The Episcopal Church is a welcoming church. It says so right on our signs! There is an asterisk that might be placed at the end of that sign, though . . . According to the Episcopal Church’s website:
It goes by several names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist (which literally means “thanksgiving”), mass. But whatever it’s called, this is the family meal for Christians and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. As such, all persons who have been baptized, and are therefore part of the extended family that is the Church, are welcome to receive the bread and wine, and be in communion with God and each other. (italics added)
Such a policy, known as open communion subject to baptism, is the official policy of the Episcopal Church. In some other denominations, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Catholic Church, the official policy is a closed communion–not only must you be baptized, but you must also be a member of that denomination to participate in communion. I was jarred into that realization when I attended a friend’s mother’s Catholic funeral, and the bulletin made it clear that only baptized Catholics were welcomed at the altar rail for communion. I sat in my seat during the Eucharist, feeling very much excluded. That would not occur in an Episcopal Church. So, the Episcopal Church welcomes you, but . . . please be baptized to participate in the Eucharist.
In action, however, many Episcopal Churches do not follow this policy. I have been in many Episcopal Churches where the celebrant announces that “This is God’s table and all are welcomed.” No asterisk or signed statement affirming baptism. In fact, when I attended the Diocesan Convention a couple of years ago, Bishop Dietsche made such an announcement. To be fair, he could be pretty sure that all in attendance were baptized members of the Episcopal Church, but I liked hearing him say that “all are welcomed” at God’s table.
Not all Episcopal Churches are so open however. St. Luke in the Fields, the church I attended in New York City, made it clear that, if you weren’t baptized, you were welcome to come forward and receive a blessing, but you should not receive communion. I was in formation there with another adult preparing for baptism who could not participate in Eucharist on Sundays, which felt odd to me.
In her memoir, Take This Bread, Sara Miles, who had been an atheist with little interest in Christianity, describes walking into a church for the first time: “One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. . . . This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food–indeed, the bread of life.” I have to wonder what she would have done if the church she had wandered into had made it clear that only baptized Christians were welcome to receive communion. Would she have missed that opportunity for change–radical change?
In Those Episkopols, sometimes called the “unofficial handbook of the Episcopal Church, author Dennis Maynard says that he teaches children preparing for their First Communion this devotional:
As we raise our hands to receive the Holy Bread pray the following words, “Out with self. Out with envy. Out with anger. Out with greed.” Then take the blessed bread in your hands and offer this prayer, “In with compassion. In with forgiveness. In with understanding. In with love. In with Jesus.”
In with Jesus. The bread of life. Should anyone who feels called to come to the altar rail be denied that opportunity?