Historically, Anglicans have rejected open communion in both its radical and moderate forms. The idea that the unbaptized should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper seems to be a product of the late 20th or early 21st century. And until the middle of the 20th century, it was the norm for Anglicans to fence the table and require communicants to be confirmed.
Jared Henderson’s recent essay is a welcome contribution to the consideration of historic Anglican thought on sacramental discipline. As has been indicated by the cliches in many Mainline Protestant responses to the ongoing debate in the United States over Roman Catholic eucharistic discipline, there does need to be a renewed understanding on the part of Anglicans and Episcopalians of how the rubrics, canons, and liturgy historically have defined, and continue to define, what it is to “Draw near with faith.”
This essay, then, is certainly not a straightforward rejection of ‘Is Open Communion Historically Anglican?’ It is an attempt to question some of the historical interpretations offered and aspects of conclusions reached. To begin with, of course, it is entirely correct to state that historic Anglicanism rejected any notion of a ‘radical’ form of open communion, first in terms of admitting the unbaptized to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. More than this, historic Anglicanism also rejected the ‘open table’ notion that partaking of the Sacrament did not require communicants to “truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, [be] in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.”
“The very same”: Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed
What, however, of the suggestion that “Lutherans and Anglicans have traditionally been united” in the practice of closed communion? If this is taken to mean that the “real differences between Anglican and Lutheran beliefs” were regarded as making it inappropriate to receive the Sacrament in the other tradition, it can certainly be challenged from an Anglican perspective. It is difficult to reconcile, for example, with the assertion in Jewel’s Apology for the Church of England that the churches of the Lutheran and Swiss Reformation confessed the same Faith:
And as for those persons, whom they upon spite call Zwinglians and Lutherans, in very deed they of both sides be Christians, good friends and brethren. They vary not betwixt themselves upon the principles and foundations of our religion, nor as touching God, nor Christ, nor the Holy Ghost, nor of the means of justification, nor yet everlasting life, but upon one only question, which is neither weighty nor great.
It also stands uneasily beside a long tradition of Anglican insistence that – in the words of the Anglican apologist John Durel at the Restoration – the Church of England and the Churches of the Augsburg Confession were “the very same” in matters of polity and liturgy: it does not occur at all to Durel to doubt that they are “the very same” in matters of the Faith. In 1714 this issue took on particular significance with the accession of the Lutheran George I. William Dawes, Archbishop of York, declared “how little” were the differences between the Lutheranism of George I and the religion of the Church of England. There was, Dawes said, “not such a wide difference between the Doctrines professed” by both Communions. Amidst the debates surrounding the accession, Anglican cleric and commentator Theophilus Dorrington published a work in which he asserted that the new king’s Lutheranism was “agreeable to the tenets of the Church of England”:
[W]e may perceive the Doctrine of Luther to be agreeable to that of the Church of England, the Reformation whereof was settled … under the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the Year: 1562 the Doctrinal Points whereof, consisting of 39 Articles, were confirm’d by her and her Parliaments.
As to the Reformed Churches, the point of Jewel’s Apology – that same Faith was shared by the Churches of England, Switzerland, and Lutheran Germany – continued, despite obvious and increasing tensions, to shape Anglican perceptions. Perhaps most famously, John Cosin – referring to his experience when exiled in France during the Interregnum – noted that while Roman Catholics “excommunicate us and abhor to join with us in any sacred action either of prayer or sacraments,” the “Reformed Churches,” by contrast, “do most willingly receive us into their churches and frequently repair to ours joining with us both in prayers and sacraments” (emphasis added).
The Restoration apologist Durel similarly noted how Anglican chaplaincies in English embassies to Reformed countries routinely received Reformed guests at worship, including partaking of the Sacrament:
“those of the Reformed Churches beyond the Seas, who understand English, do come in great numbers, and most willingly to our Ambassadors’ Chapels, in their own Country; they join with us in our Common-Prayer, they receive the holy Communion with us, with that reverent gesture which is used in our Church.”
17th and 18th century Anglicans did not, therefore, ‘fence the table’ against their Lutheran and Reformed brethren, instead regarding shared Protestant doctrine as the basis for Lutherans and Reformed to receive the Sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England.
How occasional was occasional conformity?
This context also helps to explain the toleration in England of the phenomenon of occasional conformity. Despite the obvious political and ecclesial tensions surrounding occasional conformity, historian William Gibson has described it as “extraordinarily common” in the 18th century, underpinned by an understanding of a shared essentials:
At Tintern in 1763, the rector, John Williams, reported that the Dissenters in his parish were ‘all professing the doctrine of the Church of England’. This was the heart of the matter. In most matters of doctrine the Dissenters differed little from Anglicans; their distinctions lay in matters of Church government and form of worship. As a result it was not surprising that Dissenting academies widely used Anglican works in their teaching.
What is more, acceptance of occasional conformity did not rely only on Latitudinarian and Low Church opinions. Gibson points to High Churchmen such as William Sherlock and Edmund Gibson accepting “that dissenters would legitimately enjoy an ‘occasional’ relationship with the Church.” The words of Sherlock in 1683 are particularly worth quoting:
We conclude that those who communicate occasionally with the Church of England, do thereby declare that they believe there is nothing sinful in our Communion, and we thank them for this good opinion.
Amidst the intense debates in the United Kingdom surrounding the repeal in 1828 of the Test and Corporation Acts (the legislation which required that officeholders partake of the Sacrament in the Church of England), the High Church Christopher Bethell, Bishop of Gloucester, recalled this history:
It may be questioned whether it was the intention of the Legislature, when it framed this measure, to exclude from office all persons who were not, strictly speaking, Members of the Church of England; because there were then many Dissenters, who, though they disapproved of its discipline and government, and adhered to the ejected Ministers, did not object to receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, according to its rites and usage … it was not thought necessary to resort, on their account, to any stricter and more exclusive measure.
In light of such 17th and 18th century examples, it becomes rather difficult to contend – without extensive qualification and nuance – that ‘closed communion’ was historic Anglican practice. With the Lutheran and Reformed churches beyond the seas, it was commonly assumed that the Church of England could and should share in communion. Within England itself, the toleration of occasional conformity was a largely settled pattern. In both cases, this was because of an Anglican affirmation of shared Magisterial Protestant doctrine. Neither ‘open communion’ nor ‘closed communion’ quite fit as a description of this context and practice. It was not ‘closed communion’ because it was open to the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Nor, however, can it easily be described as ‘open communion’ because of its dependence on a shared doctrinal basis.
‘The solemn promise and vow of your Baptism’: Catechism and Confirmation
What, then, of the Prayer Book’s requirements regarding the Catechism and the Rite of Confirmation? The Catechism, after all, is described in its formal title in the Prayer Book as “An Instruction to be learned of every person before he be brought to be Confirmed by the Bishop.” Does this not give substance to the statement that “If we believe that church membership matters, that laity who join our churches should be held to doctrinal standards in faith and practice, then we should admit that the practice of open (or mixed) communion is inappropriate”? The character of the Prayer Book Catechism militates against any such description. Structured around the Apostles’ Creed, Commandments, and Lord’s Prayer, the Catechism – as Wheatly stated in his commentary on the Prayer Book – “is not a large system or body of divinity to puzzle the heads of young beginners; but only a short and full explication of the Baptismal Vow.”
Even on the contested territory of the Sacraments, Wheatly emphasises the generosity and latitude of the Catechism:
In this although its excellency is very discernible, viz. that as all persons are baptized not into any particular church, but into the Catholic church of Christ; so here they are not taught the opinion of this or any other particular church or people, but what the whole body of Christians all the world over agree in. If it may anywhere seem to be otherwise, it is in the doctrine of the Sacraments: but even this is here worded with so much caution and temper, as not to contradict any other particular church; but so as that all sorts of Christians, when they have duly considered it, may subscribe to everything that is here taught or delivered.
It is the case that the Catechism’s sacramental teaching, as with the rest of its teaching, could be received and affirmed both by those who subscribed to the Confession of Augsburg and to the Westminster Confession. It is, in other words, a basic statement of Christian teaching on faith, ethics, and prayer, together with a generous account of Magisterial Protestant sacramental understanding. It is this which was required of laity before being admitted as communicants: no further doctrinal subscription was required. The Catechism, therefore, is hardly suggestive of a doctrinal standard which sustained a practice of closed communion.
The discipline surrounding Confirmation – and the ‘high’ theology of the rite which was normative for Anglicans from 1662 into the 19th century – does, by contrast, point in a rather more convincing fashion to ‘fencing the table.’ It is indeed the case that “Historically Anglicans have largely admitted only confirmed Anglicans (or those desirous to be confirmed) to the Lord’s Supper.” Even here, however, caution is required, as the quotation from the 1662 rubric in the Order for Confirmation implies. Leaving aside the experience of Church of England communicants in the American colonies, where Confirmation could not be administered for nearly two centuries because of the absence of a resident episcopate, it was also the case that in England itself there were communicants who had not been Confirmed. Archbishop Secker’s influential Confirmation sermon witnesses to this:
But as there are some too young for confirmation, some also may be thought too old: especially, if they have received the holy sacrament without it. Now there are not indeed all the same reasons for the confirmation of such, as of others: nor hath the church, I believe, determined anything about their case, as it might be thought unlikely to happen. But still, since it doth happen too frequently, that persons were not able, or have neglected, to apply for this purpose: so whenever they apply, as by doing it they express a desire to fulfil all righteousness; and may certainly receive benefit, both from the profession and the prayers, appointed in the office; my judgement is, that they should not be rejected, but encouraged.
Secker’s description of this occurrence as happening “too frequently,” and the perceived need to justify and commend Confirmation for adults, should make us cautious about too sweeping claims about the practice of Confirmation enabling ‘fencing the table.’ Accepting, however, that Confirmation before Communion was the regular discipline in the Church of England in the vast majority of cases, we might question if Catechism and Confirmation equated to a robust ‘fencing the table.’ The Catechism was significantly different to the catechisms of Luther and the Westminster Divines:
[B]eing so short, that the youngest children may learn it by heart; and yet so full, that it contains all things necessary to be known in order to salvation.
Similarly, Confirmation was – in Secker’s words – “to renew the covenant of your Baptism”:
It is fit, that before they are admitted by the church of Christ to the holy communion, they should give public assurance to the church of their Christian belief and Christian purposes.
Neither Catechism nor Confirmation required an affirmation beyond or in addition to the creedal Faith of Baptism. To regard this as ‘closed communion’ surely stretches the term considerably beyond how it is typically understood, while yet providing a meaningful and substantive confession not provided for in contemporary ‘open table’ discourse.
Hooker, the Eucharist, and the Christological centre
Another significant source for considering the historic position of the Church of England regarding eucharistic discipline is Richard Hooker’s defense of the administration of the Sacrament to Recusants seeking to conform. Hooker begins his defense by urging caution regarding exclusion from reception of the Sacrament, for “many things exclude from the kingdom of God although from the Church they separate not.” He continues by emphasizing that because Jesus Christ is “the only subject which separateth ours from other religions,” to place other barriers to reception of the Sacrament other than the Christological confession is to “but add certain casual and variable accidents, which are not properly of the being … of the Church of God.” Indeed, to require more than this confession obscures the Church’s Christological centre:
This is the error of all popish definitions that hitherto have been brought. They define not the Church by that which the Church essentially is, but by that wherein they imagine their own more perfect than the rest are. Touching parts of eminency and perfection, parts likewise of imperfection and defect in the Church of God, they are infinite, their degrees and differences no way possible to be drawn unto any certain account.
The reconciliation of Rescusants to the Church of England, therefore, requires no “longer trial,” no “burden to enter farther into men’s hearts.” The Church of Rome is “a limb of the visible Church of Christ,” and thus shares in the Christological confession (irrespective of the “faults of the Church of Rome”). Recusants seeking to conform should, then, be received at the Sacrament with grace and generosity:
To receive them with lenity and meekness, if anything be shaken in them to strengthen it, not to quench with delays and jealousies that feeble smoke of conformity with seemeth to breathe from them, but to build wheresoever there is any foundation, to add perfection unto slender beginnings, and that as by other offices of piety even so by this very food of life which Christ hath left in his Church not only for preservation of strength but also for relief of weakness.
As with the issue of historic relationships with the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, and the place of the Catechism and Confirmation in eucharistic discipline, the binary ‘open-closed’ does not do justice to Hooker’s account. Charles Miller reminds us that Hooker’s ecclesiology – not least his “large definition of the church” – is rooted in “incarnational and sacramental sources”: it is certainly not, then, mere pragmatism or theological minimalism. It flows from and is dependent upon the creedal and conciliar confession of Our Lord Jesus Christ. If ‘open communion’ is understood to be a practice flowing from the lowest theological common denominator, Hooker is surely not proposing ‘open communion’: rather, he is affirming the theological truth at the heart of the Church’s life, the Christological centre, as the basis for participating in the Sacrament.
‘And the eucharist is duly administered’: ecumenical dialogue and the confession of Faith
Having reviewed pre-19th century historical Anglican practice, let us now turn to the ecumenical age. It might indeed be reasonably suggested that an accord such as the 1931 Bonn Agreement between the Church of England and the Union of Utrecht points in the direction of a practice of ‘closed communion’:
From the fact that each Communion needed to agree to admit members of the other Communion to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we can reasonably infer that prior to the agreement the practice was to bar members of the other Communion from the sacrament.
However, the nature of the Bonn Agreement rather qualifies – if it does not militate against – this interpretation. The Agreement’s succinct statement recognizing the catholicity of both Communions was immediately followed by the short statement of intercommunion. Importantly, intercommunion was then broadly defined:
Intercommunion does not require from either Communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion or liturgical practice characteristic of the other,
but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian Faith.
In other words, the practice of Anglican-Old Catholic intercommunion is based upon a recognition of shared catholicity and “the essentials of the Christian Faith.” Once again, to describe this as ‘closed communion’ would seem to stand very uneasily beside the normal ecclesial use of the term. It does, however, emphasize the importance of mutual recognition of catholicity and doctrinal essentials: yet again, affirmations that are not routinely associated with ‘open communion.’
This pattern is replicated in a series of key ecumenical dialogues. Consider, for example, the Reuilly Declaration between the Anglican churches of Britain and Ireland and the (non-episcopal) Lutheran and Reformed churches in France. Its opening affirmations undoubtedly provide a context for mutual participation in the Eucharist:
(i) We acknowledge one another’s churches as churches belonging to the One, Holy Catholic
and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ and truly participating in the apostolic mission of the
whole people of God.
(ii) We acknowledge that in all our churches the word of God is authentically preached, and
the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist are duly administered.
(iii) We acknowledge that all our churches share in the common confession of the apostolic
The 2015 Columba Declaration between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland employed exactly the same affirmations. Both of these agreements reflect the statement of the the 1984 Anglican-Reformed agreement, God’s Reign and Our Unity:
We are aware of the fact that the things which keep Anglicans and Reformed in any particular place apart are often not the things dealt with in ‘Faith and Order’ documents. The divisive factors are often other kinds – cultural, social and political.
The 1996 Anglican-Methodist report Sharing in the Apostolic Communion, noted the “core doctrine” shared by both communions:
The following can be affirmed as central or core doctrines that we share in common: we believe in God the eternal and undivided Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in the work of God as Creator of all that is; in the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and truly human; in the sanctifying and liberating work of the Holy Spirit. We recognise the fallenness of humankind and the need for redemption. We believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work; justification by grace through faith; the Church as the body of Christ; the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper as instituted by Christ; the final judgement; and the hope of eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
In addition to this, the report stated:
(i) Both Anglicans and Methodists belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ and participate in the apostolic mission of the whole people of God.
(iii) In the churches of our two Communions the Word of God is authentically preached and the Sacraments instituted by Christ are duly administered.
(iii) Our churches share in the common confession and heritage of the apostolic faith.
In such a context, of shared core doctrine and mutual recognition of catholicity and sacraments, is it accurate to describe Anglicans and Methodists sharing in the Eucharist as ‘open communion’? Likewise, is this ‘closed communion’ when, although dependent on shared faith and catholicity, sharing in the Sacrament is not dependent upon allegiance to a tradition’s standards, discipline, and formularies?
Conclusion: drawing near with faith
Such ecumenical agreements, we might suggest, provide a doctrinal basis for eucharistic participation which moves beyond an ‘open v. closed’ debate. We might, perhaps, define this as something of a Hookerian approach, with significant antecedents in historic Anglican practice, and cohering with the place of Catechism and Confirmation in the Prayer Book tradition because of the emphasis on shared Baptism and creedal Faith. It is deeper and richer than vacuous ‘open table’ discourse, while also more explicitly focussed on the Christological center than can be the case with ‘closed communion’ practices. This approach, however, does require the challenge posed by ‘closed communion’ advocates in order to prevent it becoming an echo of the ‘open table’ and losing sight of the exhortation to “Draw near with faith”: for it is the faith defined by the Christological center and professed by the Church catholic which alone gives meaning to us drawing near and partaking of the Supper of the Lord.
- Jared Henderson, ‘Is Open Communion Historically Anglican?’, The North American Anglican, June 2 2021. ↑
- It is worth noting the critiques offered on social media by a number of Episcopalian figures of the ‘open table’ discourse assumed by most Episcopalian commentators. ↑
- The fact that this exhortation, common to Anglican and Episcopalian eucharistic liturgies until well into the latter half of the 20th century, has no place in contemporary Anglican liturgies surely has some connection with the contemporary loss of any meaningful recognition of the responsibilities placed upon communicants. ↑
- John Jewel, Apology for the Church of England, Part III. ↑
- John Durel, A view of the government and publick worship of God in the reformed churches beyond the seas wherein is shewed their conformity and agreement with the Church of England (1662). ↑
- William Dawes, An Exact Account of King George’s Religion (1715). ↑
- Theophilus Dorrington, The History of the Lutheran Church: Or, The Religion of our Present Sovereign King George Agreeable to the Tenets of the Church of England (1715). ↑
- ‘A Paper Concerning the Differences in the Chief Points of Religion Betwixt the Church of Rome and the Church of England Written to the Late Countess of Peterborough by Dr John Cosin, Afterwards Lord Bishop of Durham’ in The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, John Cosin, Volume IV (1851). ↑
- Durel, op.cit. ↑
- William Gibson, The Church of England 1688-1832: Unity and Accord (2001), p.197. ↑
- Ibid., p.200. ↑
- Ibid., p.196. ↑
- Christopher, Bishop of Gloucester, A Charge delivered at the Triennial Visitation of the Diocese of Gloucester, in the months of June and July 1828 (1828). ↑
- Henderson, op.cit. ↑
- Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1722/1794 edition, p.351). ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- See, for example, Philip Stubbs 1693 ‘Of the Laying on of Hands: A Sermon Upon the Holy Office of Confirmation According to the Order of the Church of England’, Archbishop Thomas Secker ‘A Sermon on Confirmation’, and Bishop Hobart 1816 ‘A Sermon Explaining the Order of Confirmation’. ↑
- Henderson, op.cit. ↑
- Secker, ‘A Sermon on Confirmation’ in The Works of Thomas Secker, Volume VI (1811), p.402. ↑
- Wheatly, op.cit. ↑
- Secker, op.cit., p.405 & 415. ↑
- Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.68.6. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- V.68.9. ↑
- Charles Miller, Richard Hooker and the Vision of God: Exploring the Origins of ‘Anglicanism’ (2013), p.225. ↑
- Henderson, op.cit. ↑
- See the discussion of the Bonn Agreement in Anglicans and Old Catholics Serving in Europe: A Report of the Anglican-Old Catholic International Coordinating Council, 2013-2019 (2019). ↑
- The Reuilly Common Statement in Called to Witness and Service:The Reuilly Common Statement with Essays on Christ, Eucharist and Ministry (1999). ↑
- The Columba Declaration in Growth in Communion, Partnership in Mission: Report from the Church of England – Church of Scotland Joint Study Group (2015). ↑
- God’s reign and our unity The report of the Anglican-Reformed international commission, 1981-1984 (1984), para. 122. ↑
- Sharing in The Apostolic Communion: Report of the Anglican-Methodist International Commission (1996), para. 15. ↑
- Ibid., para. 95. ↑