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  • Rev. Charles Austin

Bond between Baptism and Holy Communion firm, but Changing

The bond between Baptism and Holy Communion can never be broken, but the way that bond is understood

and practiced in ELCA congregations is changing, said Bishop Michal Burk of the Southeastern Iowa Synod addressing New Jersey Synod pastors and rostered leaders on April 29.

It has usually been assumed that those receiving Holy Communion are baptized and recipients of the sacrament were generally expected to understand something about what Lutheran churches teach concerning the sacrament.

Voting members at the 2013 ELCA Assembly in Pittsburgh asked the church to discuss the practice, an initiative requested by the Northern Illinois Synod brought by pastors who sought more clarity on who should be invited to commune.

That clarity may be difficult to define, Bishop Burk told the New Jersey Ministerium Day audience. At issue, the bishop said, is common understanding of such words as “welcome,” “open,” “hospitality” and “inclusion;” and a changing situation in many communities where those not baptized may seek fellowship at Lutheran altars.

There can be an assumption that those coming to receive Holy Communion are “seeking Christ’s presence,” Bishop Burk said. But “our local assemblies have changed,” he said, as more unbaptized people are present in today’s world. In his own synod, pastors reported various practices, some inherited from previous pastors, and some new practices, including inviting the unbaptized to receive.

Bishop Burk said that across the church passions on the subject can “run high.” Even the invitation to have a discussion on the subject can “raise blood pressures,” he commented. Some say, “don’t change this,” the bishop said; others insisted that “you can’t change this,” while still others said that changes would mean “the ELCA will have lost its soul.”

The church-wide discussion is not expected to produce any “official” or “policy” changes of the sort voted on by ELCA Assemblies. The ELCA’s statement “The Use of the Means of Grace,” which explains principles for worship, adopted in 1997, is not likely to be amended. But while the principles are considered “definitive,” the applications are “less so,” the bishop said.

That document states “all baptized persons are welcomed to Communion.” If an unbaptized person comes forward to receive,” says one application of the principles, “neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need be ashamed. Rather, Christ’s gift of love and mercy to all is praised.”

The current discussion, Bishop Burk said, is to consider whether there are times when rather than noting that unbaptized persons may at times “inadvertently” receive the sacrament, it may be assumed that the unbaptized are receiving or invited to receive.

The nature of the invitation, often expressed in church bulletins or pastoral announcements, might be perceived as “institutional gate-keeping” and a barrier to the welcome that congregations want to present to outsiders, he said. Burk told how disappointed he was to see that his Methodist relatives did not commune and that he learned the reason was because they did not understand what was meant by the bulletin announcement’s reference to “the real presence of Christ.”

“We want to pass down what was handed on to us,” Bishop Burk added, and said that discussions about communion practices must take place in a way where there is counsel, guidance and discussion across the church. “There is a mutual accountability,” he said, “we are not independent contractors.” Still individual initiatives have weight. The bishop said a pastor in his synod made what the bishop found to be a good case for inviting the unbaptized and in essence declared that “I could not prevent her from doing that.”

Practices across the ELCA are “more varied than I thought,” said Burke, who from 2001 to 2008 was director of worship for the ELCA. Elected bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod in 2008, he has been re-elected to a second six-year term.

The discussion needs to focus on the relationship between those communing – whether baptized or unbaptized – and Christ and the mission of the church, Bishop Burk said. If others “eat and drink with us,” the nature of that relationship may be different, he said.

Lutheran teaching declares that receiving Holy Communion “changes us,” he said, and that the sacrament is connected with the broader, on-going mission of the church. It is a “call to follow Jesus,” Bishop Burk added, and it makes communicants part of the “body of Christ.” The sacramental nature of Holy Communion means that it must be “more than the moment, more than mere hospitality.” Discerning what reception of Holy Communion by the unbaptized means for the understanding of the Body of Christ and the congregation and its mission is part of the discussion, Bishop Burk said.

It may be that while receiving Baptism has previously been what “prepares” or “leads” a person to the Lord’s table; today reception of Holy Communion may lead a person to the baptismal font, the bishop said.

The discussion throughout the ELCA is looking for “the healthiest way for this to evolve,” Bishop Burk said. “Wherever we go, we should go there knowing who we are and why we are doing what we do.”

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