United Methodists and Open Communion

If you attend a United Methodist communion service, chances are that you will hear that the table is open to everyone. Period. It is also likely that you won’t hear anything relating to this requirement from our official statement on baptism:

Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.
[from By Water and the Spirit]

Or this affirmation from our official statement on communion:

Holy Baptism normally precedes partaking of Holy Communion. Holy Communion is a meal of the community who are in covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. . . Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.
[from This Holy Mystery]

It is a pity that so many of our churches are silent about the connection between baptism and the Lord’s table.

It is true that Wesley spoke occasionally about baptism as a “converting ordinance” as well as a “confirming ordinance,” and some United Methodists have used that to argue for a table that is utterly disconnected from membership in the covenant community. Perhaps the communion table itself will act as the door to the church. Perhaps it will simply be a blessing to those passing by.

It might be interesting to look at this approach in the light of Jesus’ table ministry, but I’m not sure that you can pull Wesley into this conversation. He was speaking within a context that is very different than ours. The Church of England was the state church and infant baptism was nearly universal. Saving faith (in Wesley’s opinion) was rare. In Wesley’s ordo salutis, the baptized needed conversion so that they could be assured their sins were forgiven. Wesley most frequently described communion as a “means of grace,” a phrase he borrowed from the Church of England. Baptism, it should be noted, was not listed among Wesley’s means of grace. It didn’t need to be. The “means of grace” were intended for frequent use by those who were baptized!

The 2002 article Table Etiquette: Means and Manners by Boston University professor Karen Westerfield-Tucker provides a great discussion of this issue. According to Dr. Westerfield-Tucker, there is no evidence that Wesley ever knowingly served communion to an unbaptized person, but he probably did open the table to to those who were not confirmed if they could meet the conditions of the invitation:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort, and make your humble confession to almighty God.

Some have noted that the old invitation to the table does not say anything about baptism. The only problem is that Wesley borrowed the invitation almost verbatim from the Book of Common Prayer, and Anglicans (historically) have not seen a disconnect between the invitation’s words and the requirement for baptism.

I don’t ask anyone for their credentials before they come to the table. In that, I’m not much different from a Catholic priest with whom I talked several years ago. My wife and I were hungry for the ancient liturgy of the church and I told the priest that I might sneak into mass some day, just to listen. He hinted that I might do more when he quipped, “I don’t check ID cards at communion table.” I’ve had some Missouri Synod Lutheran pastors tell me the same thing. Out of respect for my friends and their churches, though, I don’t partake of the elements where there is a formal barrier to communion.

When I lead communion, I sometimes pose the informal invitation like this: This is the table of the Lord, and he expects his family to come to Sunday supper. If you’ve become Jesus’ brother or sister through faith and you’ve been united to him in Christian baptism, you belong at the table where Jesus feeds his family. Just like at home, though, we sometimes entertain guests. If you decide to join us at the table today and you’ve not been united to Christ in baptism, why don’t you talk to me about what it means to be a member of the household of God.

That’s the best I can do with regard to offering an open table. Perhaps I should also warn people of the dangers of taking communion for those who don’t respect the nature of the sacrament (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit were both adopted by General Conference, but you won’t find them referenced in the Book of Discipline. In fact, won’t find an explicit affirmation or denial of “open communion” in the Book of Discipline at all. These studies and some rubrics in the Book of Worship are all we have.

While United Methodists don’t turn away anyone from the table, neither should we separate ourselves from the catholic tradition of the church: baptism and communion belong together.