the universal Church and, if we consider the power of the sacrament, it actually makes good sense pastorally as well.

St. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 11 precisely in an attempt to exercise eucharistic discipline - something that is not even possible if we accepted "utterly open communion." Eucharistic discipline is also a primary reason for reserving sacramental authority to the ordained, by the way. In 1 Cor. 11, Paul attempts to "discipline" the chaotic eucharistic practice precisely (as he says in the passage) for the well-being of the church members. The sacrament is so powerful, it can actually be spiritually dangerous to those uncommitted to Christ or if it is mis-used (Paul even suggests that it might kill people). Maybe we should back up and ask ourselves just what DO we believe about the power of the Lord's Supper.

With regards to unbaptized individuals who desire to recieve Holy Communion, I like what Bishop Willimon says: Why is it that they do not also desire to recieve baptism? Have we even taught them about the relationship between the sacraments?

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Anonymous Will Humes said...

My opinion about open communion is this: If Judas could receive the body and blood of Jesus at the first table from Jesus' own hand, then who I am to deny anyone from ever receiving it?

3:52 PM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Adam said...

Excellent points, and thanks for the link to Mr. Thompson's article. I'm preparing to become a UMC pastor, but the "open communion" practice does bother mea great deal. As you mention, there's simply no way around what the church catholic has confessed on the matter and we should, as a minimum I believe, stand within the Anglican tradition on this matter. I wonder, does the "open communion" policy within the UMC require that local parishes allow the un-baptized to the table, or is there leeway given for interpretation?

4:00 PM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Adam, your question is a good one. What (if anything) is the "official" discipline of the UM church - are pastors allowed some discretion on this matter?

The constitution of the Church, (Division 1, article 4) says that "all persons...shall be eligible to...recieve the sacraments..." I'm no canon lawyer, but it seems pretty clear to me that this section (if you read it all) is intended to preclude exclusion based upon race or class or whatever. All persons ARE in fact eligible to recieve the sacraments, even in a "closed communion" church, beginning with the sacrament of baptism.

Consider the relationship of confirmation with baptism. I doubt anyone is out there arguing that we ought to confirm unbaptized persons (what we might name "open confirmation"). Yet, all persons, regardless of their background, are eligible to be confirmed (confirming their baptismal vows) in our churches - once they have first been baptized (making those baptismal vows to begin with).

A similar relationship exists between baptism and Holy Communion.

4:11 PM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Adam said...


I'm sensitive to your point-of-view, but a couple thoughts come to mind. First, and most clearly, Jesus was Jesus. We are not. That might sound trite and I don't want to overly systematize the sacrament, but baptism as a minimum has been accepted as an absolute prerequisite for the better part of church history.

Second, and mentioned in the original post, what are we to do with 1 Chr 11? Certainly Paul was aware that Judas had received the Eucharist from Jesus' own hand, and yet he attempts to reign in poor practice. The only conclusions I've been able to reach are that there either is authority to withhold the grace of the sacrament to some people (as John 20:23 may allude) or there is no authority to retain sins.


4:14 PM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I should also respond to Will up there - Judas (like all Jesus' disciples) was baptized before the Last Supper.

This gets back to Wesley's point about some people (baptized yet not having a living faith) who were (in some sense) "converted" to a living faith through Holy Communion - you cannot really be SURE what is going on in someone else's heart, but you CAN know if they have, as a matter of historic fact, ever entered into the baptismal covenant.

4:15 PM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Adam said...

That is a very helpful mention. I had never thought of "eligible" as also being sufficient to withhold the Eucharist when necessary.

4:25 PM, April 21, 2010  
Anonymous Will Humes said...


While I greatly respect much of church tradition, there are also many things that accumulated within that tradition from the earliest days that are not worth respect, such as the demotion of women from positions of leadership in the church. It seems to me that many traditions were put into place to create and maintain a hierarchy of power and control . . . and for me that would include such gate-keeping functions as to who could or could not be baptized or receive communion.

As for Paul's words in 1 Corinthians, like much of what he wrote, this dealt with a very specific issue in a particular church. In this case, it was the abuse of the Lord's Supper by those in Corinth.


There is no specific mention of the disciples being baptised anywhere in the gospels. Plus the command to baptize others only came after the resurrection with the great commission in Matthew and it's parallel passage in Acts.
While they may very well have been, there is nothing that states they were. PLus, even if they had been, it would have been a completely different baptism than the one Jesus authorizes the disciples to do with it's trinitaian formula.

Thanks for the discussion so far,

2:15 PM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

Very interesting post, and discussion thus far. You made mention that "open communion to all baptized persons has been the orthodox position of the universal church." Of course, if you read into the fathers of the Church there is then much debate over what constitutes a valid baptism. Many do ask if the baptism of a "heretic" is a valid baptism. The tradition of the Church is much more closed then the position stated above. See for instance Cyprian of Carthage. Even the Didache says, "Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice."

The purpose for the closing of the chalice, and other traditions, is not out of a desire to maliciously control, but pastorally protect, from my understanding; to encourage people to not only be Christians in name, but in action and to commune with that as the focus.

Perhaps the question to ask is, What is Communion and why should it be open or closed? What are the consequences of open or closed?

3:13 PM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Good discussion here;
a couple more responses, if I may.

In reply to your comment above (on whether Judas was baptized),
it seems quite clear that Jesus' early ministry was a continuation and elaboration on John the Baptist's Kingdom of God ministry. If you carefully read John 3-4 (see especially 3:22-23; 4:1-2) it seems clear that the way that Jews affiliated with this Kingdom movement, becoming disciples of either John or of Jesus, was through baptism and so this would surely have included Judas.

But your point about the Trinitarian formula is a good one: it was almost certainly not used at this early stage. This may break the continuity (and precedent-setting value) with our current practice somewhat.
I would add that, the Lord's Supper itself is a transitional liturgical event. It moves the Jesus community from the Hebrew passover celebration to the Sacrament of the New Covenant which are two closely related, but nevertheless somewhat distinct liturgical events. If that is so, then Judas' participation in the Lord's Supper would not necessarily set a precedent for our practice, with regards to this particular question
But if it did note what John 13:27 says - it was as soon as he received bread from Jesus that the Devil entered Judas. For him it was almost like an anti-sacrament or something (i this is indeed the same bread, it certainly is the same meal).

Fr. Philip,
I probably should have worded that differently, my main point was that the orthodox/ecumenical tradition has not normally included giving the sacrament to the unbaptized. Certainly there were questions about whether some baptisms (by heretics) were valid, and of course there was also the possibility of excommunication, in which validly baptized believers, for reasons of church discipline, would be barred (usually for set a period of time, with a set process of reconciliation) from the sacrament. It is precisely the ability to have SOME sort of table discipline (as indeed the early Methodists DID have), that we need to recover.

Just off the top of my head there seem to be certain basics that must be present for someone to rightly receive: 1) they must be a baptized believer in Christ and 2) they must be rightly prepared to receive at this particular time.

Whether #1 is the case, the church can clearly determine. #2 is much trickier since it is an internal reality, but we can (and officially do) at least provide a liturgy that guides the individual through a process of spiritual preparation to receive the sacrament. Certainly, beyond that the pastor may know of good reasons why a person might need to refrain (or not refrain). The invitation to communion itself in our liturgy invites (only) those who repent of sin and who seek to live in communion with Christ and others.

Hmmm...what would you all say must be present?

11:28 AM, April 23, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I should probably have added that in Anglican Churches (and this seems consonant with the early tradition) that communion is open to all baptized believers IN GOOD STANDING with their Church.

11:36 AM, April 23, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a big difference between a baptized person and a baptized believer.

12:55 PM, April 23, 2010  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

Thanks for the clarification of that point, and I apologize for my knee-jerk reaction against it. Your presentation of communion in your comment does imply (an implication that I agree with) that communion is not only not given to the unbaptized, but not given to those properly prepared as well. In the Orthodox Church, that preparation involves prayer, fasting, recent confession, etc. Your #2 is most definitely more difficult to determine in most cases, but can in others. If someone has not been to confession in a long time, as the pastor, you know that and can guide them there as needed. Also, if you know that someone is living in unrepentant sin, then you know that they have not properly prepared by attempting to live by the commandments of Christ.

I have been thinking about the Judas question and I think that Jesus did what all of us pastors do, He gave Judas communion based on Judas' outward affirmation of the life in Christ. Judas had walked with Jesus for a long time, had presumably been involved in the many miracles and thus, when the Body of Christ was being presented, it was given to Judas also. Judas' reaction seems to be what Paul is warning about, those that take communion unto death. As outwardly prepared as he was, Judas was not really prepared to partake of the living God. But, as is always the case, Jesus left that to the choice of Judas. When we partake of the fruit of the tree of Life (which is what the Eucharist is in Orthodox understanding) we do so either to life or to death. I know speaking for myself, it is often to death. How many times do I take the Body of Christ and then sin against my brother right away, that is the same as Judas.

All of that together is why it is not loosely, but "with the fear of God, with faith, and with love, draw near."

5:19 PM, April 23, 2010  
Blogger Kenny said...

The Invitation to the Table in the Book Of Worship and Hymnal make the conditions for partaking pretty clear . . . and certainly rule out the unbeliving. The wording itself reflects a limited "open communion" . . . one that is NOT open to anyone.

12:40 PM, March 28, 2012  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

hi Kenny,

Thanks for the contribution. I agree entirely that the invitation to communion rules unbelievers. I wonder if we could also say that, by implication, it also rules out the "deliberately" unbaptized? That is, we say Christ invites "all who love him" and of course we know that the Gospel teaches that those who love Christ will keep his commandments. Now we all do fall short from time to time (thus the prayer of confession in our liturgy) but what about a deliberate and ongoing refusal to receive the baptism that he has commanded..? I think that is a question with some other questions wrapped up in it that all parties in this discussion within the UMC should think through.

God bless+

1:39 PM, March 28, 2012  

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