Thursday, June 11, 2015

Longing for Reconciliation: A Reflection on Communion Regardless of Baptism

On Facebook yesterday, I posted an article by Bishop Matthew Gunter of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, entitled, "Baptized into Eucharist—The Problem with 'Open Communion,' Some Anecdotes." In it, Bishop Gunter shares some of his experiences with this question as a priest, experiences that I found refreshing because they so honestly depicted what this actually looks like on the ground in the average parish.

The idea that those who oppose Communion Regardless of Baptism (or CROB, my preferred term, particularly since "Open Communion" already has a defined ecumenical meaning and is something the Episcopal joyfully practices and that other traditions, particularly Roman Catholics, reject), the idea that we are somehow checking cards at the rail or even turning away from the rail someone we know to be unbaptized is not only untrue, it is disingenuous to the pastoral training and approach of most every cleric in our church. This is not a question that is answered at the rail—it is one answered in the pastoral relationships that flow from the rail.

So, I thought it was a good article.

In particular, I loved the quote from Bishop Rowan Williams, retired Archbishop of Canterbury,
It must be said, of course, that this complete sharing of baptismal and Eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretive story of Jesus. To share Eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd-not because the sacrament is 'profaned', or because grace cannot he be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus' death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope for their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done.
–  Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 61
Now, I've written about the question of Communion regardless of Baptism before ("A Slight Rant on Current Arguments for CROB"). In that essay I not only expressed my frustration at the straw men advocates of CROB often trot out, but I argued that CROB was actually a diversionary tactic by a Christianity that has become too timid to proclaim a real welcome into our homes for meals.

Indeed, over and over again people argue that Jesus practiced radically open table fellowship, that this is the the fundamental point undergirding communing the unbaptized. However, strangely enough, those same people rarely make the argument that Jesus' table fellowship mean we should start inviting all people into our homes for meals (which would be the more natural conclusion).

Interestingly, I have even had advocates of CROB criticize me for two programs I lead in local bars, one a "Theology on Tap" and the other a "Whiskey School." They have criticized the presence of alcohol at events I host—though I am careful in both to be very clear that neither is an activity of our local Episcopal parish and are simply events I host on my own as a priest. To me, events like this are the actual outgrowth of Jesus' practices of table-fellowship (and why he was criticized for it as well). These events put me in touch with people I would likely never meet in another situation, they are opportunities for relationship to begin.

Radical table-fellowship, as Jesus practiced it, is about an invitation to relationship. That invitation should be broad and expansive, heading out into all sorts of places that might be seedy and questionable.  I believe in radical table-fellowship—I simply believe that CROB is a wimpy way out that still assumes the best way to reach out to the unbaptized is when they wander into one of our churches.

However, there is a deeper question that I want to explore right now, one that was raised on the Facebook post.

I think that one of the items I find unfortunate is that this question gets discussed in the question of "inclusion vs. exclusion" as though communion of the unbaptized is necessarily an exclusionary approach and welcoming the unbaptized to receive the sacrament is always an inclusionary approach. The church should be about including all people, the argument goes, so we should include all people in Holy Eucharist.

First off, I think that this position is in error because it places the question of inclusion at the center of what it means to be church. Of course, the idea that Christians should be inclusive is indeed central to much of the rhetoric in the Episcopal Church these days... but it seems to me that inclusion, in and of itself, is not a fundamental Gospel concept.

Instead, the primary question, for me, is "reconciliation." Reconciliation is the ministry of the church. In the words of the BCP, our mission is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (BCP 855). Or, as this is rather eloquently put in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:16–20):
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 
God has been bold and reckless, loving us when we were yet sinners and entrusting us, as the Body of Christ in the world, with the ministry of reconciliation, with restoring all the brokenness of this world—both the brokenness of our relationships with each other and creation and the brokenness of our relationships with the divine.

With reconciliation standing at the center of who we are as Christians, the conversation about the Eucharistic table becomes slightly different. The fundamental question becomes, which better enacts and effects the church's ministry of reconciliation, the inviting of the unbaptized to join in the Eucharistic act or the maintaining of baptism as what invites us into that Eucharistic act?

Honestly, to me, the welcome to receive a blessing and kneel alongside Christians, to me, is a reconciling act. We bless freely and with abandon at the Eucharistic table, declaring God's love over all people and all things. That is a profound statement of grace.

And by stating in our rubrics and our bulletins that all people are welcome to the altar—all people—either to receive a blessing or the sacrament, we are practicing profound welcome. Because by maintaining the distinction between blessing and the sacrament, we are saying that full reconciliation (our being made one with you) would involve something more. By acknowledging distinction we honor those who are not Christian and create space for reconciliation, if the person desires it.

That is, to welcome the unbaptized to receive communion seems, to me, to enact a community that is not authentic. By practicing an easy inclusion—one that comes at no real cost, other than making people like me grumpy—the deeper opportunities for reconciliation are brushed under the rug and avoided. As much as I love non-Christians and pagans, as much as I adore reading about Hinduism and Buddhism, as much respect as I have for the traditions of Judaism and Islam, I am not one with those religions. They are not one with me.

Don't get me wrong, it could be that in the end of all existence, when we are all caught up in divine love, we will all wind up united anyway and hell will be emptied by the thunderous love of God. Heck, that's actually what I hope will be the case. It's actually what I believe is the most likely end.

But I am called to live authentically today. And that means acknowledging difference where difference exists. That means honoring and loving those who do not practice the Christian faith—not inviting them to pretend they are Christians by joining in the sacramental act that is central to what it means to be a Christian.

Because Christians are those who have died to self and been united with Christ's body through the act of baptism. Holy Eucharist is our constant experience of uniting ourselves (through the symbols of our gifts of bread and wine) to Christ's sacrifice on the cross, a union that flows from our baptismal identification with Christ's death.

In Holy Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ precisely because we are one body in Christ. As we say in the sending out of Eucharistic Visitors, "We who are many are one body because we share one bread and one cup." Or, as the ancient words of St. Augustine at communion, used at the invitation to communion by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, "Behold what you are.  May we become what we receive." For the unbaptized, this is not yet what they are. This is not the end to which they point.

Those who are not Christian are not a part of the Body of Christ. That does not mean they are not a part of God's activity in the world. Any theologian worth her or his salt will tell you that. It just means they are not incorporated into Christ, into this particular manifestation of God in the world that we, as Christians, have chosen to call true.

And this raises one final point—a liturgical point, but one that I believe is absolutely essential.

There is a slight idea present in CROB, I think, an idea that forgets that it is the assembled Body of Christ who, through invocation of the Spirit, effect the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. It is not the priest. The priest is simply the presider for the people. It is the community that makes the sacrament "happen." We give ourselves to God once more and God turns our gifts of ourselves—through bread and wine—into the Christ we follow, inviting us to feed on Christ. We are all priests, a kingdom of priests, gathered around the altar.

The unbaptized may be bystanders in this experience. They may see it and be profoundly moved, deeply drawn to God becoming flesh once more through bread and wine, prayer and praise. But they are not yet a part of the kingdom of priests who make this happen, they are not incorporated into the body which calls God to be present.

When the priest offers the sacrament to the unbaptized, the priest not only robs the laity of their voice in the governance of the church (since the laity have a clear voice in determining, though General Convention and, from that, the canons and the Book of Common Prayer, who may or may not receive the Sacrament), but they also rob the unbaptized of the experience of actual incorporation into the kingdom of priests who are able to call upon Christ's presence to greet them at each act of Holy Communion.

By collapsing distinction, they remove the possibility for reconciliation and incorporation into the Body. By saying they are already a part of us, they rob the unbaptized of the experience of what it feels like to become a part of us.

We had this happen at my church. We had a young woman, a nursery care worker, who fell in love with the community here. She wound up resigning as a worker so she could be a worshipping member of the community in the Nave every Sunday. She took communion once or twice and rejoiced in her new journey. She then discovered she was not baptized and came to me. We talked. I told her not to worry, she had not committed sin or error, that she was now simply being invited by God to journey deeper. She entered the catechumenate in our church. For several months she did not receive the Sacrament, but a blessing instead. She journeyed through the catechumenate, building relationships with baptized members who were  preparing for the reaffirmation of their own baptismal vows.

And then, on the Great Vigil of Easter, she was plunged into a big feeding trough filled with cold water. She truly felt like she was dying, she later told me. She rose up from the water and the bishop rubbed scented oil on her head. The candidates for reaffirmation then came around her, wrapping her in clean white towels, welcoming her among them, welcoming her among us.

Then, gathered with the community, she now joined us in calling upon her Lord to be present. She now came to the altar, fully a part of Christ's body. She received bread and wine as a part of the body of Christ. She became reconciled and restored, a part of Christ's body in the world. She died to herself, laid herself on that altar, and then received back new life in bread and wine in a body and blood that was a part of her as a member of Christ's body.

And now her husband has started coming. Now he wants to know when the next catechumenate will open. Now he wants to be reconciled with Christ, to become part of Christ's body.

She hungered and then she was fed. He is hungry and he will be fed because the church welcomes all to these baptismal waters.

But if there is no opportunity for hunger, the feeding will never be as sweet.

And if we simply include everyone who comes then, I fear, the moment and opportunity for true and deep reconciliation will be lost.

I tried my hand at the Bible, tried my hand at prayer, but now nothing but the water is gonna bring my soul to bear. 


  1. But she came to this after receiving communion- which is what I see more often - people come - receive communion - then want to be baptized to move more fully into the life. Baptism first can be the standard without limiting the movement of the Spirit in people. Encouraging non-believers to receive is not hospitality but more like forcing people who are gluten intolerant to eat lasagne.

    1. That's the point, indeed, Ann. Upholding then norm of baptism following communion does not involve being altar police. She didn't know she was not baptized or she would not have received, we would have had the same conversation—just a few weeks earlier. It was our communication in the bulletin that led her to the realization that she was not yet a part of the Body.

      It is one thing for someone who is unbaptized inadvertently to receive and then, as the pastoral relationship grows, to draw back from that—because that is the norm and theological understanding of our community—so that they can fully be incorporated into us.

      It is another thing to say that the unbaptized should simply be welcomed to received, that they should be seen as already incorporated into us by virtue of their desire.

      The former, to me, is the costly choice, the one that invites people on a journey of discipleship and says you must first give your life to this thing—albeit in broken and imperfect ways—and that you shouldn't just do that out of the blue, but after careful and prayer discernment and preparation.

      The latter seems like the easy and cheap choice.