Since we began gathering in 2003, saint benedict’s table has followed a practice known as “open table” in its invitation to communion. A departure from the long-established and normative tradition of viewing baptism as a prerequisite for participation in communion, the rationale for our practice is outlined in Jamie Howison’s little book, Come to the Table. In this reflection Bryan Neufeld raises some important concerns around our practice, and challenges us to keep baptism fully in view.
The idea of open communion – allowing anyone who claims faith and wishes to participate in the Lord’s Supper to do so – is a practice that goes against traditional Christian teaching. For most of the church’s history, the Lord’s Supper was reserved for those who had first been baptized. Recently, though, the correctness of this view has been discussed in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States. Though this is a wider Anglican issue, we at saint benedict’s table should pay attention to it because we practice open communion.”
There are two specific factors related to our status as a mission that lead to the decision to allow open communion at saint benedict’s table. The first is that the Lord’s Supper was always thought to be the central practice which our liturgy was to be centered around. The second is that, when people began to come to saint benedict’s, they were often coming from church contexts where for years they had been receiving communion without being baptized. Jamie explained this background in more detail his short book Come to the Table, which I am sure there are copies of floating around if you would like to see the situation laid out fully.
I wasn’t at saint benedict’s at the beginning – I only started to attend a few years back – and even though the argument for open communion in our context definitely is built upon a solid pastoral need, our practice has always made me a bit uncomfortable. The source of my trouble is the issue of what happens to the sacrament of baptism when open communion is the norm.
What a person believes is accomplished in baptism would appear to settle the question of taking communion before being baptised or not. If baptism is merely an outward profession of an inward decision to follow Christ, as many evangelicals believe, then taking communion without being baptized is not an insurmountable problem as long as communion comes after the inward decision. If on the other hand baptism is, to use the word from the 39 articles, baptism is somehow an “instrument” in coming into the Church then having it after communion presents some theological challenges.
In another respect, and one that would seem to be more relevant to saint benedict’s table’s large Anabaptist portion of the congregation, regardless of what baptism actually does or does not do, our overall understanding of the emphasis placed on it in the New Testament should affect our participation in it. Leonard J. Vander Zee, in his work Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper comments:
One of the most striking features of the New Testament’ understanding of baptism is the way in which the term is used almost interchangeably with conversion, regeneration, and salvation itself.
If scripture itself speaks so highly of baptism, putting it up there with salvation, should we not be partaking of it as soon as possible when we come to Christ? That would seem to be the norm of the early church in Acts:
While in church today great care is often taken to instruct candidates for baptism and to discern whether their conversion is authentic by its fruits in their life, in Acts baptism takes place quickly and, it seems, with little or no preparation (VanderZee).
I think there is a lot of wisdom in following Acts on this question as a general rule. There will be some individual circumstances where, due to past church experiences, a person mistrusts the church and cannot bring themselves to go forward with baptism right away, but those are the exceptions. If we have a pattern of being baptised as soon as possible after conversion, the tension of taking communion before being baptised lessens by itself. It doesn’t remove the issue – it does nothing when the people in the pews are from the Salvation Army for example – but, for those that attend the church week after week, the number of Sundays they partake in communion before undergoing baptism would be minimal.
Encouraging baptism isn’t a solution to the argument over open communion, but while the larger church debates the merits of the practice it is something that the local church can do to decrease the need for the practice.