‘A Family Conversation’: Seminary hosts Northern California leaders to revisit communion controversy
By Dr. Scott MacDougall
In the lead-up to the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2022, the committees of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies were presented with a resolution put forward by the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California. The proposed legislation created quite a stir.
Titled “All Are Welcome at the Table,” this resolution (C028) petitioned the General Convention to “repeal Canon I.17.7 of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church …, which states: ‘No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.’”
While the proposal did not make it out of committee for formal consideration by either of the convention’s houses, its appearance on the legislative docket created a firestorm of controversy in print and on social media.
Proponents of the measure framed repeal of the canon as a matter of justice and hospitality. Opponents worried that repealing the canon would imperil the theological, liturgical, and formational connection between the rites of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist.
What too often seemed to be missing from the dispute was a spirit of charity. Those on each side of the debate frequently failed to inquire into what was felt to be at stake by those on the other. No one seemed to be trying to identify areas of possible convergence, where sincerely held commitments could be maintained while taking action that addressed the concerns of others.
In the rush to take sides, it was easy to lose our grasp on the reality that we are all on the same side, as Episcopalians, disciples, and members of the Body of Christ.
On October 9, CDSP hosted a panel discussion featuring four members of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California: the Rt. Rev. Megan Traquair, bishop of the diocese; the Rev. Br. Simeon (Lewis) Powell, CG, deacon in residence at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Rocklin and chair of the Northern California deputation that year; the Rev. James Richardson ‘00, past interim dean at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento and the first clergy alternate of the Northern California deputation; and the Rev. Stephen R. Shaver, PhD (GTU ‘18), rector of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa and a liturgical theologian.
The four panelists were convinced there were important lessons to be learned from the dispute. They believed that, by having this “family conversation” in an open forum, they could not only listen to one another and come to better appreciate the range of viewpoints, but perhaps also demonstrate the benefits that can come from disagreeing with others in ways that avoid polarization and demonization and that lead to agreement on possible routes forward through thorny issues.
Approximately 250 people registered to attend in person and online. The event began with a welcome from Dr. Stephen Fowl, president and dean of CDSP. Dr. Scott MacDougall, associate professor of theology, acted as moderator.
Two preliminary speakers set the stage for the conversation that followed. The Rev. Ruth A. Meyers, PhD, Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at CDSP, was first to speak. Meyers had served as a clergy deputy and co-chair of the deputation from the Diocese of California that year, and also as chair of the House of Deputies Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music. She framed the 2022 resolution in the context of a much longer legislative history around this issue, which stretches back many years.
“The legislative history suggests to me that we as a church are not yet at a point where the General Convention can achieve sufficient consensus to reconsider the canon,” Meyers concluded. She also added the observation that “It’s often true in the history of the church that we practice our way into theology.”
The second speaker was Martin Heatlie, warden of Grace Church in Wheatland. Heatlie proposed to the Northern California diocesan convention the resolution that became C028. He explained that it did not seem right to him that “all are welcome in Episcopal churches, but once inside, some will be excluded once communion is served.”
“Speaking from personal experience, it is uncomfortable to be excluded from the Lord’s table,” Heatlie said. “The goal of baptizing all people can be helped by welcoming all to our savior’s table.”
Each of the event’s four main speakers then offered about ten minutes of personal reflection on their theological and pastoral views about repealing or replacing the canon in question and what they learned from the way the “open communion” debate proceeded locally and churchwide. The four panelists then addressed questions and comments to one another based on what they had heard, before taking questions from the audience, both online and onsite.
The conversation was a model of how theological disagreement can produce stronger relationships between siblings in the Church rather than being the occasion for division.
“The floor of the diocesan convention is poorly structured to engage in the deep conversation that is truly required to grapple fruitfully with this issue,” Traquair noted early in the discussion. “It favors short, passionate statements, and it just does not do justice to our responsibility to respond with a great deal more. I think we’re asking too little of ourselves, to be honest.”
What showed that she was right was how the panel’s conversation and patient listening helped identify clear areas of convergence among the participants. Though the panelists did not agree with one other outright, possible ways forward did indeed begin to surface.
For example, all found themselves able to imagine replacing the canon with another canon, or perhaps a Prayer Book rubric, that is not framed in the negative (i.e., “No unbaptized person”). The goal of such revised language, the group agreed, should preserve the present sacramental pattern as the theological norm while allowing for the exercise of individual conscience and pastoral discretion at the altar rail.
“We as the church are not unfamiliar with the idea that there can be a norm that admits of occasional pastoral exceptions,” Shaver said.
The exchange demonstrated the value of talking with each other through charitable, trusting, open conversations rather than talking at each other. In so doing, the participants lived out Christian values and responsibilities as members of one unified—though not uniform—Body of Christ.
Since this particular issue is not resolved and will almost certainly be raised again, being able to talk about it together in a productive manner will be critical. More generally, as our nation and our society increasingly take sides against one another, it is crucial for Christian community to respond differently.
The “family conversation” that took place at CDSP showed clearly that we can do exactly that—and that the result can be both more satisfying and more Christ-like when we do.
“I was so comforted to hear … on what close lines we actually think, even though there are differences,” Traquair said. “That just warmed my heart.”