For the Anglican Church, this is a good week to bury bad news – or, indeed, bad theology. Following the Guardian‘s liveblog yesterday, I was surprised to see the issue of “open table” communion up for date. This is the policy by which (as many churches word it) anyone “in good standing with their own Church”, “baptised Christians” or, simply, “anyone who wishes to” may come forward and receive Communion (the bread and wine) during a normal Eucharist, regardless of whether they’ve been confirmed.
To my horror, I found out that generous, sane practice is actually illegal according to Church law.
The liturgy of the Eucharist emphasises individual preparation and emotional openness before God: the last words we speak before going up to the rail are Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed. Our own willingness to take communion, to unite ourselves with the “one body” that shares one bread and one cup, is what puts meaning into those words, but we are still “unworthy” to receive God; we’re all imperfect, struggling human beings and only God can change that. Whether or not we’ve gone through Confirmation doesn’t change or essential humanity, or “earn” us the right to receive the fruits of Grace and a sacrifice, made through the Crucifixion, which we can never hope to deserve. How can it be that someone can stand in church, say the Eucharistic prayer, mean all the promises it contains, but still be barred from its culmination, Communion? What on earth is a non-confirmed person meant to do, stand there in silence?
Nobody should have to take Communion, of course, and I think it’s great that people can just come up for a blessing (although I think that can seem quite daunting in its own right). But if, in the course of a Sunday service, someone is moved to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or its memorial equivalents, depending on their belief), and to put themselves into that intimacy with God, whether it’s for the first time in their lives or after an extended period away from religion, absolutely nothing should stand in their way.
I can’t imagine anyone taking Eucharist for the “wrong” reasons – I’m not sure what those would be, and I don’t think it could meaningfully devalue or “damage” the ritual in any way.
I have never understood why children old enough to consume the bread and wine in safety, who attend church regularly and are part of church life, are less entitled to Communion than adults who never come to church, but who went through a Confirmation ceremony thirty or forty years ago. Rightly, adults with dementia are allowed Communion, as are those whose learning difficulties would make the prescribed course of Confirmation preparation (even though such preparation is wildly non-standardised) imposible; accordingly, the issue of intellectual-understanding-as-entitlement is already recognised as irrelevant in some cases.
I was confirmed at thirteen, following all the usual preparation and by a bona fide bishop; I am now twenty-four, and, I hope, have a better and deeper understanding of Christianity both through education and lived experience (n.b. this is totally without any claims to being a better person). I don’t think that makes me more entitled to Communion now than I was previously.
The whole issue of entitlement stinks. Nobody who wants to make the commitment, receive the comfort, or join in the community of the Eucharist should be denied the opportunity. Anglicans are supposed to believe in a God of enormity and power – one who created Heaven and Earth, and then sent his Son to die a miserable, agonising, death. Before bringing him back from the dead. I have never understood how someone so awesome, transcendent, so obviously supernatural in force, could be supposed to even care about the petty, legalistic and so obviously man-made trifles that make up so much of what’s spiteful and divisive in Church debate.
I don’t believe in Biblical infallibility or in the supremacy of reason and compassion over Scriptures that have been edited, manipulated, translated and transposed for two millennia; but since many people who’ll disagree with this post do, I’ll (nearly) end with one of the (relatively few) Bible verses that speaks to me (oh help, I’m quoting the Bible on my blog, this feels like one step away from subscribing to LadiesAgainstFeminism.com NoThat’sNotAHoax). In brief:
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[Romans 8:38-39, King James Version]
Additional translation: if you feel you want to take Communion, do it. God won’t care, he’ll be glad, stop worrying, & furthermore the Anglican Synod (with the exception of the cool/sane/honourable Malcolm Halliday &c) are bureaucratic idiots who depress me hugely in their refusal to ratify the open altar and practice what Jesus told them to preach.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.