Lex orandi, lex credendi is an ancient Christian motto that means the law of praying is the law of believing. In other words, what we believe is governed by the way we worship. This is especially true of Episcopalians whose way of being church is formed by the Book of Common Prayer rather than by a set of universally agreed-upon doctrines. Our unity as a Church comes not from the fact that we all believe the same things; our unity comes from the fact that we worship the same way.
This unity-through-worship should help us decide the question of open communion. Communion is the sign of our collective embodiment of Christ. “We who are many are one body, because we all share one bread and one cup.” In the 1970s the debate about open communion was whether the Episcopal Church should share the Eucharist with those of other denominations. We recognized that all baptized Christians of any denomination are all part of Christ’s one body, and so we began the practice of welcoming all baptized Christians into communion as a sign of that unity.
The current debate about open communion goes further. We are now considering whether to drop the requirement for baptism altogether. The lex orandi principle should give us pause. Changing our liturgical practice would mean changing our theological beliefs. If communion is the sign of our unity as the body of Christ, then opening communion to the unbaptized would mean treating them as members of the body of Christ. Surely Christ welcomes everyone, and the historical Jesus was notorious for eating with all the “wrong” people, sinners and outcasts. But the issue is not hospitality. The issue is Christian unity. Christ welcomes everyone, but only those who commit to abide in Christ are members of his body. The practice of allowing everyone into communion could suggest a theology of universalism in which everyone was already a member of Christ’s body and evangelism is unnecessary.
On this way of thinking, it seems natural that those who reject universalism would reject open communion. But there is more to the lex orandi principle. It is not only that the liturgy assumes a theology and ought to reflect our consciously held beliefs. Taken further, the lex orandi principle entails that the very meaning of our doctrines is grounded in the practices of our liturgy. The abstract theological doctrines are attempts to state in words what the liturgy embodies in concrete practice. As Anglican theologian N.T. Wright once put it, “at the Last Supper Jesus didn’t give us a theory, he gave us a meal.” The meal is primary and our various theological doctrines about communion are attempts to understand the practice.
This is how words work in general, not just in theology. The meaning of a word is not an idea in your head; it is how the word is used in the actual practice of speakers. You might be able to use a word correctly without being able to articulate any general definition of that word, because dictionary definitions are simply abstract descriptions of how people use words in practice. What all this means is that it doesn’t make sense to require someone to commit their lives to Christ through baptism prior to engaging in the practices of the Church. Christianity is primarily a concrete way of life, and only secondarily an abstract set of doctrines that attempt to explain that way of life. We can’t require someone to commit to our way of believing before being part of our way of practicing, because there is no way of understanding those beliefs without the practices. Only those who live the Eucharistic life can understand what it means to be a Christian. You don’t learn to speak a language by memorizing a dictionary. You learn by speaking the language and actually using the words in a specific context.
On this way of thinking only those who take have already learned to take the Eucharist can be converted to Christianity and therefore become ready for the Baptismal Covenant. The problem, as we have seen, is that our abstract forms of theology seem to conflict with the practice of open communion. Does this mean we have to completely revise our theology before we can accept open communion? Or is there a way to understand open communion in a way that coheres with traditional theology? Specifically, is open communion compatible with the belief that salvation is only found in Christ? I believe it is.
Traditionally baptism is the sign of our adoption into Christ’s body, and the Eucharist is the sign of the continual nourishment of our ongoing life in Christ. We are born into Christ’s Body, and though we continue to become separated from the Body through sin, our participation in the Eucharist reconciles us to God and one another, granting us forgiveness and keeping us in the eternal life that is only found in Christ’s Body. Now, if all this is true, then open communion might seem like a contradiction. How can we participate in the life of Christ’s body (in Eucharist) before we are born (in baptism)?
But the stumbling block is removed as soon as we remember that people do in fact grow before they are born. Surely the Spirit of Christ draws us to God prior to baptism just as a fetus grows within its mother before birth. In most cases participating in the Eucharist is like a branch drawing nourishment from a vine into which it has been grafted. But for some, the Eucharist is an umbilical chord that brings life in preparation for a future birth in Baptism. Hospitality does not have to be at odds with the unity of the body. We can welcome the unbaptized into the womb of the Church just as Mary welcomed Christ into her body in the form a stranger.
Further, this metaphor of fetal development helps us see why practicing open communion is essential for a proper theology of evangelism. We must never think of God as only living in the Church. God is also active in the world into which Christ sends us. Our job is not to bring God to the world but to help people see the Spirit that is already at work in the world, reconciling all things to God in Christ. God calls all people to new life in Christ. Who are we to deny them the nourishment that might sustain them until they are ready to be born again? +
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