Close Communion Conversations, by Dr. Peter M. Kurowski, is a much needed book. Here. Dr. Kurowski attacks the difficulties surrounding the necessity of Close Communion. He does much service to pastors and congregations alike, showing the dangers of both being too regimented in a practice of closed communion, and just how it is that the gospel is at stake with open communion. He deals with the thoughts that every self respecting undershepherd of Christ’s sheep struggle with Sunday after Sunday as they contemplate administering the sacrament in a responsible way too both members and non members. Where do we draw the line, and why? Am I really preaching the gospel if I then turn these people away from the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper? But how can I commune them if they aren’t Lutheran? Am I really preaching the gospel to them if I let them commune with misconceptions as to what it is and what they are receiving? What kind of hot water will I get in with my own members who might think I’m just being weak in the knees if I commune this visitor, who obviously isn’t Lutheran, but is coming up anyway?
Close communion is a sticky wicket for pastors. Yet, as Dr. Kurowski points out, “Closed” communion is not an option, and open communion is a recipe for disaster. Close communion puts a lot of responsibility on the pastor, who necessarily must take each case on its own terms. In the course of 26 chapters, he struggles and informs and bleeds with pastors relating his own experiences to the predicaments that faithfulness to the Bible and Lutheran Confessions brings about. He handles the scriptures with thoughtfulness and compassion. In the end, he shows that close communion, as it is practiced officially by the LCMS is really the only way to go, and that grace must abound even for the pastor who will mess up.
The anecdotal nature of the manuscript is both problematic and a necessary blessing. At first I found that aspect of the book to be mildly annoying. We all have stories. And I was hoping for more concreteness in the form of a theological abstract review of the practice, what the Bible says and does not say, what the confessions say and don’t. Yet he covers those things, and in the end I was thankful for the anecdotal nature of the book. The anecdotes show the consternation. It is also true that this is where the rubber meets the road in pastoral ministry, and the subject is not handled well in the abstract but in the concrete only reflection on an anecdotal experience can bring.
Of Course, also problematic to the anecdotal nature of the book is that it becomes somewhat an invitation to criticize another man’s decisions. You do it even if you are in agreement! I suppose that is the courage of Dr. Kurowski’s writing, I’m sure he knew there would be plenty reading who would say “I would not have done that” or “He is a bit liberal there.” And he doesn’t shy away from that. I did have some disagreements in this area. For instance just because they use the same language as us, does not mean that they mean the same thing by it. Episcopalians and Anglicans may emphasize the Real Presence, that in itself is more or less a crap shoot from congregation to congregation, but then it can be that from one LCMS congregation to another too. But then among those who tell me they believe in the Real Presence, short conversations with them reveal that they don’t believe his body and blood are present at all. R.C. Sproul has a communion statement that stresses the Real Presence, but goes out of its way to avoid talking about the Body and Blood of Jesus at all, much less being present in Holy Communion. This has been a long standing reformed trick.
On the other hand, extremely useful was his commentary that perhaps the bar for communion fellowship need not be as strict as that for Altar Fellowship. I think this is something more than a few pastors have struggled with, as they realize that their own members through misunderstanding of what has been taught, or through influence of the culture around them have carried their own misconceptions about Holy Communion, but have communed and been corrected. That there is a sense in which Holy Communion creates and establishes theological unity, even as it is the result of it. That most visitors who come to Holy Communion aren’t gate crashing teachers of another gospel, even if they are the victims of false teachers. Do we do these victims any service by banishing them from the Altar until they have enough training to actually preach? Even whilst our own members are struggling with maybe even greater difficulty because at home they have a steady diet of Max Lucado and Rick Warren, or conversations with Baptist friends and in-laws. Could it be that these are nothing more than bruised reeds, that could safely commune crying “I believe, help my unbelief!”?
The beauty of this book is it asks the questions, invites conversation and will be a greatly useful tool for pastors trying to bring a congregation back from open communion practices, while also serving as a platform for congregations that may have become to legalistic in their practice of close communion, perhaps crossing over to closed communion, to discuss their own predicaments, which is just as big a problem in our current climate.