Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Communion Without Baptism

The Diocese of Eastern Oregon has introduced a resolution that would remove the Episcopal Church's canon that makes Holy Baptism a prerequisite for the reception of Holy Communion. It's too early to tell whether it will even make it out of committee and on to the floor of General Convention for debate this July, but it's certainly not a bold from the blue: The restrictive canon is already honored in many places more in the breach than in the observance. It's been a subject of conversation and debate for some years now.

What we are witnessing in this discussion, I think is the Law of Unintended Consequences asserting itself. When we gradually recovered the centrality of the Eucharist during the last century, codified in the 1979 BCP, the presumed cultural environment was still that of "Christendom." An unbaptized adult was a relative rarity. At the same time, there was also a presumption that whatever happens on Sunday morning is the church's "show window" to the world, that the experience of corporate worship would be a newcomer's first encounter (even if invited by a friend) with who we are and what we do. It would be the worship service that would either draw them deeper or, for whatever reason, turn them away. Now, there is the added factor of the exponential secularization of our society; there are vestiges, artifacts, of Christendom, but they are disappearing rapidly. 

As a result, we now have a sort of "perfect storm": We have unbaptized adults walking through our doors, curious or inquiring to one degree or another, and encountering, of course, the Eucharist, and a tacit "vibe" that going forward to receive communion is simply what one does, especially if one wishes to remain inconspicuous. And those of us who identify ourselves as the "hosts" of these our "guests" feel like we're being downright impolite if we place any restriction on who may receive the sacrament. Hence, the pressure to bend or amend the rules.

But, is there another possible response that honors both the received tradition and the impulse toward hospitality? I think there are at least two--one a stopgap, of sorts, and the other more profound.

The stopgap: This past January 7, my Archdeacon and I attended a Christmas liturgy at a nearly Russian Orthodox church. We were in clericals, people there knew who were were, and we knew we were not invited to receive Holy Communion, and made no attempt to do so. But immediately upon the conclusion of the liturgy, we were accosted by a lay liturgical minister who brought us unconsecrated bread that came from the same loaf that the consecrated portion had been cut from--the "antidoron"--and were enthusiastically offered this bread. I have rarely felt more welcomed in my life. That act, to me, was "radical hospitality." I'm not sure how something like this could be adapted into our liturgical tradition, but it seems worth thinking about.

The profound: Our post-Christian world certainly is not the same as the "pre-Christian" world before Constantine, but there are some significant commonalities. Might we not learn from some of the praxis of the pre-Constantinian church? The whole process of the catechumenate--integral to the baptismal piety that so many are keen to foster--is adapted from this era. But one thing we have not adopted is the "privacy" of the Eucharist. Service times were not only not widely published, a non-Christian would have had to know somebody who knows somebody to even learn when and where the Eucharist would be celebrated. And even when successful at discovering that information, an unbaptized inquirer would not only be denied communion, but barred from even remaining in the same room after the homily. The Creed, the Prayers of the People, and the Peace were also the exclusive preserve of the baptized. 

I'm not suggesting we go back to meeting in secret, but I do wonder whether we might do well to shed the presumptive expectation that the principal liturgy on Sunday is where the uninitiated will have their first and defining encounter with us. Some might say, "Sure, let's have Morning Prayer, or some non-liturgical form of public worship, in addition to the Eucharist." I think that's worth exploring under some circumstances, but probably doesn't go far enough. It still assumes that our goal is to get "them" to come to "us". I, for one, am more excited about a mission stance that takes "us" to "them"--connecting with people outside of any worship, at the level of their felt needs, and walking with them until we've earned the privilege of inviting them to consider other needs they may not have been aware of, to consider the questions for which Jesus is the answer. And then we fan that spark of faith and begin to form them in discipleship, perhaps before they've even come within a mile of our church building! Then, as the last step of the process, we baptize them and introduce them to the Eucharist.

There are, I believe, many advantages to such a strategy, but one of them is that the Eucharist is freed to be what it is, and not pressured to be something it's not (like a "tool" for evangelism). There's no more reason to "dumb it down" in any way to be "seeker sensitive" ... or even radically hospitable. Christian corporate worship is for all--both Christians and "pre-Christians." The Eucharist is for the initiated, the baptized. We need to learn to be clear about that distinction.


Tom Ferguson said...

Love the antidoron - went to an Orthodox seminary for two years and never felt like I wasn't welcomed. I touched on some similar issues in my reflection on the Eastern Oregon resolution, crustyoldean.blogspot.com.

Anonymous said...

The main question I have though is why are we treating the sacrament of the Eucharist outside the context of Jesus's greater ministry, which was one of invitation and inclusion to the whole of humanity?

Matthew Dallman said...

Father Thomas Fraser, rector of St Paul's Parish, Riverside, Ill. (Diocese of Chicago) uses the term "pre-Constantinian" to describe the paradigm of our parish.

One can find his description here.

Perhaps he, like you, Bishop Martins, is speaking about what the holy Church is facing, and will face, in the coming decades more and more.

Coming to grips with the fact that "the good old days" of the 1950s church aren't coming back is something we talk about regularly within the parish. It very well might be that there is some grieving process for parishes to go through, especially for those who remember the 50s and full pews every Sunday. But the impact will be upon the entire parish family, in some way or another.

Ultimately, what pre-Constantianian may mean is a call for all members of a parish -- those who come every Sunday to Eucharist no matter the numbers, because doing so is central to their existence -- to deeper, more committed ministry. Pre-Constantinian Christians were ministers -- owing to formation and community, able to serve Christ through a life of continuous prayer within a religion, Christianity, that was still counter-cultural.

Christ is calling us to step up as orthodox yet dynamic Christians in the Body of Christ to the challenge in front of us. Our current moment is soaked of God's salvific grace, abundant beyond measure.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

It isn't that we're treating the Eucharist outside the greater context of Jesus' ministry, but that we're treating*inside* the context of baptism, which is how we participate in the ministry of invitation and inclusion--we invite *all* people to baptism. That's how we include.

Anonymous said...

What does your Father Fraser say about the different types or phases of pre-Constantinian Christianity? For instance, is there a definition of p-CC (if you will all the contraction) that covers the entire period? Or is there a specific time frame to which he is referring as being p-CC? Does the parish regularly, if perhaps sporadically in an unrehearsed and non-publicized manner, subject itself to intense and deadly persecution?
I'm sure you get my concern.

What I would hope is that any romanticizing of the p-CC would be made "realistic" by insertion of the active role of the Holy Spirit. And then ANY age or period of Christianity, p-C or post-C, could show its authenticity, too.
But we have to be reminded, whether by study, inspiration, or divinely-appointed revival.

This can be illustrated, in my opinion, by the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus during the inaugural years of the Constantinian era. It is too early to tell what things will be, so, I believe, Gregory is writing of what USED to be early on, then dissipated over 2 centuries, and now needs to be reclaimed.

“(29.) This, then, is what may be said by one who admits the silence of Scripture. But now the swarm of testimonies shall burst upon you from which the Deity of the Holy Ghost (Luke 1.35; 3.22; 4.1) shall be shown to all who are not excessively stupid, or else altogether enemies to the Spirit, to be most clearly recognized in Scripture. Look at these facts:—Christ is born; the Spirit is His Forerunner. He is baptized; the Spirit bears witness. He is tempted; the Spirit leads Him up (Luke 4.1, 18). He works miracles; the Spirit accompanies them. He ascends; the Spirit takes His place. What great things are there in the idea of God which are not in His power (Acts 2. 4)? Orations 31.29

Anonymous said...

That still doesn't make a great deal of sense since the Eucharist, the Last Supper, is presented in light off, not in-spite of the other meal fellowships in which Christ fed the multitudes regardless of their status in life. So I am trying to wrap my mind around a seeming contradiction in the status quo.

Undergroundpewster said...


Might not the antidoron be something like what you are talking about when you write, "the other meal fellowships in which Christ fed the multitudes regardless of their status in life." ?

Matt Gunter said...


I do not think it is quite accurate that "Christ fed the multitudes regardless of their status in life." Jesus' mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). The multitude Christ fed all had the status of members of the people of the Covenant. The sinners and outcastes he gathered around himeself, were all already Jews. It was the fragments of Israel that Jesus gathered into the baskets of his movement.


Anonymous said...

No, I do not. Priests, both from Broad Church traditions and High Church traditions have made the link between meal fellowship as a type of Eucharist, so I do believe that it is not to far a leap to make the step.

Fr. Jesse Abell said...

Thanks for addressing this issue, Bishop. It's one that troubles me a little as well.

As you mention the antidoron, it brings up a different reaction in me. I had a very different perception of the antidoron. In fact, I declined it on my visits to Orthodox churches. Because to me it was almost a slap in the face: I wasn't good enough to receive the Blessed Sacrament, but here's some blessed bread and warm wine as a consolation prize. It offended me more than it placated me. It would have been better to simply not be eligible to receive Communion than to receive a second-rate, but very similar, set of elements.

I don't know what the answer is, but I'm not sure that the antidoron is the answer that will work for those argue that Communion without Baptism makes the church more hospitable.

Father Thorpus said...

Since we're talking context in the Eucharist, we also need to remember, as the Exhortation says (p. 316-17 in the BCP if you haven't read it in awhile), 'the dignity of that Holy Sacrament. For while the benefit is great, if with penitent heart and living faith we receive the Holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it unworthily, not recognizing the Lord's body." This is, of course, straight from the pen of St. Paul. Perhaps the problem with Communion Without Baptism is that it is the last of all our Eucharistic disciplines; the last to be maintained, now the last to fall (if it falls). It's not that unbaptized people are unworthy to receive: it's that a great many baptized people aren't taking the Sacrament as seriously as they ought, either. When was the last time the Exhortation was used at the House of Bishops? The bishops gripe when their African counterparts won't share the table: when was they last time they excluded themselves, not for any quasi-political reason, but for having yet unconfessed sins, or needing to effect reconciliation with someone back home, or in a frank recognition that they just aren't spiritually up to the mystery? When was the last time anyone in our churches did this?

It has been my custom during Lent to use the Exhortation as an Offertory Sentence - not perhaps the best place for it; it might work best as an opening Sentence before the Penitential Order - but it ends with a good invitation to come boldly before the throne of Grace. Just having it in the service has made my parishioners take the Sacrament and their preparations for it more seriously. I've had people who normally receive decide not to, for the biblical reasons. I've had folks request sacramental confession as part of their preparation, in a parish where that has never, ever been done. It challenges me, as the priest, to take my own preparations very very seriously, lest I, having preached to others, should myself be disqualified.

If we're looking at the 'context' of the Eucharist, we need to look at the whole context, not just the post-modern, inclusive interpretation. The very presupposition that Jesus' ministry was all about inclusion is laughable in the face of the actual text of the Gospels. Let us read the pericopes of the meals, then, in the context of the actual text, and a very different message will appear.

Anonymous said...

I think it is good you brought up the Exhortation, and I think that it ought to be said more often. I think though it it interesting that it doesn't mention Baptism once in it. And though it would take a great deal of hubris for me to then claim that the people that wrote it, or the 1979 BCP would be in full favor of Open Communion (since I do not know their thoughts on the matter) I still think that it opens the possibility.

Further, in the context of the Mass, everything that goes on at the altar is explained, and if a person is so driven by the narrative, prayers, and actions to come forward and receive, then I would say they have experienced in some part the grace that we would hope people would have both at Baptism and the Eucharist.

Fr. Jonathan said...

I am curious to know more about how you see that idea of mission, of going and bringing Jesus to people instead of waiting for them to come to us, working itself out. I think you're right that there is a kind of institutional laziness about assuming that people will just find us. And Christ calls us to go and preach the Gospel to all the world. And yes, absolutely, we have to form relationships with people in order to do that. BUT, the question I get all the time from my parishioners is, "How?" How do they walk alongside others in a way that is not pushy but yet does announce the Gospel, without watering it down or drowning it out with other messages?

Also, just to note Fr. Thorpus' comment, I agree that the Exhortation is wonderful and I wonder how many other parishes ever use it at all. The classic liturgy forced us to take the Eucharist seriously because we were told explicitly not to come forward without repentance and true communion, although back then the Eucharist might only be happening once a month or even once a quarter. Now that is largely lost, except in some optional parts of Rite I. And we have the Eucharist all the time, not just on Sundays but at virtually every gathering. I'm glad for weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper, I just wish we hadn't washed out so much of the preaching of repentance at the same time.

Father Thorpus said...

Anon., you put me in mind of the multiple moments in the book of Acts where the orderly process of initiation is thrown into chaos by the experience of grace. Peter says of Cornelius' family, "who can forbid that these be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?" (10:47) The important thing to note there is that the experience of grace alone is not sufficient to constitute conversion. After the grace, still must come the ritual; why? for the ritual's sake? for the sake of power dynamics in the community? No, but because Christ himself constituted the church thus, and chose an entry into His kingdom that does not consist merely of subjective experience, but also of the experience - common to all Christians and modeled after His own motives - of subjecting oneself in obedience to our Lord and the Church.

It may very well be that the person who, having sat through the service and coming to the Eucharist, desires it, has indeed experienced the grace of God that we call conversion. If so, our mistake is not to forbid such a one, being unbaptized, from the table; rather, our failure is not to offer immediate baptism! "Who can forbid?" goes along with "I am the gate; anyone who comes in another way is a thief and a robber." Are we to suppose that such a person, their heart filled with the Spirit of God, their mind converted to the Gospel, their loyalties newly bound to Christ, His commands, and His body, would prefer to upend the order and cause scandal and his own confusion, and make open renunciation of all that Jesus' church passes on in His name, just to prove his or her love for that same Jesus? A true experience of grace, I think, would be more gentle!

The soteriological question here is significant: does becoming a Christian consist of an experience of Grace or the pattern of faith and action that is our church's path to the Sacraments? This is the heart of the difference between the Evangelicals, going all the way back to Wesley, and the historic Church, going all the way back to the Apostles. Even in Acts, we see the Apostles react quickly - no lag at all - when they perceive Grace has been experienced, they go immediately to incorporate those people into the community of Christ. They send Barnabas, they send Peter and John, they send Paul, they find water where none is to be found. Inclusion is not just a slogan - it's a real process that the Church has been doing from its inception. It's the Church following the work of the Spirit and recognizing that work by its essential marks, which include incorporation into the Church. Christ's body is a real, visible thing. Grace experienced but not embodied is dis-embodied grace; like a dis-embodied soul, it is to be feared and avoided, not normalized. Body (the Church, with all its processes) and soul (grace experienced) must always go together. It is only among heretics that pride severs them. We do not want to be in that number.

Anonymous said...

In that suggestion of having immediate baptism in the face of an experience of Grace might be a potential compromise, but that might also just solve one problem and create another one.

As to the soteriological question, I would argue that it is both. The evangelical framework of salvation is not necessarily wrong, but different, just like the catholic framework. To deny the possibility that the Holy Spirit would work outside the confines of Tradition is to deny agency to the Spirit The Spirit has constantly been reforming the church since the beginning.

You are right, the Body and Spirit often go together, but the Body is bigger than us. Christ is the Body. The Eucharist is where Christ is the Host, not us. And so, we must respond in light of his ministry.

Fr. Jonathan said...

Once upon a time I toyed with the idea of open Baptism, offering it at almost every service to whoever comes forward in faith. I am hesitant now for the same reason, Fr. Thorpus, that you suggest it. People may very well come to faith during the course of a liturgy. In fact, that is a very good place to experience such a thing. But it is, nevertheless, important for adults who come to faith to receive at least some kind of rudimentary instruction in the faith so that they understand what it is they are taking on. In the early Church, you waited three years to be baptized. That, I think, is excessive, given the New Testament example, but in most cases there is instruction that accompanies the act (think of Phillip and the Eunuch, for instance). Nevertheless, I agree that we ought to be more forthright about making Baptism available and encouraging people to be baptized if and when they hear a call to faith.

That said, I must take issue with this statement: "The experience of grace alone is not sufficient to constitute conversion." The implication seems to be that grace is not enough if we don't also perform a task, when in fact both the call to faith and the actual act of receiving baptism are part of the same graceful action on the part of God. Grace alone is sufficient. In fact, nothing less than grace alone is sufficient.

Anonymous said...

last night I read these commentaries and was shaken because the church still feels that you must be baptised to recieve communion or be in aliegance with a particular demomination (this was not mentioned)
what everyone is discussing is religious politics. as with politics on any social field you restrain compassion in one way or an other. Matthew 9:12 and Matthew 12:7 the LORD empasizes compassion over sacrifice. is politics infered?

my point is: I was about four years old the first time I went to recieve communion. All I knew of religion at that time was what my aunt thought me which was The Christ from the Greek Orthodox point of view.
The priest asked me if I was Catholic. I stood tall and said no I am Greek Orthodox and he replied I am sorry but you cannot have communion. In responce I ran out the door crying. because of that moment I was convinced that God hated me.
Now I am forty five years old and have been a regular member of Saint Johns' Episcopal since 2005.
between this time I never went to church except for one week of church camp by the strong coerssion of a good friend. At that time I thought what the hell it seems the perfect place to raise some hell.

back to my point: people will do and act accordingly when they see leaders who uphold their respective office respectfully or feel led by the Holy Spirit. as much as I hate to say it 'do to a few monkeys and because of their actions is giving the men and weman of the cloth the representation that the church is a club for pederist' to be honest with you I would rather be abused by a priest than to believe that God hated me! As for why I started going to church, I honest do not know.

When it comes to prerequesites for communion I am more on the side of a attribute that God emparts of Himself to us and that is grace in other words lienioncy or _compassion_. I appologise for my spelling and grammer