Saturday, May 3, 2008

Communing the Unbaptized: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts about giving communion to the unbaptized. Others have written more extensively about all of this than I am doing here. There’s more that can and should be said. So I may develop these points in greater detail some time in the future as I continue to think, read, and pray about this.

The primary reason I’ve heard from friends and colleagues for giving communion to the unbaptized is that, failing to do so, we create a barrier that says to the unbaptized, “You are not welcome here.” And that’s not acceptable. After all, we want to be inclusive. We want to be welcoming. It’s what Jesus did. And so we don’t want to do or say anything that would give an unbaptized person any reason for walking away from us. Yes, it’s true that the canons of the Episcopal Church explicitly forbid giving communion to the unbaptized. But the need to be inclusive and to practice radical hospitality necessitates setting the canons aside. This is a case in which the ends of welcoming and inclusion justify the means of violating Church teaching and breaking the ordination vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

As two of my previous postings attest, I am a proponent of radical hospitality and of becoming a welcoming Church. However, I do not believe that this requires setting aside or revising the Church’s theology of Baptism (much less breaking ordination vows). Indeed, I believe that setting aside or revising our theology of Baptism leaves us with a “church” which is no longer worth including anyone in because it no longer takes seriously the call to discipleship which the sacrament of Baptism entails. In effect, the new theology makes following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior optional.

My concerns about violating Church teaching, breaking ordination vows, and making discipleship optional derive from my principal concern that this new theology moves us away from an objective understanding of Baptism to a subjective understanding. On the objective theology of Baptism, here’s what the Prayer Book succinctly says:

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298).

It’s difficult to imagine a clearer affirmation that Baptism objectively makes persons full members of the Church than this. And the implications of the “indissoluble bond” created by God in Baptism are far-reaching. No matter what I do or fail to do – no matter how far away from the fold I may drift – the “yes” that God says to me in Baptism never changes to a “no.” I can always return home, where the father will come running out to meet, embrace, kiss, and welcome me back.

That’s powerful stuff. But since its core meaning derives from Baptism and not from the Eucharist, the baptismal theology of membership and of the “indissoluble bond” are put in peril by the new theology of “inclusiveness” that shifts the locus away from Baptism to the Eucharistic table.

Among other implications, the theology of communion for the unbaptized means that Baptism as the sacramental foundation of the Church gets replaced by the individual's desire to receive Communion as the 'sacramental' foundation of the Church. This signifies a virtually wholesale adoption of a 'consumerist' ecclesiology that turns the 1979 Prayer Book on its head. Instead of being primarily about what God does, the new theology is about what the individual human being does. It’s about what I choose and what I desire. Shifting the locus away from the “indissoluble bond” of Baptism to the individual subject's desires, we can no longer speak (as we do when introducing the Apostles' Creed in the burial office) of "the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism" (BCP, p. 496). The only assurance we have is what I happen to want right now. I might change my mind later and choose differently. And since I am not required to make any commitments to anything or anyone beyond myself in order to receive Holy Communion, I am perfectly free to move on to something or someone else at any time I choose.

Liturgically, this shift from the objective character of Baptism to the subject’s desire to receive Communion requires a new Prayer Book that downplays Baptism and the Baptismal Covenant in favor of liturgies that put the Eucharistic table, the desire to be "inclusive," and the individual's "spiritual journey" front and center. This means moving away from a Christ-centered to a human-centered liturgical focus. If such praying were to shape our believing, then perhaps we would have more in common with Ludwig Feuerbach than the apostle Paul.

I find it ironic that many of the proponents of this "open" and "inclusive" theology I've talked to and read pieces by are also committed to the ethical implications of the Baptismal Covenant. If I'm right, however, then they can't have it both ways. If you remove Baptism as the foundation, then you also render the Baptismal Covenant peripheral at best, and irrelevant at worst.

My friends and colleagues who embrace the theology of communing the unbaptized are good persons who want us to be a genuinely welcoming Church. They sincerely desire to be as inclusive as possible. Their motives are worthy. The ends of hospitality and inclusion they seek require our best efforts. But the means by which they seek these ends are, I believe, profoundly mistaken.


Anonymous said...

this is very good.

i wrote a piece directed in part toward undermining one of the attempted justifications for this practice as well, which you might find interesting.

Read it here.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comment and for sharing the link to your piece on hospitality Thomas. It is very perceptive and a helpful contribution to this issue.

DavidB said...

I've given this issue some thought lately, as I've attended Episcopal churches where the priest explicitly says that Communion is offered for all people, regardless of baptism, while my bishop follows the canons. One of the things I thought was interesting when I visited some Orthodox churches is that while I was not invited to take Communion, they offer everyone in attendance a small piece of bread, which made me feel welcome there even though I was not in communion with them. I'm not sure if a parallel could be created in Episcopal churches, but it shows that there is a way of still providing a full welcome to newcomers without compromising our theology.

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting thoughts, David. I've thought about this, too.

Antidoron is the blessed bread distributed at the end of the Divine Liturgy, but which is not consecrated as part of the Eucharist.

One article says that "antidoron should not be given to non-Orthodox." It also says: "So as not to embarrass non-Orthodox visiting our services, we place portions of an unblessed loaf of bread at one side of the antidoron tray and give these to non-Orthodox with the customary blessing."

Another article says this about antidoron:

"The canonical regulations of the Orthodox Church state that the antidoron should be consumed before leaving the church, and that it should not be distributed to unbelievers or to persons undergoing penance before absolution, but variances are allowed. For instance, it is the custom in many Orthodox parishes to distribute the antidoron to visitors and catechumens as a sign of fellowship, or to bring a few pieces home to a relative who could not attend liturgy."

Off the cuff, I see no reason why we in The Episcopal Church could not a adopt a similar practice. Perhaps, to avoid confusion, it should be unblessed bread offered to any and all who want some as a sign of our hospitality.

The main thing for me is that we exercise pastorally sensitive and creative imagination that allows us to retain our sacramental integrity while simultaneously being as hospitable and welcoming to visitors (both baptized and unbaptized) as possible without sacrificing our core identity. Besides the other reasons stated in my blog piece, I think that the practice of Communion without Baptism represents a failure of precisely that kind of imagination - and a failure that has serious consequences. We can do better than that!!!

This is well worth thinking through, and I appreciate your raising the issue.

BillyD said...

In my own time among the Orthodox, I read of rigorist positions forbidding the antidoron to non-O's, but never saw them in action.

I don't think that it would work in an Episcopal setting for a couple of reasons, mostly the provenance of the antidoron in the Orthodox setting. It's not just "blessed bread," but comes from the same loaves donated by the laity to be used in the Eucharist and for commemorations: some is consecrated, and some is used both for antidoron and for the bread that communicants eat immediately after receiving. With us, it would be just so much bread, divorced from any liturgical context.
I think it would also be confused with the Eucharist by the casual visitor.

The real problem is that the Church no longer expects very much preparation of the communicant for the Sacrament. Since we in practice place no restraints on Episcopalians who want to receive, it "feels wrong" to not explicitly offer it to everybody. It's the down side (IMNSHO) of the liturgical movement and the movement towards frequent communion: cheap grace dressed up in Catholic garb.

Bryan Owen said...

Good points all around, BillyD. I particularly resonate with the point about how lax communion discipline makes it "feel wrong" to not let just anybody - including the unbaptized - receive. Surely we can find a middle ground between a harsh rigorism and off-the-reservation laxity.