Farwell on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article “Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of ‘Open Communion'” by James Farwell which appeared Spring 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” theology class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In the first, introductory section of the article Farwell summarizes the basic argument which advocates of open communion put forth. The line of reasoning  goes something like this: “(the historical) Jesus would not have engaged in a ritual meal which in any way excluded anyone, and therefore it is unfaithful to the example of Jesus to do so. On the contrary, the Jesus of history went around and scandalized the Jewish leaders of his day by feasting lavishly with ‘sinners:’ prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts. The practice of ‘closed communion’ in which baptism is a ‘gateway’ to the table is exclusionary in a way which contradicts the gospel of Jesus.” Farwell, however, views this is a prima facie argument which lacks systematic rigor and makes arbitrary presuppositions, which need further scrutiny and clarification, especially given so central a matter for the life of the Christian Church. Farwell suggests that the failure to engage in this deeper reflection might lead us to give in to the dangerous “the seduction of relevancy.”

In the second section of the article, “The Argument for Open Communion,” Farwell digs deeper into one  of these presuppositions, namely that “the restriction of the eucharist to the baptized was not an early practice, and, therefore, is insupportable,” a claim made by the Jesus Seminar, seen in the work, for example, of John Dominic Crossan.
Farwell responds to this claim in the third section by saying that, according to many biblical historians such as John Koenig,  “it is not clear that the origins of the eucharist cannot reside with Jesus” (italics his, 220-221). Many scholars, for example, argue that “open meal ministry and the more focused supper with the disciples lie alongside one another in a non-dualistic relationship.” (221) It is true, Farwell grants, that Paul’s teaching on the common meal in I Corinthians does not explicitly state the necessity of baptism; however, “there is in the … passage a clear logic of participation” which requires that at least two conditions be met in order to “participate in the table of the Lord” (I Cor 10:21), the “Lord’s supper” (I Cor 11:20): embrace of “the little ones and the outsiders,” and forsaking idolatry.  This law of participation, which is for St. Paul participation in “the future that animated Jesus himself,” is “consistent with” the practice of baptism. (223) If all of this is so, then the post-apostolic documentary evidence (Farwell quotes from the Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis, Theodore of Mopsuetia’s Third Baptismal Homily, and Augustine’s Sermon 272) must be reconsidered not necessarily as “the accretion of ecclesiastical exclusivity,” but rather “the deepening of the participatory logic of the NT: eucharist completes the initiation and fires the remembrance of the disciple in a pattern of life suitable to the kingdom, to which he or she has joined himself or herself in baptism” (223).  This logic characterizes participation in the death of Christ (I Cor 11:26) and so it is perhaps “disingenuous to offer this meal as if it requires nothing but the desire to participate out of curiosity, custom, or an unformed sense of spiritual longing, however sincere” (224).
In the next section of the essay, Farwell argues that “there is a classic soteriology enacted in the connection of baptism and eucharist on which the practice of open communion may have a serious impact” (228) by spelling out the “both – and” theology of baptism and eucharist. Taken together, they narrate or display both the “gift” aspect of the Christian life  and the discipleship aspect of the Christian life.  It is true that baptism explicitly centers on and embodies more of the gift element, but it also set forth the trajectory and the content of the Christian life of discipleship and obedience (as, for example, is seen in our Baptismal Covenant). Baptism “carries the weight of clarifying the life for which eucharist strengthens us,” something which the eucharist does not do in an explicit way. Rather, it is as if the eucharist is “the performed shorthand for this divine life that we both receive and adopt through baptism” (emphasis his, 226). In other words, the eucharist presupposes baptism since it is there where the content of the Christian life is most fully described.  The eucharist fortifies us and nourishes us to live the life we were initiated in by baptism. But “open communion threatens to short-circuit this enacted “both-and” soteriology of the sacraments by collapsing the entire practice in the direction of divine gift.” (227)

Next Farwell deals with two pastoral issues. He notes that, when it comes to folks wanting to approach the Altar in Communion, there is a huge pastoral opportunity to shepherd people through the whole ordeal of dealing with desire or longing. If, however, we simply and hastily bring them to the table, we cheaply shortchange them of the opportunity to learn from their longing(s). Second, Farwell suggests that advocates of open communion are falling into our modern society’s priority of the individual, a priority which leads to the loss of the common good. This, too, presents a pastoral issue which is shortchanged if we simply rush ahead with open communion.
Finally, boundaries can be hospitable: “good fences make good neighbors.” Farwell’s point is analogous to my saying that it would be inhospitable for me to invite every stranger who knocks on the front door of my house to spend the night with my wife and me in our marriage bed.

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