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At the Anglican Communion's 1968 Lambeth Conference, delegates debated the question of intercommunion for six long hours. Many of the attendees were opposed to what is often termed “eucharistic hospitality”—the practice of inviting all baptized Christians to partake of the Eucharist, no matter their denominational allegiance. The 1930 Lambeth Conference had tried to keep the lid on this practice. The lengthy 1968 debate, however, yielded a different result: “In order to meet special pastoral needs of God’s people, under the direction of the bishop, Christians duly baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity and qualified to receive Holy Communion in their own Churches may be welcomed at the Lord's Table in the Anglican Communion.” This move away from traditional custom soon affected practices beyond Anglican borders. Following the 1968 Lambeth decision, most Protestant churches have made a similar shift from closed to open communion.
Few Protestant groups would today debate open communion for six long hours. Instead, I increasingly hear the question, “Shouldn’t we open the communion table to all, Christians as well as non-Christians, as an act of gracious hospitality?” It’s a question that no one would have raised in 1930 or 1968. But today, many—especially within evangelicalism—treat it as a pressing question. I suspect that these later developments reveal a principle already at stake at an earlier stage, at Lambeth 1968. This principle has affected our entire cultural ethos, from our border policies to our concept of gender: the notion of what we may call “pure hospitality”—a desire for hospitality without any boundaries whatsoever. This principle reveals both where we are going as a culture and where we are headed as a church.
Of course, we need a careful theological argument as to why open communion is problematic. That will not be the burden of this piece. Instead, I want to dig into just what the “pure hospitality” mindset entails. My point is simply a sociological or empirical one: When we change our eucharistic boundaries, we change the church’s identity; and when, in postmodern fashion, we take away eucharistic boundaries, we take away the church.
The postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida published his small but influential book De l’hospitalité in 1997. Translated into English three years later, the book was an expression of Western elites’ inability to maintain any kind of stable identity or to defend boundaries with any sort of integrity. Deconstructing the West’s past as a violent imposition of sameness and identity, Derrida made a plea for “pure hospitality,” which he grounded in an eschatological messianicity that he viewed as radically open and indeterminate.
Derrida’s philosophical deconstruction in De l’hospitalité makes three moves. First, Derrida insists that hospitality must be pure or absolute. If we place any kind of boundaries around hospitality, it is no longer “pure hospitality.” Derrida recognizes that such radical hospitality may mean that we invite the devil to our table. But the objection leaves him undeterred: Hospitality must be absolute, unconditional, limitless.
Second, Derrida’s hospitality insists on an indeterminate future. If hospitality is pure or absolute, we have no knowledge whatsoever of what the messianic future may look like. Nor, in that case, should we want to shape it in any way. Instead, Derrida advocates a radical openness to the advent (invention) of the wholly other (tout autre). In other words, Derridean hospitality is a negative hospitality that we cannot capture, either in human concepts or in human practices. It is a hospitality predicated on a complete loss of identity.
Third, Derrida explains that the “pure hospitality” he advocates can never actually be realized. We live without any “horizon of expectation.” The messiah we long for will never actually come to establish his kingdom. Our world will always be a violent world of boundaries and exclusions. Laws always circumscribe; they unavoidably fall short of justice. Practices of hospitality, likewise, invariably impose limits; they inescapably serve as self-interested acts of violence and exclusion. Hence, for Derrida, we must deconstruct laws (for the sake of justice) and deconstruct practices of limited hospitality (for the sake of pure hospitality).
It is not difficult to recognize the Derridean notion of pure hospitality within the contemporary cultural ethos. Attacks on stable identity and boundaries are now commonplace in our culture. The postmodern ethos shapes everything from immigration policies to transgenderism. Ecclesial identity is no exception.
Of course, the eucharistic hospitality that Lambeth 1968 introduced to Anglicanism (and Protestantism more broadly) is different from the pure hospitality advocated by Jacques Derrida. It is quite possible to argue that all baptized Christians should be welcomed to the Eucharist without lapsing into the radical, Derridean notion of pure hospitality—and many Christians accept the former without the latter.
Still, we should not avoid the cultural question: Why is it that at this particular historical juncture numerous churches—Catholics and Orthodox largely excepted—have changed eucharistic admission policies that prevailed throughout the preceding tradition? Why is it that Derridean pure hospitality has made huge cultural strides at precisely the same time that we have witnessed the loosening of eucharistic guardrails? And why is it that in the wake of Lambeth 1968, Protestants increasingly question any kind of eucharistic boundary?
We should be aware what is at stake when we apply the notion of pure hospitality to the Eucharist: It is the erasure of ecclesial boundaries and hence of ecclesial (or confessional) identity. If, as Henri de Lubac used to put it, the Eucharist makes the church, then a boundaryless Eucharist makes a boundaryless church. Pure hospitality applied to the Eucharist implies a universalism of the worst sort: It is the radical insistence that the church is without any positive identity whatever.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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