Thursday, March 10, 2011

More Unpersuasive Reasons for Communion Without Baptism

Here's the first part of an article entitled "Anglicans to consider opening communion to unbaptized" from the National Post:

Canadian Anglicans will hold discussions this spring about whether baptism is necessary for taking part in communion — questioning a requirement of Christianity that has existed for 2,000 years.

“Official teaching is you have to be baptized first. But a number of clergy across the country feel strongly about this as an issue and many have approached their bishops about allowing for an ‘open table’ in which all could take communion,” said Archdeacon Paul Feheley, who is the principal secretary to Archbishop Fred Hiltz, head of the Anglican Church of Canada.

It will be discussed when the House of Bishops meet in April, but not as an official topic, he said.

I've already offered some thoughts on communing the unbaptized and why I oppose the practice, so I won't rehash it all again. But I will cite and respond briefly to some of the comments in favor of the practice from the National Post article:

Rev. Gary Nicolosi said that if Jesus did not discriminate about who he invited to his table, then the Church should follow his lead.

“How, in our multicultural and pluralistic society, can our churches be places of hospitality if we exclude table fellowship with the non-baptized? This is not an academic question,” wrote Rev. Nicolosi, the pastor at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont., and an official Church consultant on how to build membership.

I fully agree that this is not an academic question and that the Church should, indeed, be concerned about how our parishes can be places of hospitality in an increasingly diverse and post-Christian context. But I think there's something deeply awry with Fr. Nicolosi's approach here. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels did not own a house, so he was never in a position to invite anybody to "his table." Fr. Nicolosi gets things backwards: it's not other people who accept an invitation to dine at Jesus' table, it's Jesus who accepts invitations to dine at other people's tables. And if we take seriously the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels, the only people present for that meal were Jesus' closest followers. That makes the Last Supper - the meal at which our Lord instituted the sacrament of Holy Eucharist - an exclusionary event.

Fr. Nicolosi continues by asking the question:

“How can the church effectively minister in a post-Christian world where a significant percentage of the population is not baptized?"

What happens if we take out the word “post-Christian” and insert “pagan,” and then take out the words “a significant percentage” and add “the vast majority”? We get this question:

"How can the church effectively minister in a pagan world where the vast majority of the population is not baptized?"

This is the exact same question that faced the early Church. And yet, in stark contrast to our day, there was no movement among the early Christians to allow for communion without baptism. And yet they still found ways to “effectively minister."

Once again, I find the reasoning used by those pushing for communion without baptism unpersuasive. It strikes me as a well-intentioned but misguided effort to make a dying Church "relevant" in a post-Christian world by watering down the Gospel in the hopes that such an accommodation to the culture will make the institutional Church more appealing to people who mistrust and/or have no use for such institutions.

In contrast to Fr. Nicolosi, I think that Ephraim Radner gets it right:

Rev. Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary in Toronto, rejects the idea that changing 2,000 years of tradition will make the Anglican Church stronger.

“The Eucharist isn’t a welcoming exercise,” he said. “It is about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It’s not a meal like any other meal.

“It has been a clear and consistent practice through all of Christianity and shows that a baptized person has committed himself or herself to Jesus.”

He said to eliminate the requirement would water down what Christianity stands for, and he is concerned that leaders of the Church do not find the suggestion alarming.

“It’s dangerous,” he said. “It makes God and Christ not as holy and demanding and wonderful as the Church has taught.”

This kind of change, he added, would also drive a further wedge between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Christians and help kill any notion of ecumenical reconciliation.

Read all of the National Post article.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with you. I heard Rev. Nicolosi speak on this at my clergy conference last year, and was disappointed at the lack of critical engagement with his thesis. Instead, we immediately jumped to cliches about radical welcome. We break with unbroken Christian tradition, and this is the best we can come up with?

Another thing that troubled me, but which hasn't been raised, is the offense to catholic order which this represents. Should it really be OK that a parish priest decides to revise sacramental theology on his own? Isn't this something that the governing bodies of the Canadian Church ought to decide on first? Instead, we see the same tired pattern of "prophetic action" normalizing a controversial practice and thereby rendering debate pointless.

We're reaching a point where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. How can we claim to be a catholic church in such circumstances?

Stephen Silverthorne+

Joe Rawls said...

Your phrase "well-intentioned but misguided effort to make a dying Church 'relevant' in a post-Christian world" cuts to the core of the issue.

TEC reminds me of a geeky kid on the playground at recess desperately hoping to be picked for one of the teams.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for taking time to comment, Stephen. I, too, am struck by how quickly and easily some can dismiss the weight of scripture and tradition on these matters. And I agree with what you're saying about "the offense to catholic order." In such a context, we do well to highlight the biblical warrant for rejecting the claim that koinonia can be found in common prayer, Eucharistic sharing, or common mission alone. This gives added weight to Leander Harding and Christopher Wells' counter-cultural call to Episcopalians (and apparently we can add the Anglican Church of Canada) to focus on doctrine.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Joe. I think you've (yet again!) summed things up succinctly and very well.

These sorts of efforts to stop the slow but steady hemorrhaging of membership (and money) within the institutional church do, indeed, smack of desperation. We want people to be a part of us. So in order to do that, we're giving up our core identity to make ourselves seem more attractive and desirable. We're changing our theology and practice to conform to what we think the unchurched want, rather than differentiating ourselves from the surrounding culture with a clear sense of identity and mission (shaped by the core doctrine grounded in scripture and tradition) and acting accordingly. My therapist would tell me that this kind of behavior is codependent and destructive. But in the Church, some think it's cutting-edge evangelism.

If folks like the apostle Paul had acted like this, it's highly doubtful that the Church would have made it into the second century!

Peter Carrell said...

When will we Anglicans around the world resolve to stop tinkering with catholic order? Why do we never learn anything from R. Catholics and E. Orthodox, similar churches to us (broadly speaking) re episcopacy, baptism, communion, which mostly remain steady in numbers if not growing in the post-Christian West? Is 'Anglicanism' a synonym for 'Takes a Not Particularly Intelligent Approach To Mission'?

Jeff Marx said...

I found your blog yesterday and was really blessed by your writing. A very serious thank you!

I think the hospitality issue is very simple. Invite everyone to the potluck, they can eat all the chicken and casseroles they like and drink all the tea they can hold; but eucharist, as you so eloquently expressed, is not that kind of meal. I add nothing to your argument but thank you for what you have written.

Jeff Marx
"Journey in Faith" blog

Anonymous said...


Your allusion to Judges is completely apt. The immediate problem here is about leadership - or lack of it: Bishops who are so limp-wristed that they fail to defend the faith and order of the church. This priest should be admonished sternly, and if he fails to cease with this practice, be inhibited straightway.

Read Jude - there are some things far more important than being "nice" There is One whose eyes are like flames of fire who will judge....Does no one love this man enough to warn him?

Bryan Owen said...

Good comments all around.

Peter, I haven't thought of it quite like the way you put it in your last question, but now that I read it, I find that it is, indeed, a real concern! From what I observe in my neck of the ecclesial woods, part of the problem may be that many of us in TEC simply don't take theology very seriously. That's the stuff a professor forced us to read back in seminary. Now we have more important things to do, like fixating on less than half of the Baptismal Covenant (peace and justice).

Jeff, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. And thanks for the kind words and for the thoughts on hospitality. Parishes that hold regular potluck meals offer great opportunities for the kind of hospitality that can win folks over. I also see that you serve a parish in TN. I wish you every blessing in your ministry!

Anonymous, you are certainly welcome to offer your thoughts here. But I do ask that persons who choose to post anonymously provide a pen name. Having said that, I appreciate your comment about the problems of leadership among our bishops. I think a lot of problems could be nipped in the bud if the House of Bishops were more proactive in addressing such matters.

R. H. said...

I have enjoyed reading all of the various comments on this subject. As regards to the T.E.C., Inc. not taking theology seriously, I both agree and disagree with you. Some of the professors at many U.S. schools take black, liberation, feminist, "gay" and process theology very seriously. Unfortunately, Biblical, Apostolic and Catholic theology is rarely taught. Way "back in the day" there was Dr. Wm. P. Dubose of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.. But I think he is the only theologian of note ever produced by the American Episcopal Church. May God raise up more teachers like Michael Ward, Tom Wright, John Stott, J. I. Packer and Michael Green for the edification and encouragement of his Church in both North America and the world.

-- Roland (

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Roland. You make a good point with your distinction between liberation, feminist, gay and process theologies vs. biblical, apostolic, and catholic theology. I do notice that many of my clergy colleagues care deeply about the former but very little about the latter. Which, sadly, makes it all the more likely that Leander Harding and Christopher Wells' call for The Episcopal Church to focus on core doctrine - teaching Jesus - will be answered by very few. (See also their follow-up essay here.)

Roland said...

If you are ever in western Canada, make an effort to visit St. John's in Vancouver. It's a lively Anglican Church with good teaching, fellowship and services just about every night. Some of the professors from Regent College (of the Univ. of B.C.) attend the Church and share their wealth of Biblical and spiritual knowledge with members. Dr. J. I. Packer (a founder of Regent College) is an adult Sunday School teacher there and regularly teaches and preaches. Sermons are available to listen to on line at their website.

Bryan Owen said...

Sounds great, Roland. Thanks!

C. Wingate said...

I don't know if you saw it but Derek Olsen had a 3-parter on the E-Cafe (first part here) and there was some follow-on on his own blog here.

One of my more fundamental objections to the whole program is that, regardless of the theology, the notion of inclusion they are pressing isn't realistic. From what I can see it's really only appealing to (a) syncretists who reinterpret the right in their own minds in the image of their own religion; (b) the deeply inattentive hardly even see a religious meaning in being there; and (c) upper middle Episcopalians who enjoy feeling good about how inclusive they are. People who are genuine religious seekers, as a rule, can appreciate that some things are only for the initiated; I imagine that some people find the lack of substance off-putting.

I also suspect, in the "never attribute to stupidity what can be explained by malice" not-so-nice part of me, that one of the appeals of it to some people is precisely that is it IS offensive to traditionalists.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi C. Wingate. I do recall Derek's postings on this subject, although it's been a while since I've looked at them.

I appreciate your objections to the practice of giving communion to the unbaptized. And you may be right that for some, the very fact that such a practice is offensive to traditionalists makes it an obligatory part of 'progressive orthodoxy.'

Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, and a proponent of giving communion to the unbaptized, says that the desire to be "inclusive" is an inadequate basis for the practice. Here's how she puts it:

"I completely agree that the secular rhetoric of 'inclusion' or 'welcome' is inadequate to explain what's happening sacramentally during communion. Offering communion in order to be friendly, polite, or socially broadminded toward the unbaptized quickly reduces a mystery of God to being about our niceness.

"The pastoral reason for offering communion to everyone without exception strikes me as being far more about the spiritual health of the baptized partakers––we who say repeatedly that we're not worthy to receive the meal, and yet frequently pretend that we're somehow prepared for it. I think it's good for Christians to eat bread and wine alongside people who incarnate the truth that nobody gets communion because she deserves it––or, for that matter, understands it. It's good for Christians to see that we can't control who is going to hear the good shepherd's voice, or when. It's good for Christian churches to feel themselves hungry and in need of something they cannot manage.

"It's one thing to pride myself that, from a privileged position of correct belief, I'm generously sharing communion with unbaptized outsiders to make them feel 'welcome.' It's a very different thing to have to witness God's extravagant love for the unprepared, the unworthy, the laborers who show up at the 11th learn that God might be using foreigners, the unclean, the Gentiles and even the wicked to save me and my tribe, and to show us something about the wideness of his grace.

"Grace is not sequential. It frequently shows up at the wrong time, to the wrong people. It doesn't follow the logic of the world. I'm not sure how we will discern the movement of the Spirit in our present struggles over communion before baptism. But I'm pretty sure it's a mistake to imagine the Spirit tidily walks everyone through a ladder-like curriculum of spiritual development before she decides to blow."

If I'm understanding correctly, Miles interprets the traditional practice of restricting communion for the baptized through the lens of a hermeneutic of suspicion. So viewed, the institutional Church's teaching that baptism precedes communion reveals a need to be in control, categorizing the baptized as worthy recipients and everyone else as unworthy while restricting the movement of the Spirit and God's grace within very narrowly defined institutional parameters.

Fortunately, as with other causes du jour, there now exist persons who are sufficiently enlightened by the Holy Spirit to see the truth of the matter and thus correct 2,000 years of faith and practice so that it better accords with God's will. And so we have another instance of a kind of liberation theology - in this instance, a liberation of persons (and the Holy Spirit?) from oppressive Church teaching and practice.

C. Wingate said...

I have to say I find the argument unconvincing, because the loss of "control" she talks about here simply doesn't exist. The priest holds control as firmly as ever, so in a sense the laymen who have theological objections find themselves more controlled than ever.As a political statement it seems to me to embody a perfected hypocrisy.

plsdeacon said...

Actually, I believe this comes down to an ecclesiology issue (like almost everything else in the AC). To those who support blessing same sex unions and practicing Communion of the Unbaptized (and there is a huge correlation between the two. You almost never see a person support CoU and not support SSB) are functioning as if the Church is a purely human institution which they are free to change to fit the times in which they live. They do not see the divine nature of the Church.
I believe that this is because of a deficient christology which sees Jesus Christ as a purely human person who is only more in touch with his divinity than we are, but is no more divine than we are.

This bad christology flows from a mal-formed soteriology. Human beings are simply twisted and can be made straight rather than rebels who need to die and be brought to new life. Baptism is not, then, death to sin and being raised to New Life, but it is an acknowledgement of the new life that we all have in us and a promise to "do better."

So, we Jesus is not divine, the Holy Communion is not a sharing in the divine life with Jesus (that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us), it is a promise to continue to do better. If that is all that (Holy) Communion is, then why not offer it to anyone who wants it?

However, we "did not so learn Christ." We have been taught that The Body and Blood of Jesus is to be reserved for members (limbs) of the Body of Jesus - the Church. We are made Members (limbs) of the Church by sharing in the Crucifixion of Jesus and being raised to new life through Holy Baptism.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

C. Wingate, I also find Miles' argument for CWOB (communion without baptism) unpersuasive. But I share it in the context of this discussion because I think it illuminates the thinking of many "progressives" on this particular topic.

This "progressive" reasoning is more powerful than arguments for "inclusion" that come down to the Church being nice to strangers and newcomers. And that's because it implicitly adds the push for CWOB to the narrative of progress that includes other liberation movements (woman's suffrage, civil rights, the ordination of women, etc.). If you buy into the idea that CWOB is an integral part of this unfolding narrative, then opposing CWOB is tantamount to opposing earlier parts of this story of liberation. You can't pick and choose, because that story of liberation is one story.

That also makes this "progressive" argument more dangerous than the "let's be nice to everybody" stance. For if CWOB is an integral part of the unfolding narrative of making progress in liberating persons from oppressive social structures and practices (including the Church's historic faith and practice), and if the Holy Spirit is the primary protagonist in this liberation narrative, then persons who resist the move to CWOB are resisting the will and acts of God by thwarting progress into greater freedom and respect for the dignity of all persons (which, in this case, includes the freedom and dignity of unbaptized persons). But such resistance is morally evil.

If a majority approves of CWOB and is able to make it an official part of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church, what will happen to the dissenting minority who believe that the theological rationale for baptism preceding communion is not a merely human imposition for the sake of maintaining power and control, but rather a faithful, normative expression of gospel truth?

Bryan Owen said...

Phil, thanks for your perceptive comments. You may be right that a lot of this boils down to 'defective' theology. I am aware of persons on the "progressive" side of the issues du jour, for instance, who talk about the Church, not as "that wonderful and sacred mystery" (BCP, p. 280), but as a merely human institution best analyzed and understood sociologically. Like any other merely human institution, the Church's faith and practice can thus be changed to align more closely with "progressive" ideals and agendas.

You note that we almost never see persons who support CWOB (communion with baptism) who don't also support SSBs (same-sex blessings). Perhaps that is true. I do know, however, persons who are horrified by CWOB but who also fully support SSBs. Perhaps there's more complexity and diversity out there than sometimes meets the eye. The real tale will be told in the long run as balances of power shift more and more to the Left in The Episcopal Church. How will "progressives" who support both CWOB and SSBs deal with other "progressives" who oppose CWOB?

plsdeacon said...


The problem is with the "I'm completely orthdox on everything but...." theology. I know of people who support SSBs but are appalled at CWOB.

Right now, the leading edges (bleeding edges?) seem to be SSB and CWOB. There are already rumblings about not requiring a lifelong commitment nor monogamy for SSB. I've also heard rumblings about blessing of polyamorous relationships.

It seems that the more "progressive" you are in your ecclesiology and christology, the more you are willing to abandon the Tradition of the Church. If you had mentioned CWOB 30 years ago or even SSBs 40 years ago, you would have been laughed at in the vast majority of TEC.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Phil, you wrote: "It seems that the more 'progressive' you are in your ecclesiology and christology, the more you are willing to abandon the Tradition of the Church."

This reminds me of a statement made by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in his essay "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy." He writes: "Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed."

plsdeacon said...

Ahh yes. Neuhaus' Law. I fear the time is coming for much of TEC where orthodoxy will be proscribed.

The new Title IV Canons make it much easier for bishops (including the PB) to deal with "this troublesome priest" and proscribe orthodoxy in the name of unity.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I hope the day does not come when orthodoxy is proscribed for the sake of ("progressive") unity within TEC, Phil! Some of my closest clergy colleagues in this diocese (as well as friends I've made via the blogosphere and Facebook) are much more conservative than I am, and I do worry about what future there will be for them as TEC continues its push further and further to the Left. And I sometimes worry about my own future. Creedal Christianity is hardly popular these days!

The Title IV matter is beyond my capacity to fully comprehend, although I have shared my concerns about it back in an October posting entitled "Critics Charge that Title IV Revisions Signify Strategy in Ecclesial Culture War."