This spring, my wife and I began the process of joining the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the largest confessional Lutheran body in the United States. My story is not particularly interesting to those who do not know me well, and it suffices to say that our move was primarily motivated by local circumstances and my own commitment to the Magisterial Reformation.
The goal of this piece is not to triumphantly narrate my own journey from Canterbury to Wittenberg, nor is it to convince the reader to follow this path. Instead, I want to I am engaging in a project outlined by the 2016 ecumenical document ‘On Closer Acquaintance’, a document which calls Anglicanism and Lutheranism ‘ecclesial first cousins’ and which invites members of the LCMS and ACNA to engage in open and friendly dialogue about our similarities and differences. As a new Lutheran with many Anglican friends, this is an area of particular interest for me.
One of the biggest differences between Anglicanism and confessional Lutheranism concerns the discipline of “closed communion.” In the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the practice is to admit only those who are baptized and confirmed members of the LCMS or a church in altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS. Further, members are advised to only commune with churches in altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS — so I could not commune at any of my former church homes. Anglicans, however, would still welcome me to the table, as the normative Anglican practice is a form of open communion. In this piece, I want to argue that this was not always the case. Historically Anglicans have largely admitted only confirmed Anglicans (or those desirous to be confirmed) to the Lord’s Supper. To see how our traditions diverged, it is helpful to look at the history of Anglican discipline surrounding the Lord’s Supper.
Here it is useful to introduce the distinction between fencing the table and closed communion. The terminology is vexed, and in some discussions the two are treated as synonyms. But I will reserve ‘fencing the table’ to mean the practice of barring individuals from the Lord’s Supper when they are living in known and public sin. Historically, fencing has often included being examined by elders, pastors, or priests prior to coming up for the Supper, and so fencing and closed communion would go hand in hand — one would need to be a member of a particular church to be examined, so the de facto (if not de jure) rule was for communion to be offered only to members of that church. In contemporary practice, fencing the table may just involve a cautionary word before the service, warning would-be communicants of the dangers of receiving unworthily. ‘Closed communion’ will be reserved for the practice of admitting only members of one’s church body to the Supper.
My hope is that we can see that the differences between our traditions, while real, are not quite as severe as we might think. This should give us hope for future partnerships, and perhaps indicates that altar and pulpit fellowship is not out of the question. There are indeed differences between Lutheranism and Anglicanism — I do not deny this. But I hope we can clarify what those differences are and examine the roots of our disagreements. In the case of closed communion, I believe Lutherans and Anglicans have traditionally been united in this practice.
Closed communion in the Reformation
When Western Christianity fractured in the Reformation era, a new problem arose for Christians and their Churches. Previously, communion between dioceses was at least on paper a simple matter: any two dioceses in communion with the Bishop of Rome were in communion with one another. And for any individual Christian, the issue of whether or not he could commune at a parish was almost always moot. Given the infrequency of lay communication, an average layman would often not need to consider the issue. And given the geographical nature of churches — whole cities, regions, or countries tended to share a common church — the issue of access communion during the Reformation became an issue not of various Communions being in fellowship with one another, but rather a local church body admitting an individual to communion.
The Reformers disagreed on the frequency of celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin seemed to prefer weekly celebration, while Knox’s Genevan liturgy suggests monthly celebration. Even if only celebrated monthly, the Lord’s Supper would be received more frequently by most people — no longer would reception of the sacrament be reserved for Easter. And given the new theological pluralism in Europe, this raised new difficulties, such as who should be admitted to the table and who should be excluded. Thus Calvin spends considerable time in his Institutes of Christian Religion on the matter of church discipline, and in that context he writes: “And here, also, regard must be had to the Lord’s Supper, which might be profaned by a promiscuous admission.” Thus, we see in Calvin’s writing at least an endorsement of fencing the table — which, again, historically would lead to closed communion, but in modern practice may not.
We cannot generalize without further evidence from Calvin’s writing that this sort of discipline was widespread in Reformational Europe — yet, it clearly shows that the Reformers had a high regard for the Lord’s Supper, and as an extension of that regard they took seriously the issue of who was to receive the sacrament in their churches. They would want to ensure that a communicant was a baptized Christian, one who believes what they teach about the sacrament while also presenting himself with true repentance as he receives. We also see this high regard for the sacrament in the initial falling out between the Reformed and Lutherans during the Reformation, and views of the Lord’s Supper have played a central role in the debates about Reformed-Lutheran unions.
As any student of the Reformation knows, one cannot infer from a Continental practice the corresponding practice in England. But there is remarkable similarity in practice, or so I will argue. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer allows for pastoral oversight over who receives the Lord’s Supper. To this day ACNA and TEC both preserve rubrics for fencing the table in the case of sin and public scandal — so fencing the table remains a normative Anglican practice in North America. And we will see in the next piece that an historic Anglican practice has been to admit only confirmed Anglicans to the Lord’s Supper — so we can say that at one time the normative Anglican practice was closed communion.
Closed communion in Anglican history
It is helpful to begin with a summary of the two operative communion practices within North American Anglicanism, found in The Episcopal Church and ACNA. Both of these churches, according to their canons, practice open communion in the sense that the Lord’s Supper is offered to all those who have been baptized in the name of the Triune God. In some corners of North American Anglicanism, the operative practice is a good deal more radical: the Lord’s Supper is offered to anyone in attendance, regardless of baptismal status. For simplicity, we’ll call this practice radically open communion, though the demerits of this practice will not be the focus of the present article.
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. We see this in a number of places.
We first see this in the 1662 rubrics for Confirmation: ‘And there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.’ In placing the rubric for admittance to the Lord’s Supper in the context of confirmation, the Church of England makes its position clear: one who wishes to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in an Anglican church is to be catechized and confirmed in an Anglican church. This rubric is given an enforcement mechanism in the first Holy Communion rubric: ‘As many as intend to be partakers of the holy communion shall signify their names to the pastor at least some time the day before.’
The point may be raised that in practice the Confirmation rubric would not be enforced, and so it could be argued that the rubric was a ceremonial relic, and that we cannot infer from the existence of a rubric that any particular church or communion abided by that rubric. This is particularly salient in the American context, where being confirmed meant having access to bishops — and the history of Anglican bishops in early America is complicated and vexed. Here the second clause in the rubric would have been relied upon; the sacrament would be restricted not to those who were confirmed, but to those ‘ready and desirous to be confirmed.’
We should be careful at this point in the dialectic. After all, we cannot expect or demand absolute consistency in practice when making an argument about norms. There were, I am sure, unbaptized persons or members of other Communions admitted to the Lord’s Supper at various points in Anglican history. This is likely true for every other branch of Christianity which practiced closed communion or fenced the table. The existence of a norm, after all, does not imply conformity in practice. However, in the case of a rubric we can infer an expectation of conformity in practice, and absent records of discipline for non-conformity or of admitted violations, we can infer some level of obedience to the rubric.
The Anglican practice of closed communion can also be seen in ecumenical discussions, where it is simply assumed as the norm. In the 1931 Bonn Agreement between the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholics, one of the articles includes the clause that each Communion agreed ‘to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the sacraments.’ 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. Again, perfect conformity is not necessary for this kind of historical argument. But what the Bonn Agreement shows is that both the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholics were sensitive not just to the importance of the sacrament, but also to the importance of who was receiving.
As a final piece of evidence, we see an expectation of closed communion in intra-Anglican debates in the 20th century. There is substantial historical evidence of a vigorous debate within Anglicanism, both in England and in North America, about the permissibility of open communion. In the next section we will address this evidence in greater detail, but here we should emphasize one point: this debate over open communion could only happen in the context of closed communion. From this, we can conclude that closed communion was, in the early 20th century, still a widespread practice within The Episcopal Church, and we may tentatively conclude that it was the normative practice for that church as well.
The opening of communion
The push toward open communion seems to originate in the early 20th century, and it was given tentative approval at the 1930 Lambeth Conference. The Conference reaffirms that the ‘general rule of the Anglican churches’ is that Anglicans should only receive Holy Communion, and then goes on to write:
The bishops of the Anglican Communion will not question the action of any bishop who may, in his discretion so exercised, sanction an exception to the general rule in special areas … or may give permission that baptized communicant members of Churches not in communion with our own should be encouraged to communicate in Anglican churches, when the ministrations of their own Church are not available, or in special or temporary circumstances.
Here we see not a full approval of the practice, but rather an approval of open communion in special circumstances — namely, when there are baptized Christians unable to be served by their the ministration of their own Church, or in special circumstances (for instance, giving the Lord’s Supper to a Christian on his deathbed).
Within a decade, we see a push toward full acceptance of open communion. In 1938, the Liberal Evangelicals issued a resolution in favor of open communion, arguing that the Confirmation rubric discussed above was not binding on any Christians outside of the Anglican Communion. They wrote:
The rubric at the close of the Confirmation Office is a disciplinary rule, intended solely to apply to members of the Anglican Communion, and having no reference whatsoever to the occasional reception of the Holy Communion by baptized members of other Christian bodies who come as fellow Christians to what is not “our Table” but the Table of the Lord.
This resolution is not unique in its reasoning. Gardiner Mumford Day, in a 1968 piece entitled ‘Open Communion in The Episcopal Church’, wrote:
Thus, it appears to be evident that the rubric at the end of the Confirmation Service is a domestic disciplinary rule intended solely for use within the Anglican Communion and having no reference whatsoever to the occasional reception of Holy Communion by baptized Christians of other communions who come as guests to what is not, and never can be, “our table,” but is the table of the Lord. The admission of these guests is to be regarded as fully warranted historically, as in accord with the liberality of the Anglican tradition, as approved by the overwhelming majority of our own people, and as avoiding a legalism which would reduce the catholicity of this Church by making “closed Communion” mandatory. The Church insofar as it is true to our Lord is here “to minister, not to be ministered unto.”
Day’s assessment of the rubric is, again, not without precedent. While Day appears to have been familiar with the Liberal Evangelicals’ 1938 resolution , he provides further support for open communion by citing three Presiding Bishops of The Episcopal Church who served between 1938 and 1964. Each of these bishops cites historic practice in American Anglicanism, and each appeals to pastoral care and hospitality as a primary reason for allowing non-Anglican Christians to receive.
The argument of the Liberal Evangelicals, echoed elsewhere in the open communion debates, is that the rubric restricting the Lord’s Supper to only those confirmed or desirous to be confirmed is a ‘disciplinary rule, intended solely to apply to members of the Anglican Communion,’ and as such the rubric does not prohibit open communion — those outside of the Anglican Communion simply are not within the scope of the rubric. We should pay some attention to the reasoning here, because the fact that this argument had such salience is itself interesting. We’ll call this argument the scope argument.
The Liberal Evangelicals cite an alternative argument which is facially more plausible than the argument that seemed to gain prominence. Call this the desuetude argument, after the legal principle of the same name. The basic idea is that a law which is not enforced becomes, after a time, null and void. There is historical precedent for this kind of reasoning — one can, in limited circumstances, appeal a penalty on the grounds that the law violated has not been enforced for a considerable period of time, and that in fact contrary practice has become the unpunished norm. If open communion had been the historic practice of the Anglican Communion — as Presiding Bishop Tucker claimed — then there are some grounds for claiming that the confirmation rubric is no longer binding.
There are two issues with this argument, and these issues may have been why proponents of open communion seemed to disfavor it. First, the argument does not explain why American Anglicans continued to include the rubric in the Prayer Book if church practice and popular opinion had rendered it null and void. It is not as if Americans did not make changes to the Prayer Book for theological reasons — the Liberal Evangelicals are writing a decade after the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, after all. And further, the argument does run the risk of overgeneralizing. Using the same reasoning as the desuetude argument, future clerics and bishops could argue against any rubric so long as public opinion shifted and the church’s practice followed.
For whatever reason, the proponents of open communion instead opted for a reading of the confirmation rubric which restricted its scope to members of the Anglican Communion. The scope argument against closed communion is admittedly difficult to engage, but not because the argument is particularly powerful. Simply put, there is no mention anywhere in the Prayer Book tradition of communion being opened to those outside of the Anglican Communion, and this silence is better read as a presumption against open communion than as an implicit approval of the practice.
We can look beyond the Prayer Book to see just how strained this reading is. The doctrine of the constituent churches of the Anglican Communion is not only expressed in their Prayer Books, but also in their canons and in the catechetical and theological writings of the clergy. In both the Church of England and The Episcopal Church, we see clearly that the intent was for the Lord’s Supper to be for baptized and confirmed Anglicans alone.
The relevant canon in The Episcopal Church, which will be my focus, is now known as Canon I.17, though the precise numbering of the canons has varied. Historically, Canon I.17 describes the rights and duties of the laity in The Episcopal Church, and it is primarily concerned with three matters:
- The requirements for membership in The Episcopal Church
- The discipline surrounding administration of the Lord’s Supper to members of The Episcopal Church
- The process by which members denied the Lord’s Supper may appeal the action to their bishop.
The historical assumption running through this canon, it seems, is that a communicant must be a member of the Church, as without being a member (or a member of another Church in communion with TEC) there is no method for appealing a decision to the bishop in the event of a barring from the sacrament.
This changes in the late 20th century, when TEC’s Canon I.17 was amended to include: ‘No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.’ By making explicit that baptism is the prerequisite (and by removing the confirmation rubric in the 1979 Prayer Book), Canon 17 now seems to clearly permit open communion — one need not be an Episcopalian to receive at an Episcopal parish.
The same is true of the ACNA, though Canon II.4 is in fact more explicit about the practice of open communion. In Section 3, we are given the following conditions:
- Only Bishops and Presbyters may preside at the Lord’s Supper.
- The Supper is only for the baptized.
- All confirmed members must receive the Supper regularly, and especially at certain festivals.
- Young children may commune.
- Members of other Communions and Churches may commune.
And that is the current state of closed communion in North American Anglicanism: it does not exist. But what I hope to have shown is that this was not always the case; this invites Anglicans committed to historic Christian practice to reconsider this 20th century innovation.
After all, these changes did not happen in a vacuum. In the 20th century, we saw several movements in Anglicanism, including the Liturgical Movement and Parish Communion. Thus in the 20th century we saw a two-fold emphasis on frequency of communion and lay participation. It is contrary to these movements’ ethos to exclude any from the Lord’s Supper. Now even the self-described conservatives in North American Anglicanism have adopted the practice of open communion.
Where the arguments lead
The arguments for open communion tended to be superficially about rubrics, with some engagement with the history of Anglican practice. But the position papers and resolutions all tended to end by making a broader point, one which will be quite familiar to modern Episcopalians and Anglicans. Day’s paper, discussed above, includes the claim that the altar is not, and never can be, “our table,” but is the table of the Lord.’ This same reasoning is, of course, employed in contemporary debates over communing the unbaptized — those who seek to fence the table are accused of claiming ownership of what is properly the Lord’s.
Note also the claims made by the Liberal Evangelical party in their 1938 resolution:
The admission of these fellow Christians is to be regarded as fully warranted historically, as in accord with the liberality of the Anglican tradition, as approved by the overwhelming majority of our people, and as avoiding a legalism which would reduce the catholicity of this Church. Moreover it is in accordance with the spirit of what our Lord said when His disciples sought to exclude from fellowship those who, though they followed Him, were following “not with us.”
What is striking about these claims — that open communion is fully warranted historically, that it is in accord with the liberality of the Anglican tradition, and that the altar is not our table — is that each one is either misleadingly stated or false. Open communion cannot be fully warranted historically given that the Anglican Communion had practiced or at least demanded closed communion for hundreds of years. Appeals to liberality are themselves simply too vague to be taken seriously, absent substantial argument for some precise meaning of ‘liberal’ and the historical argument that Anglicanism is a liberal tradition. Finally, the claim that the table is not the Church’s but rather the Lord’s is only partly true. The Church is the Bride of Christ — and so the Church is ultimately answerable to the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the Church is, at best, permitted to be no more restrictive about admission to the Lord’s Supper than allowed by God. That is precisely the matter at issue: is it Christ’s desire that all, regardless of unity in doctrine and discipline, be admitted to the table? The arguments offered in support of this proposition are, by my light’s, lacking, but that is not the point. My point is simply that strictly speaking the reasons cited for the practice of open communion confer little to no justification for the practice as, for the most part, they are irrelevant to the question under discussion.
Fellowship and communion
We have seen that open communion is not an historic Christian practice, nor is it a distinctively Anglican practice. After the fracturing of Christendom in the 16th century, many Western churches found themselves isolated from other churches both culturally and doctrinally. But these churches, by and large, chose to commune only those in doctrinal agreement. This remained the case into the 20th century, and in the 21st century we even see a push for communing the unbaptized.
I would like to end by reflecting on what closing communion means in practice in a post-Reformation world. The practice is seen as exclusive, as a way of signaling a kind of doctrinal snobbery. The practice is considered to be inappropriately proprietary, and so many assume that the default should be some sort of open communion, regardless of traditional practice. Yet, after moving to a synod which practices closed communion, I have come to view closed communion as a commendable practice and as a tool for fellowship. I will focus on the latter aspect, as that will surely strike my readers as an odd view. After all, closed communion is exclusive, and exclusivity precludes fellowship.
At the risk of complicating the discussion in the final section, we should note that most churches practice a one-sided sort of open communion. These churches would allow anyone to commune, but they would not allow clergy from any arbitrary churches or denominations to preside at the Lord’s Supper. We might call their practice mixed communion. Currently, no Anglican priest could preside over the Lord’s Supper in the LCMS, and no LCMS pastor could preside in an Anglican congregation. Few if any would argue that this is inappropriately exclusive. We admit that there are real differences between Anglican and Lutheran beliefs such that it would be inappropriate for our clergy to share an altar and pulpit at the present moment. But many will not extend this logic from the clergy to the laity. The practice of closed communion, in my view, does just that. It admits that there are barriers to our fellowship, and that because of those barriers we are unable to commune at the same table.
When we consider the one-sided nature of mixed communion, I believe we see how theologically peculiar the practice is. We admit that our theological differences matter for clergy but then go on to deny that they matter for laity. This does nothing to solve our ecumenical issues. The practice papers over the differences in our churches and allows us to pretend that these differences are irrelevant, at least from the perspective of the laity. Mixed communion allows us to ignore our serious divides—it does not build bridges.
Our churches are not in fellowship with one another. This is simply a statement of fact. 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. Our present divisions do not allow for unity at the table — but, God willing, that will not always be the case. Thus, I believe that the practice of closed communion can in the long run bring our churches closer together. By closing communion, we will be forced to reconcile ourselves to each other. We will not be able to pretend that fellowship exists when in fact it does not.
- https://reporter.lcms.org/2016/lcms-lcc-and-acna-release-interim-report-on-ecumenical-dialogue/ ↑
- ‘Altar and pulpit fellowship’ is a common term in confessional Lutheran circles, and it is roughly what Anglicans mean by ‘full communion.’ ↑
- There is also an issue of polity here. A member of the LCMS may take closed communion to require that only members of the LCMS and her sister churches be able to commune, while a Reformed Baptist may think closed communion requires that only members of a local church body be able to commune. Given that neither LCMS nor ACNA is congregationalist, I will be setting that issue aside. ↑
- Thus Calvin spends considerable time on the matter of church discipline, and ↑
- As we discuss below, TEC’s canons permit this obliquely by removing any rubrics requiring confirmation and only barring the unbaptized from the sacrament (see Canon I.17). ACNA is more explicit about open communion in Canon II.4. ↑
- This rubric is preserved into the 20th century in the United States. It appears verbatim in The Episcopal Church’s 1928 Book of Common Prayer, but it was abandoned by 1979. ↑
- See J.P. Hickinbotham’s ‘Is open communion consistent with Anglicanism?’ in The Churchman, vol 79, issue 4. ↑
- See Resolution 42, available here: https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127734/1930.pdf ↑
- The full resolution is available at Project Canterbury: http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/misc/liberal_evangelicals1938.html ↑
- http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/gmday/communion1968.html ↑
- Tucker writes: “In the Diocese of Virginia we have always, from colonial times I believe, admitted members of other Churches to the Holy Communion. It is a fair assumption that this was a custom which the colonists brought over from England. In any case it has been from time immemorial a custom in Virginia, which I, when Bishop there, welcomed and which I hope will continue unchanged.” ↑
- And as someone who ‘swam the Rhine’, leaving Anglicanism for Lutheranism was both sad and joyous. I love where I live and worship, but in joining the LCMS I chose to separate myself from my Anglican brothers and sisters. I pray the separation is not permanent. ↑