Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Discretion. . .
There are those who practice closed communion in the sense that those who commune are people of a common confession, those who believe the same faith and doctrine and who practice it consistently. This is the customary sense of Missouri's idea of closed communion. It was easier when you had few real visitors and it was easier to deal with when the Sacrament was offered only quarterly. It has become more difficult now that all kinds of people show up on Sunday morning and the Sacrament is offered at least every other week or especially every Sunday (as our Confessions presume). Also part of this is the decline in confessional services and private confession which were once prime means to know who to expect at the rail on Sunday morning. Inherent in this idea of closed communion are two things -- that those who commune share a common confession and they live under a common discipline. Obviously, that common discipline has been the Achilles heel of the whole thing.
Underneath all of this, however, has been another thread (or shall we say threat). Since at least the 1960s and 1970s, Missouri has become an increasingly congregational church body -- at least in popular understanding. The parish has always been the center of things for Missouri but now more than ever the congregation is seen as a sort of Supreme Court over Missouri's constitution, by-laws, and conventions. Each individual congregation has come to think of itself as having the right and even the duty to decide for itself whether or not something in Synod is right or wrong, good, right, or salutary, or expedient for its own set of circumstances. This has placed severe tests upon the common confession that Missourians claim to under gird our synodical unity and identity. Some delight in testing the boundaries of this synodical structure at every juncture. Who communes in the congregation is seen as a local issue and not something Synod can or should inform or enforce.
Some congregations have deliberately adopted practices that poke the proverbial finger at Missouri's historical and consistent confession of closed communion. We all know this. Others have quietly practiced an open altar without attempting to draw attention to the practice inconsistent with Synod's stated confession and practice. Other congregations have for all intents and purposes broken fellowship with the brothers and sisters throughout the Synod by requiring a bit more than Missouri has traditionally required for communion and by being vocal about it.
There is something else at play and that is the understanding of pastoral discretion. Unlike some in Missouri, nearly everyone has understood closed communion not simply to be about membership or even about membership in good standing but also about the right and privilege of the pastor to admit someone who does not necessarily fit the rules. It is exceptional and the pastor retains the authority to make exception for pastoral reason and urgency. This is also at play in Missouri's understanding of closed communion. Pastors practice it differently. Some make the exception the rule and others make for no exception at all.
The key word here is discretion. To be discreet ordinarily means to be careful, prudent, or circumspect. The word discreet is, of course, from Latin discretus, meaning separate or distinct. It is important to note that they key to discretion is not secrecy. Discretion may not be shouted from the mountain tops but neither is is primarily private. Prudence and discretion means to take seriously the exception and to be disciplined in granting exception as well as compassionate. Therein lies the problem. We are at a point in which many in the Synod do not trust the discretion of others because they fear it is undisciplined and falsely compassionate (more concerned about possible offense than possibly taking the Sacrament to the individual's harm).
It is not discretion to always grant exception and it is not discretion to never grant exception. In fact, it is easier to open the altar rail to anyone or close the rail to all but the few members than to be in the messy middle of speaking with each communicant unknown to the pastor. Some complain that this is not even possible in large congregations in which the pastor cannot possibly be expected to even know or recognize who is a member and who is not (something more of an issue than for closed communion only).
The point of the stewardship of the rail is not to exclude but to assist those who commune to commune worthily, that is, to have repentant faith to receive the gift. Perhaps it is true that some pastors see themselves somewhat like the gatekeepers who keep the wrong people out of a hot spot where everyone wants to enter. The pastoral role here is not judge and jury of guilty or innocent but preacher of the Gospel and steward of the gifts.
For all the disputes over closed communion, the vast majority of Christians practice it in some form or another. Rome, Constantinople, and Wittenberg were once united in this practice. Now more Lutherans practice open altars than practice closed communion. While that may not be true for Missouri in particular, it is certainly true for Lutheranism in general. Yet it is an easy practice to justify from Scripture and history. It is not a practice supported by one passage or by the odd man out in the past. Yet in Missouri, at least, we continue to wrestle with it.
Speaking for myself, I know how hard it is to meet people before the service, inquire as to their faith, and then to tell them not to receive. The people who complain most about the negative answer to the question are generally those who knew they should not commune. Sometimes it is a delight to find a person whose confession is solid and orthodox and then to inquire why they belong to church body which does not confess the faith as they have just done. I wrestle with those who think that the Sacrament is private time with Jesus as the individual alone defines it -- even regular Missourians fall into that trap. But communion is by nature a public act, a public statement, and a public reception. It is not private at all. That, however, remains a topic for another post. In the end, it is a subject that remains a hot topic for Missouri and into this touchy subject some of our better theologians have waded. I encourage you to read and consider their words. I will.
Listen to an Issues, Etc. discussion of the topic here. . .