CWOB News: Ecumenical Edition

Communion without Baptism is in the news again, but not from the Episcopal Church this time. Rather, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, an ecumenical partner (and the church in which I was raised), is in the midst of its Churchwide Assembly—analogous to the Episcopal Church’s General Convention.

I haven’t followed Lutheran church politics  for years and so I’m a little sketchy on the exact polity details here—I’m going to describe things as best I can from the outside with the hope that those who actually do know what they’re talking about will correct me when I err…

Unlike our system, they vote on “memorials” rather than “resolutions.” Like our resolutions, they are often bubbled up from local groupings (synods rather than dioceses). One of the memorials on tap this meeting comes from the Northern Illinois Synod. I’ll now cite from the Memorials Committee Report [pdf] of the pre-Assembly materials:

Category D1: Communion Practices

1. Northern Illinois Synod (5B) [2012 Memorial]
WHEREAS, The Use of the Means of Grace (1997), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) guiding document on the “Practice of Word and Sacrament,” clearly states that “The Holy Communion is given to the baptized” (Principle 37, pp. 41–42); and
WHEREAS, since the publication of that document the ELCA has entered into full-communion partnerships with church bodies that do not share that same understanding; and
WHEREAS, the implementing resolutions of our full-communion agreements encourage us to extend sacramental hospitality to one another’s members; and
WHEREAS, some congregations of the ELCA currently have Communion policy statements which would effectively bar members of church bodies with which we are in full communion from participation in the Sacrament; and
WHEREAS, some ELCA congregations welcome everyone present to partake of the Eucharist without stipulating the need for Baptism; and
WHEREAS, clarification concerning Lutheran Sacramental theology and practice would be helpful in the life of this church at this time; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, that the Northern Illinois Synod memorialize the 2013 Churchwide Assembly to institute a process necessary to review and possibly revise the ELCA’s guiding documents concerning admission to the Sacrament of Holy Communion.


The current guiding recommendations for the practice of Holy Communion are found in The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament which was adopted by the 1997 Churchwide Assembly.
Principle 37 of that document states,

The Holy Communion is given to the baptized


Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

Application 37G.

When an unbaptized person comes to the table seeking Christ’s presence and is inadvertently communed, neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need be ashamed. Rather, Christ’s gift of love and mercy to all is praised. That person is invited to learn the faith of the Church, be baptized, and thereafter faithfully receive Holy Communion.

In regards to the ELCA’s ecumenical relationships, the document also says this in Application A of Principle 49…

In the exercise of this [Eucharistic] hospitality, it is wise for our congregations to be sensitive to the Eucharistic practices of the churches from which visitors may come. (UMG, p. 52)

This guiding principle remains the recommended practice of this church. However, there is diversity in practice regarding who is welcome to the table among the worshiping communities of this church. Below are two examples of welcome statements in worship folders:

“We believe and teach the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and we invite all who are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to commune with us.”

“At meal-tables around the world, strangers become friends, and friends become family. In Holy Communion, we are invited to the Table of the Lord. No conditions, no coercion, just words of welcome and promise: “this is my body, given for you.” We are glad to have you worship with us! All visitors are welcome to share in the Lord’s Supper.

These statements represent the varying practice of Eucharistic hospitality in this church. It is important to recognize the desire to welcome people to the Lord’s Supper. This has been attributed as a response to the growing number of unbaptized people present at worship. The current religious context in which the church finds itself is increasingly
diverse, and local worshiping communities are met with numerous challenges to the practice of mission and ministry.

At the same time, this church recognizes that the celebration of Holy Communion occurs in the assembly of the baptized people of God. The importance of the clear connections between baptism and communion also needs to be recognized.

Staff in the churchwide worship team receive a number of inquiries on whether Holy Communion should be presented to only the baptized. Some are in favor of this, some are not in favor, and a good number simply ask, “What should we do?”

In the fall of 2012, the worship team gathered the professors of worship from the ELCA seminaries for a conversation about this issue. A similar conversation took place at a meeting of the Lutheran Caucus at the North American Academy of Liturgy in January 2013. In both of these conversations it was clear that more needs to be said than what exists in current ELCA documents. Regardless of the decision, it remains evident that this church would do well to have more resources on the relationship between Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

Ultimately, decisions about communion practices are local decisions, and there is a need for a resource or resources to help congregations faithfully discern their communion practices.

Recommendation for Assembly Action

To receive with gratitude the memorial of the Northern Illinois Synod requesting a process to review the ELCA’s guiding documents on communion practices;

To invite members, congregations, synods and the churchwide organization into conversation and study regarding the Use of the Means of Grace;

To request the Congregational and Synodical Mission unit, in consultation with the Office of the Presiding Bishop and the Conference of Bishops, to establish a process to review current documents concerning administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion; and

To request the Congregational and Synodical Mission unit to bring a report and possible recommendations to the April 2014 meeting of the ELCA Church Council.

So—this looks very much like the situation that the Episcopal Church was in at the last General Convention. We had Resolution C029 coming from the Diocese of North Carolina recommending a study but without the implied request for change that this memorial seems to bear. I covered this back at Convention-time; the result for us was that the wording of the resolution was substantially changed, the study was nixed and the canons were left unchanged.

However, based on Twitter chatter and the Assembly News, it would seem that this resolution passed, giving the green light for the requested study:

The 952 voting members of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly approved a proposal designed to invite the 4-million-member church, its nearly 10,000 congregations, 65 synods and churchwide organization into conversation and study regarding the Use of the Means of Grace – a statement on the practice of Word and Sacrament. The assembly called on the Congregational and Synodical Mission Unit of ELCA churchwide ministries, in consultation with the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop and the Conference of Bishops, to establish a process to review current documents concerning administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The assembly also requested that the unit provide a report and possible recommendations to the ELCA Church Council in April 2014.

What the Lutherans do is worth keeping a close eye on. We have a very close ecumenical relationship with them—the closest thing there is to merger without it actually being a merger. Ecumenical relationships are mentioned as one of the spurs for this proposed change, yet what will such a move do to our ecumenical relationship? What should it do?

3 thoughts on “CWOB News: Ecumenical Edition

  1. Géo McLarney

    I don’t exactly follow the reasoning. _Members_ of the full communion churches aren’t excluded by plain old open communion: as baptised Christians they’re presumably good to go. At most, it means that some non-members who would be eligible to receive in the full communion churches are not so free in the ELCA. But there’s no such thing as communion-by-transitivity.

    And not that I’d advocate them as a model, but I can’t help noting that the Misery Synod already thinks the ELCA’s gone off the rails by sharing the sacrament of the altar with Anglicans et. al. rather than limiting it to those who subscribe to the Book of Concord!

  2. Derek Olsen

    Precisely—it doesn’t make sense.

    And, yes, having sat through the required Ethnic Lutherans Sub-feuds course, I can tell you that the disputes over who can share what with whom long predates the creation of the Missouri Synod; “unionism” as a traditional American Lutheran insult has feet in the 18th century.

  3. Christopher

    Here is how I read it, some other Churches that the ELCA is in full Communion may not require Baptism for membership at least at the congregational level if not national level. Those folk are not invited to Communion as normative practice should they be in an ELCA congregation. This coupled with a strong internal hospitality movement as it is framed is driving this. I don’t see a need for the ELCA to change it’s own understanding given current generous pastoral practice on the personal level and normative Baptism practice in teaching and liturgical invitation. On the other hand it is worth exploring with ecumenical partners the centrality of Baptism which all of the Reformers are clear about. Just as we have recovered this Patristic and Reformation emphasis we seem bent on giving it up. Complaints that it is inhospitable seem weak given the practices of other religious traditions.

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