How do we let people say “No”?
In tandem with many churches, Lutheran and otherwise, my own parish has moved toward a wider, more explicit, and less qualified invitation to Holy Communion. This development has been more pragmatic than principled, at least as far as my own role is concerned. I am generally persuaded by the long witness of the relationship between baptism and communion, the former giving shape to the Body in which the latter is discerned, blessed, given, received, and oriented toward works of mercy beyond.
At the same time I am mindful of how our practices–in our case, individual wafers and, in about half of our liturgies, pre-filled individual cups of wine and juice–display an individually-administered “dose” of grace from which it seems, and perhaps is, rather small to exclude anyone. Trifling commitment to baptism itself is not irrelevant, either, when we see it and only it as the line between those who can receive and those who can’t. I’ve communed individuals with dementia whose relationship to the body of the baptized was beyond knowing. It is too difficult, I have provisionally concluded, to catechize the relationship between our sacramental practices in the space of a bulletin or an announcement from the altar. If you disagree, simply consider the impression left by outsiders who visit a Missouri Synod parish. I have yet to hear a guest extoll the high meaning they ascribe to the sacrament thus protected from profane hands.
That being said, I have continued to look for faithful ways to prioritize baptism, and preparation for it, as we include new members in the Body of Christ. As my colleagues Ben Stewart and Frank Senn point out in different ways in this issue, Holy Communion is about more than who is around the table; it’s about what happens to us when we share in the event. Our liturgical setting for sharing the bread and cup expresses something much more intense than hospitality received in a moment of social or spiritual openness. “With this bread of life and cup of salvation you have united us with Christ, making us one with all your people,” we pray in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is just as explicit in its prayers after communion: “Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ…” This assumes an identity and an assent to the meaning of communion that we do not foreshadow when we invite people without qualification.
And if it’s true, as many argue today, that the Eucharist did not originate in the remembrance of Christ’s last meal with his disciples but in Jesus’ radically inclusive meal practices throughout his ministry, the consequences are serious. Such an insight, were we to accept it, would probably require communing the unbaptized but would certainly require abandoning language of body, blood, remembrance, death and resurrection. As is so often the case with a doctrinal change, it is not enough to simply delete a prohibition or add a statement of welcome; a whole liturgy and way of being church is bound up in the baptized, embodied identity of the people receiving the sacrament that would have to be unwound and rewritten in substantial ways in order to avoid incoherence.
Or worse: a kind of aggression in our hospitality that is left when we don’t grant anyone a means of opting out. A problem with the desperately unqualified invitation is that it makes staying in one’s seat look an awful lot like being ill-natured. Why else, after all, would anyone not wish to break bread with us? “Is there a pastorally appropriate way to invite a devout Muslim to communion?” Ben Stewart asks, and I admit I don’t know what that would look like. Not every unbaptized person is a “none.” And inside every “none” is not a Christian waiting to be invited out. One aspect of hospitality is allowing people to refrain, not just for the sake of their own scruples but for the sake of an expectation of conduct that they might not wish to bear at their nephew’s first communion service. It is possible to drop our communal barriers so fully as to define everyone, including our Hindu or atheist neighbors, as suddenly part of a mystical body that we happen to be specially privileged to identify.
That is hardly to say that I wish to police my communion line for unbaptized dabblers or Jewish uncles gang-pressed into eating something everyone around them considers body and blood. To the extent that the essential relationship of baptism to communion is presented as a matter for policing it is largely being misunderstood. But our invitations don’t simply remove obstacles; they also construct our understanding of our community and of those we invite. If we’re truly anxious to be inclusive and missional, we can simply acknowledge that every life-giving verbal interaction is in some sense a proclamation of Gospel and that every meal shared in a group (or eaten by one person thinking of other people) is sacramental. Then everyone who talks, listens, reads and eats is already in church all the time. The numbers problem is solved, the relevance of our faith is established by definition, and we can all go and do something useful and necessary with our time and our talents.
But while it’s tempting to follow this logic all the way to turning the church keys over to the bank and getting a regular job, no one seems willing to do so. And that leads me to the difficult truth that we do not really want our religious identity to be as thin as our ritual practice is tending. Because that’s the thing: thin ritual renders a thin identity. There is a mismatch, then, between the “all” of the invitation and the “we thank you for feeding us” of the final prayer, a mismatch between a thinly-conceived Body and a thickly-experienced Sacrament. At the heart of even the most ham-handed and triumphalist gesture of welcome is an honest desire to bring people into something we consider valuable, not trivial. It is not, to borrow Kierkegaard’s phrase, merchandise to be given away in the church’s end-time fire sale.
Instead, as we deliberate about our communion practices, it’s important to remember what we imagine worshipers are affirming–about themselves, each other, and God–by sharing in a holy meal. And it’s equally important to leave room for the world to say “Thank you, but not for me.”