Open Communion: A Gentle Revolution

Bread and wine and communion as the tree of life. Chagall stained glass. Midjourney v 3. 12/9/22

A foundation for a gentle revolution

To be clear, I do not think that the church should seize the levers of violent political power in order to achieve its ends. Just the opposite, in fact: I believe that Christian discipleship at its core involves training in non-violence and non-coercion, as we are all slowly discipled together by the crucified Messiah. This means that insofar as the church seizes coercive political power, it is betraying Jesus himself and building on sand. It is destroying its own future, because soon it won’t be the church at all, but will just be another idol waiting to fall in the rising and falling of swords against swords.

I’ve written about this understanding of the Gospel in an accessible form here. I’ve also illustrated how well Matthew reads as a whole, in particular, when we read it in this way here. The basic question I think we need to wrestle with is simply this: what would the world look like if Christians took the Covenant on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) as the foundational teaching of Jesus, and saw their work as fundamentally being about training people to be faithful to it, as a movement of God’s grace from first to last?

The effects for church politics and polity, starting with the way we practice the liturgy of the church, are surprisingly far reaching and profound.

Rooted in these insights, the practice of open communion brings the Gospel to life by physically demonstrating the power of simple acts of obedience, or disobedience, to transform our perception of literally everything.

Abram and Melchizidek sharing bread and wine. Photo of Chagall stained glass. Midjourney v 4. 12/9/22

Open Communion is an expression of non-violent resistance, leading to God’s victory

Jesus is therefore the one who models open communion for us, even in the most extreme case imaginable. We might attempt an argument ad absurdum with respect to the practice and ask God: Lord should we even practice open communion with someone who is in the process of getting us killed, and who is there in order to kill us? Jesus doesn’t only say “yes.” He says “yes” with his actions.

But this is absurd! Do you know what else is absurd? The belief that we will be raised with Christ, like Christ in glory, if we also remain faithful to the Covenant on the Mount.

In the practice of open communion, Jesus is faithful to the Covenant on the Mount to the utmost, and so he demonstrates how fully and deeply he means what he says. He demonstrates, in other words, how full and deep his faith really is. He does not physically constrain his enemy, although he does spiritually address the situation by speaking plainly about his betrayal. The effect is to make it clear that this Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, is fully aware of the betrayal and that it will lead to his death. And still he refuses to guard the First Communion.

Who are we, in following his command to imitate this meal, to impose all kinds of other limits when Jesus wouldn’t even set one in extremis? In conducting the First Communion and the Last Supper in this way, Jesus bequeathed us an eternal rite that offers an unshakeable a fortiori/qal va-homer argument in favor of open communion: if even this doesn’t force us to guard communion, what possibly could? The correct answer is “nothing.”

In fact, the power of this Messiah’s spiritual victory over the fleshy betrayal of Judas is precisely rooted in the fact that here he doesn’t spiritually bypass, or evade, or depart, or ignore his understanding of the situation. And yet he also doesn’t fight Judas off with weapons, or urge his disciples to bar the door, or even go so far as to tell Judas not to partake in the meal. The enduring message is that the only way out is through, and for those who abide by the Covenant on the Mount (like Jesus and his disciples) this means that he also has to go through dinner with his betrayer without resorting to force. In his body and in his flesh he relies for his vindication and ultimate protection on God’s faithfulness to his covenants and his faithfulness to God’s covenant, especially the Covenant on the Mount.

A careful and faithful meditation on the Last Supper and its significance is the heart of the church movement rooted in open communion. It is not a posture that takes evil or violence lightly. On the contrary, it recognizes how Jesus places these concerns at the center and the pinnacle of our faith and our common life. And then it simply insists on dealing with these issues in the same cruciform way that Jesus deals with them, because otherwise we can’t be faithful to Jesus. Without this we can’t hope to properly articulate the basic implications of the resurrection and the cross, of the bread and the wine, of baptism. Without this we haven’t yet internalized the work of reconciliation that God is doing in Jesus Christ in us. In short, when we forsake this we forsake Christ and we forsake faith in him.

Abram. Melchizidek. Stained glass window in the style of Rothko. Midjourney v 3. 12/9/22

Open communion answers the central question that communion traditionally answers: who is the church?

At the same time, all of these formations pointedly avoid the traditional way in which Christians have understood whether they are part of the same church or not. We might ask, “Who is part of our church association?” But we never escape the need to ask the more fundamental question, “Who is part of the Church?”

There’s nothing wrong with asking secondary questions and forming secondary social structures, asking and answering questions that aren’t fundamental. However, we still need to answer this fundamental question about what the church even is, if we want to coherently approach secondary questions about issues like denominations and networks. Why? Because the secondary questions inevitably end up presuming certain frameworks for approaching the more fundamental questions, as well as certain ways of answering them within these various frameworks.

In short, we cannot answer the question, “Is this person or church part of our association, denomination, network, coalition, etc.?” without presuming some kind of answer to the question, “Are they part of the Church (meaning the universal Christian church)?” And of course wherever some churches presume to ask this about others, we also have to ask the question about them. And about ourselves. Are any of us part of the Church? If so, why?

The practice of open communion offers us a profound and embodied answer to this question, if we consider it in the context of the Church’s traditional way of asking and answering this question. That approach says that those who are in communion with us are those who participate in communion with us, and this is what determines who the Church is. The practice of communion constitutes the local church, and the recognition of others’ practice of communion and the possibility of participating in communion with them is what constitutes a broader communion. This practice of mutual, and mutually recognized, communion is what traditionally shows us to be the Church, one that is broader and deeper and more diverse in every way than any particular local congregation can be, because it includes many local congregations that are visibly in communion with each other.

In short, a congregation is a local communion, and all of the communions that are welcome to participate in each others’ local communion (when present there) form a broader communion. The universal communion of all churches, in communion with each other, is the universal Church.

Open communion proceeds from the understanding that Christ’s own open practice of communion defines the boundaries of the communion. If the practice modeled by Jesus is our practice, then no centralized figure, not even Jesus, bars participants by either force or command.

Having said that, there is an even deeper gravity to communion when it is understood in this way. One question that it perennially raises for us whenever we participate in communion is this: do we want that part of us that betrays Jesus to come to the table and die? In other words, do we want the Judas in us to die? To participate in communion is to understand that it is a matter of the deepest seriousness, touching on questions of life and death. This seriousness underlines the importance of God’s own work in and through communion, and the openness of the liturgical practice points to our openness to correction, transformation, and change in the depths of our heart in a way that only God can work in us.

Open communion, therefore, is a liturgical practice of transformation, and through it we embody our reliance on God. It insists on working beyond the agency of any liturgist or church official or legal structure to complete the work of communion in us, when we participate in it and invite others to participate in it. The practice recognizes that this work must be as open and generous and free of any human control as it is serious about taking up the cross of Christ, renouncing domination and the hypocrisy it breeds, and following him into resurrection life. The sins that are most fundamentally overcome through Jesus-faith are the very sins that Jesus overcomes by renouncing their possibility in his reign: greed, violence, unjust judgment, hypocrisy, malice, slander, deception, and all of the anti-reconciling behaviors we fall into. Open communion follows Jesus in his faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount, and in that deep and throughgoing renunciation of coercion we also renounce all of the little empires that we try to build, which try to stand against the powerful but gentle reign of the Lamb of God.

A dove that is a tree. Style of Paul Klee. Midjourney v 3. 12/9/22

How does open communion relate to the traditions and history of the church?

What should a shepherd do? Be a shepherd and not going around condemning or not condemning,” the pope said. “They must be a shepherd with God’s style. And God’s style is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

Francis said he did not want to specifically address the particular situation in the United States, but added that “if we look at the history of the church, we will see that every time the bishops did not act as shepherds” it was a “problem.”

Francis was asked whether he had ever denied the Eucharist to someone who presented themselves for Communion and he said “never.”

“No, I have never denied the Eucharist to anyone, to anyone!” he said. “I don’t know if someone came to me under these conditions, but I have never refused them the Eucharist, since the time I was a priest.”

He went on to share a humorous anecdote of celebrating Mass on one occasion at a nursing home. Afterwards, an elderly woman thanked him for Communion, adding that she was Jewish.

“Those who are not in the community cannot take Communion, like this Hebrew lady,” he said, “but the Lord wanted to reward her, and I did not know it.”

The reception of Communion, said Francis, is “linked to the community.”

While there may be those that are “temporarily” outside of the church community, he said they are “are sons of God and they need our closeness, our pastoral closeness.”

“A shepherd can decide it with the style of God,” he added

“If you are tender as a person, this is just a theory, but being pastors, the pastors know how to act in every moment.”

Francis also recalled the “storm” surrounding Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics following the release of his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The document offered a cautious opening to Communion for some divorced and remarried couples and the pope recalled that he was accused of “heresy” by some critics at the time.

He said that one must distinguish between theological questions and pastoral ones, saying that: “As a pastor, you have to be a neighbor, and if you get out of this pastoral care of the church, you become a politician.”

Pope Francis has also insisted many times that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.

When we think about the history of open communion, this example is instructive in how it highlights the deep difficulty of our question. Are we interested in actual practice? If so, we should note that practice can include exceptions, even up to the point of being entirely a matter of exceptions: a completely suspended law, in practice. How many priests, pastors and congregations throughout the history of the Church have followed the example of Pope Francis? The question isn’t one that can be confidently answered, but the example of Pope Francis highlights the question that interests us here. We aren’t looking at whatever is said on paper, but we are interested in the practice. Pope Francis is, by his own report, a perfect practitioner of open communion at the level of practice.

Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that the official policy of the early church broadly involved a closed communion practice. Alan Kreider’s Patient Ferment of the Early Church makes this reasonably clear. However, many traditionalists who advocate closed communion are bound to run into problems quickly as soon as they demand that we get back to that: one of the main reasons someone would be excluded from communion then was violence, including working as a soldier. As Kreider documents, for the first three centuries of church history there was a broad-based consensus that Christianity involved being faithful to the teachings of Jesus, especially that core of Jesus Teaching that we find expressed in the Covenant on the Mount and the Covenant on the Plain (Matthew 5–7 and Luke 6). It would take the Emperor Constantine’s political blandishments, and the rhetorical work of the likes of Augustine, to begin the process of deeply transforming the church’s teachings so that they could serve as an imperial court religion, like the religion of Manichaeism that Augustine was also formed by. Increasing laxity around the foundational teachings of Jesus also corresponded to increasing laxity in communion practice.

Significantly, the role of coercion in liturgy itself is also forced by the question of open communion. After all, if someone comes up for communion, a priest might non-violently resist them by angrily whispering, “No.” They might also be non-violently dissuaded from even approaching in the first place by various formal teachings, such as those of Catholics, the Orthodox and many Magisterial Protestants. But what happens if someone approaches communion like the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus in Matthew 15:21–28? What do we do about those who overcome the church’s efforts to dissuade and insult them? The practice of Pope Francis corresponds to the practice of Jesus at the First Communion, as well as the practice of Jesus in Matthew 15:21–28. In my broader discussion of the phrase “sign of your presence” in Matthew, I argue in more detail that Matthew 15:21–28 could well be engaging with the Didache, which also puts this very offensive phrase on the tongue of Jesus in a discussion of communion: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The effect of Matthew 15:21–28, in that context, is to reframe the Didache’s advocacy in favor of closed communion by arguing that Jesus does, in fact, open the table to whoever asks.

Later efforts to close the communion table become very involved, even requiring years of catechesis before people could join in worship and the Eucharist. The goals of preserving Christian non-violence and economic generosity were admirable, but these efforts didn’t succeed in preserving this consensus. As Kreider documents, second century attempts at increasing the rigor of catechesis and exclusion failed to maintain Christian distinctives around non-violence and the accumulation of wealth, in the face of Christianity’s rapid growth. The church grew faster than its discipleship practices could handle, and after Constantine we began to see an increasing collapse in even the most basic and fundamental of Christian commitments, such as the commitment to non-violence which once meant (naturally) that soldiers and emperors could not join the church while serving in those roles.

We now live in the wake of those failed attempts, although the tradition and scripture all attest quite clearly to the history of our failure, such as it is.

On the other hand, what if we take a more positive view of the tradition and God’s presence in it? Given this situation, we might also see the closed communion of the earlier centuries as something built to spill out, like the blood of Jesus spilled out: what if part of the lesson we are to take from this is that the Church was never meant to be a pure community of the righteous, but was instead to be a limping community of the sick, all on our way to Jesus together? If we read our tradition and our history that way, then the articulation of norms (Christians are to renounce all violence) and the practice of open communion can go hand in hand. At the table, those who insist on coming, even soldiers and other violent men, are invited into a process of transformation at personal and group scales. We come, then, like the Canaanite woman. And Jesus does what Pope Francis does: he says “yes” to our “yes”.

Those who are dissuaded from participating in communion by their traditions would do well to learn from the Canaanite woman. Those who administer communion would do well to learn from Jesus and Pope Francis, as we stumble blearily into the non-violent way of Jesus together.

Open communion invites us to embody God’s answer to schism and war, and so to deepen in discipleship to Jesus together

As a striking counter-example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was preceded by the Russian Orthodox Church violently severing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from communion with it. In this way, the Russian Orthodox Church embraced schism as schismatics generally do: by accusing the other party of schism while also separating themselves from them. The deep political logic of Putin’s Russia is a logic that fails to accord with reality, but it does have its own internal coherence of a sort. It is the coherence that we always find in imperial court theologies, one that derogates to humans the sifting power of God because they hope to justify their greed and cruelty. So they swath their selfishness in projection, giving themselves over to slander and accusations that are both false and hypocritical.

This is always the way of Empire. The foundational teachings of Jesus move us, precisely, in the opposite direction. Jesus forms us to live in joyful solidarity with the poor, while Empire promises us the fleeting pleasures of power and prestige and wealth. Jesus forms us to love our enemies, while Empire mobilizes us to violence through hatred. Jesus invites us into the discursive work of reconciliation, growing in truth and knowledge and understanding as we correct our mistakes and learn to live together, and to live with our pasts, in ways marked by both justice and peace. Empire refuses to ever admit a mistake or reckon with our past, especially when it is claiming most aggressively that it is preserving it: all that it can preserve are flattering lies and illusions about its past. Its true continuity is only a continuity of illusion.

For each of us and for the church as a whole, the past is another country. Empire hates other countries, but the Kingdom of Jesus invites all nations, bloody histories and all, to the table where we are changed. This is why the only credible conservatism is open-handed and liberal, and the only credible liberalism is one that even lets us tolerate ourselves and who we have been.

I am personally convinced that if the Russian Orthodox Church had been filled with authentic disciples of Jesus, they would have never allowed this schism to occur. Grassroots liturgical resistance would have made Patriarch Kirill's attempts to divide them a joke, as priests and congregants insisted on defying his commands by participating in communion together. Russian and Ukrainian Christians would have joined with Christians around the world in a campaign of coordinated civil and liturgical obedience to Jesus (but disobedience to Russian “Christian” nationalism).

The distance between that hopeful vision and the reality is, in my view, precisely the distance between our liturgies and Jesus. It is the distance between what God says to us in and through the Church, and our willingness to hear and heed what is being said. In short, it is the precise measure of our enormous hypocrisy as the Church throughout the world.

A proper liturgy of open communion isn’t fundamentally marked by any particular liturgical tradition. It is, however, marked by the work of the Holy Spirit forming the participants in the liturgy to move, truly, into lives that look like the life of Jesus in our communities. The elements are all there. The question is whether we want to truly say yes to God.

Do we? This is an important and urgent question, even as it is one that no human officiant can answer for us, especially not by closing the rail to some fresh scapegoat. Instead, it is a question that each of us need to bring to God when we approach the communion table. If we do that, we will be transformed, and I am confident that we can become the sort of people who bring peace and justice in our families, cities, states and provinces, nations and international orders.

I believe that the first step in this long journey is to give up the illusion that a pastor or priest or other religious official can help draw us into the work of Christian discipleship, of being discipled by Jesus together, by acting in ways that the Good Shepherd never acted.

A closing prayer

Come Holy Spirit!

By your power, please make us disciples of Jesus Christ.

Make us branches bound to the true vine by his love.

Make us siblings adopted into his family by his blood.

Make us students, ever more conformed to the image of our teacher

so that we can join him in that eternal moment

as he turns all things over to the Father so that God is all in all.

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.