The Episcopal Digital Network (formerly the Episcopal News Service) has posted an article online about the ongoing conversations surrounding the ongoing effort by some to implement a policy of Communion regardless of Baptism. This is the subject of at least one (and apparently likely more than one) resolution going forward to General Convention this summer, the highest authority in the Episcopal Church.
I know that I generally try to keep this blog reflective and low-key... but this debate brings up some very strong feelings in me. I think it runs right to the heart of the Christian message and so, if you'll forgive a slightly stronger tone, I have some things I want to say.
Before we get into that, we all need to be on the same page about some important realities. I want to be very careful to stress that the canons are very clear that baptism is required before reception of Holy Communion. I want to insist that this is partly due to our church's renewed emphasis on the centrality of Baptism to the Christian life and that our church's practice is already radically open compared to some other traditions. Though some call this practice "Open Communion," historically Open Communion has referred to the practice of communing those baptized in other traditions. This is a bold stance our church already takes, one that is rooted in our ecumenical relationships.
But there is more that I want to say than just that.
What I want to highlight is that this article displays that we are basically having two entirely different conversations in this church right now about this question, how there exists at least two fundamental different approaches to the Christian life. Over and over again in arguments for Communion regardless of Baptism, the advocates of this position present a false choice to their audience.
No one is saying unbaptized people cannot join in our prayers (as was the practice of the early church during the Eucharistic prayer). No one is saying they cannot come forward and receive a blessing. No one is saying we don't invite them to coffee hour or to be a part of our shared life in all the myriad of ways Christian ministry exists outside of reception of the sacrament. No one is saying any of those things. Instead, what we are talking about is what properly precedes reception of the sacrament.
Throughout this article there are numerous misconceptions, false choices, and cases of rather tendentious language. Let me touch on just a few:
First off, I know that in the Episcopal Church people like to think of themselves as bold and prophetic, but it appears that our conception of a prophetic stance has now grown so broad as to allow anyone to ignore any of the rules of our church simply because they do not like them. This is not good and it is not healthy. Christian community means submission to the community. When the community is doing harm to one of its members, then civil disobedience might be merited, but those cases should be relatively rare.
When clergy violate the canons and offer communion to the unbaptized, they exercise a dangerous form of clericalism in which they put their own personal views above the expressed views of all orders of the church—including the baptized—as articulated in General Convention. It is assuming they know better than the mind of the church, that their opinion on this question is more important than the voice of all the baptized in the Episcopal Church. Canons matter—and rubrics of the BCP matter—because they ensure all orders of the ministry have a proper and appropriate voice in our common life.
Mother Anna Carmichael is one of the key priests interviewed for this story. One of the most frustrating quotes was this,
“For many of the folks out here in the diocese we have already started living into the practice, which I know gets us in a sticky situation but it’s reality,” she said, adding, “we don’t check ID at the door” and strangers who come up to receive communion are not asked if they have been baptized.Yes, because of course that's what those of us who follow the canons do. We check baptism IDs at the door. If we don't know someone at the rail, we ask them if they have been baptized. (Are you catching the hint of sarcasm here?)
Mother Carmichael is presenting a straw man, easily knocked down. No one is suggesting people start doing this. No one is suggesting that following the canon requires Baptism IDs or odd conversations at the altar rail. We all agree those are not things we want to do and I have yet to hear someone argue they are required for one to follow the canons.
But it is one thing to interrupt the distribution at the rail to ask someone you don't know if they have been baptized. It's another thing entirely to stand up and tell unbaptized people they are welcome to receive. It's the latter which is a problem—the intentional invitation regardless of what the mind of the church has expressed in our canons.
Another interviewee, General Convention Deputy Joe Ferrell, worries,
“Now [Holy Eucharist is] commonplace and, particularly at weddings and funerals, you’ve got severe pastoral problems if you attempt to restrict who is going to be welcome at the altar,” he said. “And you have it to some extent on Sunday mornings.”Once again, compared to many denominations, our Church's approach is already one of the most welcoming out there. A false choice is once again put forward in this quote. Contrary to what Mr. Ferrell says, no one is attempting "to restrict who is going to be welcome at the altar." Everyone is welcome at the altar, what is offered at the altar simply varies according to who they are. And our church's approach can be articulated in a very warm and welcoming way.
The offering of a blessing to the unbaptized can be a profound act of hospitality, particularly if done with intentionality. In my own parish, we word our invitation very carefully to make the Church's broad welcome clear,
Everyone is welcome to come to the altar rail during Holy Communion. If you are not baptized, simply cross your arms over your chest to receive a blessing. If you are baptized, extend your hands for the bread and use a hand to guide the chalice to your lips for the wine. Or, if you prefer, you can intinct (dip) the bread into the wine. If you require a gluten-free wafer, please clasp your hands to indicate such to the minister.I'm sorry, but I think that is a profoundly welcoming approach to take to this question. I have had many visitors tell me how much it meant to be invited to come forward and receive as baptized persons, even though they are members of another denomination. I have done several weddings in which large portions of the congregation requested blessings—and where they found that to be a gracious act of hospitality and welcome.
The author of the article, Mother Mary Frances Schjonberg, in an interview with Mr. Ferrell apparently "reminded [the interview person] that the Book of Common Prayer is silent on the issue." Though the prayer book might not specifically say that no unbaptized person is welcome to receive communion, it is also clear that the prayer book has some very specific points to make about what should precede reception of the Sacrament.
The Exhortation on pages 316-317 of the Book of Common Prayer lays out several of these expectations. It is also, to me, remarkably clear that this Exhortation assumes it is talking to and assuming baptized members are preparing for reception of the Sacrament.
The Exhortation articulates the unitive effect of Holy Eucharist, a unitive effect that is predicated upon baptism. It reminds us that we should prepare carefully before presenting ourselves for reception—it most certainly does not say that we should just come no matter what. It invites people to make confession, if they might require it, something that is part of our shared life in the Christian community. Heck, it even talks about how Christ has "washed us in his own blood," a rather obvious connection to the washing of Holy Baptism, as well has how Christ has made us a kingdom of priests, something we are by virtue of our baptism.
The framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer had no idea that the relatively recent and bold change of allowing baptized people to receive Communion regardless of age, denomination, or confirmation status, they had no idea that this bold idea would so quickly be seen as tame and restricting.
Indeed, one of the truly worthwhile sections of the article is when Mother Schjonberg traces the history of the current supposedly restrictive canon which specifies that no unbaptized person may receive Communion. There she notes that this canon actually arose out of the controversial product of ecumenical work resulting in the idea that baptism alone was required for reception of communion. The current canon was, in itself, a bold stance.
No age. No confirmation. No being a part of this church or that church. None of that is required to receive Communion. Instead:
Water + the Holy Trinity = a baptized person who is welcome at Christ's table.
This was a radical idea for some. It still is a radical idea for parents who are unsure about their baptized infants receiving Communion. I don't think we have yet fully unpacked it in our shared life.
Mother Carmichael also trots out one of the most unhelpful and disingenuous arguments for Communion regardless of Baptism.
"This is our construction around this issue because Jesus never said you have to have baptism before you have dinner with me,” she said. “So, this is our mess that we’ve created and sometimes I wonder in the grand scheme of all things how much this really matters. When we get to heaven is Jesus going to be more excited that we invited people or is he going to be more excited that we said you can come, but you can’t?”Yes, Jesus didn't require baptism before sharing a meal with people. But Communion is more than a meal. Eucharist takes a part of a normal meal—bread and wine—and through the power of the Spirit uses that to unite our own sacrifice of praise, our own self-offering of who we are, to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Our union with Christ in baptism is re-experienced and brought present again in the Eucharistic prayer. Thereby, Christ becomes present in that bread and wine in a real way. This partly a shared meal but it is more than a shared meal. Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.
And, furthermore, can we please get rid of this idea— "Does this really matter at all because when we're in heaven, who cares?"
When we're in heaven, we we are finally in the full presence of the Holy Trinity, invited into the depths of divine love, I'm pretty sure all kinds of stuff won't "matter" to us anymore... but that doesn't mean these questions aren't important now, that they aren't important as we invite people into that journey.
You know what I think would excite Jesus? If our church stopped assuming that the Sunday service of Holy Eucharist was the only place for us to articulate Christian belief and practice. If we stopped thinking the ministry of the baptized meant dressing laity up and giving them quasi-sacerdotal functions. If we stopped thinking that truly including kids in our community was as simple as having them all "play priest" with the celebrant. If we stopped thinking being welcoming only involves a full-text bulletin—because then I am freed from the duty of noticing my neighbor, of sharing with and guiding them through our community's worship.
Who we are as Christians is about so much more than who gets to do what on Sunday when we celebrate Holy Eucharist. Who we are as Christian communities is so much larger than that, so much broader. The roles in which we function during Holy Eucharist are a symbol of our actual Christian ministry, the work we do out in the world proclaiming the love of God, standing up for the dignity of all people, and working to bring healing to a hurt and divided world.
You know what I think would excite Jesus? If our clergy and lay leaders stopped arguing amongst themselves regarding who can take Communion and instead made the truly bold act of inviting visitors into our homes for a real actual meal. You want Christian hospitality? Perhaps we should try practicing it in our homes rather than thinking we can tinker yet again with Sunday liturgy as a solution. Because no amount of tinkering with what we do on Sunday excuses the need for us to be truly welcoming people inviting all of God's children into lives of loving discipleship.
One final comment, and then I'll stop. Another interviewee, Wickenberg Ely, noted that
Many people who come to church are often “looking to be welcomed wherever they go and whatever they believe.” Yet, there are some churches that say “if you are to be a member of our community in Christ this entails discipline and commitment, so that belonging is not just by virtue of being a child of God, but it is by virtue of being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being of a child of God,” she said, adding that this is the stance of the Roman Catholic church.I am absolutely fascinated in this person's argument saying "If you are to be a member of our community in Christ this entails discipline and commitment, so that belonging is not just by virtue of being a child of God, but it is by virtue of being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being of a child of God." I am fascinated that this person is actually opposed to this view, is citing it as a bad example of what Christianity to be (and even slapping some ever-popular anti-Catholic prejudice to the view to ensure that we know it's all wrong).
We are, of course, always welcome as children of God alone. That alone lets us into the door, that alone enables us to embark of on this journey into the life of God. But I also think that being a member of the Christian community does entail discipline and commitment. It does mean being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being a child of God.
It's called the "Baptismal Covenant" and we pledge ourselves to it over and over again throughout the year, throughout our lives.
This comment by Ely reveals, I think, the true rationale under girding the movement for Communion regardless of Baptism. It is this false assumption that the way to invite people into Christian community is to welcome people "wherever they go and whatever they believe." It is this false assumption that the way our churches should be is completely open gatherings with absolutely no discipline, absolutely no commitment. And it is the false assumption that not only is this the shape of the Christian life, but that this is what people are looking for.
I have a hunch people are hungry for more. I have a hunch that Christian community involves real commitments to one another, real, actual discipline at times.
And I have a hunch, just a hunch, that when Jesus invites people to follow him, he might like it if they actually tried to walk in his path, rather than if they heard the call, smiled and proceeded to wander about on their own. I have a hunch Jesus is interested in disciples.
And who knows, in the end, God might decide to let everyone in regardless of anything at all. The love of God might be that big. It might be that powerful. I think that would be awesome.
But being a part of the Christian community should still entail commitment to something larger than a general sense of want. The call of Christ involves real actual commitment to people and to communities and the argument for Commmunion regardless of Baptism is a poor substitute for the real welcome, the real transformation, that the Christian life entails.
Oh, and since my blog is technically reflections on the church through the lens of Benedictine spirituality, I should also say that I think it's pretty safe to assume that Benedict would have found the arguments for Communion regardless of Baptism utterly unpersuasive and completely out of touch with the rich history of Christian spirituality and formation.