Posted on: March 9th, 2009 Tanner on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article of “In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell” by Kathryn Tanner which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In this article Kathryn Tanner attempts to respond to James Farwell’s article which argues against the practice of open communion in the Episcopal Church. The article is, indeed a rejoinder to Farwell.
Her initial foray into what turns out to be the bulk of her argument is that, while Farwell is correct in pointing out that many or most advocates of open communion, following the consensus of the Jesus Seminar, deny the historicity of the account of Jesus’ Last Supper meal with his disciples, this move need not be made by advocates of open communion. Rather, all that must be argued is that the last supper account be read in light of Jesus’ larger food ministry, both his lavish, unconditionally inclusive table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, as well as his ministry of feeding the crowds. When one does this one quickly realizes that the last supper is not really that different from the latter: in both cases Jesus is dining with sinners (in the case of the last supper, with a Christ-denier and a Christ-betrayer) who are ill-informed about Jesus and his Kingdom designs and purposes. Tanner thinks that this undermines Farwell’s argument, since she thinks, for reasons unknown to this writer, that Farwell’s argument relies on the commitment of the participants in the Eucharist as well as their status as well-informed. (This is not Farwell’s argument.)
Tanner also accuses Farwell of portraying the Eucharist as nourishment for mission, but this, she says, encourages “the corrupting disjunction between worship and mission to which Christians everywhere seem prone.”
While Farwell does not claim that baptism is about commitment, Tanner does make this claim, by emphasizing that the baptismal covenant calls for radical commitment on the part of the baptized. (But what about the repetition of the baptismal covenant by the already baptized? one is led to ask.) Because of this, and because the 79 prayer book supposedly sees baptism and eucharist as part of a larger, complex rite of initiation, one can argue that the Eucharist, in giving the person the shape of the Christian life, can precede and prepare for Baptism.
One way of seeing what Tanner is trying to do here: she is applying the same “logic” which the framers of the 79 prayer book used for baptism (in our post-Constantinian context) to the eucharist. If the wider world is no longer Christian, there are many reasons to admit them directly to the table, she thinks.

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