On Baptism and Eucharist

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.]

10 thoughts on “On Baptism and Eucharist

  1. This is actually the Diocese of Eastern Oregon… There is no Diocese of Eastern Washington, that would (correctly) be the Diocese of Spokane.

  2. Correction penitently made. (I thought I’d caught that a couple of hours ago, but my ‘update’ command didn’t complete the change at the blog backend.) Ducks ? Huskies.

  3. Zags?

    Thanks for the post, AKMA. I’m all wrapped up in Dan’s comment thread and have posted on my own blog a baptist-ish gloss, too.

    I need to add you to the new blogroll. Pardon me whilst I do that.

  4. When I was getting to know my church, I came forward for a blessing during communion, although it was — at that time — an “open table.” I felt that, for me, it wouldn’t be appropriate to receive the sacrament until I was prepared to declare myself committed to the community through baptism. I’m kind of by-the-book that way, myself.

    I will say, though, that the idea that it was an open table was very important to me. I truly believe that Jesus kept an open table, and that it was his practice to share himself and his abundance with all, regardless of their physical, social, moral, or spiritual status. To discourage or turn away someone who is seeking God because they haven’t gone through the church’s approved process seems a terrible mistake to me. Had I felt that was the policy of my church, I never would have joined in the first place. And, I may add, the fact that the policy has changed since I joined has saddened me deeply.

    I guess I’d like to ask: what’s the harm? The person who ultimately chooses to fully engage with the community will do so, in time, as they learn the value of baptism. (And perhaps, like me, might not had they not felt completely welcome.) The one who takes communion and then drifts away—well, it’s hard to claim they’d be more likely to stick around if refused communion earlier. I would guess that very few people, in reality, actually receive communion who are not “entitled” to it. (Ugh. Entitled, what a grotesque concept.)

    Our world is riddled with ways of dividing us into “in” groups and “outsiders.” Jesus wanted us to be one people, one family. We’re not the ones to be separating our brothers and sisters into the sheep and the goats.

    Disclaimer: I am not a theologian. But then again, neither are most people who might be affected by this issue. I guess you can tell I have strong feelings about it.

  5. The harm, I’d say, originally, was that by becoming part of the Christian community, one was in fact risking death. It’s not at all surprising to me that those responsible for members of the faith forbade “outsiders” from participating fully; it was the ethically responsible thing to do.

    And actually, that possibility of death remains still, in various parts of the world and at various times. Religion is serious business to a lot of people – so wouldn’t it make sense to be sure somebody wanted to be associated with the faith first?

    And, of course, it’s strange to invite people to participate in a religious rite without even being instructed in “how to do it.” As a chalicist, I’ve had a person at holiday services come to the rail – and look at the host in his hand, and then the chalice, and ask me in confusion: “What do I do?”

    It’s a religious rite. It’s got procedures that people want to follow, since they believe – and we tell them – that it’s important and even “holy.” Church members get taught the ropes before doing this for the first time – yet we invite people who may never have even seen the rite before to participate. Bizarre, to me….

  6. In answer to the all important school loyalty question, Huskies are in WA, most Duck fans are west of the Cascades in Western OR, and those who live in Eastern OR are primarily Beaver fans.

  7. I would subscribe to ‘commitment’, though the concept of the Open Table is wonderful, it is the apex of our worship to receive the startling gifts of the sacrament.
    This is not aiming for exclusivity, but rather it’s about ‘significance’ rather than a more casual ‘acceptance’. not sure it is helpful: being able to take part in something just because others are doing it, but without understanding. (Does this beg the question of levels of understanding among the Baptised?)
    A generous inclusion now leads to dissension, re-writing of fundamental, church Law.. We need not follow suit, surely!

  8. When I was in middle school a hundred years ago, I went to a sort of youth retreat called Happening, which is linked to the Cursillo movement. A monk of the Order of the Holy Cross taught us how to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. In his explanation he used a simile that some might not care for, but which stuck in my young mind.

    A visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he said, was like going on a date with Jesus. Anyone could do it at any time they had access to the reserved Sacrament, and use the occasion just to spend time with the Lord. You didn’t need to fast or make any preparation for it, and you didn’t even need to be a member of the Church or baptized.

    Holy Communion, on the other hand (he went on), was a much more intimate encounter with the Lord – like making love. And just like making love is reserved for married couples, who had pledged their lives one to another, Holy Communion was reserved for Christians who had pledged their lives to Christ in baptism, and had also made appropriate preparation by examining their lives. He went on to talk about that preparation, the place sacramental Confession might play, and to announce that he would be available to hear Confessions after our time in front of the aumbry. He also pointed out that, just like going to the movies with a boy or girlfriend was no substitute for your wedding night, visits to the Blessed Sacrament weren’t substitutes for receiving Communion.

    Like I said, the simile stuck with me. Even today my reaction to someone taking Communion without having joined themselves to Christ in Baptism is that it’s the spiritual equivalent of a one night stand, and threatens to cheapen everything connected with it.

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