Communion without (or before) Baptism–Oh, No! Not Again!

News came out this week that the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon will present the following resolution to General Convention:

The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon is forwarding an Open Table resolution to General Convention that would change the rubrics and practice of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all to Holy Communion, “regardless of age, denomination or baptism.”

The Lead has a story, and 208 comments (as of today).

Obviously it’s something that arouses passion on all sides.

For newcomers to the issue, some parishes (including Grace in past years) practiced some form of “open communion,” allowing anyone to partake in communion, whether or not they were baptized. The arguments in favor of such practice usually focus on concepts like “radical hospitality,” and the example of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.

It’s an issue that’s been around the church for some time. I remember eight or ten years ago when  student in one of my classes of people preparing for the diaconate asked me about it. She was conservative theologically and outspoken in her disapproval of the ordination of LGBT persons or same-sex blessings. She posed the question as if implying that “see what happens when you admit progressive theology?” Just as the sexuality debate had pushed all of her buttons, so too did this issue.

I was taken aback by the question at the time. I am a historian after all, and I know well the historical practice. In the early church, unbaptized people were not allowed to witness the Eucharist, let alone partake in it, and it’s obvious from I Corinthians 11 and other NT passages that early Christian practice of the Eucharist was exclusive.

But it wasn’t just the Early Church. Throughout the history of Christianity, there has been a practice of excluding people from the Eucharist–notorious sinners, for example. The exhortation to communion in the BCP reads:

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

The concern here is not just about sins we have committed against God, but ways in which we have harmed our neighbors, and also, whether or not we have been reconciled to them. And the advice is, don’t take communion if you haven’t been reconciled.

Communion is not a right. It’s not even a privilege. It’s a gift we are given and in which we are invited to share. Many of us like to say something like “It is not our table; it is the Lord’s, when inviting visitors to share in our Eucharistic fellowship. And so it is. But if it’s the Lord’s table we should approach it in humility and awe and recognize that the body that shares the bread and wine is a body made up of people who have died with Christ in baptism and have been raised to newness of life.

Tobias Haller has this to say:

The church is radically inclusive and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is the celebration of that inclusion, not its means.

Crusty Old Dean also weighs in:

One is that while something may be lawful, does it build up? Yeah, theoretically, we could change the canons and permit this. But will it really build up the church? Without broader commitment to formation, mission, and ministry, I don’t see how it would. If we give someone communion and then never talk to them at coffee hour and don’t empower them in their baptismal ministry, we will have accomplished nothing.

I’d like to make two observations, both of them made by others more eloquently. First, this is an example of “we haven’t done the theology yet.” That has been the cry of those opposed to full inclusion of LGBTs and same-sex blessings, and whether or not it’s true in that case, it’s certainly true in this one. The desire for offering communion to the unbaptized comes from a desire to be open and welcoming and hospitable, but at what cost? What is the underlying theology of the Eucharist or ecclesiology that would admit such a practice, especially when it contradicts 2000 years of doctrine and practice? There have to be sound and convincing arguments in order to make the case, not just to the Episcopal Church, but to the wider Anglican Communion and to our ecumenical partners.

Second, it always seems to me when something like this comes up that it reflects certain underlying attitudes in those proposing it. Is there something like progressive “oneupmanship” at work–an attempt to demonstrate one’s progressive theological bona fides to other Episcopalians and to other religious groups? And coming as it does in the midst of conflict within the Anglican Communion, and a promised debate over liturgies for same sex blessings, I’m tempted to think that the sponsors and supporters of the resolution are looking for one more battle to separate the sheep from the goats, the “real” progressives from the rest of us.

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