A psalm for the fifth day at Morning Prayer is the 26th, which includes these lines:
“Give judgment for me, O Lord, for in have lived with integrity;/ I have trusted in the Lord and never faltered….
I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord,/ that I may go in procession round your altar.* (vv.1,6)
I admire the Psalmist’s self-confidence, but I do not share it! My spiritual life has lots of faltering, and if innocence is the basis on which I approach the altar, my Sunday mornings will be freer than they now are. Who then is the ‘I’ who can say these words?
The answer is the ‘George’ who lives based on the forgiveness Christ has won for us, the one clothed in His righteousness. The only one who hasn’t faltered is Christ. So when we read psalms with these stringent requirements of holiness we are at once daunted and emboldened. There is after all a reason that in his parables Jesus had such an emphasis on decisiveness and chutzpah.
Somewhat lost amidst other matters at General Convention was a call for a renewed debate about ‘open communion.’ This phrase refers to offering communion to the unbaptized. The argument on its behalf is a serious one: isn’t our faith based on sheer grace, unmerited gift? What claim do we have over our unchurched neighbor? Aren’t we all equally creatures of God, made in His image? Yes, indeed.
But we should at this point listen once more to those verses of the psalm. As we listen, we need to be honest with ourselves. We are indeed equal, equally unable to approach the throne of unalloyed holiness, truth, and love on our own. After the seraphim sing the words ‘holy, holy, holy’ we sing in the Eucharist, Isaiah says “woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amidst a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6). We all need to be brought to this altar; we need what St. Athanasius imagined as an asbestos vest before the fire of God’s love. If we are to go there, we need to be Christ’s own, which means we need baptism and then the Christian life of grace. What is open is Christ’s offer to every human being of that grace.
The debate about open communion is valuable because it clarifies the most basic matters in our faith. It also, implicitly, gives us our marching orders. The unbaptized and the baptized seem alike to us in part because we as a church have not always assumed the latter needed earnestly to be taught and formed on the basis of who they now really are in Jesus Christ. The answer is not lowering the bar of receiving communion, but rather raising the bar of catechism and spiritual formation.