Children at the Table and Open Communion, or, the Agape Restaurant

One of the unexpected elements of moving from worshipping in the context of the Episcopal Church to the Church of England is a different approach to the Eucharist.  This has been more a difference of emphasis than of importance, but I think it points up divergent ecclesiologies between the two churches.

This experience of difference is felt most strongly for me at the local parish church my family attends. Two things stand out for me (keeping in mind that I came to the Episcopal Church about 15 years after the introduction of the 1979 BCP). First, the Eucharist is not celebrated as the primary service every week. Rather, once a week there is a type of Morning Prayer that is labelled ‘All Ages Worship’ and includes ‘family’ oriented songs and prayers. In practice, this is geared for those ten and under. That there could be a primary service without Eucharist reveals the broader approach to worship in the Church of England where there is more need to encompass a wider set of worship practices than one finds in the Episcopal Church.

But why no Eucharist at the All Ages Worship?  Because it is not normal practice in the Church of England to communicate children. The norm is for children only to receive communion after confirmation. In 2006 regulations were introduced to permit diocesan bishops to allow parishes to communicate baptized prior to confirmation. Now about 15% of parishes do this as a regular practice.

This practice brought up short my children, especially my 5 year-old son. Both of our children were communicated for the first time the day they were baptized. I realize now that our assumption (and that of our priests and parish) that this was acceptable is in part due to our location. I mean this in two ways. One reason is that the Episcopal Church has taken it that Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship and ideally is done as the principle Sunday service (I realize there are still some Morning Prayer churches kicking around out there). A strong piece alongside this is the baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church which holds that once one is baptized, one is brought fully into the life of the church. In this ecclesiology, communicating baptized infants makes sense.

The second reason is that our children were baptized in two different parishes in the East Bay in California. Of course the seminary where I teach, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, is also located there in Berkeley. And at CDSP, there have been important professors of liturgy who have championed this very idea of baptismal ecclesiology. One of them was Massey Shepherd who had a great hand in writing the 1979 BCP and was a clear articulator of its baptismal ecclesiology. The second figure was Louis Weil, who was oversaw the writing of the Baptismal Covenant of the 1979 BCP. More importantly for this post, he was a clear proponent of communicating children prior to confirmation and incorporating children into the worship of the congregation. This did not mean dumbing down the liturgy but making sure children were actively involved in it. Indeed I was honoured to have Louis preach at my son’s baptism at St. Mark’s Berkeley in 2007.

What all this means is that my children have a highly developed awareness of the Eucharist. Between attending weekly community Eucharist at CDSP during the school year and attending most Sundays at our current parish, All Souls in Berkeley, I would guess my son has received communion about 300 times and my two year-old daughter about 130 times. My son especially is very serious about receiving the Eucharist.

So when we got to our parish church here in England, we were surprised to find that children leave the service soon after the opening hymn for children’s church and are not brought back for communion. In fact, they never return to church but parents get them afterwards during fellowship time. This really distressed my son in particular though my daughter noticed it as well. After some asking around, I found out that a child from another province of the Anglican Communion who has regularly received communion in that province may also receive communion in the Church of England prior to confirmation.  With that knowledge, we worked it out with our vicar to ensure both our kids could regularly receive communion and this has worked out very well.

All of this throws the current debate in the Episcopal Church about open communion or communion without baptism into sharper relief for me.  You can follow some of that debate in a recent thread on the Episcopal Cafe here.

The first observation is that the current set of assumptions about the role of the Eucharist and who has access to it varies greatly between the Episcopal Church and the Church of England. I cannot speak for other provinces of the Anglican Communion on this front, but I suspect more are closer to the CofE than to TEC.

The second is that these differences stem from different interpretations about the meaning of the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism and Eucharist are inextricably linked, but how that linkage matters is different in the two churches. If Baptism means that you are commissioned for ministry, which is at the core of the Episcopal Church’s baptismal ecclesiology, it makes sense to give communion to anyone baptized. In the Church of England there is a more traditional ecclesiology, shared with Roman Catholicism, for example, in which the mission of the church is identified with ordained ministry. Flowing from this come the differing views on communicating children.

The third observation is that if there are such obvious differences between communicating children in the two churches, then one can only imagine the amazing gap that would open if the Episcopal Church were to endorse communion without baptism (as proposed by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon) at the General Convention this summer. I am not sure it would deepen the divisions that currently exist in the Anglican Communion as a whole, but it would be a notable departure.

Finally, I would argue that welcoming baptized children at the table is not the same as explicitly  inviting those who are not baptized. First, the baptized child has had promises made by godparents, parents, and indeed the entire congregation to ensure this child is raised in the faith of Christ. My wife and I have powerfully experienced this at our parish. Our children receive communion in the context of those promises.  This sort of act of making promises and acting them out as a body of believes is a clear expression of baptismal ecclesiology.

But no one in the congregation stands up and makes promises that they will lead those unbaptized people who come up for communion into a deeper faith in Christ. We don’t because it would not make sense in the context of our baptismal ecclesiology. I fully believe that the desire to practice open communion comes from a place of good intentions. But it lacks the Anglican virtue of coherence in which a practice or belief reasonably coheres with the fullness of scriptural witness and apostolic tradition. In essence, it contradicts our proclamation that full participation in the Body of Christ begins from baptism. How then could one receive the Body of Christ before baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection?

This takes me to a possible solution: get serious about sharing meals on Sundays.

One of the themes in the debate around open communion is whether it is about replicating Jesus’ table fellowship or the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. I hold that Eucharist is directly linked to the Last Supper and less obviously linked to other gospel accounts about table fellowship. A reading of early church literature also bears this out. However, proponents of open communion are absolutely correct in arguing that Jesus’ practice of radically open table fellowship is a necessary element of Christian witness.

Curiously, an atheist intellectual has pointed the way on this. Alain de Boton, in his new book Religion for Atheists, has argued that the agape meals practiced by early Christians can provide a model for how to overcome the modern problem of alienation. Boton envisions creating secular ‘Agape Restaurants’ where strangers become friends. He describes it this way:

Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signalling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

What strikes me about this is that Boton identifies what can be best about church – that it makes strangers friends – but rarely is manifested. But I argue it can.  I live in foodie heaven. My parish is two blocks from Berkeley’s so-called ‘Gourmet Ghetto.’ When I moved here I was struck about how food oriented coffee hour is here. Back in Boston, coffee hour was just that – coffee, and usually bad. Here there are delicious spreads of cheese, sweets, and desserts often from the fruit tree in someone’s backyard. It is never elaborate, but it takes works. And it also creates a space where people linger and connect.

Now, imagine if instead of a coffee hour, the time after church involved a full blown meal. Every week.  And imagine if at communion, the priest said that all baptized Christians were welcome to receive and that afterwards everyone was invited for a full meal that would continue the feast begun at the altar. Such an invitation would show seekers that here was a church that both took its worship of God seriously but also truly invited all to explore the way of Jesus.  I also argue this would create a deeper sense of fellowship in Christ among congregation members. A weekly agape meal would require greater commitment for all, since clearly all members of the congregation would be expected to pitch in. But it would be a tangible piece of discipleship and deeply countercultural in our overscheduled world. And it is already working in its own way at places like St. Lydia’s.

In short, what would it look like if every time we celebrated the foretaste of the banquet of the Lamb we actually had a banquet? Kids and seekers welcome.


Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Church of England, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism

24 responses to “Children at the Table and Open Communion, or, the Agape Restaurant

  1. Okay…So, we’re kind of talking about this on my blog here: Specifically the comments…What is the trajectory of worship, it’s purpose? Evangelism? Radical welcome? Or is it something that believers do? It can be a combination, of course, but how one community parses out these foci begins to give some structure to the conversation about issues such as children receiving the eucharist or non-believers receiving the eucharist. If the purpose of worship is to express radical hospitality, then everyone is invited to the table. If there is a fencing of some kind so that some rites within the larger liturgy are “members only,” then the purpose of worship is “something that believers do.” It may be tinted (not tainted) with radical hospitality, “Let us spell out clearly how one gets to the table and how badly we want you here with us” but that’s a hard line to toe when the liturgy appears to be closed in some way. The fence needs to be unadorned and insubstantial.

    • Actually, I wonder what is the big deal simply to say “All baptized Christians are welcome.” This is a huge statement of welcome. In Poland, where I am going at the end of the week, this is never said. Ever. The point of the eucharist we will celebrate in Krakow is that all baptized Christians are welcome. I do not see that as a massive obstacle. To couple that with a meal in which all are welcome then serves as a gateway for those not baptized who want to explore common life to have another way in. The norm of baptized Christians receiving eucharist is ancient and did not serve as a hindrance to evangelism. Is our context so different that it should now?

  2. I thought it odd that no one had suggested bringing back the agape meal on the Episcopal Cafe thread about CWOB. It seems a reasonable way to address the concerns of both proponents and opponents of that practice: we extend real hospitality to newcomers in the Name of Christ, but we don’t end up revising our whole sacramental theology.

    Wouldn’t it also add a pretty hefty expense, though? I wonder how many parishes could pull it off, financially?

    • I agree on your first point, Bill and that is part of what I was saying to Tripp.

      Regarding, your second point, Bill, how expensive is a potluck every week? Can we imagine a fair way of sharing that burden?

      • I was just going to suggest the same…Baptists call it a potluck. Small, impoverished rural congregations do this every week because it’s so inexpensive and everyone is fed.

        Per the other question about evangelism…Yes, in the US it is that different now. Any “fencing” is deemed exclusionary. The church has been (perceived to be) on the wrong side of issues like segregation, the growing poverty gap, etc., that everything we do smacks of exclusion.


      • Oh, a potluck, of course! I got sidetracked by thinking about the Gourmet Ghetto, and was imagining something catered. A pOtluck would work, and shouldn’t cost very much above people’s household
        budget, since they’d be cooling anyway.

  3. Tripp, is saying that participating in the full life of the church requires baptism really that exclusionary? If so, why do people continue to join churches? I think there is a way to compellingly present the faith that both invites in and shows that to fully be a member of the community requires discipleship, beginning with baptism. That is a pretty clear scriptural teaching and something I am not prepared to surrender. For me, the agape meal as a gateway into the baptized life is useful.

    • Just reporting the news. Is it exclusionary? No. Is it oft received that way? Yes. Which of course begs the question: Who gets to decide if it is?

      Anyway, I was pastoring a Baptist church that never asked if you were baptized before you joined. I mean, we did, but it wasn’t a prerequisite for membership or full participation. I my six years there, we baptized one person. One. There were other opportunities, of course, but the leadership (and I caved, I’ll admit it) thought to ask someone to be baptized was exclusionary…it was a hoop. They had lost their since of baptismal identity. They had a eucharistic identity, of course, but did not see the connection between baptism and the eucharist. Baptism had to do with membership to the congregation and thus “voting.” All could come to the table. Not all could vote. This too is an exclusionary practice and the arguments about membership were manifold. As the entirety of the fellowship experience of the congregation was in the hour of worship on Sunday mornings (another question about how much time congregations can ask of people on Sunday mornings), any barriers to the fellowship had to be stripped out. There were no other times for formal gathering. Alas.

      • I hear what you are saying Tripp. And I suppose our difference lies in how we interpret that news. And I will admit you have experience and perspective I don’t which I have to consider. I also want to make a nod to Walt’s post here (you two should get to know each other — Walt finished his PhD in liturgy a few years back, Tripp is just starting the program).

        Anyhow, I want to argue for the fullness of fellowship Walt speaks of from his experience. How do we grow that?

      • Walt Knowles

        I grew up as good little Southern Baptist preacher’s kid. (well, maybe not “good”.) When my wife and I were dating, my dad and I had long, long arguments about my unbaptized (and thus disobedient) wife. He was never able to convince me that from within a nominalist theology of baptism that it was anything other than an exclusionary hoop. The closest we ever got was my willingness to concede that Jesus had commanded the church to baptize so there must be some good in it for those who (unfortunately) had to get wet. Were I still a (typical) North American protestant, I’d still argue that baptism is just a stupid fence. Something, at best, that satisfies Tertullian’s “credo quia absurdum est.”

      • I’m just offering the news. I’m not sure I interpret it in any way other than to say “it’s happening.” It’s my phenomenological trap. As there is no denominational body in my tradition that can dictate practice, we’re oft left in a quagmire of individualist opinion. As Walt suggests, nominalist theologies are going to flounder in such a structure. “Obedience” is no longer a word that many congregations, especially progressive baptist, will get behind. There is no impulse to obey Christ in anything but kindness. And if it is perceived as unkind to exclude someone from the table, then, well, let’s not do that. That’s the theology, for what it’s worth. Without a sacramental theology to hold our feet to the liturgical fire, this is what we’re looking at. Reclaiming a potent baptismal theology is going to be a nifty trick as our congregations atrophy and people become more desperate to add names to the rolls and butts in the pews.

      • Hearing that difference in structure is useful. And it reminds me of the work you have before you in doing the doctoral work at the GTU. I am a little puzzled about how Baptists have lost their baptismal theology, but perhaps that is a post for your blog!

    • No assigning of homework on sabbatical.

      That said, I’ll get there eventually. There are some political realities that I have to face first. To bitch about baptismal identity in my context is fraught with danger. So, we’ll see what I do about that later. Suffice it to say that we stopped asking for people be baptized as believers a while back. You know, people would come from traditions like TEC and we’d baptize ’em…like you do. That became a mockery of the ecumenical spirit of the mid-twentieth century. Strange thing is, once we made it clear that believer’s baptism was optional, well, all baptism became optional in a big hurry for our more progressive congregations. Remember, when my tradition speaks of baptismal identity we’re saying something very specific about believer’s baptism and not something that can be done without our clear acceptance of the Gospel. Proxies don’t cut it. So…it’s a bit of a mess on the progressive end of things.

  4. Walt Knowles

    In the San Francisco parish where I was minister of music until recently, CWOB was the “official” practice. To my knowledge, with the possible exception of at weddings/blessings and funerals, it never happened. There were a number of people who did not receive communion and normally remained in their pews. The key point is that, unlike many places where CWOB was normative, the community was sufficiently free of the narcissism that so easily besets Episcopal congregations that it could offer the hospitality (in Derrida’s phrase) without hostility. People didn’t have to accept our particular (Eucharistic) hospitality to be recognized as part of the community of the people whom God had called. One Jewish fellow was welcomed into fellowship last spring with the parish by Bishop Andrus without having to be “confirmed” or receive communion.

    While I’m quite strongly against CWOB, I found it unnecessary to challenge it at this parish, precisely because because it practiced something like what de Boton suggests. Every Saturday, it put on a first class brunch, at which members of the parish served the (primarily homeless/very low income) surrounding community. While much of the food was donated by surrounding stores, it was prepared with care and love, and would not have been out of place on anyone’s table. Then, after mass on Sunday, “coffee hour” was substantial, and it was open to anyone who walked in the door of the parish hall (you didn’t have to sit through the sermon to get to the food like at the rescue missions of my youth).

    As I’ve visited parishes in my current diocese in the Pacific Northwest, almost none have come up to a standard of “simple hospitality,” of open welcome to a visitor. None practice anything that looks even vaguely close to the standard of “generous hospitality” that I experienced in my San Francisco parish (and to be honest, I know of only one other parish in the Diocese of California that might meet that standard–St. Gregory of Nyssa), and none meet de Boton’s standard of what we might call “radical hospitality.” I’m left to conclude that CWOB is nothing other than cheap grace (in Bonhoeffer’s sense) of its most egregious form. We are only willing to share something that is not ours.

    Some chap, forget who he was, made some crack about “where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is, too.” Seems to me the de Boton may have just nailed where TEC’s heart might be living by noting what we don’t do.

  5. Members of TEC are usually surprised that there are lots of churches in the C of E that don’t have a eucharist as a main service on a Sunday!
    Do you know Colin Podmore’s article in Ecclesiology 6 (2010), 8-38: ‘The Baptismal Revolution in the American Episcopal Church: Baptismal Ecclesiology and the Baptismal Covenant’?
    It’s more on ministry than receiving communion but it’s a fascinating piece. At the College we give communion to children who have taken it before, but the C of E does not permit communion to children without a formal time of preparation and only with permission from the church council. I guess it’s a question of boundaries, comprehension and God’s grace – Cranmer made communion dependent on confirmation and the recitation of the catechism which has had a long after-life in the C of E.

    • Mark, yes, it has been an eye opening experience all around. I have read Podmore’s articles. In fact, reading that article was one of the things that set me on the path of thinking more deeply about ecclesiology within Anglicanism. I think sorting through the questions of boundaries, comprehension and grace is very important. My experience in Berkeley is that an infant can be reared as a communicant and develop a strong sense of God’s grace. I suppose it reveals the high sense of the Eucharist. I wonder how many folks could recite the catechism these days.

  6. Okay, first a snarky comment–you link St. Mark’s but not All Souls?!? Not fair, we’ve worked so hard on our website! 🙂

    This is really interesting and I’m going to think more about some of the nuances you bring up. From a practical stand point, our parish proclaims CWOB and has for longer than I’ve been there fore sure. In practical terms, the leadership has defined membership for voting purposes at the Annual Meeting to include baptism. What this means is that is the responsibility of the clergy (and we take this seriously) to know who and who is not baptized, not so we can put up barriers to being a part of the community, but so that we are in intentional conversation with those who are not yet baptized as a way of journeying with them toward that Rite. I could say more but I have to take off my priestly hat and step back into my other vocation of motherhood–it’s time to pick the kids up from school!

    • Kristin, first thanks for pointing out the lack of a link for All Souls. I put one in when writing the post but it didn’t come through when I first published it. Hopefully the link shows now.

      Second, it is useful to hear about the CWOB rationale at All Souls. Truthfully, I didn’t know how it was discerned to go ahead with the practice or how it worked out practically among the clergy. And I think that it says something that although I disagree with the practice, I remain a passionate member of All Souls precisely because the practices of hospitality are in place that Walt spoke of. Would love to talk more!

      • I’ll clarify a bit–I don’t know when the practice of CWOB began at All Souls, but it was certainly 10+ years ago. I don’t know what the rationale was at the time or what structures brought it to be the practice of the parish. It is something I think is very much a part of how the parish sees itself now, and so I think that important conversation like the one you’ve started is good for just such a community that is now, perhaps called, a ‘second generation’ CWOB parish since leadership has transitioned since it first began. Thanks for your thoughts and perspective from a wider angle!

  7. For the curious, here are some more links with arguments critiquing communion without baptism. Worth reading and considering. Thanks to Joe Rawls for posting the link on Facebook.

  8. Pingback: Akma » On Baptism and Eucharist

  9. ricotime

    Thanks for your post and for your wisdom, Dan. For the record, the church where I assist in Boston has a full brunch every Sunday, and Father Rico eats his fair share every time. And the coffee is actually good! So things are looking up since your time in MA. That Sunday brunch always felt like a natural extension of the meal we shared at the altar.

    I’m not a proponent of open communion, but every parish in which I’ve served thus far offers it. So I do it.

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