Reforming Communion (continued...)

For everyone who was interested in the conversation (a couple posts back) about reforming the United Methodist Church's popular practices of Holy Communion (indeed to bring actual practice more in line with our official teachings), Andrew Thompson has written a stongly worded follow-up article over at his blog, responding to some of the flak he has taken for suggesting that we should actually allow clear theology to dictate our practices - even if they become less popular for that reason.

Andrew is one of my favorite young United Methodist theologians (now getting his doctorate at Duke Divinity School) whom I've had the pleasure to read for a few years now (and even meet in real life one time). He is an excellent blogger who is passionate about a Christian faith that is thoughtful, Biblical, and Wesleyan. I look forward to his shaking up the Church's doctrinal thinking for many years.

Here are some quotes from his article, defending a practice of Holy Communion that he calls "a disciplined table" as opposed to an utterly "open table":

...It is my critique of that un-Scriptural, un-historical, un-ecumenical quasi-doctrine that so many Methodists just love: the "Open Table" practice of inviting anyone in earshot to receive the Lord's Supper with a "y'all come!" enthusiasm. The Open Table ethos as many pastors and congregations practice it today presents the Eucharist as a meal where anyone is welcome - Christians, non-Christians, confessed adherents of other religions, unbelievers, agnostics, and atheists.That such an approach to the sacrament of our Lord's body and blood is an utter novelty in the history of the Christian Church, without any biblical foundation or support in Wesleyan theology or widespread support in the church catholic, does not seem to factor into the consideration of those who consider it to be amongst the fundamental marks of Methodism...

...Whenever I write a column or put up a blog post on this issue, I inevitably take a lot of flack. Sometimes people act as if there is a deep arrogance at work in even engaging the issue of participation in Holy Communion, as if exercising a holy discipline over the sacrament were the equivalent of making a value judgment the intrinsic worth of persons. And sometimes people will act aghast that the Church would ever make a statement suggesting a standard of ministry or discipleship in anyway, because we are all supposed to bow at the altar of "inclusivism" - a concept that apparently means we never say 'no' to anyone, at anytime, for any reason.

As I've said before the words of the Communion liturgy themselves clearly rule out what I've called the "utterly open table" - yet this seems to escape the attention of those who shrink back from any notion that God might require anything of us even as we come to recieve his gift in the holy sacrament.

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Blogger Adam said...

Sometimes people act as if there is a deep arrogance at work in even engaging the issue of participation in Holy Communion,

That does seem to be the reaction of choice. The irony is that there is at least equally as deep an arrogance in dismissing 2000 years of Christian thought and practice. I understand that paradigms are a difficult thing to readjust, but it would be nice to see at least some respect paid to those saints who've gone before us. Particularly when their positions are the overwhelming norm.

11:58 AM, May 05, 2010  
Blogger Sharp said...

I am a decades-long Baptist who (for myriad reasons) is presently considering joining a UMC congregation. One of several reasons for hesitating is the Wide Open Table you are discussing. It is practiced at this particular church and I find it unnerving at best and perhaps even harmful at worst. It is not only disrespectful of the meal itself but possibly even dangerous to the communicants, if we take scripture seriously. Yes, God loves everyone. But it is not a sign of hate to say, "God has made it rather clear in scripture that this meal must be taken by believers in faith and in repentance. I've skipped it many times myself when I felt I was unprepared for this very reason."

3:23 PM, May 06, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I think part of our problem is that we have let communion as a "means of grace" become separate from communion as a "covenant meal."

Only married people celebrate their own wedding anniversaries. Only those baptized into the covenant with God, and serious about living into that covenant should come and renew their covenant commitments. It makes no sense to renew covenant commitments that one has not in fact yet made. One other part of our theology of communion (in addition to the table as a means of grace and Christ's presence) is that it is a renewal of the covenant we have with God. "This is my blood of the new covenant..." This is made crystal clear in some of our church's official pamphlets on communion. This is also why self-examination and confession is a part of the liturgical preparation: I am called to ask myself "am I living faithfully to this covenant relationship?"

Sadly, official pamphlets aside, most United Methodist teaching I have heard is seriously deficient in covenant-oriented theology.

5:51 PM, May 06, 2010  
Anonymous Stephen said...

Arguably the best counterpoint (remember listening to both sides) to Andrew's "Baptism First" theology:


From Hoyt Hickman, an outstanding Methodist Liturgy Theologian, published in December of 2009


But in my present judgment, attempting to make baptism before first Communion an invariable rule would carry unacceptable costs. So many people — liberals and evangelicals alike — would oppose such an attempt that it is doubtful that it would pass. Its inclusion could endanger the whole report. If it did pass, I am convinced it would be widely ignored. Pastors would be aware of numerous "hard cases" where people would feel needlessly rejected and hurt.

I am emphatically not stating that we should come down with a law mandating totally open invitation. Being the son of a lawyer, I remember that "hard cases make bad law." Pastors should be free, if they see fit, to use the term "baptized Christians" in extending the invitation if they think this is wise.

I am also aware that in future ecumenical or bilateral negotiations toward intercommunion, some more definite statement may eventuate.

I would, however, say that in such interdenominational negotiations, we would be wise to bring our tradition of "open Communion" into the negotiations to ensure that what is good and valid about it gets full airing in the negotiations. I would also suggest that when the day arrives for such negotiations, we would profit from examining the experience and actions of other denominations such as the U. C. C. and the Presbyterians, who also have many pastors who issue sweepingly open invitations. The whole subject deserves much more ecumenical discussion than it has yet received.

In short, what I am saying is that it may be best to take an ambiguous position. It wouldn't hurt to acknowledge that there are matters on which we don't yet have consensus, and that this is one of them.

9:15 PM, May 09, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hi Stephen,
Thanks for the comment.

I would agree (though I haven't mentioned it so far in the discussion) that in actual ministry there may well arise ambiguous cases in which pastoral discernment will be better than a "hard and fast" rule-enforcing mentality.

I think the argument that "many Methodists prefer it this way" (i.e. utterly open) is not a theological argument at all. Many Methodists may well have given virtually no thought to the matter at all, and just prefer what they have seen so far. Many Methodists might be quite fickle, truth be told. We, as a group, REALLY need to learn to think theologically and to exercise the logical Reasoning to which we give such lip-service.

As I see it, "utterly open" communion (and again, in using that phrase, I do not mean "open to all Christians", as I support that practice) is not a Methodist or Wesleyan tradition - it is a popular practice that has in recent decades developed in many (but by no means all) United Methodist Churches. While it has support among some of the professional theologians (like my own worship professor Mark Stamm), it has (as far as I can tell) no endorsement in the Book of Discipline, the official liturgical manuals, and certainly not in Wesley's writings. Add to that its lack of support in the broad catholic tradition (which the United Methodist Church explicitly affirms in the Discipline) and it would seem that it is debatable at best whether this really is a United Methodist practice at all - rather than simply a practice of many United Methodists.

This is one example (one of several - consider our approach to ordination, for another example) of sloppy theology dictated more by popular practice, or the perceived need of the moment, than by Biblically-informed, coherent, disciplined, and logical thinking. This is, I fear, a consistent character flaw in our beloved Church - one that we ought to address as best we may.

The good news is, it seems to me, we've come a long way in the last 20 years, and the fact that this conversation is happening in earnest in the blog-world right now is itself a good sign of stirring reform.

9:54 AM, May 11, 2010  
Blogger Andrew C. Thompson said...

Daniel -

Just wanted to mention that I appreciate your taking up this topic - in both this post and the one from a couple of posts back. You do a good job presenting some of the crucial aspects of this doctrinal and pastoral issue.

There is a point within the pro-radically open table position that is particularly interesting (and perhaps particularly troubling) to me. Note, for instance, that even respected liturgical thinkers like Mark Stamm and Hoyt Hickman who are in favor of the open table position will qualify it; basically, they affirm it as a limited good in practice but also recognize the historical and ecumenical position on baptism and indicate at different points that those who do receive as unbaptized persons should be moved toward baptism as quickly as possible.

Here's what is fascinating to me: Many pastors and laity who have been commenting on this issue over the past couple of months and are in favor of the radically open table see no need whatsoever to offer the same kind of qualifications as people like Stamm and Hickman. Your commenter from a recent post who said something to the effect, "If Jesus let Judas commune, who am I to say no to anyone?" is a good example. It is a position that goes considerably beyond anything we've seen before: namely, the view that baptism is so meaningless, and the way of life into which it initiates us so void, that its necessity is to be disregarded entirely.

It's to that view that I quoted the passage from Ed Phillips' article in the journal Liturgy. He believes (and I am inclined to agree) that this is really a cultural phenomenon: That is, we live in such a radically egalitarian society that any notion of qualitative distinctions based on preparation, commitment, or formation must be discarded. Because we import belief in an individualistic liberal freedom into everything we do, we implicitly level everything that does not seem congruent with it.

Thus, Baptism is emptied of its meaning. And Holy Communion, ultimately, is emptied of its power.

It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to call this an attempt to destroy the sacraments. I don't think it is an intentional attempt on the part of most of the people representing the radically open table position. But the lack of intentionality does not disarm its harmful consequences.

Grace & peace,

8:34 PM, May 26, 2010  

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