The Diocese of Eastern
Washington Oregon has made formal what is increasingly the normative practice in US Episcopal parishes, by proposing the abolition of the canon that strictly forbids offering communion to people who have not been baptised. Over the past decade, this canon has been so widely, publicly, proudly flouted that one wonders how any canon might be enforceable; that’s a topic for another day, though. I call this situation to mind because my ecclesiastical boss, the Provost at St Mary’s Cathedral, has reiterated his sense that communion without baptism is an adiaphoron. On this, as on a number of things, Fr Kelvin and I reach very different conclusions.
I won’t repeat the careful arguments that colleagues have articulated (Matt, Derek, Robert, Tobias, Bryan, list courtesy of Matt); the Web makes generously possible the exploration of related links, and I can’t presume to gild their lilies. It may be worth remembering a few points of orientation as we consider the pros and cons, though.
First, Fr Kelvin perhaps skews the discussion by characterising those who disagree with him as being ‘obsessed’ with which sacrament precedes which. It is not in our power to control God’s freedom to introduce some people to the captivating grace of the gospel, so no one is suggesting that we quench the Holy Spirit. ‘Obsession’ may apply as much to persistent demands for change as to persistent conviction that a particular change is unwise.
Second, narratives about who received communion before baptism and how it affected their lives may inform, to some extent, the discussion — but they can’t decide the issue. Last January, a climber fell 1000 ft during an attempted ascent of Ben Nevis, tumbling down three cliffs, and survived with only relatively minor injuries. He may have reconciled himself to his enemies during that fall, he may have attained blissful oneness with the universe, he may only have enjoyed the adrenaline rush of confronting death — but none of those makes ‘falling off Ben Nevis’ a good idea as a normative practice, no matter how benign its effects in his case. If someone can show that communion without baptism as a general practice builds up the Body of Christ, that’s one thing; but no matter how much we give thanks for the positive effects of pre-baptismal communion in individual cases (such as Fr Kelvin himself, Sara Miles, or any other person) these remain the marvellous instances of the unpredictable power of the Spirit, rather than decisive warrants for a far-reaching change in the theology of the church.
For (third) theology remains a complex system in which changes to this point here affect the entire network. Kelvin appositely cites the example of the Episcopal Church USA, which put great energy behind what they call ‘Baptismal Theology’ (itself a shift in emphasis with far-reaching effects), only to find themselves now confronting a popular proposal that would relativise baptism altogether. Change we must, by all means; we’re never not changing, whether we like it or not. But since so much of the church through so much of history (especially in the Episcopal tradition) has held firmly to the premise that baptism — as sacramental incorporation into the Body of Christ — should normatively precede Eucharist — as the sacramental nourishment of that Body — that it’s somewhat misleading to minimise the proposed change. The magnitude of the discernment and articulated theological deliberation that undergirds the practice of baptising before participating in communion far overshadows the infrastructural foresight that has been advanced to justify communion without baptism.
Let’s set aside bugaboos of ecclesiastical storm-troopers demanding identity papers before allowing people to line up for communion. In even the most sternly traditional churches, strangers receive communion every day without proving that they’ve been baptised, and no one’s suggesting (to the best of my knowledge) that this principle be enforced more rigorously. Let’s not indulge in trivialising characterisations of one position or the other as ‘trendy’, ‘politically correct’, ‘fusty traditionalist’, ‘fascist’, or other arguments ad opprobrium. If the sacrament of the Eucharist matters in some way, let’s take the discussion seriously and mount deep, considered, theological arguments one way or the other, with a view to strengthening the Body of Christ. It doesn’t seem to be the case, just now, that we’re suffering from a hypertrophy of theological wisdom, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that current stresses have favoured partisanship over profundity.
[Late addition: Link to Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski’s thoughts about communon without baptism.]