Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Open Communion dividing Episcopal church

A quiet revolution is taking place at the altars of many churches - in the form of bread and wine.

Communion, the central ritual of most Christian worship services and long a members-only sacrament, is increasingly being opened to any willing participant, including the nonbaptized, the nonbeliever, and the non-Christian.

The change is most dramatic in the Episcopal Church, particularly in liberal dioceses like Massachusetts. The denomination's rules are clear: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." Yet, a recent survey by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts found that nearly three-quarters of local parishes are practicing "open Communion," inviting anyone to partake.

"Who am I to say who should be at God's table?" said the Rev. Gale Davis Morris, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton. "Most of Scripture is pretty clear about who the ultimate judge is, and it's not anybody that's human. And I would much rather err on the side of inclusion than exclusion."

Supporters of open Communion argue that Jesus would not have turned anyone away; defenders of closed Communion say that's a misreading of biblical history and that Communion is meant to be a sign not only of one's faith but of one's membership in the church. The debate is taking place as the number of Americans who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing, and church leaders are attempting to lure them in.

"Both sides will appeal to Scripture - those for open Communion will appeal to Jesus' practice of having meals with tax collectors and sinners, while those who want to maintain the traditional practice appeal to the Last Supper, where Jesus was eating with his disciples," said the Rev. Matthew Stewart, priest in charge at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Fall River. Stewart led a study of Communion practices in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Strikingly, the transformation is taking place with little public controversy, as parish by parish, Episcopal priests are making their own decisions about whom to invite to the Communion rail. The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts has taken a hands-off approach.

"Episcopal Church leadership recognizes that Episcopalians have varied interpretations from Scripture and early Church practices," said the diocesan spokeswoman, Maria Plati. "At this time the decision to invite unbaptized persons to Communion is understood and accepted as a local option." Read more
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