Open communion on the rise in MC Canada congregations

Jul 30, 2018 by and

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Many Mennonites have grown up hearing these words for as long as they can remember: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Communion, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist — whatever the name, it has been an integral part of the Christian faith since its beginnings.

Communion in Mennonite churches in Canada hasn’t always looked the same over the years. In the 1960s and ’70s, many churches had separate services for communion, which only baptized members attended. Over time, the ritual was incorporated into Sunday morning worship and then began to involve nonbaptized participants in alternative ways as well.

At the Mennonite World Conference assembly in 2015, Anabaptists who filled the stadium were invited to celebrate the Eucharist together, regardless of baptism or age. — Dale D. Gehman/Meetinghouse

At the Mennonite World Conference assembly in 2015, Anabaptists who filled the stadium were invited to celebrate the Eucharist together, regardless of baptism or age. — Dale D. Gehman/Meetinghouse

Today, there is an undeniable move toward open communion in Mennonite Church Canada congregations. From British Columbia to Ontario, all 10 people interviewed for this article noted that it was a trend in their region.

“There’s a shift in church in terms of where the emphasis is placed — a shift from what you believe to who belongs,” said Tanya Dyck Steinmann, pastor of East Zorra Mennonite Church in Tavistock, Ont.

This trend follows a larger societal movement pushing for inclusion and acceptance. “We have a major concern for inclusivity and welcome, and more and more people are interpreting that as meaning we should have some level of open communion,” said John Rempel, a senior fellow at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.

At the Mennonite World Conference assembly in 2015, Anabaptists who filled the stadium were invited to celebrate the Eucharist together, regardless of baptism or age.

In 2008, Elsie Rempel wrote an article for Canadian Mennonite, “Kids and Communion: Toward a More Inclusive Approach.” Ten years later, she reflects on why the trend of open communion is stronger now.

“[It’s] partly because of children and wanting to include them more holistically in the worship life of the church,” she said, “but also because . . . more and more young adults are reluctant to get baptized, even though they have sincere faith.”

John Rempel added that the church is in an age when it’s far more uncertain whether children will end up sharing the faith of their parents, so parents want to show their kids they belong in the church.

‘You’re accepted here’

For some, it’s the context that makes all the difference.

Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man., has a well-established practice of open communion. It provides a variety of options to congregants: the traditional bread and grape juice, grapes and crackers, or just a blessing. All three options are open to everyone.

Pastor Judith Friesen Epp said open communion at Home Street was particularly important because of its geographical location: “Home Street, in its entire 60-year history, has always been located near the center of the city, in neighborhoods where there’s significant poverty and . . . racism, and where many people are unwelcome in a lot of places.” She says that when people from the neighborhood come to worship, the first and most important message they hear must be, “You are welcome, you’re accepted here, and you belong.”

But even churches with more traditional views and practices are switching to more inclusive communion practices. It was surprisingly difficult to find a church that still reserved communion for baptized believers only. One pastor in southern Manitoba said the only churches in the area he could think of that still practiced a more “closed” communion had all left the regional church by now.

Shift in meaning

Along with opening the communion table comes a fundamental shift in the meaning behind communion. Article 12 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states that at the communion table “we renew our baptismal covenant with God and with each other.” If many people who have never made a baptismal covenant before are now taking communion, then its significance is changing in a significant way for many people.

This is an important transformation of meaning that many churches are dealing with. So why hasn’t the debate heated up?

“It’s much more fun to argue about sex than communion,” said Elsie Rempel with a laugh. One of the reasons she did her master’s thesis on Mennonites, children and communion a decade ago, and created the booklet “Come Lord Jesus, Be Our Host,” was because she wanted to provide the church with resources when they struggled with what she expected to become a big deal.

“I thought it would catch on, but it didn’t,” she said. “I think people were just so preoccupied with this sexuality conversation. I don’t think it’s that communion doesn’t matter, but maybe there’s only [enough] emotional energy for one big fight at a time.”

This isn’t to say everyone is just jumping on board with no questions.

Dyck Steinmann said that, while East Zorra’s new open communion model has been well received, it hasn’t necessarily been an easy journey. It began when the pastors felt called to make communion more inviting. But when they first changed the wording of their invitation, it created confusion for those who weren’t yet baptized, because of the church’s strong tradition of communion being reserved for baptized believers. This prompted a process of discernment with the congregation, which led to a shift to open communion in 2015.

She said this is a big adjustment for the traditional congregation. One concern people had was that the new model would compromise the meaning of communion.

“There was a valid fear that communion would become meaningless and wishy washy if everyone was free to participate,” she said, adding, though, that communion can actually lead to deeper faith commitment and isn’t just a reward of baptism.

East Zorra is in an area that has a strong Amish tradition, which places a lot of pressure on being worthy and ready for communion. The pastors wanted to create space for grace and to acknowledge that everyone is imperfect and at different points along the faith continuum.

Path of discipleship

Not all churches have instantly started believing the same thing either.

At First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, all who are baptized are invited to communion, which is bread and a choice of juice or wine passed down the pews. The church currently doesn’t have an alternative for children or unbaptized congregants. Pastor David Driedger said there hadn’t been a significant enough push from the congregation to change from its current tradition.

“It seems that expression continues to resonate with enough of the membership that it has simply continued in a very stable form over the years,” he said, adding that it’s a matter of which commitments the church believes come first on the path of discipleship. Other churches might put those in a different order or on a different level of importance.

There are many aspects of worship at First Mennonite to which everyone is welcome, and there are many ways to get involved, whether baptized or not. Driedger said communion is also not the only table at which Christ is present, including the fellowship meal. The communion table is just one that holds an especially important significance.

Ritual of the senses

Whether it’s saved for a specific time or open to anyone who desires it, it’s clear that communion is still very important.

“Where language has become hackneyed and people become inattentive to it . . . a simple but beautifully crafted ritual of communion can sometimes speak to people about the meaning of Christ and the meaning of the Christian life in a way that words don’t seem to,” John Rempel said. Communion engages our bodies and requires active participation in worship and with each other.

This is especially important for Mennonites because, other than singing, our worship so often uses only our brains.

“[Communion is] so holistic,” Elsie Rempel said. “It’s not just the head . . . it’s ritual that involves all our senses, that . . . renews the relationship between us and God in a very tangible way.”

For churches that still teach baptism should come before communion, there are other ways to create an inclusive space. In her thesis, Elsie Rempel proposed that those who were baptized receive the elements and people who hadn’t made that step yet receive a grape. A grape is theologically significant because it is on its way to becoming wine but hasn’t gone through the whole process yet.

Importance of baptism

Many churches that practice open communion still want to recognize the importance of baptism and membership.

Friesen Epp said a public commitment to both Christ and the church community is still important at Home Street.

“We also want to continue to hold that strong Anabaptist principle . . . we just maybe need to do that in another place and another way,” she said.

In this evolving church landscape, with more open communion tables than ever before, we must enter the Lord’s Supper asking both the question, “How are we welcoming others?” and also, “How are we calling people to a commitment to follow Jesus?”


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